Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Madame Bovary

Since Charlotte wrote a fine post on Madame Bovary for her blog and all that I could remember from reading it many eons ago, when I was studying languages at university, that I’d thought that Emma Bovary was pretty silly, I thought I’d better give the book another go. As a French literary classic there must be more to write about it that that its heroine is silly, perhaps I misjudged her, from the vantage point of insensitive youth?

So I ransacked my book shelves, looking for the stash of French Lit, grown dusty and musty from being carted around in boxes for twenty years, but still never ditched because after all I spent three years learning all this stuff and maybe I’ll need it one day...and finallly I ran Madame Bovary to ground, a plain olive green cover with reams of learned introduction and of course in its original French. If I ever had a translation copy, it hasn’t stayed with me, so nothing for it but to unearth my equally dusty and musty French and dig in.

Well a third of the way through and I’m finding it heavy going, not so much the language, I can skim over any unfamiliar words and get the sense out of the whole, but more because my opinion of Emma is unchanged – she is unutterably silly. I think this is the main point of the novel though.

Flaubert was making a foray into writing about real people in mundane real lives, departing from the tradition he grew up with, of a period of high gothic romance, where the heroines invariably needed rescuing from remote towers, skies glowered, heroes dashed about on chargers and no-one ever thought about what to cook for lunch.

Emma is a languishing middle class girl with her head stuffed full of romantic ideals, who cannot recognise the real everyday love her rather dull husband has for her and lusts after thunderbolts and swooning fits and a luxurious lifestyle. Sometimes she casts herself in the role of saintly wife and mother and renounces her romantic admirer, other times she goes into a nervous decline. She takes up expensive hobbies then casts them aside unfinished. There is a terrible scene, where she visits her new baby who is boarded out at the wet nurse’s house, in a scene of complete squalor and Emma sees nothing amiss, but walks home on the arm of her admirer in a mist of romantic delusion.

This all very interesting social commentary and good for me to be exercising my brain, but I’m finding it an excellent soporific. Two or three pages of an evening and I’m asleep on the sofa. It doesn’t look like Emma is going to get any more sensible or think of anyone but herself, so I’ll just have to be patient with her and thank her for making sure I go to bed at a good early hour every day. Maybe I’d be more tolerant of Emma if I was reading an English translation. Ploughing through numerous paragraphs recounting her attacks of the vapours in literary French does rather alienate my sympathy, but I suspect I’d be in danger of telling her to pull herself together and stop dramatising herself even in English..I must have a prosaic soul!

I took a break to read an unknown treasure from our shelves – I've no idea how it got there - Exodus by Julie Bertagna. It was a fine antidote to Emma, keeping me up way past my bedtime engrossed in its far too possible vision of the future. It won a Whitbread Childrens Book award and is very strong stuff – see my review over here.


  1. Charlotte, if you're reading here, my comments don't seem to show up on your blog at the moment, so I just thought I'd let you know that I loved your "I am from". I did mine back in June here:
    It's such a great way of encapsulating childhood memories to pass on. My parents do theirs too - it's like a family photo album in words.

  2. Hi Charlotte - yes I read Anna Karenina a very long time ago, I remember enjoying it, but not much more, obviously time for me to re-read that from a grown-up perspective too.

  3. Madame Bovary, doesn't the author describe her or her emotions to that of a sidewalk. I loved that "modern on the time" line.

    The book was made to be so dull that people would dread it as much as she dreaded her life. Boring mundane without seeing the beauty in the simple.
    Zen was not fashionable.


Thanks for your comments - I appreciate every one!