“I detest common feelings, and moderate heroes, the kind that exist in real life.” – Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary.
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is one of my favourite novels. I find it both beautifully written, and incredibly moving. It was composed, I seem to recall, as a kind of apology, or as a way of making amends for an earlier, scathing attack on the institution of marriage. It is not always wise, the moral of the novel appears to be, to forsake the homely and the dependable for the glittering, exciting and romantic. Ah, un noble sentiment! Unfortunately, bearing in mind her great love of books, and her tendency to draw inspiration from them, The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, some sixty years after Emma Bovary’s death. Had it been available in 1857 would Emma – the castigator of family values – have heeded Wharton’s warning and changed her attitude towards her husband, Charles, her daughter, Berthe, and her bourgeois life in Yonville? Peut-être. She would probably have given it a go for a day or two. That chick was crazy enough to try anything once.
I find it strange that Emma is so despised by a not insignificant number of readers, that she is thought to be without a single redeeming feature. Not only is she, to some degree, modern in her outlook, and therefore you would think we would identify with her, she is also, well, admirable. She is modern in the sense that she is extraordinarily self-obsessed, and selfish in her actions. Everything, for Emma, is about me; and considering, and judging, everything only in the way that it affects me is, I would argue, the prevailing modern attitude. Furthermore, as far as I am concerned, people, certain types of girls especially, are increasingly of the opinion that they are entitled to some kind of exciting existence. It is not enough, for example, to have a partner that loves you; oh no, they must treat and spoil you, they must, in effect, provide you with a lifestyle equal to the fantasies that exist within your head or at the very least provide you with one that is superior to those enjoyed by your peers.
How, then, you might ask, can I find all that admirable? Well, on one level, I don’t. Selfishness is an ugly trait; and I do not find competitive living, i.e. the need to have something so that you can rub other people’s noses in it, at all likeable, but, on the other hand, I will not condemn someone for wanting excitement, or novelty, in their life. For me, that is what Emma is looking for, or demanding; she is admirable because she refuses to accept drudgery, to accept mediocrity, even to her own detriment. Of course, she doesn’t go about fulfilling her desires in the right way, but her approach to life is, in my opinion, not without charm; in fact, I find it kind of beautiful. My guess is that the readers who charge Emma with ungratefulness, do so, at least in part, because they have accepted the mediocrity of their own lives, and therefore believe that everyone else must do the same. It’s a ‘suffer with me’ attitude: I have learned to accept a mundane existence, so anyone who does not accept it is therefore worthy of my contempt.
Emma’s life is a life lived in the imagination. She, in fact, appears to prefer her imagination to reality, for reality has a way of always letting one down, of disappointing. The parallels with Don Quixote, which Flaubert himself acknowledged, are clear: they are both influenced by what they read, of course, but, more significantly, they are both dreaming the impossible dream, they are both striving for something, a romantic ideal, that doesn’t actually exist; Quixote wants the world to be honourable, Emma wants it to be intoxicating. Both, also, behave badly in pursuit of their ideal; it seems to be often overlooked, but Quixote is an absolute menace; he frequently attacks entirely innocent people. Emma, on the other hand, is, amongst other things, unfaithful to her husband, and neglects her child. Of course, in the real world, i.e. our world, neither Quixote nor Emma’s behaviour is acceptable, but it doesn’t have to be; these two characters are not, nor were intended to be, examples to follow, but, are, rather, epic personalities, so grand in scale that they resemble the Gods and Goddesses in Greek mythology. You should not try to be them [because both are, let’s face it, mental], yet you should, in my opinion, have a little of their spirit in you.
As hinted at in the preceding paragraph, I do not agree with the popular opinion that Madame Bovary is a realist novel, or the first realist novel. Of course, it does not feature magical creatures, or bending of the laws of nature, but then neither does, for example, Balzac’s work, which preceded Flaubert’s. To a certain extent, I understand the realist tag, because the novel is, at least partly, about the mundane, and features characters that have no great abilities. I’ve already written about why I do not think Emma is realistic, yet, even setting her aside, there is one other important aspect of the novel that distinguishes it from genuine realist fiction, and that is the prose. Flaubert’s prose is what I would call hyper-realist, which means that it is so baroque and sensual and detailed that it makes the real unreal. In this way, his work has more in common with Proust, or Carpentier or Lima or Nabokov, than it does Emile Zola.
It is something of a cliche, but always worth reiterating, that Flaubert’s prose, even in translation, is extraordinary. On occasions, his attention to detail took my breath away [that is not hyperbole – I actually gasped more than once], such as when he describes the fine, stray hairs at the back of Emma’s neck blowing in the wind, or when Charles sees his own head and shoulders reflected in her eyes as they lay in bed, or when the rolling eyes of a man having a fainting fit are likened to “blue flowers drowning in milk.” Flaubert was, also, something of an innovator, with many of his techniques adding to the experience of the novel [which isn’t always the case – flashy authors tend to piss me off]. The best example of this, or the one that sticks in my mind anyway, is when he wants to suggest that Emma and Leon are having sex in a hired carriage. I’ve written recently about sex in literature, and how I think it is unnecessary to linger over the grubby particulars. Flaubert manages to give the impression of a passionate tryst without ever mentioning it, without going into any details at all, by remaining outside the carriage and simply listing the numerous streets down which it passes, its curtains drawn.
Of course, the more renowned an author is for his or her prose, the more important the translation. I’ve read Madame Bovary twice now, most recently Lydia Davis’ treatment of the novel. Davis’ translation has come in for a lot of stick from so-called Flaubert experts. Yet, while I’m certainly no expert myself, I feel as though a lot of the criticism that has been aimed at her is unwarranted, and more than a little bit pompous. This is not to say that her version is flawless; in fact, for the first 40-50 pages I regretted having picked it up. for she frequently falls into the same trap that Pevear and Volokhonsky [the much-hyped translators of Russian literature] do, in adhering too strictly to the author’s original word-order. Thing is, different languages construct sentences differently; therefore, what reads smoothly in French, or Russian, or Spanish, may not, if directly translated into English, make sense. Sticking too closely to the French word-order means that Davis’ English is, in the early stages of the novel, clunky at best, and unreadable at worst. Furthermore, I really do not like to see Americanisms, such as ‘gotten’ in a translation of a French novel. However, after a while her translation settles down and becomes smooth and elegant. Davis’ harshest critics may pick out individual sentences and compare multiple translations [and use this to question her abilities], but that is an unfair and arbitrary exercise, because no translation is without its clunkers, and there is no objective standard, merely one’s personal preference.
Recently I wrote a post about my ten favourite novels, and Madame Bovary was not included, but that was simply an oversight. Had I not forgotten about it, it would have taken its place on that list. Few books touch me, fascinate me, and enchant me as much as this one does.