“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.



I’ve always found the plight of the panda both moving and somewhat amusing. It truly is an animal not made for these times, an animal not meant to endure. It can’t eat, can’t procreate; it almost seems as though it wants to die. Its situation is made sadder by the fact that at some point it must have flourished. Anyway, whenever I think of pandas, or when I see one on TV or something, I am always put in mind of Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. It is a novel that deals with a family that were once prosperous, but that, like the panda, are ill-suited to the times they eventually find themselves in; the Makiokas are a family tied to archaic systems, ways of life, and values. This is why the novel packs an emotional punch, because there is something horribly inevitable about the fate of the characters, about their increasing irrelevance and ultimate insignificance.

Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is often grouped together with books like The Makioka Sisters under the heading of novels about decline. However, as a novel about decline Buddenbrooks isn’t particularly thought-provoking, and it certainly doesn’t deal with the subject as inventively as Tanizaki. In fact, I am not entirely convinced that Mann was all that interested in it as a subject, despite subtitling the work the decline of a family. Buddenbrooks is a family saga, spanning many generations, and therefore decline is a consequence of the natural passing of time, is of the kind that you would expect from any similar novel of significant length; the decline experienced by the family is the kind that comes to us all, through old age, failing energy etc.

“The Ladies Buddenbrook from Breite Strasse did not weep, however – it was not their custom. Their faces, a little less caustic than usual at least, expressed a gentle satisfaction at death’s impartiality.”

To return to The Makioka Sisters as a comparison, in Tanizaki’s novel the change in fortunes has already occurred prior to the events being described, the Makioka’s heyday has already been and gone; it is what gives it its elegiac atmosphere. Everything in Tanizaki’s world is coloured by this change in fortunes. But that is not the case with Buddenbrooks. In Mann’s novel the fortunes of the family ebb and flow; there are successes and failures. Both The Makioka Sisters and Buddenbrooks are concerned with values, ways of life etc that are not relevant to us [or most of us] now; they are both novels that focus on disappearing worlds, but Mann’s novel simply recreates that world, rather than saying anything meaningful about why it disappeared/is disappearing. The Makiokas are out of time, but the Buddenbrooks, for the most part, are very much of theirs.

So while the subtitle is not exactly misleading, because it is literally true, it might be considered unfortunate for it seems to dominate the thoughts of readers and reviewers, meaning that they overlook what are, in my opinion, the more engaging aspects of the novel. What I was far more taken with were the fascinating, and often moving, things that Mann has to say about family and class and the world of business. The patriarch Johann Buddenbrook is a merchant, and a successful one at that. He is also exceedingly bourgeois; he believes in the overriding importance of the family and the reputation of the firm; he believes in the entitlements of his class and position, in the absolute nature of social hierarchy. It is possible, then, to view the Buddenbrooks as intolerably snobbish; they, it is fair to say, have a very high opinion of their worth and standing.

For me, it is these attitudes that dominate the novel and the characters, and that, in some cases at least, ultimately leads to their unhappiness. Take the issue of marriage, Johann admits near the beginning that he didn’t chose his wife for love, and he passes on the idea that marriage is a duty to the family to his children. Tony, his daughter, is the one who suffers most in this regard. In one of the finest sections in the novel she is pursued by a suitor, Bendix Grunlich, who, in her own words, she cannot stand. She rejects Grunlich numerous times, but he refuses to take no for an answer and essentially gangs up on the girl with her father in order to force her to submit. Johann sees the match as a good one and appears to be unaware of how grotesque his behaviour is. Yet to be fair to him, while it may seem unfair to us now, in the 1800’s and amongst the appropriate classes marrying for commercial or social reasons was not out of the ordinary. In any case, Tony relents, taking pride in her submission, in doing something for the family. In one poignant scene she makes a note of her engagement, before she has verbally accepted Grunlich, in the old family ledger where the history of the Buddenbrooks is recorded. In another, as she is about to be driven away with her husband she jumps out of the carriage, throws her arms around her father and asks him, are you proud of me, papa? The tragedy is that Tony is worth so much more, she is a lively, vivacious and charming girl, yet she is categorically her father’s daughter, she is, fatally, in terms of her own happiness, a Buddenbrook; Tony is incapable of compromising on what she thinks is due to her, in word and deed, as a member of that distinguished family.

“Thomas Buddenbrook’s existence was no different from that of an actor – an actor whose lfe has become one long production, which but for a few hours for relaxation, consumes him unceasingly.”

The Buddenbrooks are ruled by their sense of duty and honour, their conventionality. To a certain extent, the book reminded me of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In that novel the advice appears to be that it is not always wise or prudent to forsake the solid, the familiar for the glittering and exciting. In Mann’s novel the message isn’t clear; it is not obvious where his sympathies lie, but he often contrasts the conventionality of the strongest members of the family with the impulses or character of the artist or the imaginative or romantic [in the Brochean sense] person. Christian, for example, is lambasted, by his brother Tom in particular, for being a buffoon, for shaming the family by taking up with actresses. Poetry, novels, romance are all things that are described as youthful folly, as the kind of things you engage in briefly before settling down; and Tony gives up the one genuine love of her life to fall in line with family policy. Ultimately, the Buddenbrooks have no freedom, even though that is mostly a self-imposed state of affairs.

Tom is the epitome of conventionality, the poster boy; his immaculate manners, his refined bearing, his diplomacy is a large part of what defines him. After a while he comes to dominate the narrative, and the family itself. His rejection of Christian, his antipathy towards him, is based entirely upon what he sees as his brother’s tactlessness and inability to understand what their status as Buddenbrooks demands. In one scene towards the end he flares up at him because he wants to marry someone of low-birth; Christian accuses him of lacking feeling or empathy. What is most interesting about Tom is that he chooses for a wife one who is artistically inclined; yet, tellingly, he does not love her for her passion, or appreciate it in-and-of-itself, but rather he sees it almost as a charming, albeit inconsequential, decoration, like a lovely piece of jewellery. One of my favourite passages in the novel is when Tom’s wife accuses him – patronisingly, arrogantly – of having no musical feeling, of only liking the most easily-digestible, populist tunes. Tom responds with incredulity, for he cannot comprehend why he is being disparaged for enjoying music that he finds stirring or gently moving. To put this in a modern context, Tom likes Angels by Robbie Williams and his wife likes Dead Flag Blues by Godspeed You Black Emperor.

This tension between the conventional or bourgeois attitude and the imaginative or artistic is greatest when Tom has a son. Hanno is even more precious than his mother, even more sensitive and dreamy. For Tom Hanno is too indulged, too coddled and, most alarmingly, too feminised by his wife and nanny/governess. Tom laments that his son isn’t more active, more manly; he sees art, he sees expressions of feeling in fact, as womanly. Hanno is, in this sense, not a true Buddenbrook; he is not, as far as Tom is concerned, a model son, is not the kind of son he had hoped for. The ideal son would be one who is reserved, but strong and proud; he would grow up to be a merchant, and one day take over the family business. What Tom gets instead is a sissy who loves music; because of this both the father and the son suffer. Perhaps Mann’s ultimate aim was to show how hard it is to be an artist, or to be unconventional, in bourgeois society, but more movingly, more interestingly, Buddenbrooks reminds us how most families consist of a bunch of people who are very different personalities, who, because they are tied to each other by this incredibly strong bond, have to try and rub along, have to try and understand each other.

In terms of style, Mann wrote in a relatively simplistic manner. The sentences are short, the language not very difficult and, unlike both Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain, there are no long philosophical passages. One of the things that Mann’s work is most often criticised for is how detached, how arch and ironic, the narrative voice is. Mann tended to write as though he had a wry smile on his face; he made it abundantly clear that his characters are characters, not in a meta or post modern way, but by making sure that, like Dickens, his third person impersonal narrator was always a presence in the text, offering droll asides etc. Having said that, Buddenbrooks is Mann’s warmest work; it is the closest he got to producing characters that we believe in, that we fall in love with, that don’t exist primarily as ciphers. This is a truly wonderful book, which confirms that Thomas Mann was one of the great geniuses of world literature.