Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Classic Discovery -- Madame Bovary

Warning: this one's a quick-and-dirty response (not a review). . . .

Kobo, Kindle and other e-readers make a big deal of the free library that comes with one's purchase -- although there's no question these are all worthwhile reads and add some value to the electronic convenience, the list is not likely to influence the sale much. Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Mark Twain . . . all have long been available in Signet Classics or the like, very inexpensively, forever, and can be found even more cheaply at any secondhand shop. Indeed, one of my daughter's first questions on picking up her Kobo was how she might remove these "classics" which she saw as simply cluttering up available memory. I'll probably follow her lead and delete most of the titles.

Madame Bovary, however -- written by Gustave Flaubert and translated, at least in the Kobo edition by Eleanor Marx Aveling (and yes, she's related to that Marx -- his youngest daughter, in fact) -- is a book I have long meant to read and with it sitting electronically right inside my handbag during our trip, I had no reason to put off our engagement any longer. I found the reading timely for many reasons -- most obviously, I was in the country of its setting and of its writing (France, yes), but also, I could sometimes feel a certain Bovar-ism creeping into my own spirit. Sometimes I wanted and wanted, I was tempted to feel sorry for myself for not having, even as I was really in a very fortunate position. Emma at least had the excuse of her confinement in a banal, provincial domesticity whereas I, having been able to exercise so much choice in the shaping of my life, should know better than to crave the shallow satisfactions of consumer goods. While I was in no danger of flitting off behind Pater's back with the nearest cute marquis or viscount or, gasp, humble clerk, I did share with Emma the occasional pout at why some women could swathe thesmelves in Chanel and Herm├Ęs while I was stuck with my pilling black cashmere v-neck, the same annoying black skirt, and my too-heavy patent black brogues, victim of my carry-on wardrobe.

In the kind of synchronicity life so often deals out, I recognized settings appropriate to Mme. Bovary's wishful dreaming on the stage last weekend in the VOA production of La Traviata whose 1850s Paris ballroom would have fit, albeit with a little time-and-space shoe-horning, into the novel.

As I complained in my previous post, reading on the Kobo makes it more difficult to retrieve favourite quotations, but I copied this one into an e-mail and sent it to myself:  "human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars."

Flaubert's meticulous portrayal of Emma's restlessness is surprisingly neutral and allows one to sympathize with Mme. Bovary's attempt to make something of her life within the constraints of the day's expectations for bourgeois women. At the same time, her shallowness and silly romanticism mean that she is no more a victim in this reader's eyes than is her rather blind, (often bland), somewhat plodding husband. And Flaubert certainly does not subscribe to any pious essentialisms about a woman's innate maternity!

Have you read Mme. Bovary? Studied it for a course? I'd love to hear your impressions. . . .


  1. Another classic I haven't read ... You're making me feel horribly guilty!

  2. Well, I've got quite a few years on you -- and even then, if I hadn't been carrying a virtual copy of the book around in my new e-reader, I probably could have put it off for another decade or so ;-)