Friday, April 10, 2009

Gustave Flaubert is an evil genius

I finally finished Madame Bovary this week, but I almost didn't write anything about it here for a couple of reasons. Since its initial publication in 1857 the novel has been one of the most widely discussed/debated/dissected works of western literature. At the time of its publication it represented a significant rupture with classic French literature that was not really understood by critics of that period. Both modernist and post-modernist literary critics would later hearken back to Flaubert and identify in his work the roots of their own ideals (which in and of itself speaks to the multiplicity of interpretations the book affords). Considering all the historical and ongoing discussion surrounding Madame Bovary, not to mention the novel's sheer complexity, what could I possibly say about the book that would be worthwhile? But then I thought, Aw hell, I slogged my way through this whopping 19th century novel, in French no less, and I'll be damned if I don't at least have an opinion about it. Or at the very least a reaction, however insignificant. So here goes.

In the course of my reading of Madame Bovary I found myself constantly torn between the desire to laugh and the desire to cry. By that I only mean that all aspects of the novel afford many potential interpretations that range from the cynical to the satirical, but rarely fall unequivocally into one camp or the other. The book's just dripping in irony, a fact that nevertheless allows for certain characters to be portrayed both sympathetically and negitavely in turn. Even the penultimate scene of the book (Emma's death) has elements of both humor and tragedy alike. That's what Madame Bovary really is, among other things: a tragicomedy, deftly told by a rather ambiguously affiliated narrator.

Certain elements of the book were also very disturbing to me. It isn't just a novel about adultery with respect to Emma's extramarital affairs, but rather a novel about adulteration on a much larger scale: the corruption and perversity that pervades all aspects of society. One definitely gets the sense, reading Madame Bovary, that Flaubert didn't really think too highly of nineteenth century France, or of the human condition in general. But what really scared me about this book more than anything else was how close to home parts of it hit, and how it made me relate to a very unlikable heroine.

Like many aspects of this novel, the character of Emma Bovary is complex, elusive, difficult to pin down from a reader's perspective, and open to a variety of interpretations. For someone of my relative insecurity it was difficult not to read in her the confirmation of the things I most fear to be true about myself: for example, her warped view of reality, overly distorted by the medium of fiction and fantasy, her duplicitousness, and ultimately her weakness. I do consider myself to be rather more self aware of my own problems than Emma is, but I can't help sympathizing with her in all her misguidedness. I'm not her, but if I had lived under the intellectual, psychological, and social restraints that were placed on women in 19th century France, I can understand how I might have turned out similarly. Which is kind of a sobering thought considering the fact that by the end of the novel Emma is wretchedly miserable, a psychological mess, a liar, an adulteress, a debtor, and a suicide victim.

Of Flaubert's genius there can be no doubt. Yet did he use his powers for good or for evil? That's a harder question for me to answer. When I was reading Madame Bovary I felt like his writing exposed me in some way, revealing and forcing me to confront something banal and unattractive about myself. Needless to say, it did not leave an entirely pleasant taste in my mouth. Yet nor was it wholly unpalatable. It was rather like the bitter taste of just desserts. Something Emma would have hated.
(***Quick language note: I read the novel in the original French, but I also referenced the English translation from time to time on the internet. I tried to balence out my desire to stick to the original text with my desire to maximize my actual comprehension of this really complex novel. It took me quite a while to get through it, but I felt pretty good and proud when I finally did.)

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