Madame Bovary is the debut novel of French writer Gustave Flaubert, published in 1856. The eponymous character lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life.
When the novel was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, public prosecutors attacked the novel for obscenity. The resulting trial in January 1857 made the story notorious. After Flaubert's acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller in April 1857 when it was published in two volumes. A seminal work of literary realism, the novel is now considered Flaubert's masterpiece, and one of the most influential literary works in history. The British critic James Wood writes: "Flaubert established, for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible."
Gustave Flaubert (12 December 1821 – 8 May 1880) was a French novelist. Highly influential, he has been considered the leading exponent of literary realism in his country. He is known especially for his debut novel Madame Bovary (1857), his Correspondence, and his scrupulous devotion to his style and aesthetics. The celebrated short story writer Guy de Maupassant was a protégé of Flaubert.
The book has 3 parts
I didn't like Madame Bovary when I first encountered the book as a teenager. The story of a suicide of a doctor's wife in rural 1840s Normandy seemed too banal for me. Like many others, I didn't really like Emma, who seemed neither intelligent nor charming. But the book has become one of the few works of fiction that I read again and again, decade by decade, and each time it seems different, as if Flaubert and his heroine were following me through life. It may help that my French family come from the part of Normandy in which Flaubert set his story, but I sense that I would love the book as much if I came from Patagonia.
I feel I've seen the expanse of white stocking between Emma's ankle-length boots and her long skirt that so excited Flaubert. Every moment of her terrifying death by arsenic poisoning might be occurring now, before my eyes. I've encountered many versions of the brilliantly rendered discussions about human existence that dot the novel, giving it its sharp, ironic edge. Someone whom I married told me that most women think of life as negatively as Emma did. Thirty years later I am still wondering whether this is true. When my French mother was 92, I found myself arguing about the book with her. She said that she had never met a woman as stupid as Emma, but I was convinced that Emma was far from stupid. She just had the wrong ideas about life and – in a modern way, for which I couldn't reproach her – felt entitled to them.
There is no Shakespeare in French literature, and Hugo and Balzac don't quite fit the bill. My mother was a Proustian, capable of reinterpreting a host of his observations for her own life. I do that, too, but Madame Bovary fills another gap. Every observation of Flaubert's has gone into French life with the force of a large meteorite. I like to look at the impact, in other novels, in films, even in photography. But I also know that I shall never really comprehend the full extent of the damage done to our illusions by Flaubert's great book.
"A good sentence in prose," declares Flaubert, "should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic and sonorous." But Flaubert writes in a variety of styles, some low, some high. He taught us to read novels for their style, and yet his own masterpiece deprives one of such comfort. It is absurd to insist, as Flaubert did, that Madame Bovary is not a work of realism. As his very un-Flaubertian contemporary Zola observed, the book is profoundly, shatteringly real.
Are we capable of being truthful? Do human beings ever really tell the truth about the things that really matter? "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," Flaubert exclaimed. He seems to say either that we should tell the truth but don't, or, worse, that we cannot: "... None of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs," he observes in what must be the book's most celebrated mot, "or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat our tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity."
This is the 20th English translation of Madame Bovary. Lydia Davis is an accomplished American short-story writer and translator of Proust. She she recently that she didn't much like the character of Emma, and spent three years on the book. (Flaubert took four and a half years to write the original.) Sometimes Davis's staid American idioms remind me of the genteel locutions of the literary folk in Tom Rachman's recent comic novel The Imperfectionists, set in a failed American newspaper in Europe. Something of provincial France – the sheer crudeness of much of the dialogue, its obsessive rehashing of vulgar cliche – has gone badly missing. Davis isn't alert enough to the sheer range of Flaubert's progressive bêtes noires.
It is just not plausible to suggest, as Davis does, that the pharmacist and would-be politician Homais, with his ugly children and republican Phrygian caps, is one of the more sympathetic characters. Homais writes a piece suggesting that Emma mistakenly dipped her hand in the arsenic jar while making a cake. Emma, of course, never baked a cake in her life, and this is a feeble lie contrived to save the pharmacist's skin. Not incorrectly, Flaubert believed that most of the public discourse of his time consisted of lies.
But I don't agree with the eminent Flaubertians (Julian Barnes among them) who find Davis's efforts clunky. Emma's passions extend to shopping as well as sex, and the connection is spelled out by Davis's spare prose. She has also caught for the first time in English the powerfully filmic aspect of Flaubert's narrative – the way in which he is able to cut without apparent effort between close-ups and wide shots. In a Greenwich Village cinema, I once encountered a half-ruined print of Jean Renoir's 1932 version. Emma was plumper than I had imagined, Charles even glummer. But you could see the characters struggle, always failing. Against the odds, Davis has performed a similar act of transposition, creating a Madame Bovary for our time.
Madame Bovary is rated R by the MPAA for some sexuality/nudity, and language.
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