A classic, yes, I should probably have read it by now… But nineteenth century, French, more than 300 pages – the reasons why I hadn’t MAKE SENSE.
But what an error… How much have I been missing out on!? From its obsession with light to its detailed description of trivial objects; from its day of sex in a carriage rattling round Rouen to its sneering at bourgeois affectations*; from its lead character obsessed with novels and suicidal through to its self-centred small town merchants, Madame Bovary is an excellent, big, novel that offers far more to a modern reader than I was expecting.
The prose is thick, in a good way – solid, readable, strong**. The plot works, descriptions are vivid and offer a Knausgaardian attention to detail. Characterisation is a great source of comedy, in fact there are lots of brilliantly witty asides, even some uses of dramatic irony that aren’t irritating.
Emma (the titular “Madame Bovary”, but “that is someone else’s name”) and her descent into debt and despair as a response to life’s inability to provide her with what she wants is a particularly prescient and present message – lust and avarice*** still motivate a vast number of people (more than before) and the social mores and attitudes that Flaubert is here lambasting are even more existent today than then. Emma is sympathetic, Emma is in a bad marriage, Emma doesn’t have any money, Emma has hopes and dreams and fantasies and-
Emma, as a literary figure, is a contemporary archetype not given enough attention. “Everyone is special” is such a 21st century maxim, but this was already a corrupting idea in the middle of the nineteenth. Emma is quite pretty, quite clever, quite charming****, but that doesn’t mean she is owed glamour and happiness and rampant sexual satisfaction. And increasingly the world tries to make people think that those qualifications are enough to deserve it. Payday loans, high street plastic surgery, disappointment at the mundanity of life*****…
Madame Bovary‘s Emma is an early incarnation of me and of plenty of other people like me. She tries and she fails and she tries again. Fails again, tries again, each effort more extreme, each failure more crushing. Eventually she takes her own life. It feels familiar.
A prescient and deeply relevant text. Next time you’re attractively frowning at yourself in a mirror as you think you’re above whatever shitty job you’re about to go and do, remember that you’re not. You just think that you are.
The world doesn’t owe you sex or money or fucking anything else, and thinking that it does will never make you happy. Poor Emma. I empathise more than I think we’re meant to. I was on her side right until the end. Right until the end.
But maybe I’m writing about myself instead of the book… Go read it, if you haven’t. It’s EXCELLENT.
* Which seem pretty similar to contemporary middle class affectations…
** Some credit for this should probably go to the translator, Alan Russell.
*** There is always Faustus, somewhere in my brain…
**** Like, alas, myself.
***** Plug, again, for my short film, Sad Man On A Beach.