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Love and its Forebodings

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert – Part 1

A new translation by Lydia Davis


Early on in my fascination with European literature, I focused on the English (the early, early novels) and the Russian, largely because I was in Hemingway’s thrall at the time, and his advice directed me there. Since then I’ve expanded my Euro-reading to Germany, largely because of a particular literature class (thank you, Peg Downes) and my thesis/project, which focused on a certain aspect of twentieth century German culture. As well, because of the burgeoning of excellent Irish writers, I’ve gone there as well. And this isn’t to slight the South African ones and a few Middle Eastern writers I’ve delved into.

But I’ve been keeping the classical French writers on the back burner for a long, long while. HenceMadame Bovary – and in a new translation to boot. The story is a famous, even a controversial one, and will likely remain so. So I’ll slip lightly over the story, just to refresh.

Flaubert begins with his portrayal of the infamous cuckold, Charles Bovary, a rather naïve student (probably a dweeb in today’s parlance), later a doctor of similar ilk.

Emma Rouault, daughter of a rather rough-hewn rural man and wife and surprisingly beautiful, comes from such stock, a contrast to the plain, later disheveled Charles, whom Flaubert promptly allows to become her husband.

Charles is a workaholic doctor who dotes on the gorgeous and shapely Emma. But Emma, being a dreamer,  has never loved Charles – or rather, she fails to be lured by the comfortable, enduring type of love of which so many successful marriages have been made. Emma wants the flashy, romantic, heart-rending, emotional love, the stuff of soaps and Harlequins today. Thus she quickly grows bored with the marriage and with Charles.

Then the possibility of infidelity lurks – no surprise. First, with a clerk named Léon, later with a well off man of means, and a roué, Rodolphe. As Emma’s liaisons grow from innocent attraction to outright affair, we note a change in her, a change that forebodes her eventual demise. She becomes careless with the affairs, becomes emotionally unpredictable (would she be called bipolar today?); she ignores daughter and husband, spends the family into deep debt, and eventually dies (no details on that – you must read the book if you haven’t yet).

It’s worth another week on Flaubert’s adept writing and plotting, as well as a look at his writing technique and how its influence is still felt today. We’ll go there next week.


My rating: 4-3/4 of 5 stars