Apologies to the lovely and forgiving Frances for my lateness in posting on part one of Madame Bovary. Now I can lift my embargo on reading everyone else’s wonderful posts and get up to speed with the readalong!
Lydia Davis’s introduction to her new translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary confirmed a few of the concerns I had going into the novel. I read part one first, to see how I would do on my own, with some prior knowledge of the relevance of style to the novel and having heard plenty about how Flaubert changed French literature, all literature, gave birth to Realism, &tc. Already annoyed with myself for having given in and read the translation, I found what I had expected. As Davis puts it, “its radical nature is paradoxically difficult for us to see: its approach is familiar to us for the very reason that Madame Bovary permanently changed the way novels were written thereafter.”
That problem is nothing new to us here, but still frustrating. And of course, only in cases where the book’s value is solely literary-historical does it prevent enjoyment through other means. Plenty of which are available in Madame Bovary. What struck me, as I ignored issues of the passé simple and imparfait,* metaphor, and syntax, was something entirely unexpected—the novel’s regionalism.
I don’t think I even knew enough about the novel before to know that it was not set in Paris, though I didn’t particularly think it was. But to find instead that it was set in Flaubert’s own Normandy, and thus far largely in the countryside and on a farm, was a treat to a lover of regionalism. At Emma’s father’s house, Charles Bovary notices “five or six peacocks…scratching about on top of [the dung heap], a luxury in a Caux poultry yard.” Sacks of wheat are stored in the parlor after the granary overflows. Emma walks around the kitchen flagstones in wooden clogs. “Sweet cider in bottles pushed its thick foam up around the corks” (and believe me, Norman cider is the best) and we are treated to a country wedding in the first 27 pages.
It may be interesting to note, as the novel progresses, whether and how this works against the elements of bourgeois convention Flaubert illustrates. I would assume that such conventions are a homogenizing force, across France and likely across Europe, and playing them off traditional local customs makes sense. Mouth-rinsing bowls are not the stuff of Norman farm life. That country wedding I mentioned is nearly one of the first casualties, as Emma wants to be married—romantically, ridiculously—at midnight, under torchlight.
*All this talk of the imparfait really has me wondering. If Flaubert was using it to describe the repetitive boringness of everyday life, as Davis explains in the introduction, then of course he was using it rather than the passé simple. Is this really about Flaubert doing something different with language or with the things he chose to write about in the novel, which required something a bit different than the usual because they themselves were different from the usual?