Madame Bovary, part one

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?

7 comments to Madame Bovary, part one

  • You may be onto something in your final paragraph. Harold Bloom touches on a similar point: “With her [Emma] the novel enters the realm of inactivity, where the protagonists are bored, but the reader is not.”

    I wonder whether the imparfait also gave Flaubert a better mechanism to open up this extraordinary sense of distance from his characters.

  • That business about the cidre Normande is so true. I think it’s my favorite drink. Next time I’m in Chicago, I’m buying a case. No, a crate.

    Drinkers of standard hard cider should know that it’s more like sparkling wine than beer, so it’s not like the English stuff at all.

    I see that your most recent comments are on a post titled “Wine’s got to your wits?—or do you always play the fool and babble nonsense?” Yes!

  • I loved the reader who commented, about Emma’s desire to be married at a torchlit midnight ceremony, “BIG WARNING SIGN, CHARLES.”

    Interesting points about MB’s regionalism. Is it a sign of real live authenticity? I was on the lookout for them throughout the book and found very few.

  • Norman cider is the best. Last time I was in Normandy, I was pregnant and could only indulge in mini-sips. Never again. We’re going in Dec to see friends and I plan to practice the fine art of no restraint.

    I think you’ve got it about the imparfait thingy…it wasn’t really about language per se, but what he was trying to show. It’s become an issue simply because the early translators got it wrong, and overlooked it.

  • Authenticity – now there’s a slippery word. Emily, what do yo mean by it? Flaubert was obsessive about experiencing the events he wrote about – the horse fair, for example – or interviewing people who had experienced them – all the medical stuff. But you must mean something other than “accuracy.”

  • Well I’m very pleased to see my readership has such fine taste in drinks! Lovers of cidre Normande in literature (all three of us?) should not miss the excellent section on cider-making in the last part of Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy.

    I think the authenticity question is one I’d better save. At this point I would question whether anything is “authentic” in the sense I think you are getting at, Emily, and put things more on a spectrum of “degrees of infectedness by bourgeois convention.” I think life on père Rouault’s farm is relatively uninfected, especially putting Emma herself to one side. Anyway, I’m not done with part two yet, but I think I’ll have more on this tomorrow.

  • AR: Yes, sorry, by “authenticity” (which now that I think about it is not a great word for what I’m trying to convey) I meant something more akin to “a non-delusory state of mind/existence capable of providing the basis of personal fulfillment.”