On Nabokov on Flaubert

I’ve noted before that “if Nabokov is an intimidating writer of fiction (which is a stronger word than I would use), he is much more so writing about fiction,” and this is no less the case when the subject is Flaubert rather than Gogol. His essay on Madame Bovary collected in the Lectures on Literature is excellent; any reader of Flaubert’s novel should read it as well.

Nabokov is very hard on Emma—as he is on nearly everyone, of course. (Readers who find Homais one of the more sympathetic characters in the novel may not be pleased with what VN has to say about that vulgar man.) Sometimes I feel like he is a meaner Nicole. Emma is a bad reader because she identifies herself with characters. I don’t think this is good reading, but I would hardly be so impolitic. Of course, in the world of litblogs such a statement is almost sacrilege; reading is good, and anything that helps anyone enjoy reading is good, and sympathetic characters are very important to the enjoyment of most people, and women especially are always in need of the right kind of characters to identify with, and such. I don’t believe most of this to begin with—I don’t know if I would go around saying reading is “good” in some free-floating, universalized way, I don’t think there’s much reason to encourage anyone and everyone to read no matter how unexceptional the reading material, I’ve never cared much about sympathetic characters, and I’ve hated on the ladyfiction issue before.

And yet despite my general agreement, not to mention my unconditional love for the author of Ada and Pale Fire, I remain needled by the relentless anti-philistinism. If Flaubert is cold and heartless toward philistines, Nabokov is positively icy. “Books are not written for those who are fond of poems that make one weep or those who like noble characters in prose as Léon and Emma think. Only children can be excused for identifying themselves with the characters in a book, or enjoying badly written adventure stories; but this is what Emma and Léon do.” No, again, I don’t disagree, but it seems downright cruel to pour on so much disdain, and entirely unnecessary to characterize scientific and cultural philistinism, multiple times, as “evil” (though I suspect VN’s personal history and the notable references to Marxist cultural philistinism may be at work here too, which makes it more understandable). I am not a nice person, but I am nicer than this—or, once again, less confident, not being a very fortunate genius myself.

One place where Nabokov is not cruel, though, is with Charles. This made me very happy, as I had a lot of sympathy for Charles, and felt that despite all his mediocrity it was his genuineness that redeemed him—whether Flaubert thought so or not, of which I wasn’t sure. Nabokov singles Charles out as “the pleasing paradox of Flaubert’s fairy tale: the dullest and most inept person in the book is the only one who is redeemed by a divine something in the all-powerful, forgiving, and unswerving love that he bears Emma, alive or dead.” I can’t forgive Charles the botched operation on poor Hyppolite, but how much do I really care that he doesn’t appreciate the opera—how much does that matter?

And that’s the question both Flaubert and Nabokov leave me with, to some extent. It should go without saying that the (hopefully deeper than Emma’s) appreciate of art and literature is important to me and to my happiness. But these are consumption goods for me, along with dozens of others. Some are more or less transcendent, others more or less conventional. And I dispute that happiness and enjoyment of the authentic variety come exclusively from the transcendent. I may crave it as Emma does, but I reject such a rejection of material goods as a vehicle of comfort and happiness and I have zero desire to be so judgmental regarding those who seem to prefer comforts of the material variety. This anti-philistinism itself seems like an aesthetic choice to me and not some kind of high moral virtue.

Ah, but I suspect we are taking things too personally here, and that all my problems must come from bad reading—too-close identification with Emma leading to insecurity and defensiveness!

Madame Bovary, part III

Why not continue with my look at place in Madame Bovary when the very beginning of part III provides me with opportunities to do so? Beware, however; I’m not sure any of it has taken me any closer to a conclusion.

Part III, chapter I opens with Léon’s story for the past few years, while Emma has been busy with Rodolphe and her illness. In Paris, he behaved himself perfectly well, if perfectly conventionally. But when he sees Emma again, back in the provinces, she still has a hold over him. His cosmopolitan experience has given him the confidence he will need to resist her worst excesses, later, and to win her to begin with, but his return to the provinces seems to mean a return to “provincial ways,” if we want to use Emma as a benchmark for such an idea.

Throughout the affair between Emma and Léon, the issue of place becomes hyperlocalized. Their first tryst is put off and put off by their presence in a cathedral, a meeting-place chosen by Emma and used by her as a way to resist, however false her resistance was, Léon’s advances. Then the carriage scene, probably my favorite in the novel. Léon “thrust[s] Emma into the carriage”:

And the heavy vehicle started off.

It went down the rue Grand-Pont, crossed the place des Arts, the quai Napoléon, and the Pont Neuf, and stopped short in front of the statue of Pierre Corneille.

“Keep going!” said a voice issuing from the interior.

Rinse and repeat; Léon drives the carriage on, through Rouen, through the countryside, with no destination but a desire to make the ride last as long as possible.

And immediately starting off again, it went past Saint-Sever, along the quai des Curandiers, along the quai aux Meules, once again over the bridge, by the place du Champ-de-Mars, and behind the gardens of the home for the elderly….

It was seen at Saint-Pol, at Lescure, at Mont Gargan, at the Rouge-Mare, and in the place du Gaillardbois; in the rue Maladrerie, the rue Dinanderie, in front of Saint-Romain, Saint-Vivien, Saint-Maclou, Saint-Nicaise—in front of the Customs House—at the Basse Vieille-Tour, at Trois-Pipes, and at the Cimetière Monumental.

And on, and on. The whole thing reminds of nothing so much as Catherine’s wine list in Jules et Jim (please ignore the subtitles if you can, they miss half the list). What an interesting connection that is, by the way—not only does the list lead to the beginning of her affair, but there’s that whole business earlier…”Elle est d’origine aristocratique par son père, populaire par sa mère. Son père descend d’une vieille famille bourguignonne. Sa mère était Anglaise. Grâce à cela, elle ignore la moyenne….”

Anyway, back to the book! More stuff about place: there’s the room Emma and Léon always meet in, which she thinks of as “theirs”; there’s the fact that she now travels not just across the fields on foot, like with Rodolphe, but across the province by carriage to Rouen. The location of her new affair in Rouen provides both new freedom and new complications, not to mention new opportunities for Emma to spend more and more money. She can pretend to be from Rouen, or at least nearby, and the weekly trips make her own home less and less bearable.

And noticing the importance of the hotel room to Emma’s final romance helps foreground the other locations that have played a role in her affairs. There are the arbor behind the Bovarys’ house, the fields on the way to Rodolphe’s château (newly important to Emma in her distress at the end of the novel), the walk through the countryside on her wedding day. And there is always the dream of Paris as somewhere to run away to, somewhere her male lovers and acquaintances have been but where Emma will never go.

And that is perhaps the most lasting image I have at the end. From the first change of place Emma makes during the course of the novel, from her father’s farm to Bovary’s house, to her last travels, running frantically around Yonville looking for money, Emma never gets what she is hoping for from all this movement. She doesn’t want to be where she is; she expects to find freedom, sophistication, passion, happiness, elsewhere. She can never be rich; she can never get to Paris. The only thing for it is to take to her bed and die.

Thanks to Frances for hosting the Madame Bovary Readalong; it’s been great. Visit her final post on the novel for more of this week’s participants.

Madame Bovary, part II

I decided to stick with the subject of location for my post on part II of Madame Bovary. I like concentrating on something like that when I haven’t actually finished a book yet, and my previous notice of place in the novel was reinforced right on the first page of the second section, where Flaubert describes the countryside around Yonville, the new home of Monsieur and Madame Bovary:

Here you are on the borders of Normandy, Picardy, and Île-de-France, a mongrel region where the language is without expressive emphasis, just as the landscape is without character. It is here that they make the worst Neufchâtel cheeses in the whole district, while farming is costly, because a good deal of manure is needed to enrich this crumbly soil full of sand and stones.

I’m still not sure I’d say Flaubert is endowing the Norman countryside with “something more akin to ‘a non-delusory state of mind/existence capable of providing the basis of personal fulfillment,’” as Emily rather nicely put it, but things certainly aren’t more positive as the Bovarys journey closer to Paris (located in Île-de-France). A “mongrel region” with bad cheese—and you know Flaubert wouldn’t think much of people without expressive language.

On the other hand, Yonville is still very much the countryside. The cosmopolitan, extremely bourgeois pharmacist Homais deplores its “good many prejudices…[and] a good deal of pigheaded adherence to tradition, which all your scientific efforts will run up against every day; for people still resort to novenas, relics, the curé, instead of doing the natural thing and going to the doctor or the pharmacist.” (Also, notice how tight the novel is; Emma herself will go to the curé for her illness when she doesn’t feel a doctor can help, though she won’t get relief there either.)

And then Homais himself turns out to be rather provincial, worrying about the dangers of the city when Léon leaves Yonville for Paris. He and Charles discuss the diseases that can result from the “perturbation of the whole system. And then, you know, there’s the Paris water! And the restaurant meals, all those spicy foods that end by overheating your blood and aren’t worth as much, whatever they may say, as a good stew.” Oh for some cider and a good stew right about now; if that’s not authenticity I don’t want to know what is. Meanwhile, it’s “inventions originating in Paris” that bring devastating disease to Yonville, and a down-to-earth “practitioner,” “not scientists, dandies, ladies’ men” who can cure it.

The plot of the section also contains a mass praising of the rural, traditional lifestyle, at least on the part of the characters, in the form of the agricultural fair. This is a very good scene, first off, in the “writer’s writer” sense. But the cosmopolitan dignitaries running the fête are so zealous that the reader immediately sees the danger of romanticizing the peasantry:

“Only one who is so blind, so deeply immersed (I’m not afraid to say it)—so deeply immersed in the prejudices of another age that he still fails to appreciate the spirit of our farming population. Where, indeed, can one find more patriotism than in rural areas, more devotion to the common good, more—in a word—intelligence? And by intelligence, gentlemen, I do not mean that superficial intelligence, that vain ornament of idle minds, but rather that profound and reasonable intelligence that applies itself above all else to the pursuit of useful goals, contributing thus to the good of every man, to the betterment of all, and to the preservation of the State, fruit of respect for the law and performance of duty…”

Yes, I realize I’m conflating place and people and not being specific about this slippery idea of regionalism. These are squishy ideas in mid-formation, and of course it would help if I knew anything at all about 19th-century France, ha.

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?