The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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October 14, 2010

Madame Bovary, Part I

Paige Reads Madame Bovary, by Janet Hill

'Why, yes! Yes, of course! he added. '...she'll be there, I'll see her. We'll make a start, a bold start. That's the surest way.'
Usually, when I’m reading a classic, I like to have some background on the author or the book (to have read a biography, or some literary history, etc.) But I’m reading Madame Bovary from a position of almost total ignorance — of the author, the period, the setting, the literary and cultural environment, even the story. And since we’re reading it now because there’s a new translation by a gifted writer, it’s a little disappointing not to have anything to compare it to. So all I have is first impressions...but it’s interesting to come to a book with such a blank slate. My instinct is to read it attentively, for the language and the rhythm of the writing.

The story opens in the first person, with an unidentified narrator describing Charles Bovary’s first days at school (who is the narrator? does he come back into the story later?) Charles is shy, clumsy and intent on his studies, but loses interest when he goes on to study medicine. His parents marry him off to ‘an old nag, whose harness wasn’t worth her skin,’ but he grieves when she dies. By then, though, he has gained an inflated sense of himself as a good country doctor and has become infatuated with Emma Rouault, the daughter of the gentleman farmer he treated for a broken leg.

When his period of mourning is over, he marries Emma and brings her to his house in Tostes. She expects that marriage will bring her happiness and passion, but she doesn’t find them.

Before her marriage, she had believed that what she was experiencing was love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from that love had not come, she thought she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words 'bliss,' 'passion' and 'intoxication,' which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.
Books become one means of escape for Emma; Flaubert specifically mentions her reading Paul and Virginia (Paul et Virginie, a French novel first published in 1787), as well as George Sand.

One October, Emma and Charles are invited to a house party at Le Vaubyessard, the home of the Marquis d’Andervilliers, and Emma glimpses a different life from the one she is leading with Charles. Her unhappiness leads to illness, and although he knows it will be detrimental to his career, Charles resolves to move to a new situation. When they leave Tostes, Emma is pregnant.

Deep in her soul, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she would gaze out over the solitude of her life with desperate eyes, seeking some white sail in the mists of the far-off horizon. She did not know what this chance event would be, what wind would drive it to her, what shore it would carry her to, whether it was a longboat or a three-decked vessel, loaded with anguish or filled with happiness up to the portholes. But each morning, when she awoke, she hoped it would arrive that day, and she would listen to every sound, spring to her feet, feel surprised that it did not come; then, at sunset, always more sorrowful, she would wish the next day were already there.

First impressions of the writing: Flaubert’s style is full, packed with observation and detail. Almost everything — settings, character, emotions, objects, situations, seasons, the passage of time — is conveyed this way:

The brick housefront was exactly flush with the street or rather, the high road. Behind the door hung a cloak with a short cape, a bridle, a black leather cap, and, in the corner, on the floor, stood a pair of leggings still covered with dried mud. To the right was the parlor, that is, the room they used for eating and for sitting. A canary yellow wallpaper, set off at the top by swags of pale flowers, trembled perpetually over its whole extent on its poorly stretched canvas; curtains of white calico, edged with red braid, crisscrossed the length of the windows, and on the narrow mantelpiece sat resplendent a pendulum clock with a head of Hippcrates, between two silverplated candlesticks under oval globes. On the other side of the hallway was Charles' office, a small room about six paces wide, with a table, three chairs, and an office armchair. The volumes of the Dictionary of Medical Science, whose pages were uncut but whose bindings had suffered from all the successive sales through which they had passed, by themselves almost entirely filled the six shelves of a pine bookcase. The smell of sauces cooking penetrated through the wall during consultations, just as from the kitchen one could hear the patients coughing in the consulting room and recounting in detail their entire histories. Next, opening directly onto the yard, with its stables, was a large derelict room containing an oven and now serving as woodshed, cellar, and storeroom, full of old pieces of iron, empty barrels, disused garden implements, along with a quantity of other dusty things whose function it was impossible to imagine.
Everyday, workaday life, food and illness, not romantic, not elegant, a sense of show and laziness.  'Up to now, what had there been in his life that was good?'

You can see that a translator would need not only fluency in the language, but enough historical and literary knowledge to place all of these details into the story. Somehow, still, the writing isn’t dense and heavy: I think that’s because the detail is physical (colors, sounds, clothing, faces) and not as much about the characters’ thoughts and mental processes. It’s very fluid and readable, with many engaging turns of phrases and bits of humor.

Now that I’ve started the book, I’d like to go back and read the introduction, and some of the articles that Frances found that describe the translator’s approach. As much as I like to have this kind of knowledge in my back pocket when I read, it’s been wonderful to just be able to immerse myself in the writing.

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Joan Hunter Dunn said...

Lovely to read your review - it's bringing the story back to life for me. I love your opening painting.

Anonymous said...

I love the painting in this post. It looks like you're enjoying the reading so far. This is my second time reading the book and for me that enables me to focus more on the style, as I was too busy wanting to know the end the first time I read it.

Frances said...

"I think that’s because the detail is physical (colors, sounds, clothing, faces) and not as much about the characters’ thoughts and mental processes."

Absolutely. Rooted in the material world, in the trappings of the middle class, the objects around them are chosen specifically to reflect who they wish to be, how they wish to write their own story. I found it interesting that real reflections of character appear in descriptions of physical appearance rather than accoutrement.

Thanks for reading along! This should be interesting.

Shelley (Book Clutter) said...

I am also coming to this book with very little information, and am loving the detail. I'm looking forward to more of your thoughts as the book goes on!

Buried In Print said...

"So all I have is first impressions...but it’s interesting to come to a book with such a blank slate."

I'm reading without a harness on this book too. One of the reasons why it's especially wonderful to have company throughout!

JoAnn said...

Sometimes a blank slate is good... I'l look forward to your thoughts as the story develops. Although I've read this before, I'm reading slowly and really enjoying the descriptions & details this time. You've chosen a beautiful painting for your post!

Richard said...

Audrey, I like both what you in your post and Frances in her comment above say about Flaubert's detail-oriented writing. Although I was more impressed with his handle on emotions and psychology than his prose in part one, I have to say that Flaubert has really started to impress me as a WRITER in part two. At least, he seems to be pulling out all the stops!

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