Flaubert's Madame

I was recently pointed back to Flaubert's Madame Bovary by a bit of a circuitous route. In preparation for writing a review of Julian Barnes' new book Nothing to be Frightened of (the review will appear in the summer issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin), I spent some time in Barnes' "novels," including A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Flaubert's Parrot, both of which are fantastic forays in history and biography, contesting our tidy self-assured distinctions between history and the novel. (This relationship and distinction is brought to the fore in what I'm reading right now: the novelist Shelby Foote's monumental The Civil War: A Narrative--but more on that some other time.) Flaubert and his generation are at the center of Flaubert's Parrot, but they also persistently appear as sages of a sort in Nothing to be Frightened Of. Thus I was pointed back to Flaubert's classic (particularly Geoffrey Wall's translation for the Penguin Classics).

The subtitle of Madame Bovary is a signal to us: it promises to narrate Provincial Lives. One might say that Madame Bovary is the first "suburban" novel--opening and anticipating a literary line that peeks into the mundane lives of the petit bourgeois, a line that will eventually give us films like Magnolia and Little Miss Sunshine. "Provincial" in a French context, of course, simply means "not Paris," though the Rouen region of France was perhaps particularly "provincial" in this respect. And yet, Madame Bovary is not the cynical work of a snooty Parisian taking shots at benighted provincials. There is a certain way in which the novel's subject almost hallows provincial life, I'd say: it decides that it's worth looking behind the doors of a village pharmacist and tracking the life of a despondent housewife. No one could read the heart-rending closing scenes of the novel--where Flaubert's stylistic flourish is most evidenced--and conclude that the author despises "provincial lives." (In this respect it calls to mind what is still perhaps the most important novel I've ever read, Jean Girardoux's Choice of the Elect.) If I ever become a writer, this hallowing of the domestic will be my literary mission.

Of course, Madame Bovary is not famous for her domesticity! However, given the scandal of the novels sexuality upon appearance, the contemporary reader will be (pleasantly) surprised at how oblique the eroticism is here (cp. Stanley Fish's recent comments on "the two most erotic moments" in American cinema). Indeed, the explicitness of Madame Bovary will look tame to anyone who just watches the Disney channel.

But most significant about the novel is the way that Flaubert bores into his characters, stopping the camera, so to speak, and letting it hang on their interiority in ways I find quintessentially French. While there is a plot driving the story, we find ourselves reading as explorers of an internal geography. Flaubert is a kind of cartographer, mapping the psyche. And he does all of this in a style that is unmatched--not particularly baroque or flowery, but still in a way that seems to sing. He pauses at just the right moments and describes what is etched on a face or the movement of a hand. Sometimes, as in the closing scenes, this is done with a pace that is breathtaking without being hasty or impatient. Consider just one snippet, quite at random:

But as she was writing, she beheld a different man, a phantom put together from her most ardent memories, her favourite books, her most powerful longings; and by the end he became so real, so tangible, that her heart was racing with the wonder of it, though she was unable to imagine him distinctly, for he faded, like a god, into the abundance of his attributes. He lived in the big blue country where silken rope-ladders swing from balconies, scented by flowers and lit by the moon (p. 271).

It is a small irony that a story which narrates the disastrous frustrations of pleasure-seeking is couched in a style that makes reading sheer pleasure.