Friday, September 3, 2010

Book Review- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Topping many, if not most, “Most Influential Novels Of All Time” and “Great Literary Feats” lists is Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’. The story, which follows the life of a woman trying to escape her lonely life, is often heralded as written perfection because of Flaubert’s superb use of language, style and syntax. There have been countless adaptations: movies, operas, plays and even Saturday Night Live skits, born from this one story. You cannot claim to have a well rounded education in literature unless you have read it and dissected it over a glass of wine with someone who is wearing a black turtleneck. If you want some serious cred with the litterati, it is a definite bookshelf must-preferably hardcover, preferably from a second hand store.

*aside* If you have to get pretentious about the book before you even read it, that should send up warning flags.*

Sounds easy enough, right? All you have to do is read a classic novel to be able to hold your own at a cocktail party overflowing with book editors and Ph.D. candidates. So obviously you’re going to run out and buy it immediately unless you wish to be sentenced to don a “Ah’ve nevurr red Madam Bovahree” dunce cap before spending eternity in intellectual purgatory. And of course I am going to endorse it because I would never, ever counsel you against reading anything that might help you along in your social-climbing careers, right?

Be surprised. I am about to save you hours and hours of brain torture by telling you straight away not to believe the hype. Madame Bovary is a terrible book. I don’t care how much ejaculatory praise is heaped upon it or how many people far more cultured and educated than I hold it up as the holy grail of written word. Call me coarse, call me misled, call me a filthy, no good, literary blasphemist but just please don’t call me to bookclub night for a reading of Madame Bovary.

I remember being 13 and watching an episode of “Party of Five” where the elder sister, played by canadian Neve Campbell, expressed her tender appreciation of the book her university literature class was assigned to read. That book, predictably, boringly, annoyingly, was Madame Bovary. I can’t remember the exact words she used, but I recall an inspirational monologue, spoken softly over sensitive background music, that regurgitated the same praise that English teachers and book snobs have been heaping on Gustave Flaubert’s oeuvre for nearly two centuries. So, years later, when I was a university undergrad, I just had to read it. I ended up receiving the book as a gift from a friend and I couldn’t have been more excited. Then. I. opened. the. book.

Let me make one thing abundantly clear, I am not disputing Flaubert’s mastery of the French language- there are some stunning turns of phrase.

That is, if you read it in French.

I, like millions of poor, unsuspecting suckers, read it in English. So here I am, getting increasingly disillusioned with this book but forcing myself to soldier on because I know, I just know, that I am going to to fall in love with the narrative at some point. But it never happens, here is what I find instead:

At the beginning, the story focusses on a boring man, Charles Bovary. Later the focus shifts to his ridiculous wife, Emma. He is well-meaning but painfully naive, she is intolerably selfish. I think a good way to explain Emma is to compare her to Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara. Like Emma, Scarlett throws away almost everything that could make her happy for a love that is only real in her head and she is too self-involved to be a good mother. However, unlike Emma, Scarlett is smart, fiery and, most importantly, complex and interesting. Also, Emma has no business saavy, internal drive or survival instincts; she is like that girl you knew in high school who seemed only to care about her nails and what she was going to wear to the dance and really did only care about her nails and what she was going to wear to the dance. She is too inane to elicit sympathy, too vapid to amuse and just so irritating in her self-inflicted pain. In short, I can’t stand her and (however many pages) of her is far too much to ask anyone to endure. The story isn’t even compelling because you are missing out on all the flowery descriptive language (bon mots a-hohn honh honh) that makes the book remarkable, I’ll say it again, IN FRENCH. The story itself is not that interesting.

So, to wrap this up: after a series of failed love affairs, Emma runs up her husband’s credit (because she’s depressed, she starts shopping, which makes her a cliche before the cliche even existed- gross), can’t finagle the money to pay her debts from her ex-lovers, eats arsenic and dies a horrible, undignified death. Her husband dies shortly after, destitute because of Emma’s selfishness and their daughter is sent to live with distant relatives who promptly pack her off to toil in a mill.

Yes, I did just ruin the ending BUT I just saved you a world of unnecessary suffering.

You are welcome.



JillComm said...

Thanks for the tip! A couple other classics you can strike off the must-read list- Vanity Fair and Wuthering Heights.

I've blocked out most of Vanity Fair's actual plot, but it goes something like party party party gown party boring.

Wuthering Heights, well, I'm sorry to rag on a Bronte sister (Jane Eyre is a favourite of mine)but damn girl, that's some shit right there. Bleh.

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