Well, the Bovarys have met their end. I was quite surprised, after spending most of Parts 1 and 2 chuckling over Flaubert's catty jibes and underlining intellectually intriguing passages, at how emotionally invested I felt over Emma's and Charles's eventual demise. Lydia Davis, in her introduction to the new translation, discusses how Flaubert manages to keeping the irony which saturates his novel from undermining its emotional impact, and I certainly agree with her there. It's amazing that he manages to be such a bitter pill and simultaneously make me care about the fickle, petty philistines he has chosen for characters. And although I finished this novel feeling Flaubert to be a much angrier, less hopeful man, his ability to dissect psychological states and mix pathos with humor continued to remind me of Marcel Proust:
Une chose étrange, c'est que Bovary, tout en pensant à Emma continuellement, l'oubliait; et il se désespérait à sentir cette image lui échapper de la mémoire au milieu des efforts qu'il faisait pour la retenir. Chaque nuit pourtant, il la rêvait; c'était toujours le même rêve: il s'approchait d'elle; mais quand il venait à l'étreindre, elle tombait en pourriture dans ses bras.
One strange thing was that Bovary, though he thought about Emma continually, was forgetting her; and he despaired as he felt her image slip from his memory even in the midst of his efforts to hold on to it. Every night, however, he would dream about her; it was always the same dream: he would go up to her, but just when he was about to clasp her to him, she would rot away in his arms.
I feel presumptuous critiquing Lydia Davis, but I almost prefer to translate this "even in thinking about Emma continually." The French seems to imply, again in a very Proustian way, that the act of thinking about her is part of what causes Charles to forget his late wife—he wears thin his ability to access her memory voluntarily, and can only do so inadvertently, through nightmares. Indeed, Charles's dreams of Emma rotting away in his arms seem a potent encapsulation of Madame Bovary as a whole: so many characters here are chasing phantoms, whether of romance, respectability, change, or excitement, which either vanish or putrefy upon inspection. In tracking Flaubert's use of the word "entrevoir" (to glimpse), which I noticed in my first post, one ends up with a veritable laundry list of these delusions: we have Emma luxuriating in her short-lived religious visions:
Elle entrevit, parmi les illusions de son espoir, un état de pureté flottant au-dessus de la terre, se confondant avec le ciel... / She could glimpse, among the illusions born of her hopes, a state of purity floating above the earth, merging with heaven...
There is Rodolphe, spewing Romantic clichés in order to win her over:
"C'est comme une voix qui crie: "Le voilà!" Vous sentez le besoin de faire à cette personne la confidence de votre vie, de lui donner tout, de lui sacrificier tout! On ne s'explique pas, on se devine. On s'est entrevu dans ses rêves." / It's like a voice crying, "Here it is!" You feel the need to confide your whole life to this person, to give her everything, to sacrifice everything for her! You don't have to explain anything; you sense each others' thoughts. You've seen each other in your dreams.
And the lovers' mutual delusions about the intensity of their connection:
Le froid de la nuit les faisait s'étreindre davantage; les soupirs de leaurs lèvres leau semblaient plus forts; leurs yeux, qu'ils entrevoyaient à peine, leur paraissaient plus grands... / The cold of the night made them clasp each other all the more tightly; the sighs on their lips seemed to them deeper; their eyes, which they could barely glimpse, seemed larger...
More generally, "le vulgaire" believe themselves to glimpse something unique and eccentric when in reality it's just another cliché:
Elle avait cette incohérence de choses communes et recherchées, où le vulgaire, d'habitude, croit entrevoir la révélation d'une existence excentrique, les désordres du sentiment, les tyrannies de l'art, et toujours un certain mépris des conventions sociales, ce qui le séduit ou l'exaspère. / It was that incoherent mix of the ordinary and the elegant that common people generally take for evidence of an eccentric lifestyle, chaotic passions, the tyrannical dictates of art, and always a certain contempt for social conventions, which either charms or exasperates them.
while the bourgeoisie are always a hair's-breadth away from imaginary confrontation with the horrific monsters of indecency:
En effet, quelqu'un avait envoyé à sa mère une longue lettre anonyme, pour la prévenir qu'il se perdait avec une femme mariée; et aussitôt la bonne dame, entrevoyant l'éternel épouvantail des families, c'est-à-dire la vague créature pernicieuse, la sirène, le monstre, qui habite fantastiquement les profondeurs de l'amour, écrivit à maître Dubocage... / Indeed, someone had sent his mother a long anonymous letter, warning her that he was ruining himself with a married woman, and right away the good lady, having visions of that eternal bogey of family life, that ill-defined, pernicious creature, that siren, that fantastic monster inhabiting the depths of love, wrote to Maître Dubocage...
The characters who don't suffer disaster, like Homais with his croix d'honneur, Léon with his new wife and Rodolphe with his château and his good night's sleep, are those who have either stopped imagining anything, or have yet to be disillusioned in their imaginings. Nowhere in the novel do we see a person who is able to create something original, or (with the possible exception of Emma's father) to craft a fulfilling life out of material that doesn't prove delusory.
To be honest, Madame Bovary left me wondering what, exactly, Flaubert saw as the role of art and imagination in human lives. His distaste for the vulgarity and philistinism of the bourgeoisie comes through very clearly, and it is undeniably amusing to watch him lampoon the middle-class self-importance that believes itself respectable and open-minded while being, in actuality, devoid of originality or (often) basic kindness. Yet what's the alternative? Within the novel there seems no way to avoid the ignominious fate of mediocrity and self-importance, but what does Madame Bovary imply about the world in general? Surely, given his famed obsessiveness over his craftsmanship, Flaubert did not regard his own attempts at novel-writing to be as ridiculous and deluded as Homais's propaganda journalism, or Rodolphe's manipulative "Dear Joan" letter?
Perhaps Madame Bovary, like T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, is a work that contains its antidote within its own form. The claim that modern people are all mediocre and unable to transcend tired clichés, or appreciate art from a perspective deeper than simple identification with a romantic lead, is pretty thoroughly undermined by the Flaubert's own revolutionary narrative style and painstaking craftsmanship. In a similar way, I have a hard time feeling too concerned about the mediocrity of the typist and her "young man carbuncular" while Eliot is evoking them in such memorable verse. Yet where The Waste Land leaves me feeling exhilarated (if maybe slightly disappointed by the turn to Eastern spirituality in its final lines), I leave Flaubert's novel feeling exhausted, and a little angry. Yes, his prose is fantastic, and yes, the Modern Novel owes much to this work. But for a book that seems to be arguing so vitriolically against clichés, conventionality and kitsch, where is the evidence of a preferable alternative? I'm not looking for "good" characters and "bad" characters, or any kind of moral judgment—merely some gesture toward the possibility of creating something original, of combining imagination with a fulfilling life.
Don't get me wrong: I do not require sunshine and lollipops to love a novel. Among my favorite books of all time are Mrs. Dalloway, The Unnamable, and Journey to the End of the Night. But somehow, Madame Bovary strikes me as more alienating than anything I've lately read. I think it's because of the universality of bourgeois mediocrity in the world Flaubert evokes: despite his touted realism, and despite the psychological insight into the individual characters, it strikes me a UNrealistic to suppose that an entire life intersects with not one original soul, or that every moment of human happiness hinges on some pathetic delusion. At the same time, Flaubert avoids a dip into complete nihilism—which, if dark, would at least be bracing, would at least give the reader permission to discover her own source of meaning in the world—by seeming to argue that an objectively preferable mode of life could exist, even if no one in his world is living it.
Last night David and I watched the film Brokeback Mountain. There is a scene in which the archetypal American shut-down loner Ennis Del Mar affixes mass-produced metal street numbers to the mailbox outside his trailer, then steps back to contemplate the effect. And in that instant, despite the tragedy of the film, I felt such relief. There is value in human creativity, even if many would judge the results to be unoriginal, or kitsch, or beneath our notice. Yes, there is the possibility of using romantic delusions to lower ourselves into isolation, like Emma Bovary; and yes, there is also the option of using our creativity to manipulate others out of convenience or pettiness, like Rodolphe or Homais. There is even the option of living, like Charles, convinced that one's invented notion of other peoples' characters is true. But there is also the fact that small moments of artfulness can reach out to connect with other imperfect yet valuable people, like Ennis making sure his mailbox numbers are straight because his daughter is about to pay him a visit. Such moments are present, if rare, in Madame Bovary—Homais watering Charles's plants leaps to mind—but Flaubert never stops scoffing at his characters even as he occasionally recognizes their humanity. By the end, no amount of insightful psychology and lovely language could stop me from craving something a bit more open-hearted.