Flaubert, Gustave Entries

France Days 8 - 9: Rouen + Balbec (Cabourg)


I must admit that there's plenty of free internet here at the big splurge of our trip, the Grand Hotel Cabourg. So I have no excuse for skipping a day except the truth: that we were too busy relaxing to do anything as effort-intensive as blogging! Cabourg is the town, and the Grand Hotel the hotel, on which Proust modeled the town of Balbec and the hotel where Marcel stays with his grandmother and meets Albertine and Robert de Saint-Loup in A la recherche du temps perdu, and the level of old-school luxury here is everything I could have hoped for. They really do up the Proust connection, too: madeleines on the pillows and lime blossom tea in the drinks closet. (In another context I might feel like this was cheap pandering, but really I'm just pleased that enough people are still interested in Proust for him to be a tourist draw.) Listening to and gazing at the surf through the big French doors onto our balcony while stretched out on the crisp white linens is intensely relaxing. But I'm getting ahead of myself...


I am big enough to admit that my mom was right: I should have shipped some of those books home from Paris by post, instead of packing them all into my suitcase. Fitting them in wasn't a problem; the issue came when I tried to pick the thing up to carry it down the four flights of spiral stairs descending from our apartment. After that, we faced the dilemma of whether to taxi, métro, or walk to the Gare du Nord, where we were to pick up our rental car. As backward as it probably sounds we opted for walking—neither of us could envision heaving our bags over the narrow métro turnstiles, and it rubbed us the wrong way to spend the euros on a taxi. Trading off bags, we managed to get ourselves and our stuff back through the touristy sex-shop area on Boulevard de Clichy and down to the Europcar counter, where they entrusted us with the keys to a little silver Fiat. It was very exciting, Americans as we are, to launch out on the road trip portion of our trip—and, as much as I enjoyed Paris, to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city.


I was a bit nervous about driving in a foreign country, particularly the "getting out of Paris" part, but it wasn't bad at all. Of all the places I've driven or been in a car, I think Paris is scarier than Portland (where there are actually stand-offs of politeness between drivers who both want to cede the right-of-way to the other person), but not nearly as bad as Boston (where I feel like all the other drivers actively want to kill me) and nowhere CLOSE to Madrid (where the cars and motorbikes seem to operate according to a different set of physical laws than the ones I'm used to). We left around noon, which is a nice time of day traffic-wise, and were soon hurtling along surrounded by the rolling green hills of the Norman countryside at a startling-sounding 130 on the speedometer (actually only about 80 miles per hour). We headed to Rouen, about an hour northwest of Paris, where we stopped and had lunch at an outdoor cafe, and then wandered around the old center of the town that surrounds the cathedral.


Rouen on a Sunday, when most shops were closed and most people unhurried, was just the respite I needed from the tight-packed activity of Paris. We strolled along the medieval boulevards and around the cathedral itself—the very place where Flaubert's Emma Bovary attempts half-heartedly to ward off her would-be lover Léon before surrendering to him during their extended carriage ride. (This modern stained glass, added to the cathedral in the 1950s, struck me as a particularly appropriate illustration at this point.)


Rouen Cathedral was apparently damaged during the bombing of the Second World War, and is also in the midst of extensive restoration right now. Between those two factors, there is substantially more light inside it than in your average medieval cathedral. Many of the windows, which I assume were originally darkly colored stained glass, are now white glass, which means shafts of direct sunlight fall on the busts and columns of the cathedral. This unfiltered light lends the cathedral's interior a surprisingly sweet, down-to-earth quality that I really liked, regardless of whether the effect was in any way intentional.


We wandered into the cathedral by a side door, whose arched doorways featured carvings of all kinds of mythological and/or monstrous creatures: pig-headed women, bats playing stringed instruments, and all kinds of fascinating characters. This figure looks like the be-wimpled head of a woman with the body of a serpent-chicken? Some of them got fairly grotesque, and it was another reminder of the medieval love of, and belief in, the bizarre, which I was writing about a few days ago.


Yesterday could not have been more beautiful in this part of the world, and we strolled around enjoying the warm sunshine and the accordion music that drifted faintly down the narrow alleys from the main square. Eventually, we made our way back to our car and drove to the Grand Hotel Cabourg. As I said, this is the splurge of the trip, and it definitely measures up. A recently-refurbished yet still beautifully old-school seaside resort, it perches above the Atlantic and a wide pedestrian boulevard called the Promenade Marcel Proust, down which couples, dog-walkers, and parents with toddlers stroll in classic striped seaside gear.


Our balcony overlooks the promenade. Yesterday evening, and again this morning, we sat at our little table and people-watched while breathing the salty sea air. (We decided the smell is halfway between the Pacific of the American west coast and the Atlantic of the east.) This morning we donned the cushy terrycloth robes provided by the hotel, and lolled about on the balcony while dipping our madeleines into our lime blossom tea and generally being super-dorky yet very happy Proustian tourists. David kept making jokes about how he was afraid his long anticipation would mean he couldn't enjoy the experience, and I saw little Marcel in every kid on the esplanade.


We took things very easy today, having a much-needed long sleep this morning, then venturing out to explore the little seaside town and take a long walk on the beach. Because of my childlike tendency to run into the ocean when I find myself close to it, I didn't take my camera on our walk, but today the weather was overcast and we even got a light rain during the early afternoon, when David and I were closeted in a cozy pizza shop that made surprisingly excellent pizzas and galettes and played a funny mixture of 90s brit pop and American oldies. I had expected that the overcast weather would mean a familiar beach-going experience; after all, I love to go to the Oregon coast in the overcast and rain (which is most of the time), so I suited up in sweater and rain jacket as we were leaving on our walk. I was wrong, though; the skies here may look like the gray Oregon Coast skies, but the water is FAR warmer and there was almost no wind, which meant the entire experience was disconcertingly mild. I was soon carrying my sweater and rain jacket and walking around in my shirtsleeves.


I could easily envision the work of Proust's fictional painter Elstir as we walked along the beach under the overcast skies; the fishermen were out with their nets and their hip-waders, and dogs snuffled around the washed-up collections of shells and seaweed looking for something illicit to eat.

As we strolled along, we got to talking about the fact that six couples we know have had babies within the past year, and all six babies are boys. This undiluted crop of boys struck us as unlikely, and we debated a bit about exactly how unlikely it is that all six kids in a given group would end up male. As neither of us remember much from our statistics courses, we didn't get far until we stopped and actually worked out all the possible boy/girl combinations in the sand. David snapped a picture with his phone of our important work:


As far as we can tell, with six babies there are 64 (or, it seems, 26) different possible boy/girl combinations, and only one of those results in all boys (or all girls). So there's only a 1 in 64 or 1.5% chance of all boys, without even taking into account that slightly more girls are born than boys. We should have taken out a bet before all our friends had their sons! What makes all this especially funny is that one of the mothers in question is a statistician. No doubt she could have helped us out.


After that grueling math break, we returned back to the lap of luxury for an extremely fancy dinner in the restaurant of the Grand Hotel, during which I got crayfish ravioli, David got a sole that was de-boned for him at the table, and we shared a bottle of red from Chinon, over which we enjoyed an animated conversation about Virginia Woolf and the politics of the Harry Potter books. Good times!


Tomorrow we're off to see the Bayeux Tapestry and Mont St. Michel. Although I'm tempted to just stay on my balcony listening to the surf and drinking tea.

Madame Bovary, partie 3

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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.

Madame Bovary, partie 2

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Throughout the middle section of Madame Bovary, I've been thinking a lot about Flaubert's influence on one of my favorite writers, Marcel Proust. Apparently whole books have been written on the subject, so I'm not exactly breaking new ground here, but, it's always interesting to discover paths of influence for myself—to reflect on how an author made use of his or her sources, reinforcing or subverting them along the way. I noticed a few passages in Part One that struck me as "Proustian," but they started to pile on in Part 2: in Flaubert there is the same preoccupation with the twisting and turning inner workings of peoples' minds, with poking fun at petty snobbishness and self-importance (Binet posing with his saber at the Comices while his visor totally obscures his vision is a particularly comic moment), and with the general perversities of human nature, which prizes what it doesn't have and tires of what it does. One of my favorite passages from this section, for the reasons above and for the sheer quality of its writing, comes when our narrator is detailing the thoughts and feelings of Emma's lover Rodolphe upon hearing her protestations of undying love:

Il était tant de fois entendu dire ces choses, qu'elles n'avaient pour lui rien d'original. Emma ressemblait à toutes les maîtresses; et le charme de la nouveauté, peu à peu tombant comme un vêtement, laissait voir à nu l'éternelle monotonie de la passion, qui a toujours les mêmes formes et le même langage. Il ne distinguait pas, cet homme si plein de pratique, la dissemblance des sentiments sous la parité des expressions. Parce que des lèvres libertines ou vénales lui avaient murmuré des phrases pareilles, il ne croyait que faiblement à la candeur de celles-là; on en devait rabattre, pensait-il, les discours exagérés cachant les affections médiocres; comme si la plénitude de l'âme ne débordait pas quelquefois par les métaphores les plus vides, puisque personne, jamais, ne peut donner l'exacte mesure de ses besoins, ni de ses conceptions, ni de ses doleurs, et que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.
He had heard these things said to him so often that to him there was nothing original about them. Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language. He could not perceive—this man of such broad experience—the difference in feelings that might underlie similarities of expression. Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness; one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed mediocre affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.

I love (predictably) the comparison here of novelty to a garment, gradually slipping away to reveal naked the "eternal monotony of passion" (fantastic phrase!). The narrator's claims about the gulf between human language and the meaning it attempts to represent remind me of both Proust and Simone de Beauvoir. Similar, too, is the context of the passage: as one lover becomes more attached and dependent, the other withdraws. The perversity of the situation, of Rodolphe's mistaken assumptions that a) all women are as callous and practiced in "love" as he is, and that b) all people invest a given set of words with identical feelings and meanings, strikes me as a relevant model for À la recherche de temps perdu. (As far as Proustian models, the next passage is also interesting: although Rodolphe is becoming bored with Emma and is unable to believe in her romanticism, he enjoys a kind of abandoned, voluptuous luxuriance, basking in her worshipful submissiveness in a way that anticipates the sadomasochistic relationships of Charlus and other characters from À la recherche....)

But there are also differences here: while Proust presents such perversity as simply part of human nature (I can't think of anyone in his novel who is free from this type of fickleness, except maybe Marcel's idealized grandmother; so that the servant Françoise and the Princesse de Guermantes are equally petty and perverse), Flaubert seems to be championing the idea that such thought patterns are a uniquely bourgeois disorder. The club-footed stable boy Hippolyte, for example, is portrayed as a simple-hearted victim of Emma's and Homais's vicarious aspirations to fame and fortune and Charles's cluelessness, being seemingly too busy with actual work to have developed any of his own. Ancient farm woman Catherine-Nicaise-Elisabeth Leroux, who is awarded a cash prize at the Comices, seems indeed almost non-lingual, she has worked so hard over fifty-four years at the same farm. The elder Madame Bovary is a snobbish harridan herself, and one suspects that her proposed cure-all—preventing her daughter-in-law from reading any more novels—would fail to transform Emma into a reasonable person, but one can't help feeling a bit of sympathy with her when she declares

Si elle était comme tant d'autres contrainte à gagner son pain, elle n'aurait pas ces vapeurs-là.
If she was obliged to earn her living, like so many others, she wouldn't be having these vapors...

In this sense, I don't completely agree with Lydia Davis's statement, in her introduction, that Flaubert found stupidity in "all of humanity"—or, at least, it seems to be exclusively the middle classes that are fickle philistine blowhards.

In the end I'm still unsure exactly where Flaubert locates the source of his characters' petty mediocrities. He does seem concerned with the effects of socialization; we see details of both Emma's and Charles's early training and education (in a convent and provincial schools/medical school respectively), and Emma at least seems to be, to some degree, a victim of the headily Romantic combination of her religious studies and the novels she reads. But it strikes me as inaccurate to claim that Madame Bovary is a criticism of "the danger of reading novels"; Emma's problem is less the novels themselves, and more that she has no training in creativity or critical thought. (By contrast, for a person capable of subjecting them to analysis, like, oh, FLAUBERT, reading novels is presumably no problem1.) Her imagination is (over)active but ploddingly unoriginal, and she has never learned to question the overblown Romantic notions she has consumed. Taking away Sir Walter Scott would, it seems to me, only invite her obsessive covetousness to fasten on some other idea or object, which she would "read" in an equally un-critical way. Because she has no analytic ability, she expects that attaining the surface signifiers of "happiness" or "love" that she has read about will result in the kind of ecstatic delirium of Romantic novels. Obviously, this assumption is wrong.

This lack of critical thinking, though, is certainly not limited to the novel-reading characters of Madame Bovary. In this passage, Charles fondly imagines the future of his daughter Berthe:

...la clientèle augmenterait; il y comptait, car il voulait que Berthe fût bien élevée, qu'elle eût des talents, qu'elle appris le piano. Ah! qu'elle serait jolie, plus tard, à quinze ans, quand, ressemblant à sa mère, elle porterait comme elle, dans l'été, de grand chapeaux de paille! on les prendrait de loin pour les deux soeurs. Il se la figurait travaillant le soir auprès d'eux, sous la lumière de la lampe; elle lui broderait des pantoufles; elle s'occuperait du ménage; elle emplirait toute la maison de sa gentillesse et de sa gaieté. Enfin, ils songeraient à son établissement: on lui trouverait quelque brave garçon ayant un état solide; il la rendrait heureuse; cela durerait toujours.
...his clientele would increase—he was counting on that, because he wanted Berthe to be well brought up, accomplished, learn to play the piano. Ah, how pretty she would be, later, when she was fifteen, when resembling her mother, she would, like her, wear large straw hats in summer! From a distance, people would take them for two sisters. He pictured her working in the evening near them, in the lamplight; she would embroider some slippers for him; she would look after the household; she would fill teh whole house with her sweetness and gaiety. Eventually, they would think of getting her settled: they would find her some decent boy with a solid profession; he would make her happy; it would last forever.

My theory about the novel's long introduction, in which Charles appears to be the main character, is that allowing the readers to spend more time with Charles's unremitting mediocrity gives us sympathy with Emma's frustrations later on, and in passages like this one Flaubert continues to remind us how limited and conventional Charles's imagination is. On the one hand, the reader pities him for his delusional devotion to his fickle wife, but on the other hand: this is the best he can imagine for his daughter? Wearing straw hats in the summer, learning the piano, and embroidering slippers for her father until she settles down with a nice young man forever and ever? He obviously cares for her deeply, and yet his dearest wish for her amounts basically to servitude. He is simply incapable of creating something new or better out of his own imagination, just as Emma is incapable of imagining a way of life not based on her convoitoises, and just as Rodolphe is incapable of imagining a love affair that transcends manipulative head games. The bourgeois class, Flaubert seems to say, is dangerous because their imaginations can absorb material from without, but not generate anything from within. One assumes, from their minimal presence in the book, that the working class have no time for any imagination at all.

I tend to side with Proust rather than Flaubert: I don't think this kind of perverse and petty un-originality is uniquely bourgeois, but spread across all layers of the social hierarchy, occurring to a greater or lesser extent in individuals. (Madame Bovary also seems to be missing the spate of artists (Elstir, Bergotte, Vinteuil) who pepper the pages of À la recherche... and, though not necessarily happier or less perverse than anyone else, do represent a true creative class making true art.) I do admire, though, both authors' skill at portraying (and lampooning) the inner workings of human perversity.

1On second (or fifth) thought, thought, as Flaubert did famously say that "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," maybe he didn't feel capable of reading novels himself; maybe he felt just as contaminated by faux-literary romanticism as his protagonist. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around this possibility: why would someone who recognizes his own inability to read novels cope with the problem by writing a novel? Nevertheless, it's something to think about.


Another big thanks to Frances for hosting this lovely Madame Bovary readalong. Hop on over to her post for a round-up of other entries, and join us next week for the third and final installment.

Madame Bovary, partie 1

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Regular readers may be unsurprised to learn that, barely a hundred pages into Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, it is the clothes that have struck me most forcibly thus far. I wrote a few months ago about the attention paid to clothing by Honoré de Balzac in his Père Goriot, but Flaubert elevates the humble vêtements almost to characters in their own right. Take this delightfully revolting description, early in the novel, of a hat worn by young Charles Bovary at school (all translations courtesy of Lydia Davis):

C'était une de ces coiffures d'ordre composite, où l'on retrouve les éléments du bonnet à poil, du chapska, du chapeau rond, de la casquette de loutre et du bonnet de coton, une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d'expression comme le visage d'un imbécile. Ovoïde et renflée de baleines, elle commençait par trois boudins circulaires; puis s'alternaient, separés par une bande rouge, des losanges de velours et de poils de lapin; venait ensuite une façon de sac qui terminait par un polygone cartonné, couvert d'une broderie en soutache compliquée, et d'où pendait, au bout d'un long cordon trop mince, un petit croisillon de fils d'or, en manière de gland. Elle était neuve; la visière brillait.
It was one of those head coverings of a composite order, in which one can recognize components of a busby, a lancer's cap, a bowler, an otter-skin cap, and a cotton nightcap, one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile. Ovoid and stiffened with whalebones, it began with three circular sausages; then followed alternately, separated by a red band, lozenges of velvet and rabbit fur; next came a kind of bag terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon, covered with an embroidery in complicated braid, from which hung, at the end of a long, excessively slender cord, a little crosspiece of gold threads, by by of a tassel. It was new; the visor shone.

This does indeed sound like a hideous hat. The line comparing the depths of expression in its mute ugliness to the face of an imbecile, comes closer than anything else I can think of to expressing a character inherent in a piece of clothing itself. But this passage is doing so much work besides. It demonstrates, of course, young Charles Bovary's status as a country yokel without much sense of how things are done; not only that, but he (or his mother) apparently chose this godawful hat in particular—it's brand new, not a hand-me-down, indicating that not only is Charles uneducated, but he's also lacking in any native aesthetic taste. Is there also some significance in the hat's hodge-podge nature? That in trying to be everything to everybody—a nightcap AND a bowler AND a busby—it fails spectacularly at all its aims? I'm not sure yet, but it's something to keep in mind.

In addition to that, however, this passage is also part of the strange, perfunctory-seeming frame narrative that begins Madame Bovary, a device that intrigues me almost as much as Flaubert's take on clothing. As the novel opens, we have a first-person narrator telling us about his first sight of Charles Bovary: he (the narrator) was in school, and Bovary was led in as a new boy, painfully awkward and countrified, and was made fun of by the narrator and his schoolmates, and even by their teacher. The narrator then tells us a bit about Charles's parents, and returns a page or so later to claim that

Il serait maintenant impossible à aucun de nous de se rien rappeler de lui. C'était un garçon de tempérament modéré, qui jouait aux récréations, travaillait à l'étude, écoutant en classe, dormant bien au dortoir, mangeant bien au réféctoire.
It would be impossible by now for any of us to recall a thing about him. He was a boy of even temperament, who played at recess, worked in study hall, listening in class, sleeping well in the dormitory, eating well in the dining hall.

And then the first-person narrator disappears from the text, not to return in Part 1; the rest of this section becomes, in essence, a third-person narration of Charles Bovary's life after leaving school, and of Emma Bovary's free-floating angst.

Isn't this a strange introduction? For one thing, the narrator obviously can remember things about Bovary—not just a few generalizations about how dull he was, but every single detail of the hat he wore on his first day of school all those years ago. The narrator also, apparently, knows details of Charles's actions and feelings during his years in medical school, during his oppressive first marriage, and surrounding his courtship of, and early marriage to, Emma Rouault. Charles's old school acquaintance is also privy to the inner workings of Emma Bovary's romantic daydreams and crushing boredom with country life. How does he know these things? Will he re-enter the story later on? And why does Flaubert have him claim that "it would be impossible...for any of us to recall a thing about" Bovary, when he obviously recalls a great deal?

One of my working theories (I have never read this before and am setting myself up to be wrong) is that Flaubert wants ALL his characters to be unreliable, either in how they perceive reality or in how they recount it, or both—he's writing about the misdirection and petty tragedy of society at large, not just about some crazy woman who wants more than she has. From that angle it makes sense to introduce an unreliable first-person narrator who, at least as a boy, showed himself to be cruel and snobbish, concerned with petty appearances just like Emma Bovary. His obsessive attention to the gaucheness of Charles's hat, followed by his hasty assertion that "it would be impossible" to remember anything about the boy, points to just these attributes. (It seems significant to me that he doesn't say "I can't remember," but "it would be impossible" to remember: an indirect construction that allows him to keep remembering, as long as he hypocritically agrees that, more generally it "isn't done.")

So: is Flaubert giving us a glimpse of an unreliable narrator, just in time to forget that we ever had a narrator in the first place? It would fit with the obsession, throughout the rest of this section, with glimpses, seductively incomplete entrevoirs, and their connection with disappointed hopes. Charles "avait entrevu dans le mariage l'avènement d'une condition meilleure" ["had foreseen in marriage the advent of a better situation"], but was disappointed in his first wife; Emma glimpses in her music-class ballads "the enticing phantasmagoria of real feelings," but can never quite reach them. In a Proustian moment, a newly besotted Charles reconstructs the phrases Emma has uttered,

tâchant de se les rappeler, d'en compléter le sense, afin de se faire la portion d'existence qu'elle avait vécue dans le temps où il ne la connaissait pas encore.
trying to recall them, to complete their meaning, in order to re-create for himself the portion of her life that she had lived during the time when he did not yet know her.

But the Emma he can almost glimpse through this imaginative exercise always fails to appear. (This attempt also seems uncharacteristically poetic and imaginative of old Charles, but perhaps love stimulates his latent creativity.) Similarly, Emma is taunted by a glimpse into the shadowy portrait galleries and lavish waltzes of the marquis before being whisked back to her mundane country existence.

So, going forward I'll be on the lookout for things glimpsed, evidence of the phantom first-person narrator, and, of course, clothing deployed in interesting ways. And whatever else strikes my fancy.


Thanks to the lovely Frances for hosting this Madame Bovary readalong. Her post will be updated to feature a round-up of other entries, and she'll be hosting two more weeks of thoughts on Flaubert's classic novel.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography