matt's Reviews > Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
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Apr 30, 11

bookshelves: worldly-lit, top-shelf, shattering, fictions-of-the-big-it
Read from March 22 to April 30, 2011


I think this book was very good for me, in a number of ways. As a reader, as a writer, as a lover of literature, as a lover, as a sensitive intelligent human being in the world.

Flaubert's style is well-known and well-regarded, surely, and part of the reason I decided to read this book is because I'd heard so much about its use and value and power as a stance. I've always thought that style is not just about words and phrases but about attitude, "being-in-the-world", existential validity. Style is putting things down not just in the 'what' but in the 'how' as well...it's saying what has to be said the way it needs to be said. Flaubert, in his anguished, sincere, painstaking and despairing way, truly accomplished his 'mot juste'---a couple hundred pages of them, in fact.

What makes this so important to me, now, the day after the night I finished it, is that he oh-so-carefully refines and carves down his story to just the bare essentials. Place, time, action, clothing, furniture, weather, nature. It's just...as it is. No (or not much editorializing) which means that everything is actually that much more tinged with numinous life. More vibrant, more real, more poignant and drab than ever. UNderplaying, like Miles Davis or haiku poetics or Cezanne...weaving a basket, stitching a rug...

my tastes are usually a little more garrulous as a rule, which I'm prefectly happy with. However, Flaubert is an interesting tonic for this, as in a somewhat similar vein Chandler was, in that he tries to get at the molten core of that kind of writing- the emotions, the wellspring, the want and hurt and ache of the 90% of the human which resides below sea level...Flaubert says somewhere, explaining his disdain for the facile Romantic poetry of his day, that we need to find the water itself and not just use the faucet.

I agree wholeheartedly that Bovary is us...all of us...because she is NOT us. We don't, as a rule, throw our lives away over financial naievte and romantic disillusion (at least, not yet). The ordinary bored bourgeoise who is rightfully bored with the insipid ways of provincial life and the medicority which thrives everywhere, the pseudo-intellectuals and the doofuses who they are married to don't come to the kind of ends which Emma does. And rightfully so. Flaubert himself says that one must be quiet and routine in your everyday life like a good bourgeoise so one can be violent and original in your work. So much the better for humanity.

But here's the thing- what the great cynic and closet romantic also understands above all is that it's that very boredom, the time consuming and soul crushing melt of our lives, is what's killing us. Especially the ones with deeper, hungrier sensualities. Emma wants to live in the ideal-so do we all- and I agree with Harold Bloom who suggests that she dies over the powerful fear that there will be no more lovers for her. There isn't much more life she can have. Now, Leon and Rodolphe are drips in their way, and unworthy of her adoration and desire. Charles is a dumbkopf. Rouen is a hick town. Homais and Lheruex are shmucks. Flaubert hates them with his head and (I suggest) half of his heart. I say only half because they are, after all, human beings and thus subject to the human condition...Emma is, too, but her particular angle on it is such that she is intuitively aware of the impossibility of desire. Or at least, it's fulfillment.

* We may not know what our needs are, but we know when they've been fulfilled.

* Being a romantic doesn't mean wanting something you can't have; it means wanting something whether you get it or not.

I believe Emma is a romantic. A devout and piously watchful one, because I believe she wants her life with Leon and Rudolph whether they want her or not- I think the possibility of grasping for them, the intrinsic expansion of her sensibility, her existence, which they bring is what makes her timid. But the problem is, they are not enough. Importantly, they are not enough because they are shumcks. As people, they don't measure up. Boo hoo- that's the way of things, tough cheese old sport. At the same time, though, no one would measure up.

I'm tempted to say that Emma needs a hobby- she needs to write or to paint or to seriously play the piano or something. The more you try, like Flaubert himself, to create the expression of your soul, the more you put life into its (your) proper perspective. Emma doesn't have a voice. This is no doubt because of her historical context, her gender, her family, her geography. It's also because of her spirit. Her desires and her perceptions (she is never more herself when in erotic resonance- raise your hand if that seems familiar to you) are too pressing, too powerful, clang too loudly in her ears, to come to a cohesive form. She can only know chaos, which is why she can never know herself.

"the mark of an immature mind is to want to die for something, the mark of a mature one is to live humbly for it."- The Catcher In The Rye

"In dreams Begin Responsibilities"

The novel is engrossing. It builds quietly, absorbs the reader with the constant quiet drumbeat of objective detail. Flaubert really doesn't judge his characters, at least to the extent that such a thing is actually possible, since we are mammals who judge as part of our natures. But the imminent, detached, desultorily godlike perspective is poweful- tricky, innovative then and now, and devastating. Especially when given this kind of subject. I have not read 'Salammbo' or "Temptation of St Anthony' though I certiainly will some day. What I've heard is that they are pretty wild. So much the better.

The ironies are as potent and fragrant as fresh cow turds. I mean that literally- the slow and awkward flirtation between her and Rudolph during the fake grandeur of the county fair smacks of wicked delight in human pomposity and self-importance. The ironies are too large to count- there's at least one laugh out loud moment on every page. Flaubert finds the whole thing more than mildly ridiculous. Tawdry, shabby, rather pathetic, as a crippled old man at hooters might be.

So it's actually a great testament to Flaubert's humanity that Emma is his subject. You can pity her, you can hate her, you can disown or be exasperated by her (I did all of these at different points in the book) but she is genuine, she is innocent, she is inevitable. Flaubert is ruthless with himself and what he is describing- exact, clinical, cinematic. But he is, as many critics would suggest, at one with her. Is she his 'anima', his 'daemon', his second self? After all, a man like him doesn't say 'madame bovary, c'est moi' for nothing. I believe that he says such a thing because it is, in the last analysis, the only thing he COULD say. Why else would he labour at her troubles?

I should add that I was going through the beginning of a love affair as I started this book, then a bullshit filled dramatic fissure, then a reuniting, etc as I read it...I have lived through some of these scenes myself, in a way. And I have seen them in the ways of someone I was involved with. I mention this because it made the experience of reading this book terribly vivid- sobering and intoxicating, rapturous and depressing, grand and cheap all at once. I figure given the material it's worth mentioning.

I think in some way Flaubert is a classic stoic. The world will not provide us with the food for our desires. We will never be filled. I read 'Catch-22' several years ago, hoping it would snap me out of my own unproductive, unhelpful idealism. It put a dent in it, but it didn't wipe them out. I think 'Madame Bovary' might have replaced them a bit- we'll have to see. I think of the large, looming, dolefully resigned face of Gustave himself and I sigh deeply. The world will not be what we need it to be, our actions don't stand a very good chance of changing this. But beauty and pathos and art and humor can be forged out of this mess, if you care and you work and you see. Madame Bovary is, inside and out, a book which can help you point in the right direction. Perhaps
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message 1: by matt (last edited May 01, 2011 12:27AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

matt I think this book was very good for me, in a number of ways. As a reader, as a writer, as a lover of literature, as a lover, as a sensitive intelligent human being in the world.

Flaubert's style is well-known and well-regarded, surely, and part of the reason I decided to read this book is because I'd heard so much about its use and value and power as a stance. I've always thought that style is not just about words and phrases but about attitude, "being-in-the-world", existential validity. Style is putting things down not just in the 'what' but in the 'how' as well...it's saying what has to be said the way it needs to be said. Flaubert, in his anguished, sincere, painstaking and despairing way, truly accomplished his 'mot juste'---a couple hundred pages of them, in fact.

What makes this so important to me, now, the day after the night I finished it, is that he oh-so-carefully refines and carves down his story to just the bare essentials. Place, time, action, clothing, furniture, weather, nature. It's just...as it is. No (or not much editorializing) which means that everything is actually that much more tinged with numinous life. More vibrant, more real, more poignant and drab than ever. UNderplaying, like Miles Davis or haiku poetics or Cezanne...weaving a basket, stitching a rug...

my tastes are usually a little more garrulous as a rule, which I'm prefectly happy with. However, Flaubert is an interesting tonic for this, as in a somewhat similar vein Chandler was, in that he tries to get at the molten core of that kind of writing- the emotions, the wellspring, the want and hurt and ache of the 90% of the human which resides below sea level...Flaubert says somewhere, explaining his disdain for the facile Romantic poetry of his day, that we need to find the water itself and not just use the faucet.

I agree wholeheartedly that Bovary is us...all of us...because she is NOT us. We don't, as a rule, throw our lives away over financial naievte and romantic disillusion (at least, not yet). The ordinary bored bourgeoise who is rightfully bored with the insipid ways of provincial life and the medicority which thrives everywhere, the pseudo-intellectuals and the doofuses who they are married to don't come to the kind of ends which Emma does. And rightfully so. Flaubert himself says that one must be quiet and routine in your everyday life like a good bourgeoise so one can be violent and original in your work. So much the better for humanity.

But here's the thing- what the great cynic and closet romantic also understands above all is that it's that very boredom, the time consuming and soul crushing melt of our lives, is what's killing us. Especially the ones with deeper, hungrier sensualities. Emma wants to live in the ideal-so do we all- and I agree with Harold Bloom who suggests that she dies over the powerful fear that there will be no more lovers for her. There isn't much more life she can have. Now, Leon and Rodolphe are drips in their way, and unworthy of her adoration and desire. Charles is a dumbkopf. Rouen is a hick town. Homais and Lheruex are shmucks. Flaubert hates them with his head and (I suggest) half of his heart. I say only half because they are, after all, human beings and thus subject to the human condition...Emma is, too, but her particular angle on it is such that she is intuitively aware of the impossibility of desire. Or at least, it's fulfillment.

* We may not know what our needs are, but we know when they've been fulfilled.

* Being a romantic doesn't mean wanting something you can't have; it means wanting something whether you get it or not.

I believe Emma is a romantic. A devout and piously watchful one, because I believe she wants her life with Leon and Rudolph whether they want her or not- I think the possibility of grasping for them, the intrinsic expansion of her sensibility, her existence, which they bring is what makes her timid. But the problem is, they are not enough. Importantly, they are not enough because they are shumcks. As people, they don't measure up. Boo hoo- that's the way of things, tough cheese old sport. At the same time, though, no one would measure up.

I'm tempted to say that Emma needs a hobby- she needs to write or to paint or to seriously play the piano or something. The more you try, like Flaubert himself, to create the expression of your soul, the more you put life into its (your) proper perspective. Emma doesn't have a voice. This is no doubt because of her historical context, her gender, her family, her geography. It's also because of her spirit. Her desires and her perceptions (she is never more herself when in erotic resonance- raise your hand if that seems familiar to you) are too pressing, too powerful, clang too loudly in her ears, to come to a cohesive form. She can only know chaos, which is why she can never know herself.

"the mark of an immature mind is to want to die for something, the mark of a mature one is to live humbly for it."- The Catcher In The Rye

"In dreams Begin Responsibilities"

The novel is engrossing. It builds quietly, absorbs the reader with the constant quiet drumbeat of objective detail. Flaubert really doesn't judge his characters, at least to the extent that such a thing is actually possible, since we are mammals who judge as part of our natures. But the imminent, detached, desultorily godlike perspective is poweful- tricky, innovative then and now, and devastating. Especially when given this kind of subject. I have not read 'Salammbo' or "Temptation of St Anthony' though I certiainly will some day. What I've heard is that they are pretty wild. So much the better.

The ironies are as potent and fragrant as fresh cow turds. I mean that literally- the slow and awkward flirtation between her and Rudolph during the fake grandeur of the county fair smacks of wicked delight in human pomposity and self-importance. The ironies are too large to count- there's at least one laugh out loud moment on every page. Flaubert finds the whole thing more than mildly ridiculous. Tawdry, shabby, rather pathetic, as a crippled old man at hooters might be.

So it's actually a great testament to Flaubert's humanity that Emma is his subject. You can pity her, you can hate her, you can disown or be exasperated by her (I did all of these at different points in the book) but she is genuine, she is innocent, she is inevitable. Flaubert is ruthless with himself and what he is describing- exact, clinical, cinematic. But he is, as many critics would suggest, at one with her. Is she his 'anima', his 'daemon', his second self? After all, a man like him doesn't say 'madame bovary, c'est moi' for nothing. I believe that he says such a thing because it is, in the last analysis, the only thing he COULD say. Why else would he labour at her troubles?

I should add that I was going through the beginning of a love affair as I started this book, then a bullshit filled dramatic fissure, then a reuniting, etc as I read it...I have lived through some of these scenes myself, in a way. And I have seen them in the ways of someone I was involved with. I mention this because it made the experience of reading this book terribly vivid- sobering and intoxicating, rapturous and depressing, grand and cheap all at once. I figure given the material it's worth mentioning.

I think in some way Flaubert is a classic stoic. The world will not provide us with the food for our desires. We will never be filled. I read 'Catch-22' several years ago, hoping it would snap me out of my own unproductive, unhelpful idealism. It put a dent in it, but it didn't wipe them out. I think 'Madame Bovary' might have replaced them a bit- we'll have to see. I think of the large, looming, dolefully resigned face of Gustave himself and I sigh deeply. The world will not be what we need it to be, our actions don't stand a very good chance of changing this. But beauty and pathos and art and humor can be forged out of this mess, if you care and you work and you see. Madame Bovary is, inside and out, a book which can help you point in the right direction. Perhaps.


Noran Miss Pumkin Bravo sir! Bravo!


matt thank you! *bows deeply*


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