Manny's Reviews > Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
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's review
Nov 20, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: strongly-recommended, too-sexy-for-maiden-aunts
Read in May, 2010 , read count: 3

Moira posted a terrific review of Rabbit Redux the other day, and it made me realise something I should have noticed years ago. Rabbit Angstrom is Emma Bovary's literary grandson! As Moira says, Updike was deeply influenced by Nabokov, a fact that had somehow passed me by. Nabokov, in his turn, was a disciple of Flaubert; he famously said that he'd read all Flaubert, in the original French, by the time he was 14. So the family tree is clear enough.

It's one of those cases, though, where things have sort of skipped a generation. It's not hard to see that the three authors are stylistically close. But Flaubert and Updike are both ultra-naturalistic and Nabokov is not, and Nabokov also has quite a different take on psychology compared to the other two. So you don't immediately link Updike to Flaubert, or at least I didn't; though I do remember, at least once, defending Rabbit by comparing him with Emma. It seemed somehow like a reasonable comparison, but I'd thought it was just a chance resemblance.

Now that I have the missing link, it's all painfully obvious. The central characters in both stories are marked by early experiences which give them exaggerated hopes of what they can expect out of life; Rabbit is a high-school basketball star, and Emma attends the unfortunate ball at the château La Vaubyessard. After this, everything is a disappointment to them, and they find life with their respective partners, Janice and Charles, dull and stultifying. Their sense of frustration drives them into increasingly disastrous sexual liaisons, which eventually kill them and destroy several other lives as well.

Flaubert makes no obvious attempt to judge Emma, which led to many of his contemporaries denouncing the book as wicked, immoral and even obscene, charges which are often applied to Updike for similar reasons; many American readers today dislike Rabbit as much as late nineteenth century French readers disliked Emma. To me, these criticisms are completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not Rabbit and Madame Bovary are great books. We see Emmas and Rabbits all around us; ignoring the novels is hardly going to make them go away. And the language is so delightful, especially Flaubert's.

I'm in the middle of reading Madame Bovary for the third time. Emma has just met Rodolphe: he's put together a crude but effective seduction strategy, which he's already starting to implement. As usual, I'm willing her not to fall for him, but I don't think it's going to work out the way I want it to. Poor Emma.


Finished. It's an almost perfect book, that you can read any number of times. Here are some of my favourite passages.

The trashy novels that Emma reads when she's feeling depressed during the early years of her marriage:
Ce n'étaient qu'amours, amants, amantes, dames persécutées s'évanouissant dans des pavillons solitaires, postillons qu'on tue à tous les relais, chevaux qu'on crève à toutes les pages, forêts sombres, troubles du coeur, serments, sanglots, larmes et baisers, nacelles au clair de lune, rossignols dans les bosquets, messieurs braves comme des lions, doux comme des agneaux, vertueux comme on ne l'est pas, toujours bien mis, et qui pleurent comme des urnes.
MM. Bournisien and Homais watch over Emma's corpse, while squabbling with each other:
Le pharmacien et le curé se replongèrent dans leurs occupations, non sans dormir de temps à autre, ce dont ils s'accusaient réciproquement à chaque réveil nouveau. Alors M. Bournisien aspergeait la chambre d'eau bénite et Homais jetait un peu de chlore par terre.
Rodolphe finishes his break-up letter:
-- Comment vais-je signer, maintenant? se dit-il. Votre tout dévoué?... Non. Votre ami?... Oui, c'est cela.

«Votre ami.»

Il relut sa lettre. Elle lui parut bonne.

-- Pauvre petite femme! pensa-t-il avec attendrissement. Elle va me croire plus insensible qu'un roc; il eût fallu quelques larmes là-dessus; mais, moi, je ne peux pas pleurer; ce n'est pas ma faute. Alors, s'étant versé de l'eau dans un verre, Rodolphe y trempa son doigt et il laissa tomber de haut une grosse goutte, qui fit une tache pâle sur l'encre; puis, cherchant à cacheter la lettre, le cachet Amor nel cor se rencontra.

-- Cela ne va guère à la circonstance... Ah bah! n'importe!

Après quoi, il fuma trois pipes et s'alla coucher.
And a little earlier, this, which I think is simply one of the most heartbreaking paragraphs ever written.
Il s'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 douleurs, 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.

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Quotes Manny Liked

Gustave Flaubert
“La parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.”
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Reading Progress

03/30/2010 page 90
04/27/2010 page 245
47.76% 2 comments
04/11/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-27 of 27) (27 new)

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Manny Well, Charles and Léon, at least. Not so sure about Rodolphe... but maybe him too, now I think about it. Good point. He's pretty tired of seducing bored housewives, but just can't think of anything else to do with his time.

message 2: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell HA, what a great connection! I hadn't thought about it before. Now I wonder what Updike thought of Bovary....

Manny I liked the way you had half of the picture and I had the other half. There are moments when I think that Goodreads isn't just the greatest waste of time ever invented...

message 4: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Manny wrote: "I liked the way you had half of the picture and I had the other half. There are moments when I think that Goodreads isn't just the greatest waste of time ever invented..."

And we brought it together like a STEREOPHONIC VIEWER! oh God I just carbon dated myself.

message 5: by Manny (last edited Apr 23, 2010 06:23AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Manny And we brought it together like a STEREOPHONIC VIEWER! oh God I just carbon dated myself.

I saw Avatar a few weeks ago, and, would you believe it, those stereo viewers have come back into fashion. As has rage against the Vietnam war, or whatever this newfangled war is called. I felt so nostalgic. Couldn't they have found a cameo for Jane Fonda? It was the only thing missing.

message 6: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Manny wrote: "I saw Avatar a few weeks ago, and, would you believe it, those stereo viewers have come back into fashion"

Everyone thinks I'm too big a raging culture vulture to see that movie, but utter lack of depth perception and tendency to migraines don't help either.

Paul Bryant You're not missing a thing.

message 8: by Manny (last edited May 08, 2010 06:53AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Manny Elizabeth wrote: "Manny, this review is like reading a Bronte novel: interesting ideas, allusions to things I've never read, and untranslated French passages."

Um... I hope that's a good thing? :)

I considered trying to translate the passages, but no Flaubert translation I have seen is at all like the original. His language resembles poetry far more than prose. In the unlikely event that I'm inspired, I'll post again.

Sandi I love Madame Bovary, but my French just isn't good enough to tackle it in the original.

Manny When I read it the first time, my French was really terrible, but it was still possible to appreciate the music of the language. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest prose stylists ever.

Take a look at some of the passages I quote above and see if they convince you to make an attempt...

notgettingenough Si seulement je pouvais lire le français.

message 12: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Elizabeth wrote: "Usually a comparison with a Bronte is a good thing, unless it's Bramwell. :-)"

Did I ever tell you I once had the chance to buy THIS for about three bucks? But I passed.

message 13: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Elizabeth wrote: "It was overpriced, Moira. :-)"

a FRIEND sent me the Crimes of Charlotte Bronte, tho. Hah.

message 14: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Elizabeth wrote: "Is that like when people send me Austen sequels"

It was specifically so I would write it up probably in ALLCAPSY FLAIL, oh yes.

message 15: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Flaubert is diiiiiir -- WHOOPS wrong comment thread! My bad.

Manny notgettingenough wrote: "Si seulement je pouvais lire le français."

Tu plaisantes drôlement, madame!

Colettemariehayes I also thought of Updike immediately upon finishing Madame Bovary! Glad I read this review!

message 18: by Sara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sara Bst Is this book based on a true story?

Manny Sara wrote: "Is this book based on a true story?"

As far as I know, it isn't. My speculations in this review were not meant to be taken seriously, if that's what you're referring to!

message 20: by Sara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sara Bst Yes :) Thanks Manny

message 21: by Josephine (new) - added it

Josephine  the Rereader ah, I was looking to this as an opposite of 'lady chatterly' but it seems you can't really compare the two. at best this might be similar to Anna Karenina... pure speculation by an amateur reader who has not read any of the aforementioned...

Manny I think there are some commonalities between Emma and Anna... someone should pair them in a Celebrity Death Match. By the way, I discovered the other day that she has become a verb in modern French, bovaryser...

message 23: by Paul (last edited May 02, 2016 06:52AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Je pense que Madame Bovary est probablement le roman le plus important du XIXe siècle français. À mon avis, cette oeuvre constitue un prisme d'une exceptionnelle qualité dans lequel se reflètent les trois grandes visions du monde de l'époque, c'est-à-dire les visions romantiques, réalistes et, ce que nous avons tendance à oublier, la vision symbolique.

Il est difficile d'apprécier la richesse de ce roman sans en saisir la dimension symbolique et il est difficile d'en saisir la dimension symbolique autrement que dans le texte original français.

En deux mots, Madame Bovary est l'impossible relation entre un oiseau épris de liberté, une tourterelle triste, et un boeuf ruminant dans un pré.

By the way, Manny, I really appreciate your book review and you are one of my premium guide when I choose the book I must read.


Paul from Quebec, Canada

Lada Fleur oui oui oui important, original une impossibilite de se trouver. D'ou le style, celui du DlI

message 25: by [deleted user] (new)

I am jealous enough that you read Bovary in its original language...I loved it in English, so I can only imagine it in French...loved Updike's Rabbit, Run series...followed Updike writings from The New is quite lovely to hear someone compare Flaubert and Updike so clearly. Wonderful review.

message 26: by Greg (new) - rated it 3 stars

Greg Z Hi Manny, I just finished Bovary for the first time. I would never have noticed, but yes, when Rabbit doesn't Run and reach for the stars, he becomes a trapped Emma. But Rabbit, in the end, does accept his fate, Emma never does. By the way, of the four Rabbit books (I realize there is a fifth, a revisit of sorts, and I haven't read it), Redux is my least favorite. I didn't like Updike/Rabbit at all in Redux. But one could argue that in Redux, Rabbit accepts his entrapment, Emma never can.

Manny Hi Greg! I like that comparison... think you're right, Rabbit is prepared to accept when Emma never can. Perhaps this is what makes him a less sympathetic character? And yes, Redux is also my least favorite volume.

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