‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert (1856) - 370 pages
Translated by Lydia Davis
When I first read ‘Madame Bovary’ in college, I may have been too young to appreciate this story of extramarital infidelity and it did not have much impact on me. I found out there was a recent translation of the novel by 2013 Man Booker International prize winner Lydia Davis, and it was time for a re-read of ‘Madame Bovary’. This time I listened to the Lydia Davis version of the novel on audio, and this version was exquisite and awesome.
One would think that Charles Bovary would be a ‘good catch’ as a husband for Emma Rouault who was a mere farmer’s daughter. Charles was a doctor, albeit a country or small-town doctor, and I suppose general practitioners like Charles did not make a lot of money, but at least they should have been comfortably well-off. Charles was dedicated to his medical profession. He was quite a lot older than Emma, and Emma regarded him as a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. Her unreasonable contempt of him grows as time passes.
“Even as they were brought closer together by the details of daily life, she was separated from him by a growing sense of inward detachment. Charles’ conversation was flat as a sidewalk, a place of passage for the ideas of everyman; they wore drab everyday clothes, and they inspired neither laughter nor dreams.”
“Her life was as cold as an attic facing north; and boredom, like a silent spider, was weaving its web in the shadows, in every corner of her heart.”
The doctor Charles and Emma are given an opportunity to go to Paris, and while there they attend a high society ball. There Emma sees these aristocratic men dancing with pretty young women, and she is awestruck by the glamour of it all.
After they return from Paris, Emma in order to escape the dull life of a doctor’s wife, takes up with the decadent college student Leon. They spend much time together, but after a time Leon leaves in frustration of never having Emma.
Then Emma takes up with Rodolphe. France at that time had many counts and dukes and barons with much inherited land and money, who had little to do besides to engage in hunting and other sports and pastimes. These aristocrats treated seducing young women as a sport. Rodolphe was that kind of guy. Not that Emma needed that much seducing. She glamorized the romantic society life of affairs and conquests. Emma and Rodolphe have an affair somewhat disguised by their horseback rides together which lasts four years with Charles never suspecting.
“She repeated to herself, ‘I have a lover! I have a lover!” and the thought gave her a delicious thrill, as though she were beginning a second puberty. At last she was going to possess the joys of love, that fever of happiness she had despaired of ever knowing. She was entering a marvelous realm in which everything would be passion, ecstasy and rapture.”
Then when Emma tries to get Rodolphe to run away with her, Rodolphe breaks off the affair.
Then it is back to Leon, and Emma and Leon begin an affair disguised as out-of-town piano lessons.
I suspect that if an English or American writer had written a version of Bovary, it would have been much more moralistic and disapproving of Emma. Flaubert has much of the novel told from Emma’s point of view. Emma is for the most part a sympathetic figure despite her numerous infidelities, and when her gruesome end comes we are all sad.
Strictly speaking, sexual infidelity was not responsible for the fall of Emma Bovary; financial extravagance was the culprit. Her stalwart husband Charles did not suspect a thing about her extramarital affairs until he discovers some love letters in the attic sometime after Emma was gone.
Besides the intriguing story of Emma Bovary, “Madame Bovary” offers wonderful colorful detailed set pieces, first about life in rural northern France, then about small town life including a separate piece on the small town fair, then about the glamorous high society life. These vignettes fit in with the story, but are interesting enough to stand on their own.