Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

This is a superb translation by Francis Steegmuller of Flaubert’s famous 1857 novel. One is quickly impressed by the details that make the setting and the era come alive, details that are so appropriate to the mood of each scene that they also bring the characters to life. Interestingly, the novel begins by presenting a young Charles Bovary, not his future wife, and this through an unknown narrator. Is this because he is to be an unknown cypher to her, and a negative presence as well to the reader?

Their meeting is a natural one. Charles grows up to become a doctor, visits the Rouault home to treat the father, and is impressed by daughter Emma. She, in turn, frustrated by a provincial life at home, quickly identifies him as a possible suitor and an escape into what she considers the real world. And so they marry. But Emma soon finds she has married a dull husband and is now living in another dull home no better than the one she has left. One might note here that Charles’ life has been narrated from the outside, while we absorb Emma’s life, her thinking, her emotions, from within.

Emma becomes so despondent that Charles moves them to another town. There, she encounters a young clerk, Leon, who intrigues her, but he is too shy to show his feelings, and she is too well-behaved to reveal her own interest. Whereupon, another suitor, a cad, Rodolphe Boulenger, pursues this beautiful, ripe, frustrated wife who needs consolation and is waiting to be swept off her feet. And she is, because she is a romantic, and this is the first man who has made her feel beautiful and wanted.

And when her seduction culminates in one phrase, “she gave herself to him,” this reader stepped back to mark how the literary world has changed. In Flaubert’s time, as in ours, one knows what this phrase means. One doesn’t need the details spelled out to understand the release of Emma’s emotions. Which is what the literary world is all about. The physical details we read about today do not make the act of love any more convincing. Nor the characters, by their actions, more richly portrayed.

Such a reaction will never, of course, change today’s literary world. The cat, so to speak, is out of the bag. And it’s a big commercial cat. But Flaubert’s era understood where literary propriety should lead one—to the characters emotions rather than on their physical exertions. Lurid descriptions, I feel, even distract the reader today from the author’s purpose. That is, the “freedom” authors seek to express themselves can get between themselves and the reader, can divert the reader from the novel’s emotional, philosophical, or psychological objective.

Emma’s own declarations of love are, of course, futile. You cannot oblige a man to love you when what he seeks is only physical. Flaubert makes this clear. And as he does so, he is deepening this portrait of a woman who is a dreamer and a product of her era. She is unfulfilled and lives for her emotions, is otherwise insecure, and will become a victim of the next man who declares his love.

On the other hand, critic Victor Brombert, acknowledging Baudelaire, writes that Emma, “is the only dignified and poetic figure in her small world. Her feverish yearnings experienced in the context of the most banal daily existence and in the most mediocre provincial setting, reaffirm the powers and prerogatives of the imagination. She not only towers over her lovers…but positively gains in stature as she approaches her doom, always in pursuit of an unattainable ideal of love and happiness.”

Yes, we relate to her and sympathize with her pursuit, but it is all a little too baldly stated for modern taste, especially when she collapses after the inevitable rejection by Rodolphe. This is somewhat exaggerated for a modern reader. She even asks herself if life is worth living. But it soon is, when Charles takes her to Rouen to hear an opera, and they encounter a mature Leon who has learned much while studying in Paris. Now, he does pursue her, and again she succumbs to a man’s intentions.

There is a clear pattern here, a portrait of this woman who comes alive only when she is loved, who perhaps reflects the women of her era whose lack of an internal fulfillment must be satisfied by the male society around her. Otherwise, a woman is incomplete, and Emma is desperate to become a complete woman. Whether she will or not becomes unclear. She does make an effort to control her husband’s finances, but this seems simply to provide an excuse for meeting her new lover, Leon.

Emma is still a dreamer, and the bloom is eventually off this new rose. She is also naive, and soon gets into hot financial water, frustrating her even more. The words “death” and “suicide” surface, as the author begins to prepare the desperation she will soon feel. Indeed, what is interesting here is that the emphasis is now not on her emotional frustration but on her financial straits. It is a shift by Flaubert to a more realistic approach to Emma, rather than on an emotional weakness that male critics then, and all readers today, might find difficult to relate to.

Now we come to the ending. It is a dramatic scene, I grant. It involves an act of desperation, and then a drawn-out, very realistic death. But the novel continues. And Charles, for the first time, becomes human and quite sympathetic in his grief. Indeed, his prominence at the end balances his prominence at the beginning of this novel.

For some reason, however, the pharmacist, Homais, also rises in importance at the end. And seems to illustrate the perfidy of mankind. Steegmuller notes that his prominence is to emphasize the “bourgeois banality” of the provincial backwardness that Emma is rebelling against and that Flaubert is criticizing in this novel. Also, Brombert notes that this three-chapter epilogue makes the reader aware “that the real tragedy of the novel is the victory of existence over tragedy. Life simply continues, indifferent to tragedy; it continues, mediocre and unaware.”

Is this note of negativity intended to bring a sense of realism to this novel? For me, more significant is its negative tone. That the romantic Emma has simply been taken advantage of, first by two lovers and then by the endless debt she has incurred by signing promissory notes at the persuasive hands of Monsieur Lheureux. And that when Charles says at the end: “No one is to blame. It was decreed by fate,” he is absolving himself. And Flaubert is labeling her as an innocent victim of this provincial world.

My conclusion is that Flaubert did create an inevitable ending, and perhaps one that was quite original for his era. But his handiwork is visible in today’s terms. In the manner of her fate, yes, but even more in the negative social portrait he draws at the conclusion. No one comes off good here. No one. And I wonder if the author would justify this in the name of realism.

One must grant, however, that Flaubert has created here a real society, a provincial society, a society of various tradesmen with their wives and children. It is a society that does give substance to Emma’s role as a victim and a dreamer, as well as significant substance to the novel itself.

Brombert notes that a comparison has been made between this novel and Don Quixote. This is true. Like Quixote, Emma has been seduced by novels into becoming a romantic, into believing in a world, a way of life, that is long gone, that has no connection with her era’s own reality.

To sum up, these critics have helped me to better understand the context in which this novel was written. That it was ahead of its time. That the internal musings of Emma, so helpful in both understanding her and sympathizing with her, were new. That the reality which she dreamed of escaping was not itself new, but that both the expression of her sexual transgression and her financial rebellion against her society were new. And that with this novel Flaubert was breaking new literary ground, even as his world did not yet possess the literary tools for doing so.

This novel has survived because it is truly a modern novel—in its subject of an unhappy woman in a heartless world, in its themes of sexual desire seeking an outlet in a frustrating provincial society, and in its exploration of the internal thoughts and emotions of its main character. It is less successful than a modern novelist might be, however, because today’s novelists have the literary tools and training that Flaubert did not have.

As a result, for modern tastes, this novel is too obvious at times, such as when Emma’s passions arise so readily as she is seduced, when she collapses so completely when rejected, and when both she and her husband succumb so easily to signing promissory notes when they are in financial trouble. On another level, the negative portrait of this provincial society is also too obvious, extending the novel beyond its obvious end and leaving this reader, at least, with an unpleasant image of humanity. Which negates, to a degree, the sympathy for Emma which one should be left with.

Reading this novel provides an education about the world’s literary past, and an appreciation of the literary advances that have been made since. This is an imperfect classic in today’s terms, but it is a classic nevertheless in its portrayal of a lost, helpless woman. (April, 2015)

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The Love of My Youth, by Mary Gordon

This 2011 work begins as a wonderful novel. Miranda and Adam, now close to sixty, were lovers forty years ago. Then they separated, marrying others and raising children. Now, both are visiting Rome and have been brought back together by a friend, whereupon they immediately relate to one another. And to their past together.

The wonder comes from their mutual doubt, their mutual worry. Can they cross together that forty-year chasm? Are they even now being disloyal to their current spouses? Can they get over the hurt that their separation caused? Where should this re-discovered relationship now go? What of the integrity they have stood for all their lives?

Simultaneously, they are living today, and they are living forty years ago, living one life externally and one life internally. It is a wonderful juxtaposition, caught by an author who is mature herself and understands exactly how one’s mind and one’s emotions might react to such circumstances. Some readers might even be intrigued by another question: will they or won’t they? The reader who knows Mary Gordon, however, will expect something more.

Then the novel shifts gears. Adam persuades Miranda to meet with him for an hour or two every day so he can show her, and help her better appreciate, the sights of Rome, a city with its own memorable past. It is really, of course, because he is still intrigued by her; and, despite each of their current marriages, he wishes to explore the possibilities that have arisen from their meeting.

Whereupon, each time this couple meets, they banter about Rome’s history and art and the people they encounter on the street, and the reader receives mini-portraits of moments in Rome’s past. It is continually interesting banter, even as the couple deliberately avoids any personal conversation about their own past, not least because of their own existing marriages. And yet…that past is always in the air. But the result, even so, is a lack of drama. Because their relationship never advances, because they seek to avoid at all costs what in today’s literary world might seem to be an inevitable outcome.

Meanwhile, author Gordon interrupts the daily Roman tour to flash back to the past when Adam and Miranda were lovers. Not how they became lovers, because there was no drama there, simply an immediate realization by both. Instead, it is how they accommodated their love to each other’s careers, his as a promising student pianist that required long hours of private study and hers as an advocate for social causes that required being with people, whether working for the World Health Organization, especially in India, or for Planned Parenthood while living with Adam in Boston.

And again, there is little drama in the past, for their love enables them to adapt to each other’s needs. And while there are continual reminders that they will eventually separate, there are few clues regarding why. So we continue to absorb this beautifully told tale, wondering what will happen in Rome today, wondering how this author will resolve their situation, and also wondering what could have so abruptly torn them apart, could have destroyed that deep, passionate love forty years ago.

And we do find out, of course. The final flashback reveals why they separated. It is well-told, but a bit melodramatic, and also rather ordinary, as we learn why Miranda has never wanted to voice the name Beverly. Then we return to Rome, and Adam and Miranda decide where to go from here in a moment of mutual introspection that is entirely in character. Indeed, there is a beautiful, suggestive ending in the penultimate chapter, and one wonders why this novel still goes on. Did the publisher, the editor, the author, find it too inconclusive? I did not. But that appears to be the case, for the final chapter makes absolutely clear their future relationship.

What has begun as a highly promising novel of two married people, now quite mature and encountering their first love of long ago, turns into merely a successful work of former lovers touring Rome. It is a tender work, and vergers on being emotionally moving. It is satisfying as well, but it is not a great work. Perhaps because the couple spends too much time avoiding issues, avoiding whether they are still open to love, and avoiding a discussion of the responsibility for their separation. The latter, perhaps, because it would negate the suspense of the reader finding out why. For a story that is occurring so deeply inside these characters, in fact, this novel is much too concerned with surface events.

In her Times, review, however, Liesl Schillinger suggests an appropriate metaphor for their tour through the streets of Rome. She compares the centuries-old stone architecture of that city with the “entombed emotions” of Miranda, “as she retraces old ground with the man who hurt her more deeply that any man could hurt her thereafter.”

One should note that this begins as Adam’s story, as he establishes his pursuit. Because, we later learn, he has felt a sense of guilt for their youthful break-up. But then, this becomes more of Miranda’s tale, reflecting her viewpoint, as is perhaps natural for a female author. But despite this propensity, at key moments Gordon delves with equal insight into Adam’s heart and mind, into his doubts about right and wrong, both then and now, and his sensitive reserve. With the end result being a finely balanced presentation of this mutual revisiting of the past—a result that is fully satisfying, even as one is aware of its missed potential. This would perhaps entail a deeper exploration of their consciences.

Mary Gordon’s novels will always be on my reading list. And while there was no need for the characters’ spiritual life in this tale, it might nevertheless have helped here, and its return to her work would revive my interest even more. (April, 2015)

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

This 1974 work is marvelous nature writing. And even if I am not a student of such writing, I cannot imagine, even in Thoreau, such deep observations of all forms of life, from spiders and salamanders, to dragon flies and starlings, to snakes and frogs, to even rivers and mountains and trees. And underlining all these elements of nature is the act of creation. With the primary question not being why these creatures exist, but why they have all been created so beautiful.

One can infer the direction in which Dillard is going from those who have inspired some of her thinking. They include Thomas Merton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Blaise Pascal, Martin Buber, Julius of Norwich, William Blake, and, oh yes, Edwin Way Teale, Albert Einstein, John Cowper Powys, Werner Heisenberg, and even W. C. Fields.

But even more, one comes across sentences like these, full of wit:

“It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize separating us from our creator—our very self-consciousness—is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures.”

“If God is in one sense the igniter, a fireball that spins over the ground of continents, God is also in another sense the destroyer, lightning, blind power, impartial as the atmosphere.”

“I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo, ‘did you tell me?’”

“The lone ping of being of the first hydrogen atom ex nihilo was so unthinkably, violently radical, that surely it ought to have been enough, more than enough. But look what happens. You open the door and all heaven and hell break loose.”

“Look, in short, at practically anything…and see that not only did the creator create everything, but that he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing.”

“A dot appears. A fresh-flake. It swells like a balloon; it moves, circles, slows, and vanishes. This is your life.”

And she also asks: “What if I fell in a forest. Would a tree hear me?”

As one moves deeper into this book, it is clear that Dillard loves nature—nature at all levels from tiny molecules to distant stars. And finds more than enough to contemplate in every stroll down to the creek near her Virginia home.

But I am not taken by nature myself. If I am tempted to skim this book at times, it is because I have little interest in the details that fascinate Dillard, the details of birth, struggle, and survival for so many living things: muskrats, praying mantises, frogs, butterflies, sycamores, grubs, beetles, snakes, amoebae, caterpillars, salamanders, plankton, and parasites, etc., etc. What I am interested in, however, are her thoughts that follow these observations.

“Just think: in all the clean beautiful reaches of the solar system, our planet alone is a blot; our planet alone has death.”

“The faster death goes, the faster evolution goes.”

“But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely, we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die.”

“It is our emotions that are amiss. We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go and have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can…go back to the creek lobotomized, and live on its banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first.”

“The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. It is a covenant to which every thing, even every hydrogen atom, is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die.”

Dillard has organized her description of nature to encompass a calendar year, and after beginning with winter scenes, she closes with the passing of autumn, as the birds and the monarch butterflies fly south, and the first winter frost arrives. She sums up her appreciation of nature, of the gift of life with: “I think the dying pray at the last not ‘please’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door.”

To sum up, this marvelous evocation of nature, nature in the earth, in the water, and in the air, nature in sunshine and rain, nature in darkness and light, nature in heat and cold. But I am just not into the nature that comprises eighty percent of this book. Instead, I am into the conclusions, the meanings that Dillard extrapolates from her observations of nature.

They are: that nature had a creator. That nature acts without an awareness of mankind. That mankind must accept that nature without complaint. And that both nature and life are a gift from the creator, and all beings who accept this gift of life must also accept the death that goes with it. (March, 2015)