Nostalgia, by Dennis McFarland

This beautiful 2013 novel about the horrors of the American Civil War should be on the shelves of every reader who is interested in serious literature about that conflict. McFarland offers here the story of Summerfield Hayes, a well-off youth who has just lost his parents and who abandons his only sister, beloved Sarah, to enlist in the Northern army. He says it is his only course if he is to serve the nation he loves. What he does not tell her is that he is also troubled by “the wrong kind of dreams” about her.

And war, of course, brings its own kind of dreams, surrealistic dreams of confusion and exaggeration, and disturbing dreams of terror and pain. And private Hayes will discover this during his first battle, the three-day Wilderness campaign of 1864 in which both armies endure major losses but in which the North begins its final victorious drive into Virginia.

But if reality is distorted by war, the structure of the novel reflects an equivalent distortion. We are introduced to Hayes on the battlefield, bleeding, dirty, and hungry, and with no sense of time or where he is. And feeling abandoned by his colleagues, his mind escapes into his past. He recalls early baseball exploits and then relives his life in the Brooklyn home he now shares with his bossy and sensible sister. After which, he recalls his fellow soldiers before the battle, and then refocuses on his struggle to flee the battlefield.

At this point, the reader is as lost as Hayes is. Where is this novel headed? Especially when we suddenly shift to a field hospital, where Hayes joins many new characters and where he is so traumatized, by an experience that we have not fully witnessed, that he cannot speak. But as his hospital life becomes both tender and vivid, the reader feels the beginnings of solid earth under his feet. Which becomes even more solid when his memories return to the battlefield and he again confronts the confusion of fog and smoke and noise, the moaning wounded, and the still images of death littering the ground. Then he is truly overwhelmed by trauma when a shell burst renders him senseless—just as he kills a horribly wounded colleague who is begging to die—and he discovers he cannot talk.

Indeed, the title, Nostalgia, suggests such trauma, which we now call the PTS syndrome but which back then made its victims candidates for an asylum. The title also, however, has another meaning in this novel. An unspoken meaning. For the word’s Greek roots are a blend of “return home” and “pain.”

It is when we move back and forth between Hayes alone on the surrealistic battlefield and silent in his hospital bed that the power of this novel truly blooms. In sharp contrast are, first, the loneliness and desperation of Hayes in the field, and, second, the humanity of the patients, doctors, and wardens in the hospital, some of them cruel but most sympathetic to his internal suffering. Most sympathetic of all is a mysterious, bearded man called Walt.

The Wilderness Battle cost up to 30,000 lives on the two sides, and one senses the brutality of that three-day battle as Hayes reels lost and alone through smoke-filled fields and beneath burning trees. Separated from his regiment, he fears being called a deserter and shot. But all he encounters is men with bloody limbs, men crying out in pain, and men firing blindly at an unseen enemy. He even hallucinates an entire field of dead men rising up and charging the enemy breastworks that confront them.

But literary work is based on human interaction, and if one follows McFarland reluctantly away from the battlefront, one soon becomes immersed in the hospital scenes. Men lie there, still crying out in pain, demanding morphine for amputated limbs, with some doctors sympathetic but one suspicious of Hayes because he has no visible wounds. This is when Walt comes to Hayes’ aid. “You’ve been badly harmed….But I think you’re hurt is a particular way. You strike me in your silence as someone who [awakened] from a terrible dream, then looked down and saw the scar it had left on you…I mean to be your friend…to set you straight when you’re selling yourself short.” Indeed, Walt will later penetrate Hayes’ silence and get him to speak.

With help from Walt and a sympathetic doctor, Hayes is released from the hospital and allowed to return home in order to recuperate. Nostalgia in part, remember, means return home. At first, I was reluctant to follow him there, for I felt the final meaning of the novel was to be found near or on the battlefield. But no, this is to be a novel about the release from pain. Of which there are different kinds.

Then Hayes and his sister Sarah confront their own feelings (nostalgia also means pain), and why Hayes went off to war. Whereupon, Walt arrives again, and helps Sarah to understand her brother. He talked, she says, “about the curative effects of love. He said love’s like truth, that no matter what form it takes, not matter how haplessly it’s expressed, one must try to see to the heart of it, and forgive any of the ugly bits.” And just as he once talked of people “ having more than one side” when talking about a nation split over state’s rights and slavery, Walt means this double vision to apply to human feelings as well. All of which culminates in a beautiful scene at a ballpark that brought tears to my eyes, as Hayes finds a new fulfillment and the personal peace that war had tried to destroy.

This novel has brought unexpected subject matter to the McFarland canon. He is an author I have long admired, especially for his explorations of family tensions. He does so again here, but it is hidden in much more dramatic subject matter. And one can easily miss that aspect of Hayes and his sister’s relationship. Instead, one is swept up by this 19th century tale of warfare and its repercussions, a tale that is vividly told. In fact, as David Goodwillie wrote in The New York Times, “McFarland’s description of 19th century life, from the intricacies of musket warfare to the formative years of our national pastime, are stunning in their lyricism and detail.” He concludes: “Nostalgia is a perfect Civil War novel for our time, or any time.”

Amen. This novel equates national tension with family tension. And the resolution to both is found in our humanity. In our love. (July, 2019)

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)