5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Madame Bovary: Provincial Manners (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
I have just finished reading Madame Bovary for the first time. I write this with the ripples and textures of the novel fresh in my mind. And what textures!
It is not a particularly considered evaluation then, nor is it a 'literary' perspective, simply the intial reactions of one very ordinary reader. Perhaps some will find it helpful.
I won't detail the plot here, other reviewers have already done so elsewhere. At the most basic level the book relates a simple, almost archetypal tragedy. To briefly outline the plot is to recite a familiar morality tale. Flaubert's brilliance is to subvert the form, subtly but to such a degree, that the morality ebbs away and is replaced by something far more sinister, and far more interesting: humanity. Naturally, the book's power to shock and scandalize has diminished considerably in the century and a half since it was published, but presumably few readers are interested only in what is currently 'groundbreaking'.
The writing is sublime. It must be magical in the original French but alas, my poverty of intellect prevents me from sampling its delights. I have read Mauldoon's English translation and it is gorgeous. Apparently Flaubert did not consider himself the most naturally gifted of writers and spent a huge amount of time and precision over his style. Some passages, presumably as a consequence of this, feel a trifle over-delicate. Some readers might even go so far as to say dull. I wouldn't, but there are certainly moments when Flaubert's passion for what he is writing does appear to flag somewhat. These are small criticisms. The reward for his effort is in the abundance of superbly crafted metaphors, the mouth watering imagery, the hilarious characterization...I would not leave it there but I fear continuing such a list might drive me back into the novel's pages and this review would never be finished!
The genius of Flaubert's narrative voice has been noted by other readers here. It is this, principally, that undermines the notion of 'proper morals' that might otherwise inflitrate the novel. It is this that saves Emma the ignominy of becoming just another symbol of woman's capricious follies. It is this that, conversely, fashions of the novel's heroine something of a proto-feminist icon. To suggest that the book lacks sympathetic characters is ludicrous. Emma Bovary is one of the greatest heroines I have come across and I defy anyone who has ever been guilty of a romantic heart not to identify with her. Her husband Charles seems pathetic and weak, perhaps, but he will move every reader to tender pity.
In a great many respects, the irony and detachment of Flaubert's voice gives Madame Bovary a special resonance for modern society. And for those unconvinced, how about a fleeting moment of Flaubert's own splendid romanticism at work, refracted through the caddish Rodolphe:
'and human language is like a cracked kettledrum on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to pity.'
You made music Gustave, you most certainly did. I recommend this book. I hope new readers enjoy it even more than I did.