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Madame Bovary Provincial Manners (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 17 Apr 2008
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A superb new translation. s
About the Author
Margaret Mauldon has worked as a translator since 1987. For OWC she has translated Zola's L'Assommoir, Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, Huysmans' Against Nature (winner of the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation, 1999), Constant's Adolphe, and Maupassant's Bel-Ami. Malcolm Bowie was previously Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at the University of Oxford, and Fellow of All Souls College before he became Master of Christ's College, Cambridge in 2002. He is the author of books on Mallarmé, Freud and Proust, and his acclaimed study Proust Among the Stars (1998) won the $50,000 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2001, the largest annual cash prize for literary criticism in the English language.
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We (eventually) meet Emma (who becomes Madame Bovary when she marries) and it is fascinating to watch her life unfold. It is a book about expectations, anticipation and our perception and internal dialogue with ourselves. At first Emma’s character struck me as something like Austen’s Marianne Dashwood, always seeking violent emotions, drawn to the extremes.
“Accustomed to the tranquil side of nature, she sought the dramatic in its stead. She loved the sea only for its storms, and the green grass only when it grew in patches among ruins. She had to derive a kind of personal profit from things, and rejected, as useless, anything that did not contribute directly to her heart’s gratification – for her temperament was sentimental rather than artistic, and she longed for emotion, not scenery.”
She is a character in love with the idea of love. It leads her to marriage, to an affair, to spending excessively and, of course, eventually, to ruin.
When she finally concedes to having an affair there is a luscious, descriptive paragraph of the countryside. Her actions have changed it and she perceives herself as changed.
“Evening shadows were falling, the sun, low in the sky, shone through the branches, dazzling her eyes. Here and there, all round her, in the foliage and on the ground were shimmering patches of light, as if hummingbirds had scattered their plumage as they flew past. All was silent; a mellow sweetness seemed to be coming from the trees; she could feel her heart beginning to beat agin and the blood flowing through her body like a river of milk. Then she heard in the distance, from the other side of the wood, on those other hills, a vague, long drawn-out cry, a voice that seemed to linger in the air, and she listened to in silence, as it blended like a melody with the last vibrations of her tingling nerves.”
Even when she falls into ruin, coming close to madness, Emma hangs onto her deeply-rooted belief in love.
“She stood there utterly stupefied, aware of her own existence, only in the throbbing of her arteries, which she thought she could hear outside herself, resonating through the countryside with a defining music…she was still confused, for she had no recollection of the reason for her horrible state, the problem of money. She was suffering purely through love, and at the thought of it she felt her soul slipping out from her body – just as the wounded, in dying, feel their life slipping away through their bleeding wounds.”
Madame Bovary is a brilliant testament to the way we all perceive our lives with unique perceptions and internal dialogues that can never be fully known to others. I see it as homage to the fact that often an idea is more beautiful than the thing itself. So too, that in some ways there is far more life going on within an individual’s mind than in the real world, and that life can be a pale comparison to the vibrant world of the imagination.
I would highly recommend this edition. At £5.59, the Oxford University Press are managing to sell this book on the cheaper end of the spectrum. However nothing is sacrificied; the translation is to the highest standard I have come across, the footnotes and annotations are erudite and help one achieve a fuller understanding and appreciation of the novel. The introduction compliments the text well and provides some astute and insightful criticism of it and also includes some useful historical context from nineteenth-century France. There is also a useful bibliography that can direct the reader to the more worthwhile secondary texts about Flaubert and Madame Bovary.
If you would like to read this novel, this is the edition to buy. I would recommend it for everyone, from the inexperienced reader of classical novels to someone who is pursuing a degree in literary studies at university.
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.
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