Gustave Flaubert Translated by Lowell Bair, a Bantam Classic 2005 Edition
Madame Bovary “c’est moi”, said her creator, the renowned French writer, Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880). “She is me,” every woman and every man whoever lamented their circumstances and life as plebian, something less than once dreamed, as lacking “romance, the sighs in the moonlight, the long embraces, the tears flowing into yielding hands, and all the fevers of the flesh and the languor of coveted love” (Ch. 9). All of this beckoned to Mme. Bovary; to escape a cheerless, gray and boring existence in 1830’s France, she lived in her romantic novels and dreams, which became her reality and drove her to sequential trysts, all of which proved illusory in the end and propelled her into abject discontent and death. Made into films and plays many times, this classic is a joy to read.
For its era, the story was so lurid that Flaubert was sued for “immorality and irreligion” (although his book never touched on religion, even indirectly and, paradoxically, gave an object lesson in the punishment that flows from adultery); a hard-fought litigation ensued, which he ultimately won. Today, Mme. Flaubert might be an errant housewife as boldly unveiled in prime time TV, but Flaubert’s treatment and step-by-step analysis of the unraveling of the human mind is astonishing in its clinical perception, recalling that of Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment or Shakespeare in Othello or Hamlet, or Poe’s Cask of Amontillado or The Tell Tale Heart. Mme. Bovary’s mental anguish and checkered love affairs validate Voltaire’s timeless observation, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In time, the once refined and elegant lady grew coarse and indifferent to others and even to herself. In the end, on her self-imposed death bed, after an excruciatingly painful few days, in last lucid minutes, for a fleeting moment, she realized that her only real love came from her much abused and long-suffering husband, whom she rewarded in a loving gesture as she emitted her last breath. “She had loved him after all.” All of us know Mme. Emma Bovary, or at least the ennui and latent urges that touch all of us, sometimes, the self-destructive force that, if not rebuffed, yields to temptation slowly and, then, totally, leading to destruction of all that we hold dear.
Gustave Flaubert was an epileptic, and, although a congenital romantic, he lived a hermit’s life. Yet his first book, MB (1857), catapulted him to fame, and his fourth book, Three Tales (1877), removed all doubt as to his genius and earned the adoration and affections of the greatest writers of his day, including Turgenev, Emile Zola and George Sand, who became friends. Flaubert, like nearly all of the greats, has been attacked by critics mercilessly, in various eras, since his passing – in his case, for lacking the art of poetic prose, for providing woefully inadequate metaphors and similes, for having “stupid” lead characters, but these critiques miss, or ignore, the key point: Flaubert takes “everyman” and gives us insights into the human mind, into our own minds, and he does so with characters that are real, however ignoble, and he weaves them into captivating story lines that give us an insiders view of his times and of the beauties and sicknesses of France in the mid-1800’s. Common, quixotic, egocentric she may be, but Mme. Bovary c’est nous, is us.
Books, like frigates, take us far away, and, if you would visit life in rural 1830’s France, and savor one of the most widely read novels of all time, or if you would understand adulterous impulses better, Mme Bovary is the frigate for you.