Wednesday, August 24, 2011
"Madame Bovary, c'est moi"
I was assigned this book to read as an undergraduate at Cal State Long Beach. I didn't immediately fall in love with this novel, but what struck me was Flaubert's sentences; they were rich, vibrant, powerful, full of significant detail which Flaubert captured with superhuman skill. It forced me to look at language in a whole new way. Having reread the novel last year in my Developments in the Novel class, I had forgotten why I had loved it. Once again it was the beautiful sentences that struck me, forcing me to reevaluate my own prose.
I love this book! Not only is it one of my most important books, but also one of my favorites. I love it for its characterizations, its precision, its plot, following logically and naturally from character, for its depiction of internal and external conflict, but most of all for its rich detail. Flaubert's ability to describe people, places, moods and feelings, in a language both rich and vibrant, ironic and manic, poetic and precise makes me stand in awe of his prose mastery.
I love how Flaubert begins the novel as an outsider (like us) looking in (eavesdropping on the life of Charles Bovary). It is an interesting choice, one much debated, but it works expertly because it established a POV which regarded objectivity as its greatest virtue. Flaubert's intention is to establish the type of veracity arrived at by cold reasoning--scientific, detached--but without sacrificing poetic language. He eschews high moralizing and pedantry, letting the characters speak and think for themselves. This was an innovation. Before him, writers interpreted, commented on the events occurring in the novel, Flaubert stayed away, like God paring his nails in the corner. Without Flaubert, there would be no Hemingway, no Fitzgerald, no Faulkner. He changed the way novels would be written forever.
It is a realistic novel, a departure from Flaubert's earlier romantic novels for which he found his fortune and fame. The novel meditates on dichotomies: self vs. society, science vs. religion, fantasy vs. reality, love vs. passion, the individual vs. the community, wealth vs. poverty, among other things. It is a tour de force of ideas, of sentence structure. It is the type of novel I love best: tragedy.
Ultimately it is those novels that force me to rethink my own language that hold my interest most, that make them more than just novels for me. Novels are my teachers, my friends, sometimes, my enemies, but always respected and loved.
Read the Francis Steegmuller version or the new version by Lydia Davis, released 2010.