Top 10 books I read in 2012: Madame Bovary (#5)

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary

Viking Adult, 2010; 311 pages. Translated by Lydia Davis.

Madame Bovary, c’est moi! — Gustave Flaubert’s frequent answer, when people asked him who inspired the character of Emma Bovary.

I first read Madame Bovary many years ago, when I was probably 15 or 16. Needless to say, I didn’t fully appreciate it then. Re-reading this novel, in Lydia Davis’ brilliant, funny, and incredibly accessible 2010 translation, was an utter delight. In particular, I was startled by how truly funny this novel is. I guess “darkly comic” is probably the most appropriate term, since it is a novel about a miserable, thoroughly unlikable housewife who has a bunch of affairs and then kills herself… but. There are lots of LOL moments here, folks.

That aside, there is a wide array of gorgeous scenes in this book. Flaubert is also on the money when he really gets into the weeds of describing the sad, mundane, limited bourgeois existence. I also believe that my appreciation of Flabuert’s genuine skill was heightened by my concurrent reading of Steegmuller’s Flaubert and Madame Bovary, which ranked in my top 10 nonfiction books from the past year.

Emma Bovary is equal parts detestable and pitiable. For whatever Margaret Mitchell was trying to do with Scarlett O’Hara, Gustave Flaubert did it first and did it better with Emma Bovary. Here we have a woman who is as luridly scintillating as any tabloid hussy and yet as riveting as a queen. The primary question that is raised–and that Flaubert perhaps does not answer–is: What does she WANT? It’s not Charles, her bland, lovable-like-a-dairy-cow-is-lovable husband. It’s not her daughter. It’s not even her lovers, who only amuse her for a short time. What drives this wretched woman and what will make her happy? I don’t really know, even now, but I was delighted to have the opportunity to revisit that aching question.

Madame Bovary rests soundly in the Western canon and it shines with extra brilliance, thanks to the ever-gifted Lydia Davis. I was thrilled to revisit this novel and sit a while with Flaubert and his fictional alter ego. They are an endlessly compelling pair.

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