madame bovary c’est moi

As I draw near the end of reading (rereading) Madame Bovary, I find myself shocked at how contemporary/modern Emma is for a character in a 19th century novel. Aside from the setting and the consequences, Flaubert’s development of Emma as she goes from romantic farmer’s daughter to bored middle class housewife to adultress is chilling modern psychology. Of course, as other critics have noted, if Emma were a late 20th century character, she would’ve gone to a psychiatrist (or perhaps a marriage and family counselor) and probably would have been prescribed antidepressants to deal with her malaise.

But, still she stands out. Jane Eyre, on the other hand, while certainly a stronger character, a woman willing and able to withstand substantial suffering in order not to compromise her sense of self, is still a woman of the 18th/19th century: She values marriage and family and waits until the right person (Rochester) comes into her life. And she is willing, even after coming into her own fortune, to serve Rochester (although by the time they reunite he needs the help). In her character, though, is a precursor to a moderate feminist model. That, I would think, couldn’t be said for Emma Bovary.

Many have said it’s difficult to actually like Emma Bovary. I’d say it’s really difficult to like Flaubert’s characters, in general; as with real people each has his or her own flaws. It’s not necessary to like a literary character, though. But I do, as many others, have sympathy for Emma.  I also admire Flaubert’s psychological insight into adultery itself. In Emma we find ourselves. If anyone has never longed for something different than what she has, or have found themselves unsatisfied and unhappy with their circumstances, then they can’t be living. The Buddhists know that every moment we are alive, we desire something. How we act on those desires determines our fate. We are indeed Emma Bovary.

As Emma recklessly spends and as creditors come to take the Bovary estate away, I suddenly felt as if Flaubert had been staring into my own life. As I read, my father’s  (not be too personal) own straying down the Bovary path, sinking his family into debt, came to mind. This is real, I thought of the book. This is how these things happen.

I remember in grad school discussing the various literary theories, and how exciting theory was. Back then I had a distaste for Reader Response theory, which basically said, as I understood it, that it’s the reader who makes the meaning. I was much more keen then on Barthes and Bakhtin and unraveling discourse in the texts (as theorists like to call books). Now, though, I prefer reading the oldfashioned way, following narrative and story and character and discovering meaning as I read. And I’ve discovered the meaning changes when you read. I first read Flaubert in my early twenties and was much more in sway to the book’s romanticism and to characters like Roldolphe.

Now, though, I sympathize with one character and then another. I was deeply touched by Emma’s funeral. Though I thought Charles was a bit too overwrought, I understood the grief, having recently lost both parents. It’s the strength of Flaubert’s storytelling that makes Madame Bovary such a fresh novel.



new writers

Last night I was reading Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, part essay on reading, part memoir of frontier life in west Texas, and McMurtry made a thought-provoking statement about reading. He talks about how reading itself is a great adventure and the most adventurous readers will seek out the newest and freshest writers, explore the reading frontier, if you will. The best readers, he argued, are leaders, not followers.

But, what constitutes a new writer?  In the past few years I’ve  "discovered" writers new to me, Denis Johnson, for instance, or Jim Harrison, or recently Texans such as Bud Shrake. Recently, I "discovered" Francine Prose. I had read Prose’s journalism in Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly and had assumed she was perhaps of my generation, but, she’s been publishing novels and stories and writing since at least the early 80s and possibly the late 70s. I’ve loved her essays, especially on reading and I’m looking forward to reading her upcoming book on reading (which I’ve preordered on Amazon). I picked up her novel Blue Angel, read it, and was delighted by it. I recently read her novella collection Guided Tours of Hell and was deligted and enthralled by that. I want to read more and discover more of Prose’s work. She’s hardly a new writer, but reading her is refreshing and enlightening.

Technically, I suppose, a true new writer that I’ve discovered was Wesley Stace, whose first novel Misfortune, I picked up last year at the Texas Book Festival. I bought the book after hearing Stace read. It’s set in the 18th century, is written somewhat in the style of the 18th century, with a lot of narrative summary, violating most of the dictates of the show don’t tell axiom, and yet is an excellent read. There is a lot of genderbending in the book.

I’ve discovered several new writers at the book festival in the past. Another book I picked up after hearing its author speak at the book festival was Bookmark Now! by Kevin Smokler, on reading and the affect of technology on people’s reading of serious fiction.

Have you picked up "new" writers lately?

oh, that emma bovary!

A reader recently noticed I’ve been neglecting posting about the books I’ve been reading. And I have. So here are some initial thoughts about Madame Bovary, the most recent novel selected in my 100 novels reading project.

At about the 10 percent mark of the novel (I’ve borrowed this arbitrary figure from Jane Smiley and so far it’s been correct) Flaubert has introduced his key figures, Charles and Emma, has them married, and by page 43 [my edition] introduces a complication:

Before her marriage [Emma] had thought that she had love within her grasp; but since the happiness which she had expected this love to bring her hadn’t come, she supposed she must’ve been mistaken.

Then Flaubert slows the narrative down some for a brief analysis of why Emma might believe her marriage hasn’t brought her the happiness of love she has sought. In short she’s a capital ‘R’ romantic. Nothing short of high passion all the time will make her happy. Flaubert, in a few pages of narrative summary, deepens Emma’s character.

stone reader

I watched a marvelous documentary last night, Stone Reader. A film maker, Mark Moskowitz, goes on a quest to find a one-hit-wonder novelist, Dow Mossman, whose one-and-only novel was published in the early Seventies. It got a great review in The New York Times, and then faded into obscurity, almost well beyond obscure, into a lingering ghost that just doesn’t seem to ever leave Moskowitz’s mind. When he first buys the book, he tries to read it, but it doesn’t hold him. Over the years, he reads some of the novel, but keeps putting it aside. But in middle age, he gives it another try and finds it to be one of the best novels he’s read in a long time. For him it seems to hold up to its initial reviews–an American classic that might very well vye for the title of that elusive beast the Great American Novel.

Anyhow, after reading the novel, he becomes obsessed with discovering as much as he can about Mossman, and perhaps finding him, pursuing the question of "Why is the only book this writer ever published?"

The documentary follows Moskowitz on this search through libraries, publishers, agents and academics (there are even visits and interviews with critic Leslie Fieldler and the late writer and Iowa workshop director Frank Conroy). Moskowitz in his search discovers that Mossman was a student at the Iowa workshop in the late Sixties, but was someone obscure even to his former classmates.

As the quest continues, a side theme develops–how powerfully reading connects us, not only to other readers but to life itself. Reading, as Frank Conroy notes, is an active act. It puts us in the same room, in the same mind as Shakespeare or Dickens or Dow Mossman. I was equally as fascinated by this side theme as I was the quest for finding Mossman.

kazin on good criticism

I found this bit on what makes a good critic at Kate’s Book Blog. The idea of self-revelation is a good one, especially when you’re describing how art affects you. It makes the work organic, opening it to further understanding.  Here is Kazin:

What I ask of a critic is that he usefully show the impact on his own consciousness of another’s artistic power. If the critic cannot reveal to others the power of art in his own life, he cannot say anything useful or even humane in its interest. He will scrawl, however learnedly, arbitrary comments on the text.

From Alfred Kazin, “To Be a Critic” (1981) in Ted Solotaroff, ed., Alfred Kazin’s America: Critical and Personal Writings (2003).