Madame Bovary

Time Magazine ranked the ten greatest novels of all time thus: 

  1.   Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  2.   Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  3.   War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4.   Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  5.   The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  6.   Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  7.   The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8.   In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  9.   The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
  10.   Middlemarch by George Eliot,8599,1578073,00.html#ixzz11qnZxUqc

I am pleased to report that I have read most of them; I am missing the Chekov – which won’t be too difficult, War and Peace and the Proust (which is hardly one novel; I think it’s broken up into five hefty novel-size episodes). I recently completed Middlemarch, which almost killed me, and gives me a certain perspective on a list of this kind. Of all the notable omissions, there’s no Dostoyevsky – no Brothers Karamazov.

Middlemarch was the most boring fucking book I have ever read in my life. Almost NOTHING happens. It is entirely preoccupied with boring fucking people having boring fucking conversations. When you compare the Brothers K to the cast of bloodless… Englishmen of Eliot’s novel, well, there isn’t any comparison. Karamazov is full of passionate people living, sweating, declaiming and dying. It is a magnificent experience. I have no doubt that War and Peace will be a similar kind of thing.

I don’t want this entry to become a discussion of Middlemarch, because I will get to that at another time. In defence of the Time list, when you’re distilling every book ever written down to a ‘top ten’, you have to separate the novel as an emotional experience from what actually composes a novel in the mechanical sense. If you compare a novel to an engine, you are talking about economy and precision as the doorways to performance. Under those terms, I understand why Eliot’s novel makes the cut. She is a brilliant craftsman. Middlemarch is a stunning feat of narrative engineering.

The most significant difference between Middlemarch and Bovary is the latter’s readability. Madame B. is a fucking great story. I devoured the book in a week.

One of the most striking things about reading ‘classic’ novels is how often you see narrative devices that a modern writer would never get away with. The first part of the novel brings us up to speed with the history of Emma Roualt’s future husband, Charles. It reads like a long version of the scrolling text at the beginning of Star Wars.

Charles is a bit of a donkey; he has had a fairly undistinguished life, managing to become a doctor. His mother chooses a wife for him, who is a rather unpleasant, but rich woman. She dies; Charles meets Emma shortly after and decides to marry her.

From this point onwards, the novel is largely concerned with Emma’s interior life. She seems a reasonably charming, attractive young woman, but she has a secret yearning for luxury and passion, as described by the romantic novels she reads obsessively.

The story is a tragedy and its progress details Emma’s struggle to reconcile her experience of the prosaic life around her with the kind of life she hankers after. There’s a weird kind of disjuncture here, which is where the novel really is at its best. Flaubert gives us this highly-detailed diagnosis of a severe psychological distemper. Emma indulges in affairs which never satisfy her; never provide the kind of blissful escape she is searching for. Flaubert presents romance as less of a beatific state of mind as a kind of wilful insanity Emma Bovary creates to escape the reality of her unhappy life. Contrasted against this is her faithful, adoring husband Charles, for whom Emma is his almost singular happiness.    

I couldn’t see the kind of sovereign technical mastery that would rate this novel alongside an Eliot, Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. In fact, I felt the book was a much smaller canvas and for that reason, was much easier to digest. When reading one of those great thumping novels, it’s a lot like standing inside the planetarium of an entire galaxy; those writers have so many bodies in play, part of what is so satisfying about reading such enormous books is the sensation of momentum you feel when you’re flying through them; so crowded with events and people as they are, all held in place by a kind of relative gravity in which every pivot and fixture is so finely and elegantly crafted. Even Eliot’s rivets are beautiful.   

I guess if I was to describe the novel Madame Bovary, it would be as an immensely readable classic, full of turmoil and intrigue. It skips from one deliciously salacious episode to the next, charting the downward spiral of a fairly dislikeable person and the way she wilfully destroys those around her. In addition to its readability, however, is Flaubert’s great power of perception. He understands ‘romance’ as wilful self-deception and makes the spokes of it eminently clear to his reader.

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