Madame Bovary Pt II

According to my oft-quoted list of ‘Time’s 10 Best Books Ever Written’, Madame Bovary ranks number two, coming in just behind Anna Karenina. As you know from a previous post, Anna is indeed my favourite novel. Ever. It’s a remarkable story, but what is so amazing is that it takes an entire community and systematically submerges you in the different psyche of each of the characters, seamlessly shifting from one to the other as it makes it way along its chronology. I really enjoyed Madame Bovary when I read it, and devoured it very quickly, but it certainly didn’t declare itself one of the best novels ever written.

I’m starting to revise my opinion. Madame B. seems to continually come back to me; it returns subtly, the more I watch contemporary films and listen to music. Most of the novels I read now are a couple of centuries old (I hope that I can say that without sounding too pretentious) and I find them refreshing and vital, while most modern narrative fiction – films and books – is generic shite. Even literature, especially in Australia, has become generic.

(Possibly the worst kind of genre, because it’s all about regurgitating the prejudices and clichés of the wankers; writers working hard as they can to flatter their readers as cultured and educated. Check out this years’ Age Newspaper Short Story Prize winner and you’ll see what I mean. I considered writing a post about it, but if the 27 year-old author googled himself and came up with a page of my volcanic spleen, I’d feel really guilty. And let’s face it; I’m a little more than slightly bitter because he’s published and I’m not. You know what I want to know? Why is it that shows like Kath and Kim and Summer Heights High are always satirising the ‘bogans’? Why can’t we have a show dedicated to skewering the arts wankers?)

Phew – sorry about that. Anyhow, where was I? That’s right, Madame Bovary. I think the impact of different novels has a lot to do with your maturity or mindset when you come across them. Tom Jones blew me away for that reason; here are the trials and tribulations of a young man trying to make his way in the world and… it’s incredibly funny. It was the real motivation for a personal shift of paradigm.

I think Madame B. has had a similar effect. If there’s one thing I’m sick to death of, it’s all this bullshit of love as some kind of panacea. I don’t deny the phenomenon of romantic love, but Emma Bovary’s attempt to deliver herself from her crushing ennui via her romantic flights-of-fancy is instructive. We live in a slurry of romantic propaganda; popular music is full of it, as is popular fiction. Madame B. is a relentless dissection of not only the myth of romantic love, but also the way it can function as a mania for distracting a person from what is, in Emma’s case, an existential crisis.

TANGENT: You have presumably heard the expression, ‘There are no atheists in the foxholes’. I would like to amend this to, ‘There are no existentialists in the foxholes’. Take that, J.P. Sartre. Stick that up your Being and Nothingness!

One of the other fascinating things about Madame B. is the relationship between Emma and her husband, Charles. Even though they are married – and Charles is utterly besotted with her – her true character – and lack of fidelity – is a complete mystery to him.

Years ago, I heard someone say it was Patrick White’s favourite book. I read The Tree of Man and loved it; one of the most fascinating things was how that pioneer couple, who spent all their time together, could be essentially isolated from one another in the profoundest sense. I felt that this one of The Tree of Man’s essential preoccupations; the way we are essentially islands, regardless of how closely circumstance compel us together.

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