Novel Readings

Madame Bovary I: “in all of Flaubert there is not a single beautiful metaphor”

It’s odd reading a very famous novel for the first time. It’s like meeting a celebrity in person (or so I imagine). It is intensely familiar and yet strange at the same time: it is exactly what it always appeared to be, and yet it is no longer an idea of something but the thing itself. And so it has been for me with Madame Bovary–it is exactly what I thought it would be, and yet it is more than that, and also, less than that.

What did I know about Madame Bovary before I read it? Well, the basic plot, of course. So, no surprises there. And that it is celebrated as the perfection of a very particular idea of what a novel should be. I’m tempted to say that the idea is for a novel to be nothing like Middlemarch, except that would be anachronistic, and also, much as Madame Bovary is not like Middlemarch, it is also very similar to Middlemarch (or at least to particular subplots in Middlemarch) in ways that inevitably provoke me to comparison. But I’m going to save that for my next post on Madame Bovary (provisionally entitled “The Doctors’ Wives”). Tonight I have a more modest agenda, which is simply to remark on and quote some of Flaubert’s metaphors. Overall, you see, I didn’t like Madame Bovary very much at all. The pending comparative post will go into my reasons for that, and it will all get very thorny. But I was delighted with Flaubert’s language. (I am relying on Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert, but, and I am sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, details so concrete and specific seem likely to translate quite precisely.)

I should qualify that statement: I was delighted with Flaubert’s figurative language. “Flaubert’s aim,” Davis writes in her introduction, “was to write the novel ‘objectively,’ leaving the author out of it. . . . his technique is to present the material without comment, though occasionally a comment does slip in. To report the facts objectively, to give a painstaking objective description . . . should be comment enough.” Davis goes on to note that “in keeping with his plain, almost clinical approach to the material, he schooled himself to be very sparing with his metaphors,” and indeed he is. Davis cites Proust regretting the consequences and complaining “that in all of Flaubert there is not a single beautiful metaphor”–which Davis promptly rebuts with a very beautiful metaphor indeed. There’s not much beautiful about Madame Bovary or its language most of the time, though: Flaubert is both unsentimental and unsparing. “They had to lift her head a little,” he tells us, as the women dress Emma’s corpse for her funeral, “and at that a stream of black liquid ran out of her mouth like vomit.” An extreme example? Maybe, but it epitomizes Flaubert’s ruthlessness. (The entire death scene, in fact, is unrelentingly awful, and then as if the bile isn’t bad enough, Homais punctures her temples several times while cutting Bovary a lock of her hair. That detail, surely, is gratuitous! It’s a cruel book, to us as well as to its characters.)

Apparently, though, for Flaubert, part of being painstakingly objective is finding just the right metaphor to make sure we see (or feel, or hear) the novel’s details exactly. “Beautiful metaphors” are not really the point: his metaphors aren’t decorative but informative. But they are also little spaces for Flaubert to have some fun, to play. Davis tells us Flaubert had a “tendency to wax lyrical and effusive” and that in writing Madame Bovary he very deliberately wrote “against his own natural inclinations.” It is certainly an astonishingly controlled book, claustrophobic and oppressive (qualities that not only suit his aesthetic agenda but reflect his social critique). I think that’s why it was such a relief every time he let loose just a little bit. Sometimes his images are ironic, sometimes poetic, sometimes comical, sometimes just so apt they induce a tiny shiver of appreciation. They tend to reflect the tone or attitude of a particular character, as Flaubert (like George Eliot, though to different ends) relies heavily on free indirect discourse. Emma, unsurprisingly, tends to think in the romantic clichés of sentimental fiction.

A few examples:

he would ride along ruminating on his happiness, like a man continuing to chew, after dinner, the taste of the truffles he is digesting.

the incendiary glow that had reddened her pale sky was covered over in shadow and by degrees faded away . . . her passion burned itself to ashes . . . and she remained lost in a terrible, piercing cold.

It was the first time Emma had heard such things said to her; and her pride, like a person relaxing in a steam bath, stretched out languidly in the warmth of the words.

She recalled all her natural fondness for luxury, all the privations of her soul, the sordid details of marriage, housekeeping, her dreams falling in the mud like wounded swallows . . .

Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language.

Hers was a sort of idiotic attachment full of admiration for him, of sensual pleasure for her, a bliss that numbed her; and her soul sank into this intoxication and drowned in it, shriveled like the Duke of Clarence in his butt of malmsey.

She would undress roughly, tearing the thin string of her corset, which would whistle around her hips like a slithering snake.

All that her mind contained of memories and thoughts was pouring out at once, in a single burst, like the thousand parts of a firework.