December 12, 1821
1856 - Madame Bovary
1869 - Sentimental Education
May 8, 1880
This is my fourth reading of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, the first was decades ago, the second just before I began The Reading Life eleven years ago. The last prior to this month was five years ago. My reading of the universally praised translation by Lydia Davis, including her introduction, will not, I hope be my last.
Madame Bovary is as high a canon status work as exists.
Here are some of my thoughts from May, 2014.
"I think I first became aware of the cultural importance of Madame Bovary around 1960 through reading of it in The Life Time Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman. I still have, in a newer edition, Fadiman's book (which I endorse strongly to those seeking to be literary autodidacts, especially isolated young readers as I was)so I reread his remarks on the novel. Admist the obligatory praise, he describes it as "cold and depressing". Is there anyone in the novel we can admire at all? The answer seems to be no. Madame Bovary is a vain, totally self-centered fool, a terrible wife and worse mother. Dr. Bovary is pretty much a dolt. The secondary characters are either out to have sex with Emma or trick her into signing promissory notes for merchandise she can use to seem "high society". Emma is ruined through credit purchases for fancy clothes and such designed to make her appear high society. The supposed theme of my blog is a focus on books about characters that lead reading centered lives. It was reading romance novels that made Emma bored with the simple life she lead as the wife of a country doctor. These books helped to ruin her life, her husband's and that of her daughter.
So is this Pantheon status work "cold and depressing"? Ask if the murals of Anghor Wat depicting horrible battles are depressing, if Picasso's Guernica is cold. Maybe it is chiily on Mount Parnassus but the climb is exhilarating and maybe if one wants to counter Fadiman, to be able to contemplate such works, in which I include Madame Bovary, while knowing we are of the species about which Flaubert writes is an exhilarating experience."
The lengthy depiction of the suicide of Madame Bovary is incredibly powerful, almost overwhelming. The spiral to an early death of Charles Bovary after this is the work of a master. Davis has produced high art.
Sentimental Education is perhaps a more "likeable" book.
Aspiring novelist, literary autodidacts must read this Madame Bovary. If you cannot read French, by all means read the Lydia Davis translation.
I have her translation of Swann's Way and hope to read it soon.