January 10, 2011

Madame Bovary :: Gustave Flaubert

Title: Madame Bovary [2011 White Whale #1]
Author: Gustave Flaubert, Lydia Davis translation (2010)
Read: NYC, Boston
Format: Kindle

I've read the first 3 pages of Madame Bovary like a billion times, but I never followed through. I blame my failures on the ratty old used-book-store paperback I've been working with. After reading a cool article in New York magazine about a new translation by renowned fiction writer Lydia Davis, I decided to give it another go. To help my cause, I bought it for my Kindle, since on it I tend to read faster.

Unlike my experience with other White Whales (namely Wuthering Heights), Madame Bovary did not disappoint. Reading novels like Madame Bovary resurrect the old English major in me, so to spare you I will simply report my musings in list form.
  • Emma Bovary is a jerk. I get that she wants more than her provincial life can offer, but so does everyone else. She's unjustifiably cruel.
  • Charles Bovary is some kind of pitiful rube. He hasn't got much of a backbone and is so desperate for approval and love that he is just permanently a victim. Poor guy. I liked him.
  • There are a bunch of other townspeople who make regular appearances in the plot. They both underscore the provincial lifestyle. But even they, like the Bovarys, want to make more out of their small town lives.
  • I never know what to say about writing when I read something in translation. What got lost? What got added? I've never read another translation (obvi), nor have I read it in French, but I found the translation beautiful nonetheless. It was incredibly descriptive, but not at all overdone. Spare, but still vivid.
I guess that's all I have to say. People often commend Madame Bovary for the patterns Flaubert develops, but I think that's why I have limited things to say. The characters kind of do the same things over and over, but it's all to show the crappy choices they keep making out of desperation. It also cements the character development further, one subplot at a time. But it's all to the same effect: to make me feel even stronger about the first two bullets I list above.

Madame Bovary is beautiful and thought-provoking. Is it the [insert superlative] novel ever written, as it is often touted to be? I'm not so sure. But I know I liked it a lot and that I'd recommend it so long as you're in the mood.

A classic worthy of that designation.
4 out of 5 stars.

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