Mr. Madame Bovary

Flaubert remarked, when asked about the origin of his ‘heroine’, Madame Emma Bovary, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” If he can say that, then Emma and his works can take many forms, and so she has. First, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes – that memoir?, novel?, runimation? of a Flaubert fanatic that is delightfully odd; and now Gemma Bovery, a graphic novel that is freely inspired by the novel and is a wickedly funny and witty work in its own right by Posy Simmonds. That’s Gemma, up there with Gustave. (I saw the movie version of Bovary with Isabelle Huppert, and it seemed to me that it followed the book too faithfully to be interesting as a film.)

Flaubert didn’t write much, but he sweated famously over every word, looking for “le mot juste.” He was also a great letter writer, and if you want the full flavor of his personality, you must dip into his correspondance, where you will find gems like this:

To Guy De Maupassant [his protege, working as a clerk for the Navy at the time]
You must—do you hear me, young man?–you must work more than you do. I’ve come to suspect you of being something of a loafer. Too many whores! Too much rowing! Too much exercise! Yes, sir: civilized man doesn’t need as much locomotion as the doctors pretend. …You are living in an inferno of shit, I know, and I pity you from the bottom of my heart. … sacrifice everything to Art. Life must be considered by the artist as a means, nothing more, and the first person he shouldn’t give a hang about is himself.

In his fiction, Flaubert walks the finest of lines, and creates a unique tone, something he considered the essential element of his work. He objectively depicts stupidity, greed, tragedy, cruelty, and simple, naive goodness, but without nostalgia, sentimentality, snobbism or condescension. He understands that the cliche, unbearably trite though it may be, holds within it a truth which has been worn nearly to nothing by thoughtless use.  That truth, concealed, hidden, revealed unwittingly by those who know only error – whether it is error due to ignorance or too much education – that truth is what he seeks to display to the reader.  He is one of the first writers to grapple with the phenomena of modern mass society: the dreams of the consumerist citizen; political double-talk; the deluge of kitsch into the cultural marketplace; and, of course, ‘modern sex.’ That’s why Madame Bovary was declared obscene by the French government.

I wonder, was that scene in “Titanic” where the young hero and heroine couple in the back seat of a sedan parked in the lower-deck garage, showing us one (female) hand slapping the rear window in a hot-moist passion – was that inspired by Emma’s tryst as she rode around Rouen in a carriage, wobbling with love, as she drops handkerchiefs out the window?  Was Jabba the Hutt of “Star Wars” inspired by a reading of his Salammbo? Think of Hanno, the general, carried in his litter, behind veils to conceal his hideous, bloated form from which disease is busily rotting his skin.  Princess Lea, scantily clad, bound in chains, strangling Jabba to escape while distracting him with a sexy dance – that could have been right out of the novel.

He was a stoic, a martyr to his art, a cynic, a romantic, a spoiled gentleman, perhaps a bit of a pervert, though in his fantasies only.  Here’s a juicy sample of his fin-de-siecle yearnings from the Temptation of Saint Anthony:

Her wide sleeves, garnished with emeralds and birds’ feathers, allow a bare view of her little round arm, ornamented at the wrist by an ebony bracelet, and her ring-laden hands are tipped with nails so sharp that her fingers finish almost like needles. A flat golden chain passing under her chin runs up along her cheeks, spirals around her blue-powdered hair, and then dropping down grazes past her shoulder and clinches over her chest on to a diamond scorpion, which sticks out its tongue between her breasts. Two large blonde pearls pull at her ears. The edges of her eyelids are painted black. On her left cheek-bone she has a natural brown fleck; and she breathes with her mouth open, as if her corset constricted her.

He was also something of a nihilist. What’s the point of anything when the sum total of human stupidity never decreases? And that includes all those who think they’re so smart as well…includes him! What happens to his heroes? Emma: suicide; Salammbo: miserable death and rape, if I recall correctly; Moreau: a life of mediocrity after a Sentimental Education in Paris, his story concluding with a trite, “Those were the days!” And Bouvard and Pecuchet – what do they do in the end? They go back to copying as clerks after ‘sampling’ western culture in its entirety, and Flaubert loves them for it. Trillling put it well:

The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century. Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself. The novel does nothing less than that: it rejects culture. The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the understanding…that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.

Vanity – something Saint Anthony knew about. I think about those lions in the valley, lazily dispatching the remaining Carthaginian soldiers with a swipe of the paw, then ripping out their entrails. Culture…how deep does it go?

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