"Written by someone who doesn't care much for plot"
November 22, 2021 2:56 PM   Subscribe

Anjali Joseph (Literary Activism, 11/2021), "Madame Bovary and the Impossibility of Re-reading": "In a way it's not a novel about human characters at all: it's a novel of objects and insects and sunlight and birds, of stains, or habit and repetition. And though the characters in the novel live straitened lives, lives in which there isn't much pleasure or satisfaction, the phenomenal world around them is generous with beauty." Birger Vanwesenbeeck's similarly personal reflections. French text. Notable translation and introduction by Eleanor Marx (entry at Marxists.org) criticized, contextualized / appreciated, and appreciated further.
posted by Wobbuffet (10 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I've read MB once, and it certainly didn't have enough impact on me to urge me to read it again, but that's not really the point of this essay anyway. I quite enjoyed it as a round-about, literate way to remind us of Heraclitus' aphorism about stepping in rivers. Even the yellowing of the pages makes it not the same book, and it's certainly never the same me.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:35 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]

I read MB when I was 16 and despite being an avid reader, I struggled with the book. Before a paper about it was due, I met with my teacher to tell him about the hard time I was having with it, but at first I couldn't articulate why. I understood it but just couldn't digest it. Our ensuing discussion revolved around the entrapment of these characters' lives, their choices and the consequences, or whether their choices would have had any power to be better than what they were considering their upbringing and environment, and most importantly how this novel scared the crap out of me. Here I was so desperate to enter adulthood and could the modern equivalent of Emma's life end up being mine? I certainly saw the same dismal day-to-day havoc in my own life and family at that time. My teacher ended up spending an hour or more talking with me about ways to empower my choices and my life. It was the first meaningful adult conversation I had with anyone and it has impacted my life ever since -- so MB, despite my unwillingness to ever open that book again -- must be listed as one of the most empowering books I've read, but I thank my teacher first for that and Flaubert secondly.
posted by SA456 at 7:17 AM on November 23 [14 favorites]

That's an outstanding comment, SA456. Thank you for sharing your memory of that formative experience.
posted by Caxton1476 at 9:51 AM on November 23 [3 favorites]

I'm re-reading Proust at the moment. I started it for the first time 35 years ago. It is a totally different experience. Much funnier on the second round. So much better in every way. And it was great the first time!
posted by No Robots at 9:51 AM on November 23 [1 favorite]

I stopped reading MB because I could not endure fundamentally sympathetic characters being slowly yet inexorably dragged over rocks for hundreds of pages no matter how excellent the prose which embodied these events might be.

But Flaubert was one of the most delightful and profound correspondents who ever set pen to paper, and I have read quite a bit in his collected letters, including the excellent Francis Steegmuller selection and translation with the originals on the facing page, so I recognized this very revealing passage from one of them mentioned by Joseph:
Nonetheless, famously when a correspondent of Flaubert’s said Emma was a silly woman, Flaubert responded, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi,’ I am Madame Bovary.
To plumb the startling depths of Flaubert's loathing for the bourgeoisie and view the exotic creatures that live therein, I recommend the posthumously published A Dictionary of Received Ideas which is available in a very nice Julian Barnes translation at the Internet Archive, and I don’t think you'll need the fact that it’s written as an advice manual to recognize the self-loathing.
posted by jamjam at 1:05 PM on November 23 [2 favorites]

I always admire people who give a book they disliked on first read a second change. Though I suppose she’d heard that Madame Bovary was a classic novel, and therefore felt some pressure. A classic is a book you feel pressure to read again if you didn’t like it the first time.
posted by Kattullus at 2:26 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

The bits on Eleanor Marx and her translation are great.
posted by CCBC at 3:47 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]

CCBC, thanks so much for posting the articles on Eleanor Marx. Oddly enough, after posting my experience with MB in the morning, I watched the film "The Young Karl Marx" last night and spent hours reading about Marx's family. I had no idea that Eleanor Marx had been MB's first English translator. The sad, tragic fate shared by Eleanor and Emma is almost too much to bear; in a way Eleanor's was worse not only because she had the intellectual and social advantages to avoid or escape such a fatal relationship, but even more so since her 'husband' was such a loathsome, cruel man.
posted by SA456 at 7:00 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

SA456: Credit where credit is due -- Those links are in the FPP, and there are other links there about Marx as well.
posted by CCBC at 2:57 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]

One of the greatest experiences I've ever had in school was a result of Madame Bovary.

We read the first scene in one English translation. Ok, some kid shows up at school with a silly hat and people laugh at him. Fine.

The teacher gave us a different translation. Yes, like I thought. A kid shows up at school. He's a loser. He has a silly hat. People make fun of him.

Then the third translation. It helped me to see that absolutely every word had meaning. The hat was a clever pun for something. The thing he said can be taken multiple ways. The context of the time is x and y, which changes the scene in this way and that wy.

I had *no idea* how much value and treasure was hidden away. Like Shakespeare, I needed someone to explain why it was so great. But once someone explained it, it was extraordinary.

(I haven't read the other links yet, but I bet the translation I loved is mentioned somewhere up there!)
posted by jragon at 7:27 PM on November 25 [2 favorites]

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