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Rilke, again.

November 29, 2013 28 comments

Au fil de la vie by Rainer Maria Rilke. 1898. Am Leben in, Novellen und Skizzen. Translated into French by Claude Porcell.

German_lit_monthYEEESSS ! I made it on time for German lit month!! Lucky me, it’s week “Read as you want”. OK, let’s face it, I didn’t read The Magic Mountain or Berlin Alexanderplatz. November is a hectic month at work and I’ve only managed to read a collection of short stories by Rainer Maria Rilke Am Leben hin, Novellen und Skizzen. It proved an excellent choice.

This collection was initially published in 1898 and the short stories were written from 1893 to 1897. Rilke was born in 1875, so he was young when he wrote this. This collection includes eleven stories of approximately ten pages each. They are all about everyday life, snapshots about the characters at a special moment of their life. Most of the stories are about death, illness and old age but they’re not really sad. The truth is I had already met with Rilke in lovetortured Rilke, wise Rilke and now I’ve met with playful Rilke.

The first story is about a family lunch to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the death of Mr Anton von Wick. Rilke depicts the family stiffly gathering for the mass, walking from the church to the house under the patronage of Stanislas von Wick, the new head of the family. Rilke describes with a lot of humour the characters’ flaws, the contrived interactions between the relatives thrown together again for this lunch, each of them playing their usual part. Only time hits them mercilessly as they get older.

I enjoyed immensely The Secret, the absurd story of two spinsters Rosine and Clotilde. They are not related but live together. We discover why Rosine stayed with Clotilde and which secret seals their alliance.

I was delighted by The Anniversary for its vivid description of the morning sun entering the room of Aunt Babette. Rilke describes perfectly the sunbeams waking up the old lady, caressing her face, illuminating the usual furniture with morning freshness. It’s those rays of light that make you picture a familiar place differently, as if you were seeing it for the first time.

Rilke_fil_de_la_vieThe stories portray characters’ flaws and weaknesses. Some are cowards. Some are mean. Some let their obsessive love for their child become selfishness. Some are hopelessly in love or on the contrary, embarrassed by an intrusive lover. The storyline is always, not inspiring but marked with a stunning understanding of the human mind. Rilke has already this built-in wisdom that will blossom in Letters to a Young Poet. He figures out motives, goals, feelings, deceptions and disappointments behind the facades of the faces. He’s always benevolent, kind to mankind but not blind. He doesn’t judge his characters but mostly pities them. I don’t know if Rilke was religious. From the book, I guessed that the environment he grew up in was Catholic.

More importantly, the whole collection reflects Rilke’s gift with words. His talent as a poet shines through his style in prose. It’s vivid like a picture, beautiful without lyricism and full of images. When someone is crying at church, he writes “emotion went from his nose to his handkerchief” I find this excellent. A few word and you see the person crying and feel their pain. It is difficult for me to pick more quotes since I read the book in French and I’m unable to read it in German. You’ll have to trust me on that one: Rilke writes beautifully.

This collection was welcome this month; my attention span was well adjusted to the ten-page length of these short stories. As with my previous experience with Rilke, I closed the book wanting more. There’s something about this writer that speaks directly to the most private part of my mind. Perhaps it’s his fondness for humanity. Perhaps he dies of weakness, like Gary puts it and his acceptance of his weakness gives him strength. I can’t explain why but I’m drawn to this brilliant and yet humble mind.

If you’ve never read him, anything will do. I wish I could read his poetry in German. Judging from his prose, it must be marvellous.

Life doesn’t deserve that one fears for it. Believe me.

November 25, 2013 22 comments

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov 1995 French title: Le pingouin. Translated from the Russian by Nathalie Armagier.

Victor posa sa machine à écrire sur la table de la cuisine et se mit, un mot après l’autre, à composer des portraits vivants de futurs défunts. Victor put his typewriter on the kitchen table and, one word after the other, started to compose lively portraits of future deceased.

book_club_2For November our Book Club had selected Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I have read the French translation, which means I’ll have to translate into English the quotes I want to include in this billet. I’ll leave the French translation for you as well. If you can read in French, then at least you’ll read a version by a professional translator. Otherwise, you’ll have to live with my attempts at translation. Now back to the book.

We’re in Kiev in the 1990s and the main character of our novel is the would-be writer Victor. He’s been trying to write a book, to no avail. He needs a job to pay the bills, so when an editor at the Stolitchnaïa, Igor Lvovitch wants to hire him to write obituaries, he accepts. Victor writes “little crosses” about people who are still alive; the newspaper will be prepared in case of their death.

Kurkov_pingouinVictor lives in a two-bedroom flat with his penguin Micha. He adopted him the year before when the zoo was giving animals away because they couldn’t afford to feed them. Victor knows nothing about penguins but the waddling presence of Micha distracts him from his solitude. They complement each other.

Soon after taking on this new job, at which he is very good, several people enter into Victor’s universe. First, he strikes up an acquaintance with a man named Micha. He comes upon Igor’s recommendation and requests a necrology for a dying friend. Victor accepts to write it and Micha becomes an occasional visitor, coming with his daughter Sonia. Then he meets Sergueï, a policeman who accepts to come at Victor’s and feed Micha while Victor is away. Victor and Sergueï quickly become friends, taking Micha the penguin out and spending time together.

Victor slowly realises that since he’s taken on this new job, weird things happen around him. The persons he has written about seem to die suddenly and of unrealistic cause:

Il est tombé du cinquième étage. Il semblerait qu’il ait été occupé à laver les carreaux, mais étrangement, ce n’était pas chez lui. En outre, il faisait nuit. He fell down from the fifth floor. It seems he was cleaning the window, but strangely, it wasn’t his. And, it was at night.

It reminds me of a Corsican death where the guy commits suicide by shooting himself three bullets in the back. Then Micha disappears, leaving Sonia under Victor’s care. Then Igor warns Victor that he should maintain a low profile for a while, which leads him to spend Christmas in Sergueï’s dacha. Micha the man doesn’t come back and Victor hires Sergueï’s niece Nina to babysit Sonia. The three of them start living together. In a short span of time, Victor goes from living like a hermit with a penguin to sharing his life with a child and a woman.

That’s not the most important preoccupation here. With what kind of mob has Victor become involved? What should he do? Close his eyes and look the other way? Stop writing “little crosses”? But can he stop? I was interested by the plot and wanted to know who was behind Victor’s job and what it was all about.

However, there’s more to Death and the Penguin than just that. It was written in 1995, not long after the collapse of the USSR. Through the characters’ everyday life, Kurkov depicts life in Ukraine during those years. Material goals prevail. Everybody wants to survive and that’s the most important. Public services are in bad shape and corruption is everywhere. Here’s Pidpaly, one of Victor’s acquaintances after he has discovered that he has cancer:

– Et le médecin, il en dit quoi ?- Le médecin, il dit que si je lui donne mon appartement, je vivrai encore trois mois… – And what does the doctor say ?– The doctor says that if I give him my apartment, I’ll live three months more…

We’re far from the Hippocratic oath, aren’t we? The environment is violent: the book opens with Victor being hit by stones and the dachas are protected from thieves by antipersonnel land mines. Charming. On a lighter tone, I enjoyed reading about underground malls, parties on the ice to let Micha the penguin have fun, Christmas traditions and dishes.

In Kurkov’s voice I heard typical Russian literature. There’s a strong sense of humour and of the grotesque. The idea of a man living with a penguin that eats frozen fish, takes baths in a bathtub and sleeps on a little blanket is rather funny. The penguin attracts attention and affection. He’s a silent but comforting presence in Victor’s life. Micha is depressed but his sadness seems to reflect Victor’s. Gogol could have invented him.

Victor is a strange character. He’s passive and adapts to the events as they happen. He changes his diet when Sonia starts living with him because she needs to eat properly. He doesn’t particularly like children but never tries to get rid of her. She comes into his life, he adjusts. Nina wants them to live as a family, he adjusts. Igor needs to hide for a while, he helps him. When Pidpaly is in the hospital and dies, he takes care of the ceremony even if he only briefly knew the man. Victor brings his help to people who need it and yet he seems indifferent to everything. There’s a strong feeling of resignation in the novel, something I attach to Russian literature. Perhaps I’m wrong to generalise.

Kurkov’s style is quite lively. I liked his description of the city, the weather and how it impacts Victor’s mood.

Dehors, l’hiver que le gel faisait croustiller suivait son cours. Tout était plutôt calme. Outside, winter that frost made crusty followed its path. All was rather quiet.

It’s a tale laced with black humour or comic stemming from situations. I laughed at this passage:

Victor était assis tout au bout du divan, Sergueï occupait le fauteuil, et le pingouin restait debout ; la nature ne l’avait pas doté de la faculté de s’asseoir. Victor was sitting at the end of the couch, Sergueï was in the armchair and the penguin was standing. Nature hadn’t granted him the faculty to sit down.

In literature, we often see children speaking like little adults and too mature for their assumed age. In Death and the Penguin, I thought that Sonia’s voice was convincing. I could hear a young child speaking when reading her dialogues. She makes observations typical from young children. When spring comes back and the ice starts to melt outside, she says Uncle Vitia! (…) The icicles are weeping! It reminded me of our son who declared very seriously one morning Look Mom, the orange juice is smiling. He was about Sonia’s age at the time.

The combination of the plot, the offhand observations of the Ukrainian society and the picturesque characters makes of Death and the Penguin a funny tale tainted with crime fiction. I had a good time reading it. In our book club, someone couldn’t finish it, she couldn’t care less about Victor’s fate and didn’t accept the assumption that it is perfectly plausible to live with a penguin. (No problem for me, I remind you that I’m totally sold on a story about a man who lives with a python who hugs him, written by the way, by a Frenchman of Russian origin.). Just to say that opinions aren’t unanimous on this one. For another review, please find Guy’s here.

Literarilly fantastic

November 21, 2013 24 comments

Gros Câlin by Romain Gary. 1974 (excellent year)

Something literarilly fantastic happened to me today. I’m in Paris on business and this morning, as I was walking in the metro, my new purple scarf snaked around my neck, distractedly looking at the advertisements on the walls, I stopped dead in my tracks and stared at this:

gros_calin333

New visitors of these blogs don’t know what it means. Copinautes know pretty well that I was ecstatic: a novel by Romain Gary, made into a play! I HAD to see that. My previous experiences with Gary on stage were all excellent. I’ve already seen Gary/Ajar where Christophe Malavoy impersonated Gary telling his life. The text was adapted from souvenirs by André Asseo, Gary’s friend from high school. Jacques Gamblin also read Gary on stage, using the texts of his fake interviews gathered in La nuit sera calme and I’m not quite recovered from the disappointment of missing this one. La vie devant soi (Life Before Us) has been made into a very successful play with Myriam Boyer as Madame Rosa. And the theatre version of La Promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn) was a delight to see. Romain Gary might be unknown in the Anglophone literary world, but in France he keeps interesting readers and theatre directors. And his texts bear the stage adaptation very well.

I wrote a billet about Gros Câlin (literally “Big Hug” or “Big cuddle”) as we read it with our book club in 2011. It is the story of M. Cousin who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a python named Gros Câlin. This is the first novel Gary wrote under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar. Cousin describes his life with his python and it’s both hilarious and sad. It’s comical because Cousin sees life through distorting glasses. He’s fond of his python because he loves to be hugged by Gros Câlin, it helps for his desperate case of loneliness. M. Cousin is in love with his colleague Mlle Dreyfus and he explains their interactions in the office in the middle of his dissertation about pythons and the anecdotes about his life with Gros Câlin.

The play version is faithful to the novel. Jean-Quentin Châtelain played a convincing Cousin. His playful tone put forward all the fun of the text, showed how crazy Cousin is sometimes. He never crossed the fatal border of farce. He managed to be pathetic when Cousin is and he let us know that behind that façade of craziness was hidden a troubled and lonely man. In the novel, there’s an episode when the python goes to the apartment below by slipping into the toilet pipe and caused a fright to the neighbour by accidentally brushing against her bottom while she was using the toilet. When Châtelain told this on stage, the whole audience was shaking with laughter.

The setting was sober, made with mosaic tiles that reminded me of the skin of a snake. The lights were well used, not too much. It’s a challenge for the actor: he’s alone on stage and leads the show during 1:30 hour. Impressive. As good as the actor and the direction were, the real star is Romain Gary himself and his wonderful way of playing with the French language. It’s unique and he reinvented himself when he wrote under the name of Emile Ajar. M. Cousin is Gary’s imaginary relative. He plays with words. He slips, twists the grammar, speaks in riddles, uses one word for the other and yet keeps the sentence intelligible.

Chien Blanc starts with Gary watching a python in the Los Angeles zoo and interacting with it. I wonder if Gros Câlin stemmed from this observation or if the choice of a python has something to do with Gary’s love for the Monty Python.

If you can read in French, Gros Câlin is worth a try. I exited the theatre with a huge grin on my face and an ache in my jaw muscles due to laughing out loud so much. My next billet will be about Victor who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Kiev with a penguin. He doesn’t have a Miss Dreyfus to dream about but he has a Nina in his life. And Nina was the name of Gary’s extraordinary mother, the heroin of La Promesse de l’aube. La boucle est bouclée.

Why in hell did the past have to catch up with him now?

November 17, 2013 21 comments

Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes. 1946. French title: Pendez-moi haut et court.

He was wondering what in hell he was mixed up in. An ex-cop who ran a gambling joint in Reno and a New York attorney. A woman, with class written all over her, who was somehow tied in with Parker and who didn’t hesitate to sell out the man she worked up. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all. He wasn’t coming out of this untouched. That was certain. For the first time in his life he felt helpless. Not afraid—because he couldn’t find anything to be afraid of.

Homes_pendezThat’s it in a nutshell. Former PI Red Bailey is spending a bucolic life in Bridgeport, California. He runs the gas station, goes fishing and has a loving relationship with the young Ann. In this sweet opening chapter, everything seems peaceful except that Red doesn’t want to commit himself to Ann because of his past. He’s sitting on a time-bomb and he knows it.

Precisely, Guy Parker, a ghost from his past, comes back in his life and blackmails him into flying to New York to get a line for him about the lawyer Lloyd Eels. Parker is now shacked up with the siren Mumsie McGonigle. She was involved with Red ten years ago and is part of his muddy past as a PI. Red doesn’t want the job but doesn’t have a choice. Either he does it or Parker uses the information Mumsie has given him about their common past to turn Red to the police.

So Red leaves for New York, only to realise that there is more to this job than it appeared. He’s in such a trap that it seems impossible to come out of it unscathed.

As a reader, I took side for Red, even after discovering what he had done to be in such a predicament. I wanted him to have a way-out although what he has done is condemnable. It’s a strange thing to root for a character when you perfectly know that in real life, you wouldn’t support someone who has committed such a crime. His choice for a quiet and honest life seems to redeem himself. But still. Isn’t it normal that he pays for what he’s done?

I enjoyed the plot, the characters and the descriptions of the places. I was in the mountains with Red and Ann when they went fishing. I thought the picture of the popular New-York quite lively, like here:

The hockey players had departed, but Forty-Eighth Street wasn’t quiet. Women yelled at each other across the narrow way or screamed for their offspring. The offspring paid little heed. Two girls traded witticisms with a man in a delivery truck. A crap game was in progress on the sidewalk in front of a small grocery. The woman who ran the place stood in the door watching the boys roll the cubes against a brick wall.

Homes_buildI find this paragraph very cinematographic. You can see the scene in your mind. Geoffrey Homes was the pseudonym of the screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, so it’s probably not surprising.

This book has been in the “upcoming billets” box of my blog for a while. I procrastinated and waited a long time to write my billet, mostly because I’m not comfortable with writing about crime fiction. I have said this before and unfortunately, I’m forced to acknowledge that my skills don’t improve. When I write about literary fiction, words come easily. For crime fiction, it’s laboured. I never know where to stop writing about the plot without giving away too much information. I have difficulties to analyse the characters without mentioning spoilers. I doubt my billet conveys how much I enjoyed this book and what a great read it is. So it goes. It is highly recommended and if you still hesitate about reading it, pay a visit to Guy’s blog and discover there his excellent review about it. Finally, as you can see from the book covers, Build my Gallows High was made into a film, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum. I haven’t seen it and this one I want to watch.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

November 11, 2013 21 comments

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. 1968 French title: Les androïdes rêvent-ils de moutons électriques ? 

Dick_AndroidsI’m not a SF fan in general, so I’ve never read Philip K Dick –the guy has a name to write hardboiled, not SF, if you want my opinion. And of course, I haven’t seen Blade Runner, based upon this novel. My last attempt at reading SF was War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells –I abandoned the book. My last SF film was 2001 The Space Odyssey –I fell asleep just after the first images of the spaceship. Bad, bad track record. I wanted to read Do Androids Dream on Electric Sheep? because I found the title funny and intriguing. I had no idea what it was about before reading Caroline’s review of the novel. So, where am I after my first Philip K Dick? I have finished the book and I have no intention of watching the movie. That sums it up. Now the book.

We are in the future in San Francisco, after World War Terminus. Humanity has conquered Mars, where they have settled colonies with androids as the workforce. The planet Earth is polluted with radioactive dust; WWT has almost eradicated life on Earth and living critters are the most valued properties. The biggest the animal, the richest you are. Owning a pet is synonym of social status and some have electric animals that resemble real ones. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard is one of them. He owns an electric sheep and he dreads that his neighbours suspect it is a fake animal, although they most likely will be too polite to ask.

To say ‘Is you sheep genuine?’ would be a worse breach of manners than to inquire whether a citizen’s teeth, hair or internal organs would test out authentic.

This society works in a reversed way to ours. For us, it is valuable to own the latest electronic device or a beautiful car. We swat ants or spiders without second thoughts. For Rick and his wife Iran, finding a wild spider is a source of wonder. On Earth, the radioactive dust is so thick that nobody can see the stars anymore. Also, as a consequence of the radioactive dust, humans are checked up regularly to verify that their faculties don’t deteriorate. When it happens, they become second class citizens called Specials and referred to as chikenheads.

Philip K Dick doesn’t spend a lot of pages describing this devastated world. We don’t learn much about its political regime. Countries still exist, including the USSR. We don’t know how people entertain themselves, except that their Oprah Winfrey is named Buster Friendly. They have a new religion, Mercerism and people fuse with Mercer, the guru of that cult. The fusion allows them to share feelings and emotions.

Rick is on the police force as a bounty hunter; his job is to “retire” androids that would live on Earth among humans, which is totally illegal. As technology advances, androids resemble more and more to humans and the only way to differentiate a human from an android is to pass a test named the Voigt-Kampff profile test. It is based upon the assumption that only humans feel empathy for fellow humans or for animals. The test registers tiny reflex reactions to questions involving animals or humans in situations which would make a human flinch.

At the moment, a new generation of androids has been created, the Nexus-6 and they’re harder to find among humans. Rick has now a new assignment. His colleague Dave has been injured by an android he had to retire and is in the hospital, unable to finish the job. Rick needs to finish it and has to retire six Nexus-6 androids. The task is not easy. To help him, he’s sent to the Rosen Association which creates androids for the colonies and the goal of his visit is to ensure that the Voigt-Kampff test is relevant to pick out Nexus-6 androids. At the time his assignment arrives, Rick is already questioning his life-style, his job and he’s obsessed with genuine animals. For example, he keeps the catalogue of the pet shop with him and acts about pets as men usually act about fancy cars.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not a political novel. I saw it more like an existentialist novel, although I’m not sure it is the right adjective. The central question of the book is “What is the essence of humanity?” The androids act more and more like humans and Rick starts feeling empathy for them. He questions his own humanity. What does it mean to be human? Philip K Dick bases its novel on the philosophical concept that empathy is what differentiates humans from androids. Only living beings can feel empathy and make impulsive and irrational decisions fuelled by empathy. As a coincidence, the day I finished the book, I heard a radio show on France Inter named Sur les épaules de Darwin. It was about scientific experiments on empathy and the link between scientific discoveries in that field and philosophical thinking on that very concept. They said that Marcus Aurelius and then Adam Smith and then Darwin supported this theory.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a novel about the human condition and a quest for identity. Rick wonders How am I a man? How do I remain a man? Or shall I say a Mensch? Frontiers start to blur when he interacts with Rachael. He doesn’t recognise her as an android right away. He meets with androids that are sure to be human. Rick craves for natural interactions with people. He’s not sure that it is right to retire androids any more. He thinks he’s killing them, not retiring them. He has empathy for machines and it affects his work. Doubt about his job creeps in his mind but events always bring him back on the right track. Androids are not human beings. Even sophisticated androids betray themselves in stress situations: they don’t react as humans and don’t understand the humans’ reactions around them as they are irrational. Philip K Dick seems to say: “See, humans are too complex to be copied”. Irrational is hard to imitate, to program: these humans have foolish reactions and can have feeling for machines.

At the beginning, I saw Rick as another Montag, the hero of Farenheit 451. Both are married men with questionable jobs. Both meet a woman who unsettles their vision of life and of themselves. Both start questioning the rightfulness of their profession. This new acquaintance happens at a moment in their life where they were ready for a change. When Montag rejects the society he lives in and joins the resistance against it, Rick has a more personal quest about his place on earth. Montag chooses to fight against institutions; it makes sense. Rick struggles against himself to fight his angst and life seems absurd. I couldn’t help thinking about Malraux, Camus and Gary. I don’t have enough education to elaborate that thought but that’s where the book led me to. It is set in an imaginary reality but Rick’s quest is ours.

When I closed down the book, I thought “I didn’t like it”. I would have stuck to that opinion if I didn’t have the rule to write about all the books I read. Writing the billet helped me see how interesting and complex this novel is. It is not easy and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I didn’t enjoy myself. I’d rather read Camus to think about that kind of concept. Or Romain Gary.

For another review, discover Brian’s here.

A rebel with a silly cause

November 1, 2013 32 comments

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. 1856. Translation by Eleanor Max-Aveling.

Flaubert_Madame_BovaryGuy and I decided to re-read Madame Bovary after his review of The Doctor’s Wife by M.E. Braddon, based on Madame Bovary which Ms Braddon found immoral. Given her lifestyle, I was surprised of that statement. Actually, we both wondered why Madame Bovary was more immoral than other novels previously published and a re-read imposed itself. I had that nagging question in mind while I was reading: What did Flaubert do to make it so immoral?

Now I’m a bit intimidated at the idea to write about such a masterpiece. The first time I read it, I was 15 or 16. I read it for the story. The next time I was in my twenties and still read it for the plot. Now that I’m older, I saw much more in it than before and the difference comes more from a better knowledge of the history and literary currents of that time than to maturity, although it has its part, of course.

Given that it’s a very famous novel, maybe THE French novel Anglophone readers know the best –with the Three Musketeers— I don’t feel like writing too much about the plot and there will be spoilers in this billet. So if you haven’t read it and intend to read it and don’t want to know how it ends, you may want to stop reading now.

Let’s make a quick summary though. The book is set in Normandy, in the countryside near Rouen, during the Restauration. (1830-1848). Charles Bovary is not the brightest guy in school (In French, I’d say, “Il n’a pas inventé le fil à couper le beurre”, which is appropriate for a Normand) and he barely manages to study medicine. He’s a bit of a mama’s boy; his mother chose his career and his first wife. He’s widowed and settled as a GP in Tostes when he meets Emma Rouault. She’s the daughter of a farmer and was educated in a convent. Charles is smitten by her, she thinks this is love and they soon get married. Emma is full of high ideas about love and romance. Nothing can cheer her up from her ennui. Charles decides to change of setting and moves to Yonville. Emma is pregnant at the time and will have a daughter, Berthe. Emma is pretty and graceful; she’s a male magnet. Léon, a clerk at the local notary practice falls in love with her but doesn’t reveal his feelings. Then she is seduced by Rodolphe Boulanger, the local womaniser. After he left her before eloping, she becomes a devout. Then Léon and she mutually seduce each other. All that time, she doesn’t care much about her daughter, makes extravagant expenses and Charles remains blissfully ignorant of her actions and worships her. After her money troubles become public, she commits suicide with arsenic, leaving behind an inconsolable Charles. That’s for the plot.

So what’s the verdict? Do I know now why it was such a scandal at the time? The answer is yes, I think I do. So much that I have noticed the same quotes as Ernest Pinard, the imperial prosecutor who represented the State at the trial in 1857. (It is in my paper edition of the novel)

Everything in the book concurs to tag the book as immoral. It is impudent on several fronts at the same time: it criticises religion, mocks progress, shows adultery through a sensual side and without any remorse. It shoots at close-range at the rural society praised by the king. It attacks Romanticism as a literary movement and ridicules the Romantic attitude of young people. It tramples on literary geniuses such as Chateaubriand, Balzac or George Sand. It shows corrupted characters without condemning them, except with sarcasm. Stupidity is a character in itself considering that almost all the characters have contracted that disease. Not one character is likeable. Charles is bovine, as his name and his attitude let it know:

Et alors, sur la grande route qui étendait sans en finir son long ruban de poussière, par les chemins creux où les arbres se courbaient en berceaux, dans les sentiers dont les blés lui montaient jusqu’aux genoux, avec le soleil sur ses épaules et l’air du matin à ses narines, le cœur plein des félicités de la nuit, l’esprit tranquille, la chair contente, il s’en allait ruminant son bonheur, comme ceux qui mâchent encore, après dîner, le goût des truffes qu’ils digèrent. And then along the highroad, spreading out its long ribbon of dust, along the deep lanes that the trees bent over as in arbours, along paths where the corn reached to the knees, with the sun on his back and the morning air in his nostrils, his heart full of the joys of the past night, his mind at rest, his flesh at ease, he went on, re-chewing his happiness, like those who after dinner taste again the truffles which they are digesting.

I just see him as a cow in a field, chewing grass, moving slowing from one side of the field to the other. He’s a good person but Flaubert opens the books with Charles’s start at collège and he’s so ridiculous that it’s impossible to have another image of him afterwards. He’s blind to Emma’s every flaw and nothing she does will make her fall from the pedestal he put her on.

Homais, Yonville’s chemist, is criminally imbecile and self-satisfied. Léon is weak. Rodolphe is a scoundrel. Emma is …Emma, the one who created the term of bovarisme, which means being chronically dissatisfied with life. The micro-society of Yonville mirrors the society of the time and it compares to Balzac’s novels or even better to Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. Homais is the heir of the French Revolution and the Empire. He idolises Voltaire and can’t stand Bournisien, the priest. The said Bournisien tries to win back religion’s influence on people. Lheureux, the merchant has only one religion: money. The rest of the citizens fluctuate between the three summits of this triangle. The verbal confrontations between Homais and Bournisien are violent. Homais doesn’t mince his words and what Flaubert puts in his mouth doesn’t help his case:

Je suis pour la Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard et les immortels principes de 89 ! Aussi, je n’admets pas un bonhomme de bon Dieu qui se promène dans son parterre la canne à la main, loge ses amis dans le ventre des baleines, meurt en poussant un cri et ressuscite au bout de trois jours : choses absurdes en elles-mêmes et complètement opposées, d’ailleurs, à toutes les lois de la physique ; ce qui nous démontre, en passant, que les prêtres ont toujours croupi dans une ignorance turpide, où ils s’efforcent d’engloutir avec eux les populations. I am for the profession of faith of the ‘Savoyard Vicar,’ and the immortal principles of ’89! And I can’t admit of an old boy of a God who takes walks in his garden with a cane in his hand, who lodges his friends in the belly of whales, dies uttering a cry, and rises again at the end of three days; things absurd in themselves, and completely opposed, moreover, to all physical laws, which prove to us, by the way, that priests have always wallowed in turpid ignorance, in which they would fain engulf the people with them.

If this isn’t a strong attack against religion…

The young writer Flaubert depicts an Emma corrupted by literature. She has read the Romantics and loves trashy romance novels. She expects to live a flamboyant life like the heroines of her novels. She never managed to distance herself from what she reads. Instead of reading romance novels and treating them as fairy tales, she believes that it’s what love should be. She has a husband who loves her, behaves properly, has a steady income and is healthy. She should be content but she’s not because she dreams of a great passion:

Elle se laissa donc glisser dans les méandres lamartiniens, écouta les harpes sur les lacs, tous les chants de cygnes mourants, toutes les chutes de feuilles, les vierges pures qui montent au ciel, et la voix de l’Éternel discourant dans les vallons.

 

She let herself glide along with Lamartine meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to all the songs of dying swans, to the falling of the leaves, the pure virgins ascending to heaven, and the voice of the Eternal discoursing down the valleys.

An exchange with Max about Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín had me thinking about how novels shape our vision of what relationships should be. We were at least three to think that the love story in Brooklyn is not very interesting in itself. And yet, it’s a plausible one between people who have an average life like most of us. We found this uninteresting and I wrote “you don’t expect this in a novel”. It’s mundane and deep down we think the characters of a novel shouldn’t be mundane. Anyway.

Charles is content with the quotidian, Emma expects grand passion. Charles’s imagination is turned off; Emma’s is working at full regime. They are imagination-incompatible. He won’t suspect her affairs, she’ll find fuel for her imagination in her lovers. He looks stupid; she looks silly.

Emma is immoral for the time because she isn’t ashamed of her affairs. She’s living the grand passion she reads about and nothing else matters. She has no remorse except for fleeting moments. She’s capricious and haughty.

elle ne cachait plus son mépris pour rien, ni pour personne ; et elle se mettait quelquefois à exprimer des opinions singulières, blâmant ce que l’on approuvait, et approuvant des choses perverses ou immorales : ce qui faisait ouvrir de grands yeux à son mari. Moreover she no longer concealed her contempt for anything or anybody, and at times she set herself to express singular opinions, finding fault with that which others approved, and approving things perverse and immoral, all of which madeher husband open his eyes widely.

When she gives herself away to Rodolphe and starts their affair, she doesn’t put up much resistance. It happens at their third meeting; she’s quite bold in her rendezvous with him. Nothing else matters. She doesn’t care about her reputation, her family and doesn’t try to fight against her attraction. She’s immoral because she is not conflicted about what she’s doing. She’s not as vicious as Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses or as manipulative as Valérie in La Cousine Bette. The Red and the Black was published in 1830 and neither Madame de Rênal nor Mathilde de la Mole is virtuous; Madame de Rênal is adulterous too. In the eyes of society, Emma doesn’t have a valuable motive to be unfaithful. She just wants to live the passion she’s heard about. She’s ordinary. She could be the wife next door and it frightens a society that such behaviours could reach the middle class.

Let’s see her with our modern eyes: she’s stuck for life with an oaf for a husband (no divorce possible), she has no profession (so she gets bored) and lives in a village. She’s intelligent enough to yearn for more but focuses her quest on love instead of something else. If I read between the lines, I figure that Flaubert the chauvinist thinks that women aren’t capable of more.

From the start, Emma is portrayed as a sensual woman. Her love is in her head, her heart but it’s not a platonic love. She enjoys the physical aspects of her affairs and is not ashamed of that. From the beginning, Flaubert hints at her sensuality, at her perversion.

Mais elle triomphait maintenant, et l’amour, si longtemps contenu, jaillissait tout entier avec des bouillonnements joyeux. Elle le savourait sans remords, sans inquiétude, sans trouble. But now she triumphed, and the love so long pent up burst forth in full joyous bubblings. She tasted it without remorse, without anxiety, without trouble. 
Elle se repentait, comme d’un crime, de sa vertu passée, et ce qui en restait encore s’écroulait sous les coups furieux de son orgueil. Elle se délectait dans toutes les ironies mauvaises de l’adultère triomphant. She repented of her past virtue as of a crime, and what still remained of it rumbled away beneath the furious blows of her pride. She revelled in all the evil ironies of triumphant adultery.
Quand elle se mettait à genoux sur son prie-Dieu gothique, elle adressait au Seigneur les mêmes paroles de suavité qu’elle murmurait jadis à son amant, dans les épanchements de l’adultère. When she knelt on her Gothic prie-Dieu, she addressed to the Lord the same suave words that she had murmured formerly to her lover in the outpourings of adultery.
Emma retrouvait dans l’adultère toutes les platitudes du mariage. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage. 
Elle partit donc vers la Huchette, sans s’apercevoir qu’elle courait s’offrir à ce qui l’avait tantôt si fort exaspérée, ni se douter le moins du monde de cette prostitution. So she set out towards La Huchette, not seeing that she was hastening to offer herself to that which but a while ago had so angered her, not in the least conscious of her prostitution. 
Ensuite il récita le Misereatur et Undulgentiam, trempa son pouce droit dans l’huile et commença les onctions : d’abord sur les yeux, qui avaient tant convoité toutes les somptuosités terrestres ; puis sur les narines, friandes de brises tièdes et de senteurs amoureuses ; puis sur la bouche, qui s’était ouverte pour le mensonge, qui avait gémi d’orgueil et crié dans la luxure ; puis sur les mains, qui se délectaient aux contacts suaves, et enfin sur la plante des pieds, si rapides autrefois quand elle courait à l’assouvissance de ses désirs, et qui maintenant ne marcheraient plus. Then he recited the Misereatur and the Indulgentiam, dipped his right thumb in the oil, and began to give extreme unction. First upon the eyes, that had so coveted all worldly pomp; then upon the nostrils, that had been greedy of the warm breeze and amorous odours; then upon the mouth, that had uttered lies, that had curled with pride and cried out in lewdness; then upon the hands that had delighted in sensual touches; and finally upon the soles of the feet, so swift of yore, when she was running to satisfy her desires, and that would now walk no more.

In these quotes we see strong words like prostitution, triumphant adultery and a comparison between marriage and adultery. Shocking. Emma attracts men. Charles, Léon, Rodolphe, Justin (a domestic), her father-in-law (Her mother-in-law once hastens their departure from Charles’ household because she fears that Bovary Senior could attempt at sleeping with his daughter-in-law.) Emma is referred to with sexual innuendos. Léon is surprised by her dexterity at adultery. She enjoys herself and that’s unforgivable. Moreover, she doesn’t want to sacrifice her happiness for Charles and do her duty.

Emma’s behaviour is not acceptable for society at the time and the icing on the cake is Flaubert’s tone. He could be moralising to acknowledge that Emma’s behaviour is inadmissible and choose the side of bourgeois way of thinking. He doesn’t. Instead, he’s caustic. He doesn’t like his heroine and openly criticises her reading tastes:

Ce n’étaient qu’amours, amants, amantes, dames persécutées s’évanouissant dans des pavillons solitaires, postillons qu’on tue à tous les relais, chevaux qu’on crève à toutes les pages, forêts sombres, troubles du cœur, serments, sanglots, larmes et baisers, nacelles au clair de lune, rossignols dans les bosquets, messieurs braves comme des lions, doux comme des agneaux, vertueux comme on ne l’est pas, toujours bien mis, et qui pleurent comme des urnes. They were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, “gentlemen” brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains.

With this, he criticises the authors who write these books or feuilletons. He also pictures the education received at convents as useless. The isolation grows young girls into women who have no idea of what real life is. They’re disconnected from reality. That’s another dart sent at the church (they run the convents) and at society (they consider this as good education). Balzac’s Mémoire de deux jeunes mariées proves Flaubert’s point.

In my humble opinion, Madame Bovary is much more than the tragic fate of a serial adulterer. It’s the writer’s rebellion against society’s hypocrisy (you can read Romantic literature but not put its ideas into practice), against an established literary movement, against stupidity and bourgeois thinking. I haven’t read Flaubert’s biography but I’d say that Madame Bovary is him because she does what she wants regardless of the consequences. She’s a rebel with a silly cause, that’s all.

I’ll leave you with a last quote:

Le devoir, c’est de sentir ce qui est grand, de chérir ce qui est beau, et non pas d’accepter toutes les conventions de la société, avec les ignominies qu’elle nous impose. One’s duty is to feel what is great, cherish the beautiful, and not accept all the conventions of society with the ignominy that it imposes upon us.

Tough program.

Don’t forget to visit Guy’s Blog to read his review of the book.

PS: As a side note, I never understood why Chabrol chose Isabelle Huppert to impersonate Emma Bovary. Emma can’t be a readhead. Flaubert keeps on describing her beautiful dark hair. How could he choose Isabelle Huppert, who is also too old for the role?

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