Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
English translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling (1886)
It came to mind for me just recently to reread one of the great French classics, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. That is – although I had only vague memories of the story (if any at all), I would have sworn that this was one of the classic novels I read way back in my teens. I even have an image in my mind of a rather thin green volume with gold print on the back, and almost exactly where in the town library it stood… (Or…?)
As this is a book from 1857, with the first English translation published in 1886, it is of course availabe as free for Kindle; so nothing to lose by downloading it.
Nothing to lose but faith in my own memory, that is!
Because after finishing my “re”read of it, I think I must rewrite my personal reading history, and say that I probably never did read it before. I now suspect I may somehow have been confusing it in my mind with The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas (fils) (1848) – even if I was convinced that I had read both. (Now if I could just find out what kind of covers those two books had in my home town library 40 years ago…)
To begin with, I found it a little difficult to get into the story. Hard to say whether this was because it was a different story from what I expected, or to do with a case or two of strange word order early on in the book which set me wondering whether perhaps it would turn out to be a bad translation throughout. It got better, however. (I did not look up the translator until after I had finished the book, but then learned that it was Eleanor Marx Aveling; daughter of Karl Marx.) Perhaps there are later translations easier for a modern reader to get into, though. What soon becomes evident is that Flaubert has a very detailed writing style, that may take a while to get used to. He uses words to paint images in the reader’s mind; it just gets a little blurry when you don’t actually know the words! – for example different kinds of horse-drawn carriages, or all the little details of fashion worn in those days.
Basically it’s the story of a marriage, and how their life together in a small village appears totally different to husband vs wife. Charles is a doctor, not terribly successful, but striving on and doing his best; and also feeling more or less content in his marriage and family life. Emma (Madame Bovary), on the other hand, is constantly wishing for “more” to her life than what she has, in every respect – something which repeatedly tempts her to walk down dangerous paths, both with relationships and with money matters.
In town, with the noise of the streets, the buzz of the theatres and the lights of the ballroom, they were living lives where the heart expands, the senses bourgeon out. But she – her life was cold as a garret whose dormer window looks on the north, and ennui, the silent spider, was weaving its web in the darkness in every corner of her heart.
Interestingly, in spite of all the changes in social life that have taken place between the mid 1850’s and today, I found this novel to deal with some very fundamental aspects of human nature which probably have not changed as much as we might like to think in 150+ years.
In Sweden we have a TV show called Lyxfällan, ‘The Luxury Trap’. (I’d be surprised if there aren’t similar shows in the US and Britain.) In this show, financial experts help individuals and families to sort out the mess that an astonishing amount of people today tend to get tangled up in just by using too many credit cards and expensive loans to buy stuff they don’t actually need, without ever sitting down to add up the real costs and compare them to their real income. And with couples it seems there is also usually an added element of not being able to communicate with each other.
To sum up: Emma Bovary would have been a perfect candidate for a combined Luxury Trap and ‘Dr Phil’ show!
If you want to know what life was like in the ‘good old days’, long before there were stern TV talk show hosts to stare you in the eye and ask “What were you thinking?” and “How is that working for you?” – then you should read Madame Bovary.