Madame Bovary Pt. I

This year my attention so far, has been drawn to artists like Joyce, Woolf and Kafka. Reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, though I’ve read it twice before, requires an adjustment. Unlike those writers, Flaubert leaves less space for contemplation, he describes relentlessly, building up his fiction, layer by layer.

When Flaubert wishes to make a point he abjures subtlety. A lengthy paragraph describes hapless Charles Bovary’s graceless cap:

It was one of those head coverings of a composite order, in which one can recognize components of a busby, a lancer’s cap, a bowler, an otter-skin cap, and a cotton nightcap, one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile. Ovoid and stiffened with whalebones, it began with three circular sausages; then followed alternately, separated by a red band, lozenges of velvet and rabbit fur; next came a kind of bag terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon, covered with an embroidery in complicated braid, from which hung, at the end of a long, excessively slender cord, a little crosspiece of gold threads, by way of a tassel. It was new; the visor shone.

The same technique is used when describing Charles’ and Emma’s wedding cake, an equally vulgar object:

At the base, first, there was a square of blue cardboard representing a temple with porticoes, colonnades, and statuettes of stucco all around, in niches spangled with gold paper stars; then on the second tier was a castle keep made of sponge cake, surrounded by tiny fortifications of angelica, almonds, raisins, and orange sections; and lastly, on the topmost layer, which was a green meadow with rocks and with lakes made of jam and boats of nutshells, a little Cupid was swinging on a chocolate swing whose two poles ended in two real rosebuds, for knobs, at the top.

I’ve been eager to read this first part of Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary, delaying my reading of it to participate in Nonsuch Book’s shared reading of the book. The opening part is, I suspect, my favourite, at least it’s the part I always think of when I recall Madame Bovary.

Having adjusted to Flaubert’s prose and style, it is a joy to indulge in the detail and imagery: the crass cap, the vulgar wedding cake, the little drops of sweat on Emma’s bare shoulders when widower Charles come to visit and, not forgetting one of literature’s more erotic moments:

As was the fashion in the country, she offered him something to drink. He refused, she insisted, and finally invited him, laughing, to have a glass of liqueur with her. So she went to get a bottle of curaçao from the cupboard, took down two small glasses, filled one to the rim, poured almost nothing in the other, and, after having touched it to his, raised it to her mouth. As it was almost empty, she leaned back to drink; and with her head back, her lips thrust out, her neck tense, she laughed at feeling nothing, while the tip of her tongue, passing between her delicate teeth, licked with little stabs at the bottom of the glass.

29 thoughts on “Madame Bovary Pt. I

  1. >I'm not a book blogger or anything; but I just finished this wonderful translation last week! It was quite the nice surprise when I saw you were reading, too, because I've been reading your blog for a couple weeks now.Aside the layer imagery, the part that really knocked the proverbial breath out of me was all the repeated imagery. The same image motifs repeat throughout the novel, growing larger and larger with every variant– I won't give examples because that takes all the fun out of finding them. I just wish I could experience it in French.PS: First comment here, by the way D=

  2. >I somehow do not find that last quote erotic, only trying to be so. But I have never been good with thinking of food or drink as erotic.I did enjoy reading your post 🙂

  3. >And what struck me most in that layering of details, is Flaubert's absolute contempt for his subject matter. He offers no judgment but detail after detail, the pile of nauseating descriptions grows so deep that there can be no argument as to the author's views of the middle class.

  4. >What Frances said–and yet, I don't find Emma as unappealing as I should, given her attraction to that life. It's been many years since I read this book, and I do remember how it ended, but not much more. Curious to rediscover it.

  5. >Anon – Thanks for commenting here for the first time. You don't need to be a book blogger. Anyone interested in literature is welcome.I'm getting a lot more from this book on third reading. I recall repeated imagery, and am looking out for them in this tighter translation.

  6. >Iris – You know, I have read this paragraph quite a few times. It is meant to be erotic, when I read it first, years ago, I found it erotic. Now it reminds me a bit of the farcical Tom Jones scene, more comical than erotic. These is a lack of subtlety in this novel, Flaubert almost overplays his description, but there is beautiful imagery too.

  7. >Frances – Beyond contempt, into abject hatred, This reading is different from the previous two occasions. I keep getting the feeling that Flaubert is laying it on too thickly.

  8. >Amy – I've experienced the reverse emotion. I read this book in my late teens and again in my twenties. On those occasions I sympathised with Emma for the dull life she had aimlessly drifted into, developed a mild crush, and found Charles rather tiresome. This time, twenty years later, so far in this reading, my sympathy is perhaps leaning towards poor, hapless Charles.

  9. >Yes, I had the same feeling in a few spots. Making Flaubert occasionally equally contemptible in an odd sort of way. Very passive aggressive social criticism.

  10. >Haha, I had forgotten about that fantastic description of the cake! Love the hat description, and spent a good deal of time on it in my post as well. I actually found Flaubert somewhere between what I think of as "Victorianism" and what I think of as "Modernism," in that yes, he does indulge in a LOT of physical description, but it's all in the service of direct commentary on the people involved – none of it is just to set a scene, for example.

  11. >Thanks, Anthony! Davis has done a wonderful job, but it'll take some time to see if she has beaten the Geoffrey Wall translation:,,9780140449129,00.htmlRegarding the repeated images: I'm forever grateful for Davis for making me notice one particular image. I don't want to be explicit and ruin it for anyone; it occurs after Emma "[hears] a vague prolonged cry, a voice that lingered" at a pivotal part in part 2, and that motif comes back with devastating force at the end.It might be common knowledge, but I just noticed it on this re-read! Quite spine-tingling. ❤ Flaubert.

  12. >While I completely missed the cake description (How did that happen? I almost choked reading it here?!) I competely remember her sticking her tongue into the cup with little thrusts. Hmmm, I wonder how that passage is translated in editions through the ages…I, personally, have always loved this novel, although each time I read it I bring away a different perspective, and I'm never quite sure if I like Emma or loathe her. My sympathies vacillate with each reread.

  13. >Frances – An appropriate moment to introduce Nabokov's toothsome comment: "Let me add for double clarity that Marx would have called Flaubert a bourgeois in the politico-economic sense and Flaubert would have called Marx a bourgeois in the spiritual sense; and both would have been right…"

  14. >Emily – I'm looking forward to reading everyone's posts after work today. For me, Madame Bovary is the last great gasp of the Victorian novel; the description is all exterior, our omniscient narrator gives us privileged access to characters thoughts, amid all the rich description Flaubert makes no acknowledgement of the fact that this is merely a fictional construct. (Why this and not that etc).

  15. >Emily – Your positioning of "Flaubert somewhere between what I think of as "Victorianism" and what I think of as "Modernism" was essentially Nabokov's stance. I don't know if you have read his seminal essay on Madame Bovary but he comes to the conclusion that: "Without Flaubert there would have been no Marcel Proust in France, no James Joyce in Ireland. Chekhov in Russia would not have been quite Chekhov." I can see this in later Flaubert but not in MB. It takes Nabokov to point out the fictional devices that Flaubert used for me to appreciate, though not entirely agree with, his argument.

  16. >Bellezza – I agree entirely; it is what has fascinated me about this book. There is so much depth. In my older copy of MB, that passage is translated exactly as Davis has it.

  17. >What a wonderful discussion! I'm reading along as well, with much less knowledge about the book than most of the other readers. I'm enjoying my first experience with MB.What strikes me most about the cake description is that it seems almost preposterous. Maybe tacky is the word I'm looking for. Until Frances mentioned it, I didn't pick up on the contempt for the middle class coming out in his writing. I love the details. I did not feel the sensuality of the drinking scene so much as when he can't find his whip and they both reach for it at the same time and his chest brushes against her back. This scene was interesting to me also because of the idea of power in a relationship. He is on top of her, but the whip is in her hand. I don't know if this will be an issue later on in the book, but I'll keep my eye out.

  18. >Shelley – Yes, tacky is perfect. I hadn't read the set piece you mention as about power, that's an interesting insight. I'll read that piece again.

  19. >JoAnn – The narrative is structured to sweep us forward, eager to learn what is around the corner, so it takes a real will to slow our reading and enjoy the prose.

  20. >The descriptions are a delight! But I'm still not sure how they make me feel. I think they are, mostly, nonjudgmental. With the hat there's the "mute ugliness" but the cake is described pretty objectively — yet somehow we all agree that it's vulgar/tacky. I'm not so sure how Flaubert achieves that (or if indeed that's what he intended). Really — no one thinks this cake is pretty?Both the whip scene and the drink really stood out for me, though none of it made an impression on me when I first read this 20 years ago.I'm also curious about what sort of person loved this book the first time through, and why.

  21. >I was stunned by the early passage of the hat. Reading it in the early morning, on my commute, I had to re-start many times, those first three pages so dense and demanding. It was a forceful slowing, but best adjusted at the beginning for, as you say, it extends throughout!

  22. >Isabella – I read excessive irony into the descriptions, is it there or is it my collaboration, as a reader, with Flaubert that reads it that way? Three circular sausages, embroidery, a tassel: are these items that should ever be on a hat. But the damning phrase: It was new. The most painful social critique of our one time Prime Minister, John Major, was: "He's the type of man that buys his own furniture." As for the cake, it's the little Cupid that rocks the cake into vulgarity, an image that is repeated on the house they acquire in Yonville.I loved the book first time through, but I can't remember why or what sort of person I was over twenty years ago on first and second reading. I am loving it on this third reading, but can't believe I always thought of it as a subtle story.

  23. >Buried In Print – There is a momentum in Flaubert's narrative that makes it easy to race through the book. I keep having to apply real effort to slow my reading.

  24. >Anthony, love your points here about the accumulation of details vs. time for contemplation in Flaubert's writing (very interesting, that) and the mention of some of the more erotically-charged elements (the dance scene maliciously offers more of the same). I'm finally reading this novel for the first time, so it's great to have the benefit of all you Madame Bovary veterans' accumulated wisdom and insight. Cheers!

  25. >Richard – Yes, that dance scene is powerfully charged, it felt more modern than I remembered. I can only imagine how shocking this book was when first released in serial form. I know some elements were suppressed from the serial releases.

  26. >I've been rereading Milan Kundera's 'essay in seven parts' The Curtain, and in it he makes an interesting observation re the extreme susceptibility that, according to him at least, the French have for things vulgaire:'Rereading Stendal's Lucien Leuwen', he writes, 'the fashionable drawing-room conversations, I pause over the key words that catch the various attitudes of the participants; vanité; vulgaire, esprit (wit – "that vitriolic acid eating at everything"); ridicule, politesse ("infinite manners, no feeling"); bien-pensante (right thinking). And I ask myself: What is the word that expresses the worst aesthetic reprobation the way the notion of kitsch expresses it for me? It finally comes to me: it is the word vulgaire, vulgarité.'Flaubert, I think, has a particular sensitivity to vulgarité, and whatever he may say in letters etc about keeping his opinions out of his writing, the careful, malicious detail – in MB in particular – is sufficient to give him away.Having said this, when I first read MB in my early 20s, it was this very aspect of his writing which stunned me. I had never read anything like it. I thought of it as an ideal kind of writing – lucid and bitterly honest. Although I reread MB a couple of years ago, in the same old translation, I realise I should reserve any elaboration of my slight disappointment until I can read it again in Lydia Davis's translation (in which I suspect the glass will be cleaner) or, failing that, get through on my own with my Gallimard edition and the inadequate Penguin beside it.I am enjoying reading your experiences of the new translation and everyone's comments here in meantime.jen

  27. >jen – I've got The Curtain in my book queue, what Kundera says about that susceptibility for vulgarity is spot on. I'm part French (maternal side). French sensitivity to vulgarity is as evident today as in Flaubert's time. I suspect it was a reaction to the collapse of absolute monarchy in 1789, and the social upheaval that followed.Like you, I read MB in my early 20s, maybe even slightly younger. My appreciation of and reaction to the book now is vastly different.Thanks for stopping by and the insightful comments.

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