Emily’s post, at the wonderful Evening All Afternoon, on Madame Bovary, and the subsequent discussion in Comments is fascinating, specifically on voice and narration in Flaubert’s intriguing masterpiece.
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.
“Just as, according to Proust, all Dostoevsky’s novels could well be called Crime and Punishment and all Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, so all Bellow’s could be called Dangling Man.”
I don’t know how difficult it was for Saul Bellow to find a publisher for his first book, Dangling Man. Reading his memoir and biography comes later into my planned immersion into Bellow’s work. At any stage in a writer’s oeuvre, this book would stand out, as a debut it is breathtaking. It makes Josipovici’s quote, above, a compliment.
Written as a journal, there is no identifiable plot, merely a few set pieces and the words of a broadly sympathetic but not always likeable narrator. It is necessary to ask to what end the journal is kept? Who is the expected reader? There is always an anticipated audience, however private a journal. Although the journal format could be limiting, Bellow uses it creatively to open up space for this remarkable story to be unfold.
Aside from narrator Joseph, the other large character in Dangling Man is 1940’s Chicago. I’m not sure that I can wait for my scheduled 2012 assignment in Chicago. Bellow, as I mentioned before, deftly gives a sense of time and place. I was eagerly Googling pictures of Chicago during 1942-44 to establish my presence in the city during my reading of this book. The smells, sounds and weather of the city came to life, and I rode invisibly beside Joseph on the trams, the ‘El’ and ate in the diners. Here a brief establishing shot, and a few pictures I found:
At eleven I had a haircut. I went as far as Sixty-third Street for lunch and ate at a white counter amid smells of frying fish, looking out on the iron piers in the street and the huge paving bricks like the plates of the boiler-room floor in a huge liner. Above the restaurant, on the other corner, a hamburger jar with arms and legs balanced on a fiery wire, leaned toward a jar of mustard. I wiped up the sweet sediment in my cup with a piece of bread and went out to walk through large melting flakes. I wandered through a ten-cent store, examining the comic valentines, thought of buying envelopes, and bought instead a bag of chocolate creams. I ate them hungrily. Next, I was drawn to the shooting gallery. I paid for twenty shots and fired less than half, hitting none of the targets. Back in the street, I warmed myself at a salamander flaming in an oil drum near a newsstand with its wall of magazines erected under the shelter of the El.
I’m participating in Nonsuch Book’s Madame Bovary ‘Group Read’ starting on 14 October. It’s been twenty years since I last read the novel, which I considered one of my favourites at the time. My sense of anticipation is fuelled by this first rate article about the new translation:
Perfect translation, in the common-sense fantasy of one-to-one correspondence, is of course impossible. Even the simplest message, moved from one language to another, inevitably gets warped: It loses its music, its cultural resonance, and the special pace at which it surrenders its information. This warpage is magnified, by a factor of roughly 10 million, in the case of Madame Bovary.
Saul Bellow disappeared off the edge of my literary radar. Perhaps he caught the tailwind of my growing disenchantment with the novels of Philip Roth. Gabriel Josipovici’s brilliant essay on Saul Bellow, in his 1977 collection The Lessons of Modernism, has reinvigorated a neglected passion. This year sees the publication of a collection of Bellow’s letters and a third volume of The Library of America series. Both of which I look forward to reading.
The essay on Bellow recalls that unique tone of voice, that combines “the utmost formality with the utmost desperation.” He goes on to say:
Bellow has been described as a great realist; as a follower of Dreiser and the American urban naturalist tradition; as a great fantasist, especially in Henderson the Rain King; and as the last of the Yiddish storytellers. But these are ways of shrugging of the demands of that voice, of avoiding its implications by placing it safely in a literary or historical context. Bellow is too important a writer to have this done to him.
“Just as,” continues Josipovici, “according to Proust, all Dostoevsky’s novels could well be called Crime and Punishment and all Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, so all Bellow’s could be called Dangling Man.”
It is with Dangling Man I will start my Bellow immersion in the autumn. Inspired by Bibliographing’s Melville project, my intention is to read the fifteen novels, short stories, essay collection and Bellow’s memoir.
What I’ve termed my disenchantment with Philip Roth is, I hope, merely a phase. I can only endorse the suggestion of starting to read Roth with The Ghost Writer, an exceptional novel. The Library of America recently issued a sixth volume in the Roth series, and a new novel is due.