Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857)
Trans. Alan Russell
Penguin, 1987

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that I was thrilled to join, and have wholly enjoyed the early discussion connected with, Frances’ readalong of this classic novel, one which I had false-started with as a younger woman but had long wanted to revisit.

And almost immediately I was struck by the sense that it was the perfect time to have done so. Not only are the comments of other participants a great incentive to read the text from perspectives I might not have considered as a solitary reader, but I felt that the books around me were cozying it to say that the time was right for Madame Bovary.

Early on, I was finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and it was a comfortable pairing superficially (Freedom too heavy and awkward for commuting: my Penguin mass market paperback light-weight and compact) and thematically (not in obvious ways, but several characters in Freedom grapple with disappointment and despair and look outside themselves for comfort, though I shan’t say more and cross into spoiler-territory). I was excited by the overlap, and thought the powers of the bookish universe were nudging me in Flaubert’s direction.

So imagine my delight when not one, but both of the contemporary novels that followed Franzen’s in my stack, not only meshed thematically (similar to Freedom’s thematic alignment), but mentioned Madame Bovary outright. I’d read about 30 pages of the second part at that point, and when I came across open allusions, I was all-but-clapping-my-hands, convinced the bookish stars were conspiring to make my second attempt at Gustav Flaubert’s classic a grand success.

There, in the pages of two 2010 novels, Michael Cunningham and David Bergen were chatting it up about my new friend, Emma Bovary. Yes, I was dead chuffed.

David Bergen’s character.

And of course that changes everything.

Don’t you think? I can’t go back to not knowing. And thanks to that single paragraph in The Matter with Morris, which succinctly summarized more than 300 of Flaubert’s pages, thanks to that, everything that I read about Emma Bovary is coloured by this advanced knowledge. And it’s my own fault, I suppose. For, if I think back, there are so many things that I might have done differently.

The now-me could have opted, instead, to read only one book at a time. She could have used that commute for listening, not reading. Or she could have walked to work for extra exercise rather than sit on a train and look for things to amuse herself. (I started chatting about the various me’s in my first post on Madame Bovary, if you’re interested enough to catch up.)

And let’s reach a little further back, to the then-me, the one who found that list of vocabulary from that first false-start with Madame Bovary when she was packing up her books to move house. She could have weeded that book collection, rather than just the papers inside them, and let that unread classic go to a second-hand shop. She could have stayed living where she was, instead of packing, which would have meant that Madame Bovary stayed on the shelf as-is, but it would also have meant staying in a situation infused with discord, which might not have invited careful reading of classic novels.

And the way-back-then-me? She could have plowed through that deadened reading experience, hated the novel, passed it onto a friend and dismissed the thought of ever re-reading. She could have decided that a lifetime of reading murder mysteries was preferable and abandoned all classics from that point on.

And the way-further-back me? She might have tried harder at sports and left the books on the shelf.

Which is, you might be grateful to know, all directly related to my immediate experience of reading Madame Bovary. To the desperate need to trace back. To understand: where was the point at which things changed? Changed so fundamentally that the course of events theretofore was so dramatically different from “what might have been”?

Where did things take such a dramatic turn for Emma? I try to trace back her choices, moving backwards from the end of Part Two, the moments which might have been most significant.

When Leon returns to town?
When Rodolphe leaves town?
When Rodolphe first flatters?
When Leon first flirts?
When Emma first realises that married life isn’t what she thought?
When Charles first proposes to Emma?

Or, is it a moment in the way-further-back-Emma’s life that isn’t even captured in Flaubert’s novel? The moment at which she realized that she has very few options available to her as a provincial daughter and that she’d best put her mind to finding a position as a provincial wife and hope for the best?

Well, for those who are reading along, who already know the story, you can imagine what I’m struggling with here.

But even for those who are just finishing part two, which, really, is where I am at in the story as well, despite suddenly being privy to more than was contained in this week’s hundred pages, I’m sure you’re identifying the same snarl. Albeit before the knot is pulled tight. Emma is definitely in a mess, isn’t she. That we do know, irrevocably, by the end of part two.

To pull a quote from the Michael Cunningham novel, the one that doesn’t spoil everything:

“Maybe it’s not, in the end, the virtue of others that so wrenches our hearts as it is the sense of almost unbearably poignant recognition when we see them at their most base, in their sorrow and gluttony and foolishness. You need the virtues, too — some sort of virtues — but we don’t care about Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Raskolnikov because they’re good. We care about them because they’re not admirable, because they’re us, and because great writers have forgiven them for it.”

Does Flaubert forgive her? I don’t know the answer to that yet.

But I know that the character who was discussing Emma Bovary in the David Bergen novel (the One Who Spoiled Everything) did not. She held Emma fully and wholly accountable. And what’s with that?

Does blame ever really lie with just one person? (I can’t really hold the character in The Matter with Morris wholly and completely responsible for revealing this plot point to me either, when there are clearly so many other, seemingly innocuous choices that I, myself, made, which led to my reading that novel at the same time.)

At the very least, shouldn’t we have a look at Rodolphe, who clearly had a habit of picking up with women and leaving them behind when he tired of them? Shouldn’t we glance at the knife-sharp/Charles-loving mother-in-law? Eye the well-intentioned/underachieving husband? Or the lending-librarian for stocking overly romantic novels? Or the chemist for needing an assistant?

I still don’t know where things went wrong, but I don’t think there’s a tidy answer to that question either. Perhaps it’s there, in that muddy trackback between Emma Bovary’s then and her now, that leaves so many readers fascinated with the tale so many years later, so many re-starts and re-reads later.

What do you think: where do things turn?