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

Emma Bovary and I have met before, but we were not long acquainted. I started to read Flaubert’s novel in between high school and university, but I never finished it. Not even close, actually.

When we last moved house, I pulled out the folded piece of looseleaf that had marked my furthest point reached. It was discoloured, one side covered  — and the back partly so — with a pencilled list of all the words that I had read so far, but which I did not know.

That list gave me that weird, mixed-up feeling I sometimes get looking back at then-me: head-shaking and envying, finger-wagging and marvelling, and eye-rolling and gaping. I read it through and I vividly recall crouching there, in that strange echo-y, once-book-stuffed-and-now-box-stuffed space, reading a vocabulary list permeated with innocence and ignorance, all muddled up with five-dollar words.

That more recent then-me (likely overwhelmed by book packing) threw out the list, and the now-me regrets that. I’m curious what specifically in this novel tripped up the farther-back-then-me who couldn’t get into Madame Bovary.

But that’s a weird, mixed-up feeling too, because as much as I wonder what difficulties I might have had with the novel’s vocabulary (the words just don’t seem that hard, y’know?), I know full well what some of the other challenges were.

The long descriptive passages. The French words peppering the page. The pervasive sorrow and sense of disappointment.

But ever since, and more keenly in recent years, I’ve wanted to mend this severed relationship. Madame Bovary has felt decidedly undone and when I saw Frances’ announcement of the Read-a-long, I was thrilled.

And anxious. And, as the date approached, my determination mixed with that familiar sense of Reader’s-Burden. And soon I was feeling decidedly procrastinate-y. (And the fact that my other current read was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom likely wasn’t helping: can you imagine a more different novel?)*

But now I know Emma Bovary better than I ever did before. (Although you know that that’s not saying much. Simply reading Part One doesn’t equate to a true intimacy by any stretch, does it?)

And many of the qualities that I had remarked upon in that awkward phase of our reacquaintance, on an early morning commute which was largely comprised by rereading various parts of the first 20 pages, that began as potential difficulties (and which were likely deal-breakers for way-back-then-me) became pleasures.

Rich descriptive passages. Unmistakable regional flavour. Recognition of an intense loneliness that resonated at a basic human level.

It’s the same book. Yet experienced so differently. Which makes sense when you can measure different reading sessions across months, years, decades. But the now-me’s reading experience shifted over a morning’s reading session.

(One of the things I’m most looking forward to in this read-a-long is seeing how the reading experience has changed for those who have read it before. And for those who have not only read it before, but have re-read with an eye specifically to translation. Can’t wait!)

Here is one of the passages that stood out for me for its use of language. (And, yes, it’s quite likely that scarified would have been on my list, because I was a thorough list-maker, although I wonder why I wouldn’t have thought I could have approached that one with a good guess instead.)

“Charles’ mother came to see them now and again. But after a few days the daughter-in-law seemed to sharpen her on her own sharp edge, and they would both be at him like a pair of knives, scarifying him with their comments and criticisms!”  (32)

In-laws, sharpening each other on their own sharp edges. I love it. (Although this wouldn’t have helped draw in the way-back-then-me, who hadn’t any real experience of in-laws, and I doubt the passage would have seemed remarkable beyond that ten-dollar word in it.)

But when I looked for this passage online, I found, instead, the translation below, by Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

“Charles’s mother came to see them from time to time, but after a few days the daughter-in-law seemed to put her own edge on her, and then, like two knives, they scarified him with their reflections and observations.”

And of course this novel’s translation is likely what many participants will be discussing at length (which is fascinating, and I feel a bit sheepish because I had hoped to buy Lydia Davis’ version and have not, so I won’t be able to contribute in that way). But I’ll set this aside for now (and stop trying to combine these two into my perfect version of that memorable passage) and enjoy what others have to say on that subject.

I, myself, will concentrate on getting to know Emma Bovary.

And how she could use a friend. Does she not seem to desperately need someone with whom she could sit on a couch (er, settee?) and eat ice-cream (um, crème-glacée?).

Someone who might admit to her that they, too, thought words like blisspassion, and ecstasy had turned out to mean something completely unexpected?

“Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied that she must have been mistaken. and Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the words ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’, which had looked so beautiful in books.”

See, Emma Bovary and I have a shared confusion about vocabulary: we might make good friends yet.

But not in any way which would truly help this lonely, sad woman. “And all the time, deep within her, she was waiting for something to happen.” Sigh. “And so they would follow on, one after another, always the same; innumerable days that brought nothing.” Le Sigh. “Would this misery last for ever? Was there no escape? Was she not quite as good as all the lucky women?”
But I think I know what’s truly making Emma Bovary unhappy.

Actually, I think she considered the possibility as well, but perhaps she was simply too broken down, by that time, to recognize its authenticity.

“What was the use? What was the use? Sewing got on her nerves.
‘I’ve read everything,’ she said to herself.”

And, so, finally, a couple of reading decades later, a couple of reading commutes later, I decide that there will be something between the now-me and Emma Bovary after all. I’m sad without a good book, too. But, it looks like I’m not going to have that problem for the next while.

How are you and Emma Bovary getting along at the end of Part One?

* Actually, as I read on in Madame Bovary, I started to wonder if there weren’t some interesting similarities with Freedom too, but I can’t say for sure. At this point I am much better acquainted with Patty Berglund; Emma Bovary need to get cozier before I can start match-making.