Friday, February 03, 2012

Madame Bovary, A Story of Really Miserable People

Yesterday sucked. It actually wasn't the day's fault, but there were meetings with bigwigs and people-stress and daycare WTFery and just ridiculousness. I'm glad yesterday is over and I can enjoy today -- a Friday filled with afternoon and evening time to read and grade papers. Well, it's all good except the paper grading part. I have a class this afternoon, but they're working on a project for the majority of the time in class, so it should work in my favor.

Getting beyond the crapfest that was most of you know, Heather and I did a buddy read of Gustave Flaubert's much-drooled-upon, Madame Bovary. Many of those lists of best books say this is the second best book in the stratosphere right after Anna Karenina. I haven't read Anna K. so I have no idea about the ranking, but I'm also a little curious as to how in the world this became the second best book in history? I wasn't included on that vote.

This was not a bad book. Not bad at all, in fact. Like most Realist novels, it's filled with characters who are annoying and who are tortured (sometimes) to death. In interesting and unique ways. My experience before MB was largely limited to Theodore Dreiser's American realist novel, Sister Carrie, which came WAY after MB. But the basic tenets are the same: characters who have a icky lot in life. Done!

Here's a short synopsis:
Emma marries Charles Bovary who she initially thinks is quite fine enough to save her from living with her father. After she's married she's bored and begins to think Charles is icky. She has an overblown sense of the romantic from reading lots of novels that have filled her head with nonsense (damn reading women!!!). Misery leads to adultery and lots of stupidity and she's miserable and adulterous for a long, long time. And stuff.

First off, I did not hate Emma Bovary as much as the average reader. She was quite a silly woman, bored, needed more manual labor to keep her busy (as is once proposed in the novel). She is certainly the epitome of selfishness by the time it all goes to hell, but I still didn't hate her. This book reminds me of the same themes at work in the short short story, "The Story of an Hour," by Kate Chopin (two pages vs. 400 in this novel). Women had no choice but to marry if they were going to have anything in life, and they often ended up stranded and miserable. Given, her husband loved her but she was not fulfilled in a number of ways. Does it make her actions right? NO. Was she a goober? YES. But I don't hate her. There were a lot of issues of circumstance that set off a chain reaction of gargantuan proportions.

The readability of this novel really surprised me. I downloaded the Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation because it was cheap, and then I discovered that it's largely considered the worst translation of anything ever. BUT, despite that, it was still a quick read. We zipped through in a week. If Lydia Davis's translation is considered the best thing ever, then I want to read it one day to see what all the fuss is about. Note: Marx-Aveling was THAT Marx's daughter. Yep! Daughter of Karl Marx did the first English translation of this novel. High five!

Like any red-blooded 30-something, I was also initially interested in the scandal that went along with this novel. It's supposed to be right up there with Lady Chatterley in the "holy shit this is scandalous" category. But I have news for all of you pervs out there: there are no jiggling loins or heaving bosoms in this novel. I know, I know...I was disappointed, too. There was one very shady foray in an arbor and one bouncing carriage and that's it. That's all I've got. There's a big difference between 1857 and 1928 in the writerly sexuala department. Still, I know why it blew people's hair back in the 1850s. I get it.

 I am glad glad glad this was my first classic of 2012. It was a great reading experience (though I still don't think it's the second best book in the universe). It was even cooler to read it with Heather and gossip about Emma Bovary everyday. That little tart sure does give a reader food for thought.

Snuggle -- Skewer

Pub. Date: 1857
Publisher: No idea
Format: E-book
Source: Purchased by me.


  1. Well, you already know how much I hated Emma, so much that when the spoiler climax came, my only thought was "oh thank god finally!" I had been praying for that moment, hoping it would come (I didn't know the plot beforehand) for about 150 pages before that...haha!

    Lady Chatterley's Lover. That's another one I hated. Actually, it's one of the only books I've ever abandoned when I was already over 75% through with it...I just couldn't muster up any ability to care how it ended, or what happened to any of the characters. Maybe the scandelous thing happens in the last quarter? I don't remember anything particularly scandalous before then.

  2. I love your review, Andi. I read MB many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it, finding it much easier to read than I thought it would be. I also believe Flaubert is in sympathy with his creature......she is, as you say, a victim (in spite of her annoying personality) of her 'class', and the time she lived in.

    Speaking of Dreiser, if you want more torture (I assume you do not) why not read his 'An American Tragedy'....worse than 'Sister Carrie', both were required reading in my undergrad course, 'The American Novel'. Thank God the Professor was the best I ever had, or we all would have been tearing our hair out on a daily basis!

  3. This is one of my favorite classics. Something about Flaubert's writing just makes me enjoy it despite how annoying some of the characters may be. It's been a while since I've read it and you've got me thinking I need to pick it up again soon (aka try this fancy translation).

    Oh, and this killed me, "Still, I know why it blew people's hair back in the 1850s."

    So funny! Great review and glad to see you enjoyed it. It does provide much to gossip about :)

  4. I didn't know there were choices of translations of books like this. The book must be pretty good if you enjoyed the worst translation ever. I hope your weekend is fabulous.

  5. I liked this one both times I read, but it didn't amaze me, know what I mean?

    But yeah, definitely not scandalous by today's standards. :)

  6. I am thinking if I read this it wouldn't necessarily top my best of lists...

  7. I seriously love that you called her a goober. I didn't think anyone used that word besides me and my mother.

    Haven't read this, but I just might give it a shot. Even if Emma is a goober.

  8. I think I actually hated Emma, but I enjoyed hating her which made me enjoy the book - not sure if that logic even makes sense. Also - some of my favorite literary quotes were penned by Flaubert so I'm a fan. Loved the review - giggled several times!

  9. Madame Bovary is one of my favorite books EVAH. Flaubert's precision with language is ridiculous in a good way). It would take him days to find the exact word to complete a sentence. It's poetry.

  10. I had such a ball reading this with you. I think most of my enjoyment came from that, even though I did really like the book. I'm so glad we're reading Vanity Fair together now.

    You know I almost typed Vanity Fairy, right? :D

    I'm working on my review, hope to have it up next week.

  11. I really liked Emma, I know she was very selfish in the end but I couldn't help but like her. She had too much time on her hands...

    Having read both Anna K and this, Anna K is definitely much better on all fronts. It's just a much richer story and about more than just Anna.

    And I was also expecting Madame Bovary to be scandalous....

  12. This is one of the classics that I haven't read and I'm thinking it can wait.

  13. I love this novel. I've only actually read it in the original French, first when I was at university (way back when..)but it's been a few years since I've re-read it. I reserved the Lydia Davis translation at the library and it's arrived! So this will be my next(ish) read barring review books etc. The vast majority of translations are woeful so I will report back on how Miss Lydia fares...

  14. Amanda, LOL! It was quite an...effective...climax eh? He got her good. Lady Chatterley was really hard to get through. It was one of those books that I had to MAKE myself reading 10+ pages a day until I could finally get into it and whip through the ending. It was one I ended up "appreciating" for its discussion of class and the effects of war. I read it in my early 20s with a book club, so it's another one I'd be interested in re-reading just to see how it survives the years of my reading.

  15. Thanks, Andee! I am a sucker for any book that carefully dissects issues of class, so this one wins in that regard, for sure. I actually liked Dreiser! Sorry if I gave the impression I did not. I definitely plan to read An American Tragedy. Sometimes the misery can be overkill in realist novels, but oftentimes I get a sick kick out of them. Ha!

    Thanks, Beth! It was a good read. I'm also interested to see how many Bovary references I catch in other books and on TV and in movies now. The Home Improvement episode with the book club comes immediately to mind. lol Glad to have read this one!

    Thanks, Kathy! Not sure how many times this one has been translated, but I do know Marx-Aveling and Lydia Davis are supposed to be polar opposites in the translation department. I figure if I liked the bad choice, I might like the "good" choice even more! We'll see one day. :)

  16. Allie, I do know what you mean. The ones I like OK enough but that don't thrill me to death are typically "appreciate" books. I liked this one more than a simple "appreciation." I would read it again one day.

    Kelly, realism is most definitely an acquired taste. I don't mind it because it makes me giggle most of the time.

    Emily, I goober a lot when I'm trying to avoid the word "dumbass." :DDD Goober comes in very handy, especially with kids in the house.

    Thanks, Brooke! I know exactly what you mean. Some of the best characters are "love to hate" characters. There was one of those in State of Wonder, which I finished last night. Awesome!

    Amanda, I read that about Flaubert, and I can believe it. He was very precise and the writing was tight, and I appreciate that. It's one of the facets of the book that made it a very quick read for me.

  17. Looking forward to your review, Heatheroo! I most definitely think our ongoing discussion added a lot to my reading of this novel. Totally gossipworthy, right?! I'm digging into Vanity Fair most this week. I've been reading it at night before bed and am a couple of chapters in. I got my physical copy, so I'll have that monster to lug around. lol

    Sam, pretty anticlimactic in the scandal department, right??! Oh well! Will definitely be giving Anna Karenina a try sooner than later. Even faced with its gargantuan size, I'm going to be brave and just do it. And I'm scared of Russian novels. Did I mention that?! Eeek!

    LOL, Kathleen! The characters are ones you'd love to hate!

    Lovely Treez, I'm envious that you read it in the original French. I'm sure there's a huge difference. I'm excited to read your thoughts of the Lydia Davis translation!

  18. I really liked this book when I read it for English class in high school. I didn't like any of the characters. Actually, now that I think of it, I wonder if I liked the book when I read it or if I appreciate it more now, having read it many years ago. I think you should try to read a good translation- as others have mentioned, Flaubert was VERY precise with the words he chose to use, so it's only fair that the translator makes the same effort. Also, some of the scenes are just hilarious! Like when Emma goes on that "tour" of Paris with her lover...

  19. I've had this one on my shelves for so long, it's possible the pages are freaking disintegrating. Clearly, I should read it soon.


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