Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary is one of those books I constantly passed up. Don’t ask me why, it just never happened.  Admired by nearly every writer I’ve read, Gustave Flaubert was not always such a literary darling. Serialized in 1856, Bovary was condemned by French courts for obscenity.  Like most other forms of censorship, the suppression only produced the inverse; the novel became a hit and Flaubert was acquitted. So what still makes this book so notorious?

As noted by most readers and scholars, Madame Bovary ironically opens (and closes) with Charles Bovary, a provincial boy from the Northern French province of Normandy.  Arriving in the classroom on the first day of school, young Charles is ridiculed for a ridiculous hat.  As he grows older, Charles manages a subpar medical degree and position in the Public Health Service.  After his studies, a widow is chosen by Charles’s mother to be his wife. The couple head off to the village of Tostes after the marriage to begin a practice and life of their own.

During one of his home visits, Charles meets Emma Rouault, a beautiful young daughter of a farm-owner. Fixing the owner’s broken leg, the doctor earnestly returns to re-affirm the successful procedure. When Charles’s visits become questionable to his wife, she forbids him from visiting. Eventually his wife dies, and after a brief period of sadness, Charles pursues Emma.

Now we focus on Emma. While Charles is a caring, but dull husband, Emma yearns for the luxurious lifestyle from popular novels. This fantasy becomes a seeming reality when the couple attends a ball giving by a nearby Marquis. The lavish soiree paves a posh life in Emma’s mind and contempt for her current marriage. Though escaping her provincial life for a more proper one isn’t as easy as Emma would wish.

One of the most important, yet overlooked, aspects of Madame Bovary is the subtitle: ‘Mouers de Province'(Provincial Lives).  As mentioned in the Geoffrey Wall’s IntroductionFlaubert kept a scrapbook entitled The Dictionary of Received Ideas, where the “voices” of his village in Normandy were recorded.*  When Charles and Emma relocate to Yonville (where most of the novel is centered), a wide array of characters enter the text.  Much like the Bovarys, we enter a new social group, and becoming acquainted with the village characters takes time.  By the end of the novel, we find Flaubert’s inclusion of these seemingly superfluous inhabitants much to our delight:

Clattering across the floorboards in his clogs, he went up the stairs in front of Emma, and showed her into a little office, where on a large pinewood desk stood a number of ledgers, secured behind a padlocked iron bar. Against the wall, under some calico remnants, you could just see a safe, but one of such dimensions that must have contained other things besides the bills and money. Monsieur Lheureux made small loans on security, and this was where he kept Madame Bovary’s gold chain, along with the earrings of poor Pere Tellier, who, forced eventually to sell up, had bought an ailing grocery business in Quincampoix, where he was dying of a catarrh, with a face yellower than the candles in his shop.”

As you can tell the excerpt above, Flaubert makes careful use of his voice.  Known for his re-writes, the author composed over 4,561 pages in which 400 became Madame Bovary. This certainty of writing within the novel allows Flaubert to be a “pioneer” of Realism in literature. The main component of movement is, as you imagine, reality over romantic notions that previously held a foothold in narratives. Despite Bovary‘s airy prose, the author even makes explicit mention of grounded parochial landscape over former Romantic themes. Notice Charles’s Mother attack her son on Emma’s “spoilt” reading habits:

“Ah! Busy indeed!  And with what?  Busy reading novels, wicked books, things written against religion where priests are made a mockery with speeches taken from Voltaire.  It al leads to no good, my poor boy, and anyone with no religion always comes to a bad end...Therefore, it was decided to prevent Emma from reading novels.  This was by no means an easy matter.  The old lady took it upon herself: on her way through Rouen she was to call in person at the lending library and notify them that Emma was canceling her subscriptions. Would they not have the right to tell the police, if the librarian still persisted in this poisonous trade?”

There is much difficulty in finding fault within Madame Bovary‘s pages.  Henry James dedicated a significant portion in his 1914 book on literary criticism, Notes on Novelist:

“‘Madame Bovary’ beyond question, holds first place…The elements of the picture are of the fewest, the situation of the heroine almost of the meanest, the material for interest most unpromising; but all these facts only throw into relief one of those incalculable incidents that the proceedings of genius.” 

And later Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa would pen an autobiographical admiration for Flaubert’s novel in The Perpetual OrgyFlaubert and Madame Bovary:

“In the summer of 1959 I arrived in Paris with very little money and the promise of a scholarship.  One of the first things I did was to buy a copy of ‘Madame Bovary’ in the Classiques Garnier edition, in a bookstore in the Latin Quarter.  I began reading it that very afternoon, in a tiny room in the Hôtel Wetter, near the Musée Cluny. It is at this point that my story really begins.  From the very first lines, the books power of persuasion was like an extremely potent magic spell.  It had been years since any novel had vampirized my attention so quickly, blotted out my physical surroundings so completely, plunged me so deeply into the story it told.  As the afternoon wore on, as night fell, as dawn began to break, the magical decantation, the substitution of the fictional world for the real one, held me spellbound.  Morning had already come, Emma and Léon had just met in a box at the Rouen opera when, dizzy with fatigue, I put the book down and went to bed: in my troubled sleep at that hour the Rouaults farm, the muddy streets of Tostes, the figure of Charles, good-natured and stupid, the ponderous pedantry of Homais (who might well have been Argentine) continued to exist, as vividly as when I’d been reading about themand above these persons and these places, like an image foreshadowed in a thousand childhood dreams, dimly glimpsed from the moment I’d begun devouring books so avidly in adolescence, there hovered the face of Emma Bovary. As I woke up so as to go on reading, two certainties flashed through my mind, like two bolts of lightning: I now knew what writer I would have liked to be; and I knew that from that moment on, till my dying day, I would be in love with Emma Bovary.  In the future she would be for me, as for Léon Dupuis in the first days of their affair, “the beloved of every novel, the heroine of every play, the vague she of every volume of verse.” “

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary legacy obviously carries on today; why else would I feel bad about not reading it until now?  Despite it’s intoxicating prose and Vargas’s obsessive reading of the novel, I took my time dipping into the provincial lives outside of Rouen – why rush reading about a location where time stands still?  My advice is to fill yourself with the comedy, romance, and tragedy of Madame Bovary and enjoy the country landscape as Flaubert did, even if it’s trivial.

*Though Flaubert condemned with narrow minds, he would remained cooped up and kept company by the middle class he so loathed.

Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

Picking up Pale Fire, I had no idea what to do with it. In fact, (I’m very ashamed of this) I did research on the best way to read Nabokov’s 1962 novel. At first glance, the book split into a 999-line poem entitled ‘Pale Fire’ by a late poet named John Shade and an annotated commentary from his peculiar friend & colleague Charles Kinbote, appears incredibly daunting.

Kinbote’s Forward and Shade’s poem amount to 84 pages of Pale Fire while the Commentary fills the other 130 pages. The annotations corresponding to lines in the poem. “I find it wise to purchase two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table”, Kinbote explains in the Forward.  Don’t doubt him

Set in the small town of New Wye, Appalachia (where else?), poet John Shade begins a 999-line autobiographical poem. Little does he know that it would be his last. Closely examining Shade through his shutters and sidewalk, neighbor Charles Kinbote, (at least from what he tells us in the Commentary) becomes privy to Shade’s poem and sees his chance to insert a story of his own.

Kinbote claims he influenced Shade to write the autobiographical poem, but also the escape of the disposed king of Zembla, his mother country. So along with gleaning anecdotes from the life of John Shade, we also follow the young King Charles and his would-be (and clumsy) assassin, Gradus

Since its publication in 1962 to present day, ‘Pale Fire’ has received mixed reviews. Even TIME, whose Top 100 list influenced us to create this site, was unsure how to feel about the novel, citing that despite the great writing, its failure as a satire. Nabokov would be vindicated when the novel was included in their list in 2005.

“I think it is a perfectly straightforward novel. The clearest revelation of personality is to be found in the creative work in which a given individual indulges. Here the poet is revealed by his poetry; the commentator by his commentary”, Nabokov stated in the 1962 article from the New York Herald.

We’re lead back and forth throughout the novel with occassional hints in the Commentary to the poet’s life of John Shade and method behind Kinbote’s madness. While the task may seem overly tedious and dauntinig, the author is right,  Pale Fire really is a simple novel. Nabokov excels in not necessarily his prose, which is always outstanding, but rather in the reflection he thrust upon the reader.

“Pale Fire is full of plums I keep hoping someone will find.”  Nabokov stated in the same interview. While I would love to delve into all the theories of the novel, (Pekka Tammi listed over 80 in 1995), it’s better to make your own interpretation of Pale Fire.The journey from A to B is entertaining enough as is, but reaching C is truly brilliant.  Personally, I think the novel refuses any true theory. Like Audeberti said, ‘The most obscure poem is written for everyone.”

On the other side of criticism, Anthony Burgess would applaud Pale Fire, including it in his best English novels from 1939-1983.  “Pale Fire is only termed a novel because there’s  no other term for it. It’s a masterly literary artifact which is poem, commentaryallegory, casebook, sheer structure.”  Also adding a point I found most interesting, “But I note that most people go back to reading the poem, not what surrounds the poem. It’s a fine poem, of course.

Though what I found the most enjoyable in Pale Fire was Nabokov’s mastery in storytelling. Unlike the blurring of reality and fantasy we see in Lolita and Pnin (I point to Humbert Humbert’s surreal fantasies and Pnin’s lakeside reflections) Pale Fire works in a realm all of its own.  Rather than make his tale more concrete, Nabokov makes us question the validity in anything and everything within the binding. “It’s a Do-It Yourself kit”, Mary McCarthy states in her acclaimed review.

As we slowly piece together the life of late poet John Shade, question the sanity of our commentator Charles Kinbote, and sit in suspense as the cat-and-mouse game between Charles Xavier and Gradus reaches it’s climax, we are always in a pleasant state of solace with our Russian babysitter, Vladimir Nabokov:

“By the end of May I could make out the outlines of some of my images in the shape his genius might give them; by mid-June I felt sure at last that he would recreate in a poem the dazzling Zembla burning in my brain. I mesmerized him with it, I saturated him with my vision, I pressed upon him, with a drunkard’s wild generosity, all that I was helpless myself to put into verse. Surely, it would not be easy to discover in the history of poetry a similar case- that of two men, different in origin, upbringing, thought associations, spiritual intonation and mental mode, one a cosmopolitan scholar, the other a fireside poet, entering into a secret compact of this kind. At length I knew he was ripe with my Zembla, bursting with suitable rhymes, ready to spurt at the brush of an eyelash.”

Claudius the God and his wife Messalina – Robert Graves

After finishing I, Claudius this summer, I immediately put the novel on my ‘Favorite Books’ list. Robert Graves 1934 fictionalized autobiography of the the history of Rome and the ascension of it’s fourth mperor Claudius, was informational and simply a great read. In the first  novel, Claudius is secretly writing his memoirs, which display the melodrama that encapsulate Rome.  Graves continued his history a year later with the sequel Claudius the God and his wife Messalina.

Instead of hiding in the shadows and filling in as the butt of jokes, Claudius is now emperor of all Rome-a title reluctantly thrust upon him after Caligula’s assassination. After a brief power struggle between the distrustful Senate and Army’s preference for Claudius, the newly crowned emperor eventually allowed power to speak for him. But unlike the selfish and nonsensical deeds of his predecessors, Claudius’s reign was to improve general life in Rome.

As the rational figurehead, Claudius manages to bring about a wondrous collection of reforms to the judicial system and expand the boarders of the Empire to Britain. Though if there is anything you can be sure of in Old Rome, it’s that peace and prosperity are fleeting. Claudius’s young wife Messalina begins to abuse her power as the Emperor’s wife and plans to usurp the ivory clad crown with the help of overly ambitious Senators. Will Claudius be able to save himself from the violent fate that ended his predecessors?

Graves sequel to his 1934 novel is certainly a stand alone achievement. The poet-author does justice to the 13 year reign of Claudius into a neat 500 page volume. But the novel is also much more than simply a story of a former outcast turned emperor. Graves also flexes his historical muscles by including the history of Herod Agrippa (Better remembered as Herod the Great’). This interruption, while informational, reads a bit excessively. After hyping up the continuation of the cliffhanger I, Claudius ended on, Graves diverts us within the first chapter. A major love I have for the collective novels is the bawdy tales that occur within Rome, and while Herod is by no means a morally upstanding citizen, his tales fail in comparison to the insanity of Tiberius or Caligula. But where Herod fails in impurity, he makes up for in advice to his closest friend, Claudius:

“Nevertheless’, he said, ‘since you appear to be in need of my advice I am prepared to speak frankly. The republican form of government appears to me in certain circumstances a most estimable thing. I would say the same of a benignant monarchy. Nobody can, in my opinion, make a hard-and-fast pronouncement that one form of government is essentially better than the other. The suitability of each form depends on the temper of the people, the capacity of the ruler or rulers, the geographical extent of the State, and so on. Only one general rule can be made, and it is this: No sensible man would give -that” (here he gave a contemptuous snap with his fingers) “for any government, whether democratic, plutocratic, aristocratic, that cannot count on the loyal support of the armed forces of the State over which it pretends to rule. And so, my Lords, before I begin to offer you any practical advice I must ask you a question. My question is: Have you the army behind you?”

In I, Claudius the most compelling stories concerned everyone except the title character, but in the subsequent volume he is truly the only character I cared about. Graves tellingly long sentences craft the newly crowned emperor with regal prose. He ages his Roman mouthpiece with despotic and physical manner that pleases fans of the first novel as well as making a compelling history:

“I continued my reforms at Rome, especially doing all I could to create a sense of public responsibility in my subordinates. I appointed the Treasury officials whom I had been training and made their appointments run for three years. I dismissed from the Senatorial Order the Governor of Southern Spain becuase he could not clearn himself of the charges brought against him by the troops serving in Morocco that he had cheated them of half their corn rations. Other charges of fraud were brought against him too, and he had to pay a hundred thousand gold pieces. He went round to his friends trying to gain their smpathy by telling them that the charges were framed by Posides and Palllas whom he had offended by remembering their slavish birth. But he got little sympathy. One early morning this governor brought all his house furniture, which made about three hundred wagon-loads of exceptionally valuable pieces, to the public auction-place. This caused a lot of excitement because he had an unrivalled collection of Corinthian vessels. All the dealers and connoisseurs came crowding up, licking their lips and searching round for bargains. But they were dissapointed. When the spear was stuck upright in the ground, to show that a public auction was in progress, all that the senator sold was his gown. Then he had the spear pulled out again to show that the auction was over, and that night at midnight, when wagons were allowed in the streets again, he took his stuff back home. He was merely showing everyone that he had plently of money stll and could live very comfortably as a private citizen. However, I was not going to let the insult pass. I put a heavy tax on Corinthian vessels that year, which he could not evade because he had publicly displayed his collection and even listed them on the auction board. “

But the book is not without its faults. When Graves finds his poetic rhythm Claudius the God it’s a real treat, but it’s definitely less lucid than it’s predecessor. While doing fair justice to all of Claudius’s achievements and blunders, the author is willing to dull his audience. In particularly, the excessively long and dull British campaign.

In the end, I hesitate to call Claudius the God a sequel, but rather a lengthy epilogue. While there are frequent allusions to characters and events, the tone of the subsequent novel is much less fulfilling-that shouldn’t stray you from reading the novels though. What Graves may lack in passages of excitement, he makes up for in his accurate voice of his muse, his outcast, his Emperor, his Claudius.

-Surviving fragments from an actual speech from Claudius on allowing citizenship to the French provinces:

“It was the will of my uncle, the Emperor Tiberius, that all leading colonies and provincial towns in Italy should have representatives sitting in this House; and representatives were indeed found with the necessary qualifications of character and wealth. ‘Yes’, you will say, ‘but there is a difference between an Italian senator and a senator from abroad.’ Well, when I begin justifying to you part of my action, as Censor, in extending full Roman citizenship to the provinces, I shall show you just how I feel on the matter. But let me say briefly that I do not think we ought to debar provincials from a seat in this House, if they can give credit to it, merely because they are provincials. The renowned and splendid colony of Vienne, in France, has been sending us Senators for a long time now, has it not? My dear friend Lucius Vestinus comes from Vienne: he is one of the most distinguished members of the Noble Order of Knights and I employ him to assist me with my administrative duties. “