The other day I was talking to someone about those classic pieces of literature that are so often avoided, blotted out by their own reputations. But there is a special thrill in reading one anyway and finding its reputation is warranted, not just historically but also in the present.
This past week I read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The prose is wonderful and fluid, casting itself over you like silk. But there is an ugliness to it too, in the way the bodies of the novel are made all too human. From the very moment Charles Bovary, the local doctor, meets his future wife, for instance, he cannot help but scrutinise her with an anatomical eye.
This is not French impressionism but the body horror of photographic realism. Clothes and furniture, homes and landscapes, all of them radiate with warmth, so beautifully described. But the bodies of the various characters populate these spaces like so many objects, and always fail to be quite so refined.
I can’t help but think about how Flaubert’s novel — often described as the first “modern” novel — emerged just a few decades after the invention of photography. Photography was then providing the bourgeoisie with a new way of looking at themselves, as well as a new way of scrutinising their lessers. Madame Bovary was surely inspired by the camera, I kept thinking to myself over the course of my read — it does both so well.
Though the novel is, in some ways, about social mobility, Flaubert makes the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as grotesque as each other. He goes to great pains to describe the weathered bodies of labourers and the sinewy bodies of the wealthy and inactive. Still, the novel was loved, showing that nineteenth century narcissism had not yet settled into awkward self-awareness. The thrill of self-recognition overshadowed the unflattering nature of the reflection.
The back of the Penguin edition I own ignores this tension. It champions the novel’s realism and popularity, noting how many women identified with Emma Bovary. Still, it is interesting to know. I’m sure Flaubert would have loved its reception, in spite of its misanthropy. The admiration bestowed upon it only seems to confirm his view of his own time, as well as his own medium.
In the novel itself, Emma Bovary’s downfall is foreshadowed by her love of books. It is a novel about the novel as a threat to society — a novel that relishes its self-reflexive and cynical critique.
I wonder, was Madame Bovary to 1850s France what Videodrome was to 1980s America? The novel will be the end of us; long life the novel.
Long live the new flesh!