Madam Bovary

It’s not very often that I sit down to dissect how a book has made me feel. I usually prefer to remember it by the mess of emotion it inspires – to look further feels like limiting its complexity with my own lack of understanding. Madam Bovary is different. This is not a book that accidentally came into my hands, I went to it looking for answers; I went looking for a voice to tell me I am not alone. There are a few moments in your life when you have a sudden craving to read a novel about a bored stay-at-home provincial mom who has adulterous affairs, gets bored again, gets into debt, and finally finishes herself off with handful of arsenic. I had one of those moments. It was the word ‘bored’ that hooked me, and maybe the suicide. Or maybe it was because I had fallen in love with the book even before I had read it – ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ by Julian Barnes had introduced me to a line that has haunted me since I first read it – “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” The truth and beauty in that single sentence made me hope that maybe Flaubert had dredged the depths of this existence, and found something, anything, worth salvaging and turning into art. But he is merciless – Flaubert gives his characters no redeeming quality to hide behind – he reveals all, shining a bright light as he straps them to a dissection table and drives a scalpel into their weakest spots. The book said exactly what I thought it would – that there is no real answer for our constant clamouring for more, more, more, that we, as a race, have nothing much to show for ourselves, that there is no such thing as true love. When I turned the last page, I was left feeling sad, not because Flaubert denied me the consolation I craved, but because I realised the book was not about Madame Bovary at all. There was too much anger, and not enough compassion. The book begins with Monsieur Bovary and ends with Monsieur Homais – one the embodiment of mediocrity, the other of self-importance. The good madame was an elaborate set-up, a Trojan Horse for Flaubert to launch his attack against his times – moneylenders, clerics, quacks, social hierarchies, marriage, mistresses, fiction, Paris, love – he lashed out at it all. Each character was a carefully aimed arrowhead, driven by only one motivation, one flaw. They are not caricatures, but – but, I trip over my own interjection, wondering if it is some dying flame of idealism in me that keep insisting “he’s wrong! he’s wrong!” If they had been mere caricatures, how could they be so true? His characters do not lean on the arm of an omniscient narrator, Flaubert hides his puppet strings well – the only flaw in their creation being the character’s ignorance of their own flaws, and lack of attempt to rise above them. Flaubert never gives them the chance to even try to redeem themselves, and because of that, the entire book is washed by a single brush stroke of gloom that reduces the story to a well-mechanised rant about his lack of belief in the human race. In the face of having nothing to salvage, turn your anger into art. Or maybe I am being too harsh on Flaubert. Maybe he was writing by an old school of tragedy, the kind where characters head toward their doom as though wound up by clockwork, and no one is left standing in the end. But there is no Ophelia to bring a touch of purity to this story, no clause of love or honour – all the characters are equally flawed to the point of being intolerable. After a failed on-and-off relationship for eight years, numerous mistresses and prostitutes, maybe Flaubert did look into the very depth of the human heart, and that was all he could see. Boredom. Perhaps Flaubert’s sight was limited, maybe he could not write of love, and I cringe as I write this, because he had known none. Or maybe from my sheltered high horse of morality, that is all I can see of Flaubert – the top of his bald head as he goes gallivanting through the middle east in search of new sensations, carrying venereal diseases across continents. Without love or morality to provide answers, what did Flaubert see, worth turning into art? Is the only beauty rendered to our existence our yearning for it to be something more? Was that my answer? I remember Hemmingway sitting in a dingy Spanish bar with a glass of whisky in his hand at four o clock in the evening saying with his slow drawl, “I was trying to write then I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. […] The real thing, the sequence of motion and fact that made which made the emotions and which would be as valid in a year or ten years, or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it.” Ah, there it is. It was never about what he was trying to say, Flaubert was beyond such petty agenda pushing. The beauty in his book lay in the fact that he gave us, as purely as he could, what he saw. Whether his sight was faulted, whether I agree with his perspective or not, is a completely different issue. Flaubert crystalised the world that he saw into art – with no mercy and no pretences – his work is tainted by his own judgement, but he does not do it the disservice of trying to hide it by smudging the sharpness of its detail. Madame Bovary was not a reflection of the world as it is, no one can capture that, it was a reflection of the world as Flaubert saw it – without love or relief – stated without flinching, therein lay his mastery. I had my answer. There was nothing to salvage, but that does not matter.