28 April 2013

The Anti-Bildungsroman

I’m reading something else—Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World—but I haven’t stopped thinking about Madame Bovary. I think I know why. A literary friend had written to me to say that he’d read the Flaubert (in the original French) three times—the first time as a twenty-something, when he still “knew nothing about life”; it occurred to me that my own experience of reading the novel could very well be influenced by where I am in my own life. 

After all, it is often true what some scholars say: the great books seem to be written for the reader and the reader alone. I am aware of the position of a book called The Perpetual Orgy by Mario Vargas Llosa (to which this friend had tipped me, saying he didn’t quite agree with the Peruvian-Spanish writer’s love for Emma Bovary), but I have not actually read it. I do have my own opinion of Emma. It’s not a very high one, and I certainly see her with less reverence than does Vargas Llosa. It has nothing to do with her cheating ways; it has to do with her being fatally romantic. To me, therefore, Madame Bovary is the anti-bildungsroman. Emma never comes of age. She remained as she was, as she had always been, until the day that she died (or killed herself). That Flaubert could craft a perfect novel (or as close to it as one might imagine) from having this woman as his central character demonstrates his astounding achievement. He never judges her, and he leaves it entirely up to us, the readers, to do so, if we could be so willing. And if we do judge these characters, it will perhaps say more about us—about where we are in the time that we read it—than about anyone else in the book.

Neither does Flaubert judge Charles Bovary, whom I have written about as the character I rooted for. He’s not up to much as a literary character—can anyone be less interesting?—but with a moral view of things, one will be hard-pressed to find fault in him. (Speaking of dull, I read somewhere that Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary as a way of taking on a challenge posed by friends or colleagues: to write a novel based on very dull characters. I’m not sure if this is true, but it makes perfect sense if it is.)

Like my friend, I’ll probably re-read Madame Bovary when I’m in a different place. I’m sure that by then the book will seem entirely new.

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