Book Meme: Mel’s Day Twenty-Nine

Book Meme Challenge:

A Book Everyone Hated But I loved

This a  slightly self-serving meme today; is it a chance to show-off my good taste in the face of plebian sensibilities? Were this about movies, there are a number that I love even though I know that they are silly and unartistic and downright awful. (The Mummy, Blackbeard, etc.)

However in books, there is one that I love despite the fact that most of the people with whom I have spoken about it strongly disliked.

Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert

The protagonist character is silly, selfish, sensual and stupid. As one friend said, “I just could not wait for that woman to die!” The plot is horribly sad. And the ending is worse.

But still, it is a wonderful book.

The story relates the education and ensuing life of Emma. She begins in a convent school, where her real education was derived from the paperback Romance novels that were smuggled into the dorms. And so, her view on and trajectory of life is skewered. She winds up making poor decisions and learning the wrong lessons that destroy not inly herself, but those around her.

I fully understand why people could, with justice, hate this book.

And yet, Flaubert’s sentences and syntax cause the cockles of my heart to fizzle with happiness. Even in translation. (I do not speak or read French. At all. But I should learn it just to read Madame Bovary and Story of a Soul.)

In sentances that are long and poetic.

“The cold made them clasp each other the tighter; their sighs seemed more profound; their eyes, though they could scarcely discern them in the gloom, seemed bigger, and in the stillness that enfolded them a word, softly murmured, would fall upon their hearts like the note of a crystal bell and pass, trembling with infinite vibrations, into silence.”

They delve deep into the hearts of characters and bring them forth in all the simplicity, squalor, sacrilege.

“So far as Emma was concerned she did not ask herself whether she was in love. Love, she thought, was something that must come suddenly, with a great display of thunder and lightning, descending on one’s life like a tempest from above, turning it topsy-turvy, whirling away one’s resolutions like leaves and bearing one onward, heart and soul, towards the abyss. She never bethought herself how on the terrace of a house the rain forms itself into little lakes when the gutters are choked, and she was going on quite unaware of her peril, when all of a sudden she discovered–a crack in the wall!”

And as sentences they are exquisite.

“Matters of deeper import seemed to seek utterance in the expression of their eyes. They tried to speak of ordinary, everyday things, but all the while they felt a mutual languor stealing into their inmost being. It was like a murmur of the soul, deep down, persistent, dominating the spoken word. Lost in wonder at the strange sweetness that stole upon their senses, they never spoke of it to one another or sought to probe its cause. Coming delights, like the shores of tropic isles, exhale across the spreading seas their perfume-laden airs, the native softness of the clime; and they who breathe them, their spirits lulled as if by wine, scan not, nor try to scan, the faint, far-off horizon.”

It is a painful story. But it does uphold some eternal truths, albeit  a bit more moral realities than the sad but beautiful works of Woolf. And it is built on a wealth of literary allusions, deliberately giving layers of depth and meaning to Emma’s actions that even she does not realize; for example, her decent into the city is describe in the same terms as Dante’s decent onto the Inferno.

While Woolf’s prose is beautiful for her story telling and insights into humanity within the established context, Flaubert’s syntax can be treated independently. (The context helps, but his command of language and ability to  create a scene, atmosphere, and character in one paragraph still astound me.

And despite the depressing subject, I like the book. Emma comes to her proper end, the sentences trail on in stupendous beauty and fullness, and the charge and energy of the tale carry your forward into a better way of life.

And if nothing else, read it to see why you should not live as though you were in a Walter Scott novel.


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