Reading Madame Bovary in the Provinces

By Birger VanwesenbeeckFebruary 14, 2016

Reading Madame Bovary in the Provinces
Left: Achille Lemot. Flaubert Dissecting Madame Bovary (1869)


AS THE FRENCH get ready to host this summer’s European soccer cup, the year 2016 will also mark the 160th anniversary of the publication of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary — a landmark text that, together with Camembert, Côtes du Rhône, and French kissing (not excluding any combinations thereof), may stand as one of the country’s most enduring cultural exports.

Displaying a soccer team’s worth of characters and set almost exclusively within the perimeter of a fictional provincial Normandy town roughly the size of a stadium field, Madame Bovary has been translated into English no less than 20 times — a stunning number that not even such Gallic giants as Proust, Molière, or Voltaire may approximate. (Some of its more famous translators, now spread across three centuries, include Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor Marx Aveling; the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins; the Belgian-born American literary critic Paul de Man; and, most recently, the American fiction-writer Lydia Davis). Its author, then a 35-year-old swimmer of athletic build, although generally averse to exercise on land, would not have looked out of place within the ranks of les bleus — not a striker or midfielder perhaps, already with a paunch forming above the groin, but a defense player, one of those aging liberos, on whose experience and calm the other players know they can fall back, just as writers have fallen back on Flaubert for over a century.

He is said to have said, more or less famously, more or less apocryphally, that he was his novel’s protagonist (“Je suis Madame Bovary”), a statement so often repeated, taken out of context, and otherwise misquoted and misused as to have become the stuff of legend and mythography. A self-styled “bourgeoisophobus,” he emblematizes, perhaps more so than any other writer, the novelist’s ever-fickle relationship with the middle-class audience that first gave the genre its commercial raison d’être a century earlier. He’s the Franzen of the 19th century: querulous, vain, a writer whose general despair over what literature had come to in his day and age is matched only by his eagerness to capitalize on it. Originally serialized in La Revue de Paris (from October 1 to December 15, 1856), Madame Bovary caused its author to be put on trial on charges of obscenity before the text could be released as a book in France. (Flaubert not only won the case but would go on to dedicate the novel to his defense attorney who, so he claimed, had bestowed “unexpected authority” upon it).

I first read parts of Madame Bovary in a Dutch translation while living in the Flemish village of my birth, some 250 miles to the northeast of the fictional Normandy town where the bulk of Flaubert’s novel is set. As in Yonville, the people in this northern outpost of Belgium are taciturn and generally glum, sulky Northerners who bear the daily grind in silence yet who also know themselves to be the inheritors of that Catholicism-induced penchant for occasional exuberance and festivities that distinguishes them from their (even sulkier) Protestant peers. (In Madame Bovary, it is the wedding of Emma and Charles, and the annual Agricultural Fair that serves to remind readers of the Yonvilleans’s occasional capacity for festivities and cheer). Such is the dynamic of village life, its cadences and charm, its relative insignificance to the rest of the world.

Rereading the novel, I do so of late in English while living in another Yonville-like village, this one on the utmost western outskirts of Western New York. If these linguistic-geographical shifts reflect the dramatic arc of my own personal-professional trajectory of the past 15 years — from books as leisurely pastime in the family home to subsisting on them professionally as a college professor — then the fact that I’ve kept reading Madame Bovary all this while may also serve to illustrate the strangely universal qualities of a book so seemingly, and forbiddingly, rooted in Normandy soil. For also this time around there are unexpected moments of déjà vu to be savored and reckoned with. Watching a fleet of cars being pulverized into scrap metal at the annual demolition derby of the Fredonia Farm Festival a few years ago, I wondered about its kinship with that rather more peaceful derby at Yonville’s Agricultural Fair, where the year’s best manure — the scrap metal of the organic world if you will — is being expertly appraised by a committee of out-of-town judges. Here, too, the people are generally taciturn and glum, sulky Northerners who brave the elements — snow, more so than rain — but are also capable of occasional exuberance and flair. Unlike their Canadian counterparts across the lake, however, Western New Yorkers are generally kept indoors by cold, gathering around fireplace and bar rather than venturing outdoors (this, notwithstanding a tendency to flaunt local resilience in the face of the Great Snowstorm of such-and-such year).

As to Buffalo, the region’s self-appointed “queen city” with its proverbial rust belt grandeur, how can it not remind us of the Rouen in Madame Bovary: a temptress forever promising urbanity within reach to those of us living in the westernmost provinces, yet never quite delivering what the kingdom of Manhattan has to offer? (If only Emma could have gone to Paris! so I heard a nationally renowned literary scholar not unfairly summarize the novel a few years ago).

So profound is Flaubert’s insight into one of modernity’s central preoccupations — the relationship between the country and the city — that one is tempted to conclude it alone accounts for the novel’s enduring appeal. How else to explain that, of the vast arsenal of eminent 19th-century French novels, it is La Bovary to which translators and readers worldwide alike have flocked time and again and not, say, Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin? How else to account for the novel’s continuing appeal, even as the realism that it helped found gave way over time to modernism and postmodernism, movements deeply suspicious of precisely the representationalist engine that drove the 19th-century literary imagination?

In contrast with authors such as Hugo or Balzac, writers now solidly encased in the high school context in which I first encountered them, I’ve found that Flaubert does not let go that easily. Not unlike the schoolboy hats that are flung into the air in the novel’s opening chapter, he hovers freely in midair, a winged holy ghost at once flutteringly alive and as stubbornly immobile as the unseemly hat atop Charles Bovary’s head. As is well known, it is this hat, and the new pupil’s general unfamiliarity with the school day’s rituals, that unintentionally brings on the classroom brouhaha that the teacher subsequently has the greatest difficulty to quell: “‘Five hundred verses for the class!’ shouted in a furious voice, stopped, like the Quos ego, a fresh outburst.” Quos ego, I, too, am inclined to ask in turn — Flaubert’s reference is to the famous aposiopetic passage in Book One of The Aeneid where an indignant Neptune addresses the rebellious winds that have created such turmoil on his home surf — but this time with respect to Charles’s creator who, 160 years onward, continues to ripple the literary imagination of the day. Who … I? What is Madame Bovary to me? Haven’t we had enough of her already?

Such, in any case, seems to be the general sentiment in France where the novel, although still widely known, has largely disappeared from national school curricula and has gradually acquired the status of a period piece. Neither has its depiction of adultery, which might still give some North American principals pause, retained any of its original shock value in a country where promiscuity and infidelities — “et alors?” the French president François Mitterrand is said to have replied when asked by a journalist about his extramarital daughter — have long since become socially acceptable realities (even if not always sanctioned in equal measure across the gender divide). Rather than sparking moral outrage, Emma Bovary’s adulterous travails are now as likely to inspire boredom and irritation in contemporary readers who have long flocked to more glamorous desperate housewives, in more glamorously desperate media, such as the California belles of Wisteria Lane. Indeed, Emma’s very immersion in books — a solitary endeavor, like masturbation — may well be what turns off today’s sexting readers.

Why, then, Madame Bovary?


The would-be writer and literary historian might summon the authority and support of the Peruvian novelist and 2010 Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, who, in a 1975 essay, referred to Flaubert as “our contemporary.”

Any modern writer insurmountably writes in Flaubert’s shadow, so Vargas Llosa argues, for what the sturdy Norman with the imposing mustache acknowledged before anyone else: that the single-most important character in any novel is the narrator. The book where this crucial insight is first made to bear fully on characters and readers alike is, of course, Madame Bovary, with its tireless search for le mot juste (“the right word”), its meticulous parsing out of linguistic nuances and deictic feel, the gradual ripening of its sentences in the laboratory of the “gueuloir,” the idiosyncratic compositional practice whereby the author would yell out (or gueuler in French) newly written sentences at the top of his lungs so as to make sure that they sounded right; this all the way up to the very last stages of composition when, in a portentous gesture, Flaubert excised what had long served as the novel’s opening sentence in favor of a first-person plural pronoun that suddenly emerges out of nowhere. It’s arguably the world’s most famous last-minute revision of a canonical text’s opening line: What in the copyist’s final-stage typescript is still “The school clock had just struck 1:30 when the Prefect came in followed by a new boy” becomes, in the novel’s published version: “We were in class when the Prefect came in followed by a new boy”: Nous étions à l’étude quand le Proviseur entra suivi d’un nouveau (included below). The impersonality of the classroom clock is replaced by an unidentified we, not because the narrator wants this particular classroom to appear any less depersonalizing, but because he wants all of us all inside that classroom even as the author himself, slyly, cruelly, maintains his distance from the proceedings under way, like a clinician who registers but does not judge. (A period piece cartoon depicts Flaubert as a surgeon, a profession his father held, holding up a human heart — presumably his eponymous protagonist’s — on a skewer-like knife. For those of us with writing aspirations of our own, this fascinating composition story is part of the official mythography and pull of Madame Bovary, making its book publication, in April 1857, something like modernism’s Normandy landing: the arrival on European shores of a distinctly modern novelistic sensibility, one that in turn would pave the way for the likes of Kafka and Joyce, and, once it crosses the Atlantic, for Vargas Llosa himself.

Alternatively, the Seinfeld aficionado could cite from a famous 1852 letter by Flaubert sent on January 16 and written a few months before the author began work on the composition of Madame Bovary. In it Flaubert ruminates on the possibility of writing a “book about nothing,” a book that, so he hypothesizes, “would be held together by the internal strength of its style […] a book that would have almost no subject at all or at least one in which the subject would be almost invisible, if that were possible.” Although the romance-novel-driven amorous aspirations of Emma Bovary — Facebook relationship status: “it’s complicated” — might seem a far cry from the rather more disinterested love affairs of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer in television’s most famous “show about nothing,” it is in her boredom, or ennui, as the French would have it, that this Normandy desperate housewife unexpectedly meets her Manhattanite counterparts. Madame Bovary is in part a long novel because boredom, and how it so fatally affects its protagonist — albeit in a rather more elevated register, she, too, asks, as does Jerry to George: “What kinds of lives are these?” — is part of the narrative effect that Flaubert is after. “Do you know boredom,” so he asked a friend in another letter, sent a decade earlier, “Not the ordinary banal boredom that comes from idleness or sickness, I mean the modern boredom that eats away at a man’s entrails?” Even so, it would not be until his final and posthumously published novel Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881) that Flaubert could truly lay claim to being Seinfeld’s unacknowledged progenitor: two middle-aged protagonists, one affluent and outgoing, the other stocky, stingy, and insecure, engage in one whimsical, Krameresque scheme after another. All fails. They start over.

Finally, the language theorist could point to the tragic fallibility of language, which no one articulates quite so insightfully, if cruelly, as does Flaubert. Such high hopes we have for what language might be able to do — so he suggests in what is arguably the novel’s most oft-cited passage — yet so poorly it delivers on these promises. In the Eleanor Marx Aveling/Paul de Man translation: “The human tongue is like a cracked cauldron on which we beat out tunes to set a bear dancing when we would make the stars weep with our melodies.” It’s a lesson I often repeat to myself whenever language, my fading Flemish mother tongue, my adopted English, my uneven and otherwise insufficient French, don’t quite manage to communicate what I’d like them to say, in moments of distress that lay bare, not just the cracks within the linguistic medium as such, but also the far more disturbing fault lines that separate us so irrevocably from others.


Yet none of the above-cited reasons truly explains why Madame Bovary looms so large for me. Instead, what gets to me upon each rereading is the novel’s superior insight into what the French subtitle calls “moeurs de province.” “Provincial life,” so Marx and de Man have it, but that translation overlooks the moral connotation inscribed in the French term moeurs (“mores”). (“How things are done in the country” would be one way to paraphrase that moral undercurrent).


Final typescript of Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s handwriting in the margin.
Centre Flaubert. Université de Rouen.

Flaubert was born in 1821 in the city hospital of Rouen, then a midsize provincial city comparable to the Dublin in which James Joyce grew up or the Prague in which Franz Kafka lived. Yet most of Flaubert’s adult life was spent in the little hamlet of Croisset, three miles down the river from Rouen. It is here, in the family country house, that he wrote his novel about provincial life just as Madame Bovary supposedly had its earliest origins in the 32-hour marathon reading of an earlier work (the earliest version of La Tentation de Saint Antoine) to which he subjected his two best friends, Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp, at the family home in September 1849. Following the four-day reading, during which Flaubert asked his friends to defer judgment, their verdict was unforgiving: they urged him to destroy the manuscript (Flaubert did not comply) and Du Camp advised him to find a subject “in which lyricism would be so unseemly as to compel you to abstain from it.” Exeunt Anthony and ancient Egypt. Enter Emma and the banality of Normandy provincial life. (Or so Du Camp, the not-quite-so-famous but eager-to-be-famous friend of the famous writer, claims in his memoirs.)

In American literature, it is perhaps only Faulkner, a great admirer of Flaubert, who gets so much to the heart of village life, capturing it with equal doses of fondness and criticism. (Faulkner apparently claimed that he reread Madame Bovary at least once a year). For what’s beautiful about Madame Bovary is ultimately less its stylistic bravura than its author’s deeply felt ambivalence about provincial life. If the provinces are what provided Flaubert with the calm and isolation needed to write, their mores are also what “kill” him so to speak (the French term “moeurs” is a homonym of “meurs” meaning “(I) die”), prompting him to lash out in equal measure at both their conservatism and their faux progressivism (as represented by the pharmacist Homais). Yet, besides an unfinished stint as a law student in Paris, he never left them. What is more, in Félicité, the selfless servant-protagonist of the later novella “Un Coeur Simple,” he would go on to create one of provincial life’s most memorable and endearing characters, a “simple soul” whose general goodness and care for others puts all of us to shame.

Reading Flaubert’s description of Yonville today, I’m frequently reminded of two towns fused into one. One is my hometown — less the actual town I grew up in, however, but a mythical one, deduced and pieced together from the various childhood stories shared with me by parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. It is a place where, as in Yonville, the clergy still wields absolute power; where the notary and the pharmacist are professions of unquestioned if undeserved social status; where the majority of people work the fields amid a landscape and a climate that is otherwise as inhospitable to agriculture and growth as the Norman countryside; in short, the kind of town of which Jacques Brel, that most Flaubertian of chansonniers, asks with characteristic aplomb, “What kind of lives they’ve had, our grandparents / In between the absinthe and the holy mass?”

The other village is the all-too-actual town of my present Midwestern surroundings whose kinship with Yonville is perhaps best expressed via a pairing of that most exaltedly bourgeois of culinary combinations: wine and cheese. For if the region around Yonville can lay claim, dixit Flaubert, to making some of Normandy’s worst cheeses, then certainly Western New York merits mention for producing some of the worst wines, its stubborn distillatory struggle with the Concord grape (thick-skinned, musky) as hopeless as driveway-shoveling in a February snowstorm.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too impitoyable (the word used by Julian Barnes to describe Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary) but I’m afraid my response to the provinces is hardly any less ambivalent than Flaubert’s. Fortunately, that’s what makes them as good a place as any to write in. And so I will.


Birger Vanwesenbeeck is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

LARB Contributor

Birger Vanwesenbeeck is Professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia.


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