Arts, Books — August 7, 2012 12:59 pm

Madame Bovary: What’s In A Name?

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Gustave Flaubert,

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself judging a book by its title. Not as often as I judge books by their covers (yeah yeah) but still, it can be a make-it-or-break-it situation. It’s not fair, I know, but what can I say? The world of literature is a harsh, graceless place.

Aside from the visceral reaction that a title may trigger in an individual for reasons entirely unique to her or him, titles can also carry a lot of baggage on their own. A work that’s been deemed a “classic” carries gravitas in its name. Maybe you feel a tinge of guilt when you hear it because you haven’t read it yet. Or maybe there’s a book (or ten) that you were forced to read in high school that you absolutely hated and each time you find yourself within earshot of the title, stabs of anger jab at your gut as every bit of resentment you ever felt toward your secondary education crowds together in one moment to tear you apart from the inside out.  You know?

For me, that would be Wuthering Heights. I shudder to type it and now have a bad taste in my mouth even though I just ate a delicious sourdough roll from Panera. That damn book never ceases to ruin my life.

Madame Bovary: Translation by Lydia Davis

Anyway–back to titles! Sometimes, one will have multiple, conflicting reactions to a title, which brings us to this week’s text: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert*. This is one of those ‘heavy’ books; one of the ones you’re supposed to read. I happen to love reading books that I’m ‘supposed to’–not out of guilt but out of pure curiosity. Often I’ll find out that they were about as overrated as I expected (Moby Dick, anyone?) but sometimes I’ll be pleasantly surprised. So I figure, why not?

Madame Bovary’s been different for me, though. And here’s why: the title! It’s so, friggin’, BORING. It’s too proper sounding, and plain–stuffy, I think, is the word I’m looking for here. There is not and has never been anything about it that intrigues me or appeals to me. And how could there be? It’s just some chick’s name. Some old chick, too, I’d always thought–that’s what “madame” means, right?

Well it turns out my high school-level French education didn’t quite impart to me the nuances of its various honorifics. I guess Madame just means married, like “Mrs.” in English. So the titular character in Flaubert’s novel is actually pretty young. Also: not boring. In fact, Madame Bovary is one of the best books I have ever read–literally, ever–and the last six weeks that I spent reading it have been some of the most enjoyable, book-wise, that I’ve experienced in a long time.

I don’t even know where to start with the details. I’ll go with the Madame herself, I suppose. Rarely have I encountered such a vivid portrait of a woman–written by a man no less–who embodies and fully embraces all of the weaknesses and immaturities I long to give in to but to which I am too responsible to surrender. Now if you’re going to read it, that will be TMI I’m afraid. But my point is, I know her. You know her. This woman–this girl, really, if we’re being honest–is so real, so fleshy, so true to type. It’s not that she’s stock, though. She is understandable, but she is also constantly on the verge of choosing a new path for herself. Though she is a very different person, the depth and the complexity of the character’s composition is similar to that of Henry James’ Isabel Archer in The Portrait of Lady (another of my all-time favorites).

Reading Madame Bovary, you will also undoubtedly be blown away by the writing itself. Check this out (and see below for translation details):

…but after a few days, it would seem that the daughter-in-law had sharpened her mother-in-law upon her own hard edge; and then, like two knives, they would set about sacrificing him with their remarks and their observations.

Or how about this:

...her pride, like a person relaxing in a steam bath, stretched out languidly in the warmth of the words.

Gustave Flaubert, everybody. Just look at the mustache.

And this goes on for the whole book! Flaubert is one of those writers–or, at least Bovary is one of those books–that, if you are a writer, will make you question your entire existence. This is where meticulousness pays off, people. But who has time for that kind of obsessive editing? 19th century Frenchmen, apparently.

Please, do not neglect this book any longer. It’s too bad that the title was poorly chosen–and a little ironic, given the author’s style–but it belies the utter genius that is this novel. I’ve never read any other translation, so I can only recommend the one listed at the bottom of this post; and I do so wholeheartedly. Be one of those people who’s read Madame Bovary, okay?

Oh, and if once you’ve enjoyed the soul massage that is this novel you find yourself wanting to stay speechless a little longer, go back to the very beginning–the very first word–and tell me who the hell “we” are. ;)

* Seeing as how Madame Bovary was originally written in French, I should probably point out that, for the purposes of this review, I’ll be referencing Lydia Davis’ award-winning translation which was published in 2010.

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  • Moby Dick is the worst.

    I’ve had a thrift store copy of Madame Bovary on my shelf for a couple years, and I’ve never had the slightest desire to read it until right now.

  • It’s important to note that there is a subtitle in the French version of the book, Madame Bovary: moeurs de province. I’m not sure if the subtitle is maintained in the English translation, as I have only read the French. Nonetheless, the subtitle is properly indicative of the content.

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