A good idea from ... Flaubert

LEAVING the cinema after seeing a romantic film can be traumatic. For a couple of hours, you're allowed to inhabit a sublime world where heroes and heroines fall passionately in love with each other and surmount great obstacles in order to live happily ever after. Then the lights go up, and it's time to take the bus home and rejoin a reality where people never call and the supposedly most intense moments always have something banal about them (the phone rings, someone burps).

The fictional character who best understood this phenomenon was Emma Bovary, born in 1856 in the pages of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Emma never had the chance to watch romantic films, but she was devoted to their predecessors - romantic novels. Living in a small dull town in Normandy, married to a kind but down-to-earth doctor, Emma spent most of her days between the covers of romantic fiction. Flaubert tells us that she read hundreds of stories where beautiful young men serenaded beautiful young women at their balconies. Flaubert's striking idea was to place at the centre of his work of art a character who wanted her own life to be more like art.

We are used to dismissing some of our more exalted wishes with the line: "that could only ever happen in a film or novel". But Emma Bovary refused the second-best, and tried to find men who would be more like the heroes of fiction than her husband. She started an affair with a rich nobleman, whose castle her favourite novels had taught her to associate with great love, and with a young student, whose earnestness the same novels had associated with profundity and courage.

Emma wasn't just being silly. When Flaubert declared famously, "Bovary, c'est moi" ("I am Bovary"), he was confessing to a deep sympathy with Emma's wishes, for he too wanted his life to be more like art (perhaps less well-known is Flaubert's sexual interest in his fictional creation; he revealed in a letter that he had masturbated about her while writing a love scene).

Unfortunately, but inevitably, for Emma, her plan to make her life more dramatic and intense has tragic repercussions. The men she has cast in the role of romantic heroes do not live up to expectations, they abandon her, she is beset by debts and, in despair, commits suicide with arsenic. The novel suggests that the desire to live more passionately is doomed to failure.

And yet there is a more redeeming lesson to be drawn. Emma is not wrong to hope that life could be more like novels - she is just reading the wrong sort of novels. Flaubert was, paradoxically, writing the very sort of book that Emma should have been reading - a book which recognised the wish that life could be as intense as fiction, and yet knew it could not be. Madame Bovary was a realistic, yet sympathetic, look at escapism - just the attitude one needs when watching a mushy movie.

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