All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1851)

Plot: Flaubert laboured for five years "placing huge blocks one above the other" to create this monument to the art of irony and the petrifying boredom of bourgeois existence.

Emma Rouault, daughter of a poorish farmer is brought up in a convent where she indulges a penchant for trashy romantic fiction. Her spirited mind dances in imagined ballrooms aglow with candlelight and the admiring glances of wealthy Byronic lovers.

She settles for Charles Bovary, however, a kindly, unimaginative, incompetent medic. The birth of a daughter does not alleviate the tedium of her life. She falls in love with the local squire, Rodolphe, who seduces her by rote. Emma is entranced, believing her fantasies are now incarnate. Rodolphe dumps her, fearing that she isn't playing by his rules.

Emma is distraught. To fill the vacuum of her days she takes another lover, Leon, a young clerk with a restricted personality. Again, she has chosen a man who cannot match her restless sexuality. When Leon fears for his reputation, he also dumps her.

Emma is immersed in debt and makes a half-hearted attempt to return to Rodolphe: finally, consumed by desperate boredom, she swallows arsenic, believing she will experience a gentle demise. She dies in writhing agony.

Charles Bovary toddles along, understanding nothing; after Emma's burial he finds some letters that explain all and dies of a broken heart.

Over the novel broods Monsieur Hommais, the chemist, who encapsulates the stifling corruption of respectability. He judges, bullies and punishes; his mediocrity wins him the Legion of Honour.

Theme: Emma's tragedy is that she is too bright to settle for what she has, but too commonplace to do much more than reproduce new cliches to replace the old ones. The shoddy material of her dreams keeps her a victim: her limitations of language and expression condemn her to a poisoned death- bed.

The only route to success in bourgeois life is to be entirely at home in a world of triteness, routine and hand-me-down phrases.

Style: This is the most self-consciously beautiful of novels. Paradoxically, each phrase sings melodiously of middle-class turpitude and emotional poverty.

Flaubert famously absents himself from his creation; he manipulates irony of phrase and situation to control the reader's response.

Chief Strengths: Flaubert's famous remark, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi", says it all. As the novel progresses, Emma's fate becomes unbearably painful because she escapes from the book and becomes a "person". She is both an individual and a representative victim of a stupid, materialist world; but Flaubert does not conceal Emma's talent for arbitrary, petty-minded cruelty, either. The book's poise is its power.

Chief weakness: Saint-Beuve noted that nothing was random in Madame Bovary. This is an ambivalent remark to make about a "realist" novel and points to the truth that Emma's fate seems over-determined.

What they thought of it then: It was prosecuted for obscenity. The case collapsed; the book became a roaring success.

What we think of it now: One of the greatest European novels, influencing James, Conrad, Mann, Joyce ... the list is endless.

Responsible for: Making modern novelists believe that writing is a harder graft than coal-mining or operating a North Sea oil rig.

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