Book of a Lifetime: Madame Bovary, By Gustave Flaubert
Saturday 28 April 2012
After sneaking onto a literature degree via a comprehensive, I found myself nonplussed by the rules and exclusions.
Authors from the English-speaking canon were permitted for my relish. Arbitrarily, so were the Russians. Ladlefuls of Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoevsky dribbled down my chav parvenu chin. However, stuck in slow recovery from my adolescence and being told certain things were "off-limits", I suddenly desired only those. I mean, of course, French books. It pleased me in a 19th-century way that "French authors were forbidden". I didn't speak French, wasn't studying it, but, et alors, Flaubert (pictured, right) is the master: the writer of the first great modern novel; the author of Madame Bovary. I can still feel the gooseflesh of my first reading. The story is relatively simple. A well-meaning, but bland and parochial, village doctor falls in love with a sizzling hottie from the next village, the well-brought-up daughter of a farmer. One of Charles Bovary's first encounters, where curacao dribbles down Emma's chin in the foetid stale heat of the kitchen, still sends spasms of erotic delight. As soon as they marry, she Vesuviuses into an affair-having, debt-mongering passionate Wooooman. It all ends, as it must, in tragedy and death – her fire so raging it burns her and everyone else.
What leaves me reeling with each re-reading (and Adam Thorpe's new translation is, pardon the pun, to die for) is the use of language. There can be no doubt as to the reason for Flaubert's brain popping at the top of the stairs when he was 58. He broke it scouring for perfect sentences, words, le mot juste. In the seven years he took to write Bovary he spent most days at the bottom of his garden in Croisset – roaring with rage as he "lucubrated" for the optimal poetic expewression. He hated cliche, refusing to use assonance – because "that's what one would do". His hatred of stock expressions reached its climax in his last work, a satirical list: The Dictionary of Received Ideas.
The language he uses to tell the story of Emma and Charles make me want to hang myself with inadequacy. He ballets a knife-edge between literary perfection, poeticism and detached irony. That he reconciles these styles shows his greatness. One of my favourite lines in all literature describes someone passing out: "The carter came to, but Justin's faint persisted, with his pupils disappearing into the white sclera of his eyes like blue flowers into milk."
Blue flowers into milk!!! Take that, Baudelaire - sorry, I mean, Wordsworth.
Emma Bovary's tragic impulsion towards meretricious passions is more relevant than ever today. Read it. Read it until your eyes turn into your head like... like.... Oh sod it. It's not easy, is it?
Russell Kane's first novel, 'The Humorist', is published by Simon & Schuster
Review: Of Mice and Men
By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work
Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar
What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?
Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings
The actor has confessed to his own insecurities
Allotments are the focus of a new reality show
Arts & Ents blogs
The Hobbit: There and Back Again set for possible title change
The best movies on Netflix: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Game of Thrones season 4 episode 2 breaks torrent record as fans watch online
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'
Mrs Doubtfire 2: Robin Williams set to star in sequel to 1993 comedy
The food poverty scandal that shames Britain: Nearly 1m people rely on handouts to eat – and benefit reforms may be to blame
US Navy christens huge $3 billion destroyer ship USS Zumwalt that appears as a fishing boat on enemy radar
Scottish independence: It is the English who should be on their knees, begging the Scots to vote ‘No’
Nigel Farage fatigue? Half of voters ‘immune’ to Ukip’s appeal
Nigel Farage on Have I Got News For You: Ukip leader ridiculed over expenses and party 'fruitcakes'
Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back
- 1 Poveglia: 'World's most haunted island' up for sale...is anyone brave enough to buy it?
- 2 The Hobbit: There and Back Again set for possible title change
- 3 Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'
- 4 24 people applied for the 'world's toughest job', here are their interviews
- 5 Andre Johnson: Wu-Tang Clan-discovered rapper severed his penis and jumped from LA building