Saturday, October 30, 2010

Life in Yonville: small-minded hypocrisy

For this third and final part of Madame Bovary, I'm liking Emma significantly less.

Her expenditures really are over the top. But she is being blackmailed. He's seen them together and "she was afraid, imagining that he would talk. He was not so stupid" (p 241). It's hard to tell how much control she has. I mean, she's never been one to exert much self-control, but now her weaknesses are clearly being played to Monsieur Lheureux's financial advantage.

Favourite sentence: "The most halfhearted libertine has dreamed of sultans' wives; every notary carries within him the remains of a poet." (p 257)

Here it is again in French: Le plus médiocre libertin a rêvé des sultanes; chaque notaire porte en soi les débris d'un poête. Beautiful, no?

[I have it on good authority, based on thousands of transactions with hundreds of notaries, that this is bullshit. Not a shred of poetry in (most of) them. Yet somehow I suspect many of us wish it were true. A romantic notion to believe romantic souls are buried in clerks, yes? Flaubert certainly wished it of the notary he never was.]

I am disappointed in Emma. Happy for her in one way, but also wanting to slap her — she needs to get a grip on reality. She's pulled off her affair with Léon for almost a year! I almost wish she could pull it off for a lifetime, though it seems Léon would have none of that.

Léon is weak. He is just like Emma. This love has begun to bore him, tire him; he'll move on.

This business with the notary is fairly unpleasant (not the notary to whom Léon compares himself in my favourite sentence, above). Maître Guillaumin. Or maybe this is how his poetic debris materializes? It's just so infuriating a that a woman should fall from lover to slut as soon as another man lays eyes on her. Whatever choices she's made, Emma doesn't deserve this.

Monsieur Homais (he has his own website!) finally shows himself to be thoroughly despicable. (In my head I call him M Homard, and I picture him red and blustery and lobster-like.) It's Homais who set the whole ugly Hyppolyte incident in motion. But it's his treatment of the blind man where he is most cruel, in that moment where he makes him dance. For Homais he is a scientific curiosity, and a potential means of renown; for Homais the blind man has ceased to be a human being. For all his forward-thinking, as much as I admired his spirit and wit, he is a hypocrite, and perhaps the biggest villain of them all.

Emma goes to see Rodolphe. Is she prostituting herself? Objective description, moral ambiguity, difficult choices, blah, blah, blah; with this choice of words, Flaubert clearly condemns her.

I'm surprised the novel goes on so long after Emma's death. Poor Charles! He really did love her. And Berthe, the innocent, has a humble start in life. By addressing her as Mademoiselle Bovary, I think Flaubert intends us to glimpse what she might become.

Thanks, Frances, for hosting this readalong. I'm glad to have read Madame Bovary this second time and as a woman of a certain age. I think I got it this time.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tokyo, in summer

Engulfed in the hot stench of the city, he found that the boundary between his inner and outer selves seemed to dissolve. The fetid air seeped in through his pores and soiled what was inside, while his simmering emotions leaked out of his body into the streets. In Tokyo, in summer, he felt threatened by the city, so it had always seemed better to avoid the whole season as much as possible, avoid the waves of withering heat that swept through the streets.

— from Out, by Natsuo Kirino.

About a hundred pages left to go. It's gritty and funny, peopled by a fascinating crew of (mostly) strong women who shoulder vast burdens.

No matter how it ends, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Emma and Léon and Rodolphe

Part 2 of Madame Bovary elicited the following reactions.

The subtitle of Madame Bovary is "Provincial Ways," and after this was discussed last week, I was reminded that Middlemarch is subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life." Madame Bovary was published in 1856 and Middlemarch in 1871-72 (both first in serial form). I wonder how familiar George Eliot was with the former. They bear some striking similarities of theme. I'd say Madame Bovary is more a psychological novel and Middlemarch a sociological one, but each of them provides commentary on both levels. Dr Lydgate's wife, like Charles's, has social aspirations and contributes to their financial difficulties (although, Lydgate is a fully competent doctor). Mr Brooke is blustery like our pharmacist Homais is, but with a more political bent to his philosophizing. Then there's Dorothea's "scandalous" behaviour. (This off the top of my head; but I wonder if their similarities have been more fully assessed.) I'd love to know if Eliot ever wrote about Madame Bovary or acknowledged it as an influence.


This description (p 63) strikes me as very odd: "a small statue of the Virgin wearing a satin gown, coiffed in a tulle veil spangled with silver stars, and colored crimson on the cheeks like an idol from the Sandwich Islands." Not only is it, in my view, an odd way to dress the Virgin, it made me turn to look at the cover. Can I say? I really hate the cover of this book. The photo is creepy. (I like the font, though.)

So, Charles and Emma move to Yonville, and they bring a wet nurse, but there's no mention of a baby. Did she have the baby already? How much time has passed? Is she still pregnant? How pregnant? There's no mention of it, for pages and pages and pages, like it's a fairly insignificant event.

She wanted a son; he would be strong and dark, she would call him Georges; and this idea of having a male child was a sort of hoped-for compensation for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free; he can explore every passion, every land, overcome obstacles, taste the most distant pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted. Inert and pliant at the same time, she must struggle against both the softness of her flesh and subjection to the law. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat by a string, flutters with every breeze; there is always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.

I'm still finding Emma sympathetic. Not very motherly, but I don't think it's unusual for that time period to be dismissive of children.

(The Homais children are rather out of the ordinary, always in the thick of things and under foot, but I do think it's the pharmacist who's the Enlightened, forward thinker; his children are being raised in an unconventional manner for the times.)

Léon. How bored he is! He and Emma are so much alike. Difference being, of course, that he's male, he can go off to Rouen any time he likes. He can call his mother for money, and leave for Paris. Emma can't. I wonder if we'll see him again.

Poor Emma. She did try to seek out spiritual guidance, but she wasn't taken very seriously, as if a woman of her position couldn't have any troubles.

Not sure what to make of her calling her child ugly (p 101). A bit harsh, but perhaps this is just a detached objective assessment of her child. Or else the comment comes as a reflection of her marriage or husband. I anticipate Emma being criticized for this statement, that she doesn't love her child, but I think it has nothing to do with that. (Besides, she doesn't even say it, she just thinks it.)

Uh-oh! Page 114. Rodolphe has designs on Emma. He'll ruin her. What a jerk!

The whole Hippolyte fiasco! I recall blaming Emma for this previously (and I think Isabelle Huppert's performance reinforced that reading). The potential increase in income from performing a noteworthy operation is a factor, but Emma is motivated also to do something for Charles, to nudge him toward being a being a man she could be proud of, and I see these as practical considerations, godd for the household, I don't think it's all about money.

Aurgh! Damn you, Lydia Davis! Huge spoiler in the note to page 175.

Regarding the narration: I think we've moved very much inside Emma's head now. An omniscient narrator, sure, but not an all-telling one. Is Emma self-absorbed? Well, that's what makes the story. We're not privy to the daily banalities, her managing the household (with the exception of a few key events), just like we don't know about Charles's comings and going, or the small talk over supper — any good writer skips over this stuff. The details Flaubert offers give a sense of realism that contributes to deluding the reader into a sense of completeness, when really the narration is very selective.

I feel Emma is a very much a victim as regards Rodolphe. His intentions are clear from the start, and he knows what buttons to push. I'm not saying Emma's not a willing participant, but it takes a character like Rodolphe to have made her willing.

Is Emma responsible for their financial problems? I want to defend her here, too. (Why am I taking sides like this?) She likes pretty things, Charles has never restrained her. (Most of America lives beyond its means; will you judge her for this?) When she's ill, he neglects his practice — arguably that's her fault, too, but it shows that money and sensible financial management aren't his first priority (he loves her!). Come to think of it, he's pretty passionless himself, doesn't feel strongly about much, he just doesn't see this as problematic, he'd be bored too if he just stopped to think about it.

Loving the pharmacist and the priest! Hilarious!

Ah, so here's Léon again, in Rouen. And Charles practically pushing Emma into Léon's arms. This won't end well.

Here ends Madame Bovary, Part 2.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"There are things that very few portraits of women allow the viewer to discern"

The Wrong Blood, by Manuel de Lope, is set in Basque country during the Spanish Civil War and is ostensibly the tale of two women...

A rape victim:
In church, the priests taught the children such behavior, telling them that they had to be obedient, even in time of war, even though they could escape and disappear on the mountain with the cows after setting fire to the hayloft, and then, for decades to come, the house that had sheltered Etxarris's Bar would be nothing but a burnt patch, a few charred beams on ash-covered ground, and nobody except a very few people would know that María Antonia Etxarri had set the house on fire to save herself from being raped, but instead of doing that, remembering other reasons and other rains, María Antonia obediently mounted the stairs to the room, doing as she had been told, fearing only the barrage of blows she would get from her stepfather should peace ever come.

And a bride:
The bride smiled in a lost paradise of tulle and lace and orange blossoms. The photograph showed neither how much weeping she was to do nor how little she had wept until then, nor was there any visible sign of the two tears of emotion she had shed during the ceremony or of the sighs she would utter that same night, but there are things that very few portraits of women allow the viewer to discern.

I had a hard time settling into this book. The story jumps from one perspective to another, back in time, then forward to our present, and sometimes, as in María Antonia's burning the house down, into a what if. (Not that I have trouble with that sort of thing usually.) But I am glad I stuck with it.

I can't claim to have ever experienced anything near what these women went through, but something about the telling simply didn't ring true — too writerly, too male.

The novel for me is more effective with the stories of the men — the officer, the grandson, the neighbouring doctor — even while telling us so much less about them. These characters are told, without being explained, and I think they are richer for it.

For all this, the novel is lyrical and romantic and engrossing. Though I very early on had guessed what would be "the big reveal," I was compelled to see how it would be unveiled.

Favourite sentence: "There are men who subvert order because they carry a deep-seated, centrifugal inertia that destroys the space as well as the feelings around them." (Although, I'm not sure I agree.)

See this review.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Charles and Emma

Really, I don't remember a thing about Madame Bovary. Something about adultery. I remember being bored by it when I read it 22 years ago. I don't remember whether I admired Emma, despised or pitied her. I don't know which of those I'm supposed to do.

Well, it's very readable. (Except for the seemingly random italics — very distracting.) I don't know if that's a function of Lydia Davis's translation, or maybe just because over the years I've learned to read better (or I'm more tolerant, or more discerning). At any rate, it's not boring. I was really afraid it would be very boring. It's not.

[What's the deal with first communion? Was it different back in the day, or in France? Charles is 12 when he begins his studies, and his parents are waiting till after his first communion before sending him off. Later at the wedding, a girl of 14 or 16 is wearing her communion dress, lengthened for the occasion. I wouldn't've given it much thought but for that Davis includes a note about children usually aged about 7 being prepared for this sacrament. The French text is clearly "première communion" but it sounds like confirmation might be what's meant. Either way I think Davis's note is lacking.]

Charles seems like a nice enough fellow. A bit, mmm, unambitious, maybe, but harmless, nice. Oh, but Charles totally loves her!

Emma seems hard to reach, hard to know, through her placid exterior.

Aïe! The first wife's wedding bouquet still in the bedroom! How thoughtless! This must be a sign.

Before her marriage, she had believed that what she was experiencing was love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from that love had not come, she thought she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words "bliss," "passion," and "intoxication," which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

Emma was ruined by romances, and the idea of grand gestures. (That's a weird passage, the shift to second person, "And you were there, too, you sultans...")

I love this sentence: "Charles's conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and everyone's ideas walked along it in their ordinary clothes, without inspiring emotion, or laughter, or reverie." (Mind, sidewalks can be most interesting.)

Oh, she's not happy, is she? Bored, and attracted to shiny things. But I think there's a bit more to it than that, some kind of void she needs to fill. I do like her, and condemn her, and pity her.

Here ends Madame Bovary, Part 1.

A long journey through time and space

Monsieur Monde sighed, gazing at his glass of beer. He noticed that his companion's fingers were clenched on her handbag. And he seemed to have to make a long journey through time and space to find the simple, commonplace words that he uttered at last, which blended with the banality of the setting:

"Shall we take the nine o'clock train?"

She said nothing, but sat still; the fingers clutching the crocodile-skin bag relaxed. She lit a fresh cigarette, and it was later on, about seven o'clock, when the brasseries were full of customers drinking their apéritifs, that they went out, as grave and glum as a real married couple.

— from Monsieur Monde Vanishes, by Georges Simenon.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Octobre reading

(Or, French books by guys mostly named Georges.)

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
A readalong brought to you by Frances (Nonsuch Book), with posting on Parts 1, 2, and 3 on October 14, 21, and 28.

The delectable new translation by Lydia Davis everyone's talking about makes it hard to resist. I first read Madame Bovary some 20+ years ago. I didn't care much for it. I'm counting on my being a much wiser woman now to get something more out of it. (I'll be travelling this weekend and leaving the hardcover behind, but I have the original French loaded up on my ereader, in case I'm feeling ambitiously French.)

A Void, Georges Perec
Richard (Caravan de recuerdos) hosts this shared read, discussions taking place between October 29 and November 7.

I've read this one previously as well, back when it was first made available in English, at a time when I was fascinated with things Oulipo and also toying with the idea of pursuing further studies, and some kind of career, in problems with translation (which I never did). The book's conceit is that it is written without the letter "e," the most frequently occurring letter in French and also English). Now how do you translate that? (The Spanish translation has no "a.") I read it then as a puzzle; I'll read it now with, hopefully, appreciation for plot and character, which I've since learned that Perec can in fact do rather well.

Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Georges Simenon
I've been saving this. Having loved Simenon's Strangers in the House recently, I thought another roman dur would be perfect for my coming weekend getaway. The kid and I are flying to DC to visit with my sister for a Canadian Thanksgiving away. Even though it's a short flight, I've given excessively careful consideration to which book it is I want to have on hand when we're told to turn off all electronic devices. This is it.

(For Helena I picked out something called Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, cuz, well, cyborgs! and lunch! Note: this book is not French. It's by a guy called Jarret J Krosoczka.)

So. Monsieur Monde walks out on his life, according to the back cover, and apart from the fact that I have a fascination with people who do this (I mean, real people actually do this!; it's not just in stories, you know, where he says he's going out to get a pack of smokes and that's the last you hear of him!), the why and how of their doing it, I've spent every day of October, and most of September, thinking about running away (mostly because of my stupid job). Plus it's cold and raining a lot, so it feels right.

Yet another couple of French books
I finished The Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille, and I'm within a few pages of the end of Roberte Ce Soir and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, by Pierre Klossowski (acquired during a thankfully short-lived phase of exploring obscure writers whose surnames begin with the letter "k," in some misguided desire to one day be considered one of them).

I can't say I actually recommend either of them — they're not exactly entertaining in any conventional sense. But. The Story of the Eye is an interesting complement to Tom McCarthy's C, the whole sex-death-grieving-dissociation thing. And there's a lot to dissect in Klossowki with regard to sex and gender politics; it's quite philosophical and written in a somewhat dry and academic, but playful, tone, and it could be worth careful study if you have the time or inclination, of which for the time being I have neither.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Remaindered thoughts

Why is it that some of the best books are often the hardest to write about? It must be that flush of first love with a book, the recognition of myself in the other (or is it the other way round?). I'm giddy with emotion, can't articulate much beyond, "I just so LLOOOVVE this book!" — certainly nothing meaningful.

So here I am, a couple months after having read Tom McCarthy's Remainder (of which I'd acquired a remaindered copy); the first flush has subsided, but I still want to say something about it. (Part of me wants to rush downstairs and pull the book off the shelf in my bedroom — it's unusual that I write about a book without having it by my side — but that would feel less authentic. I want this to be true to my recollection of it, not dried up by objective evidence.)

So, it's all about this guy who suffered an accident, the details of which are never made clear, and basically he's left with gaps in his memory, but worse, this leaves him a shell of his former self. Something essential, something you can't quite put your finger on, is out of whack. But, also! He comes into a pile of money because of this accident, and he uses it to recreate (or create, really) scenarios from possibly his past, or maybe his imagination, but the thing is, the scenarios aren't important in themselves (well, they are, but), it's more the feeling they instill, the sense of authenticity, so the details of scenarios are important only insofar as they help further that.

Anyway, it's brilliant! (There's that flush flooding back. Really, what else is there to say about this book.)

You can read about this book all over the place, so I won't bore you with particulars. I first heard of this book through the 2008 Tournament of Books. (Careful what you read there! Some commentary has spoilers.) Interesting also is the publication history of this book, the fact that it was first published by an "art publisher" (so Remainder was recognized as "art" before it was seen as a marketable commodity by "regular" publishers?).

What gets me about this book is not just the obsession of his little hobby, it's the sense of addiction. They go hand in hand, of course; the pursuit of the addiction becomes obsessive, and then the pursuit itself becomes an object of addiction. But I think they're separate things, and McCarthy knows that. Obsessive behaviour is something you do because you have to, you feel you need to, you don't necessarily derive any pleasure from it, quite the opposite often, but addiction is after a particular high. Remainder's main character is in search of authenticity, that feeling of being real, and if you're of the sort of disposition wherein you think about those sorts of things (and I think I am) then you realize that feeling is really pretty rare. It's not about about power and control, strictly speaking; it's what those things can bring you. This became pretty clear to me in the characterization of the manager he hires to direct his affairs. This guy felt a thrill in managing these complex logistics and pulling them off successfully. I mean, I can almost relate to that, when things are crazy at work and you can actually make all the pieces fit together, there's the rush of the busy-ness of it all and immense satisfaction when it all comes together. It's not about being a workaholic, or being obsessive about the details per se; it's not lovng your work, or whatever, exactly; it's knowing you're good at what you do, doing it, and getting off on it. (Umm, I'm probably projecting here; I don't know that any of that's actully in the novel exactly.)

Maybe because I don't have obsessive behaviours, clinically speaking, or addictions of the intrusive-to-one's-daily-functioning variety, much as I enjoy food and alcohol and sex and chocolate, because I'm not consumed by my career and I don't live for the adrenaline rush of a regular physical workout (hah!), maybe because none of those things do it for me, maybe I'm realistic about the thrill of my first love and jumping out of an airplane and as much as I'd like to relive those things, I know I can't, I can't go back, it wouldn't be the same, I'm not compelled to try, maybe because there's nothing else to occupy the position of that which must be pursued at all costs, this idea of going after authenticity, all that is real and true, actually seems pretty reasonable to me. I mean, if you're going to be addicted to something, that's the thing. And that's where it gets pretty fucked up, because the more you pursue it, the more removed from it you actually become.

Anyway, pretty weird, troublesome book. Very, very good.