Month: April 2014 (page 1 of 2)

Madame Bovary, Book III

Madame Bovary, Book IIIMadame Bovary (Book 3) by Gustave Flaubert
on 1856
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 335

Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating. Flaubert's erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.'

Henry James wrote: “Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment.” (James, Henry (1914). Notes on Novelists. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. p. 80.)

I would not go so far as to call it perfection. But it is very, very good from a technical perspective, although it seems to lack soul. Or heart.

Part 3 begins with Emma and Leon meeting one another at the Rouen Cathedral. They re-encountered one another at a play, and made plans to meet. Emma wrote Leon a letter, explaining that she could not become his mistress, but when she is unable to have it delivered to him, she takes it to the cathedral to give it to him herself.

Then, seeing her again after three years of absence his passion reawakened. He must, he thought, at last make up his mind to possess her.

Whether her intentions are pure or not, it all goes awry, and one of the great and lasting parts of the book occurs when Emma and Leon take a coach which they use to drive around and around town, endlessly, obviously committing adultery in the back. This is probably the strongest image within the book – we see it from the perspective of the coachman, who states:

He could not understand what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him. Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralized, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue, and depression.

And then Flaubert tells us:

Once in the middle of the day, in the open country, just as the sun beat most fiercely against the old plated lanterns, a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom.

In the beginning of the affair, Emma is again full of joy and life and the emptiness is, temporarily, filled by the passion that Leon stirs within her. But, of course, it cannot last, and Emma begins, again, foolishly, to turn to debt and shopping in an effort to fill herself. She desires to cut off the affair with Leon, as he has become as familiar to her as her own husband. In one of my favorite quotes, Flaubert tells us that

They knew one another too well for any of those surprises of possession that increase its joys a hundred-fold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.

Isn’t that wonderful – “the platitudes of marriage.” This section of the book is so frustrating, because I just wanted to shake Emma until her teeth rattled, telling her that she was a silly woman, that she was squandering everything. As she becomes more desperate about the failure of the affair, she becomes more profligate, less able to resist temptation. She is morally and financially bankrupt, soulless and demanding, seeking to be filled up externally rather than finding a way to fill herself.

There is, of course, no happy ending for Emma Bovary. Like Anna Karenina and Lily Bart, both of whom came after Emma, the prevailing society demands the proper punishment for a woman who dares to demand more than she afford in both life and love. In a deeply desperate, and absurdly romantic, fit, she commits suicide. But even that is bungled – rather than fading off in an appealingly girlish and pathetic fashion, she dies in terrible pain, in fits and gushes and grossness. Flaubert pulls not a single punch with Emma’s demise, we hear of it in all of its terrible glorious drama.

And there is no happy ending for anyone else, either. By the end of the book, the sins of the mother are visited upon poor Berthe, who loses everyone and everything, and ends up a factory worker, in a cotton mill.

So, what was Flaubert’s point? Was he telling the bourgeoise to want less, to not even try to ape their “betters?” That the realistic pessimism and emotional privation of their lives was all there was ever going to be? Or was he strangely sympathetic to his creation. He is quoted as having said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” What does this even mean? Does it mean, as some readers have speculated, that Flaubert is referring to using his own adulterous affair with a poet as the basis for Emma Bovary’s relationships? Or is it deeper than that, describing a self-loathing of his own bourgeoise roots as the son of a surgeon, with his own pessimistic tendencies and his own desire to be more.

Ultimately, for me, Emma Bovary falls far short of Lily Bart from The House of Mirth (by Edith Wharton), but ends up on par with Tolstoy’s remarkably self-indulgent Anna Karenina.

My final post on Madame Bovary will deal with The Public vs. M. Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert’s 1857 obscenity trial following the publication of the novel in La Revue de Paris.



The Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope

The Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope
Genres: Classics - Victorian

I am ready to tackle the Barsetshire novels by Anthony Trollope, which make up slightly more than 10% of my Classics Club reads. I plan to read at least the first three in the next few months, beginning with The Warden (which I have already finished, although I’ve not yet written up my post), continuing to Barchester Towers, and from there, on to Doctor Thorne. I am doing them as a read-along with my Goodreads group.

The Chronicles of Barsetshire were published between 1855 and 1867, and are set in the fictional county of Barsetshire, which roughly corresponds to Dorset. They chronicle the dealings of the clergy and the gentry in the cathedral town of Barchester, and pay special attention to the political and social manoevering that goes on between the members of those two classes.

Nearly a hundred years later, English novelist Angela Thirkell adopted the fictional Barsetshire as the setting for many of her novels. I’ve read one of her Barsetshire novels – Wild Strawberries – and really enjoyed it. Her books are a bit hard to find, and have not yet been issued in electronic format, which is unfortunate, as the one that I read was delightful.

Madame Bovary, part 2

Madame Bovary, part 2Madame Bovary (Book 2) by Gustave Flaubert
on 1850
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 335
Source: Purchased: ebook

Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating. Flaubert's erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.'

In Book Two of Madame Bovary, Flaubert is the architect of Emma’s ultimate downfall. She meets the characters who alter her life in ways that she cannot foresee – Homais, Lheureux, and Leon Dupuis. At the beginning of Book Two she is hopeful that her life will improve, and will be more satisfying. She develops an unfortunate habit of buying things that she wants, but cannot afford. Emma is a strongly sensual character, attracted to beautiful things.

Then Monsieur Lheureux delicately exhibited three Algerian scarves, several packets of English needles, a pair of straw slippers, and finally, four eggcups in cocoanut wood, carved in open work by convicts. Then, with both hands on the table, his neck stretched out, his figure bent forward, open-mouthed, he watched Emma’s look, who was walking up and down undecided amid these goods. From time to time, as if to remove some dust, he filliped with his nail the silk of the scarves spread out at full length, and they rustled with a little noise, making in the green twilight the gold spangles of their tissue scintillate like little stars.

She also meets and falls in love with Leon, although their relationship remains platonic at this point in the book. If Emma Bovary had a soulmate, it was Leon Dupuis.

She is shallow, but in some ways she is grasping desperately for depth.

“She wanted to learn Italian; she bought dictionaries, a grammar, and a supply of white paper. She tried serious reading, history, and philosophy. Sometimes in the night Charles woke up with a start, thinking he was being called to a patient. “I’m coming,” he stammered; and it was the noise of a match Emma had struck to relight the lamp. But her reading fared like her piece of embroidery, all of which, only just begun, filled her cupboard; she took it up, left it, passed on to other books.”

She wants more, always more, than the stolid and uninspired life with her stolid and uninspired husband. She is looking for beauty, for passion, for joy, and for love. Emma is a great emptiness, seeking to be filled. Ultimately, she finds this passion in an illicit relationship with the womanizing, rakish Rodolphe. It is painful to watch him play her like a fish on a line – Flaubert even uses the analogy to describe her: “Poor little woman! She is gaping after love like a carp after water on a kitchen table. With three words of gallantry she’d adore one, I’m sure of it. She’d be tender, charming. Yes; but how to get rid of her afterwards?”

Emma is one extreme or the other in this section of the book. Some readers have speculated that Flaubert may have envisioned her as what we would, in modern parlance, call bi-polar. She goes from an excess of passion for Rodolphe:

She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. An azure infinity encompassed her, the heights of sentiment sparkled under her thought, and ordinary existence appeared only afar off, down below in the shade, through the interspaces of these heights.”

“Then she recalled the heroines of the books that she had read, and the lyric legion of these adulterous women began to sing in her memory with the voice of sisters that charmed her.”

And then, when he inevitably leaves her (as Flaubert made sure that we, the reader, understood that he would), she goes into the depths of despair. As she did at the end of Book 1, being deprived of her lover causes Emma to utterly collapse.

It is really easy to develop a dislike of Emma Bovary. It is impossible to respect her, she is such a flighty fool, so easily distracted with the “ooh shiny” pretty bauble or calculated compliment. But, at the same time, it is possible to sympathize with her. She has been poorly educated and raised to be nothing more than a pretty ornament on the arm of a bourgeoise husband. She has been given desires well beyond her station, and no resources to either fulfill them or discover their emptiness on her own.

I see parallels between Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and The House of Mirth. The desperate beautiful woman is a staple of classic fiction.


Return to Narnia: The Last Battle

Return to Narnia: The Last BattleThe Last Battle by C.S. Lewis
Series: The Chronicles of Narnia #7
on 1956
Genres: Children's fantasy
Pages: 184
Source: Purchased: ebook

The last battle is the greatest of all battles, and the final ending the most magnificent of all endings in this, the last book of C.S. Lewis's timeless series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

This edition follows the original numbering scheme. More recent publishers have re-numbered the volumes so that the books are ordered chronologically. This was reportedly the author's preference.

This edition is numbered the same in both original and current publishing orders.

And so we come to the end.

I really don’t like this book at all. Of all of the Narnia books, this is the one that won the Carnegie (in 1956), which near as I can tell must be like when a really talented actor finally wins the Academy Award for one of their weaker performances. Because the fact that this book won an Carnegie, but that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was overlooked is a travesty.

Because The Last Battle, in my opinion, has little to redeem it. It is, at its most basic level, an allegory of the Book of Revelations from the Bible. Narnia perishes in darkness, and those who are chosen of Aslan are taken to his country.

But where I cannot forgive Lewis is for his treatment of Susan. Susan Pevensie haunts me, like she does many readers. She is barely mentioned in the book, a few paragraphs worth of dismissal are all that she receives, when her entire family, from Digory right through to Jill Pole, perish in a train accident and are transported to Narnia. Without her:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

“Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,” said Peter.

Don’t let’s talk about that now? Really, Peter? When do you think you might want to talk about Susan? No one spares a thought for Susan, who is literally the only member of her family who does not perish in a fiery train crash. She is left, alone, in England. And I can’t help but think of her, grieving her siblings, and the moment that she figures out that she alone of the survivors of Narnia has been left. Because Susan may be frivolous, but she isn’t stupid.

It’s cruel. It is a cruel thing to do to a character, and I honestly can’t understand why he would do it, and dismiss her so cavalierly. I get it, I guess. He had to make some kind of a point that not everyone gets into heaven.

I reread Narnia regularly. But I never reread The Last Battle. I still remember the first time I read it. It pissed me off. Deeply. As far as I am concerned, the series is better without it. About the only thing that I like about the book is that Reepicheep reappears in Aslan’s Country. I don’t recommend it. Stop with The Magician’s Nephew.

Neal Gaiman wrote a fascinating and more than a little disturbing short story called “The Problem of Susan”. You can find it here: here.


I is for Iceland

I is for Iceland by Arnaldur Indridason, Hannah Kent
Genres: Historical, Mystery

There are a lot of places that I would like to visit – Prague, and Norway, and Banff, British Columbia. One of them is Iceland.

I am fascinated by the culture and the geography.


There is a series written by an Icelandic author and set in Reykjavik that I really enjoy: the Inspector Erlender series, by Arnaldur Indridason. I’ve read several of these books, including Jar City.

jar city

Indridason has been compared to other Nordic crime writers, like Henning Mankell, whom I also love.

One of my favorite books of 2013 was set in Iceland, in the early nineteenth century.

burial rites

Burial Rites was based on the true story of the last execution in Iceland, that occurred on January 12, 1830. Agnes Magnusdottir, a farmhand, was convicted of murdering two men in March, 1828.

Burial Rites is fascinating, telling the story of the time that Agnes spends as a “prisoner” on a farm in the rural district where she was raised. Because there was no jail where she could be held, she was assigned to a family and resided with them until the date of her execution. The book tells us the story of Agnes, and the murder, and also details her effect on the family and community where she lives before her execution. Spoiler alert – this book does not have a happy ending. It is a fascinating exploration of the historical Icelandic culture, of gender relationships, of capital punishment, and of the manner in which stories are told.

Highly recommended.

Madame Bovary, part 1

Madame Bovary, part 1Madame Bovary (Book 1) by Gustave Flaubert
on 1856
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 335
Source: Purchased: ebook

Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating. Flaubert's erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.'

I have completed book I of Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s debut novel published in 1856. My thoughts so far:

Flaubert is taking his time with the unfolding of the story. The initial chapters focus on Charles Bovary. We are introduced to him as he enters a new schoolroom, and learn that he is a stolid, uninspired student. He becomes a provincial doctor, and marries an older, wealthy widow in a marriage that is arranged by his mother.

When Emma Bovary enters into the story, Charles is smitten. She is the pretty, engaging and well-dressed daughter of a patient. Once M. Bovary’s wife dies, he begins to court Emma, and eventually marries her.

Flaubert is considered a “realistic” writer, and his descriptions of French provincial life are carefully constructed and include details that contribute to their realism. Some of my favorite quotes from this section relate to the customs of the French peasantry:

At night when they left, the horses, stuffed up to the nostrils with oats, could hardly be got into the shafts; they kicked, reared, the harness broke, their masters laughed or swore; and all night in the light of the moon along country roads there were runaway carts at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clambering up the hills, with women leaning out from the tilt to catch hold of the reins.

It is clear from the beginning that the marriage between Charles and Emma is not likely to be wildly successful. Emma is a romantic, and she wants a life of luxury and beauty. Her life is one of – not hardship, certainly, but of frugality and economy. Because Charles is unable to satisfy her material wants, not to mention her emotional wants, she becomes more and more detached from him.

She wanted to get some personal profit out of things, and she rejected as useless all that did not contribute to the immediate desires of her heart, being of a temperament more sentimental than artistic, looking for emotions, not landscapes.

Once the Bovary’s are invited to a ball, Emma’s disillusionment is complete. She has tasted the life that she wants, and it is beyond her reach. Her husband cannot provide it to her:

Iced champagne was served. Emma shivered all over as she felt it cold in her mouth. She had never seen pomegranates nor tasted pineapples. The powdered sugar even seemed to her whiter and finer than elsewhere.

She becomes ill, dull and listless in her dissatisfaction. Book I ends with Charles and Emma departing Tostes, their home, so that Charles can take up a new position somewhere else. Emma is pregnant.

It is easy to feel sympathy for Charles. He is not a deep thinker, and he is infatuated with his wife. He thinks he is doing the right thing by Emma because his imagination simply cannot stretch to desires beyond what he provides: security, steady income, moderate affluence, an escape from a farm, and consistent meals. He is in over his head, and he can’t even begin to realize all that is going on in the interior life of his wife.

Emma, on the other hand, is not a sympathetic character. Shallow, frivolous, and silly, there is a meanness to her. But, at the same time, it is so easy to see how limited her options were. She is a pretty woman in a world that calculates her worth based on her prettiness and breeding. She is good enough to marry Charles Bovary, but her sights are set much higher. And she simply doesn’t have the breeding or the beauty to attract the suitor that she wants. How frustrating would that be? No ability for her to achieve anything in her own right, she must just wait around for the right man to take notice of her. She has control over almost nothing. So, although she is not sympathetic, I find myself understanding, and even empathizing with her.

I suspect that my sympathy will not last.


H is for Hermione Granger

H is for Hermione Granger by J.K. Rowling
Genres: YA

Hermione was brilliant from the moment she entered the Harry Potter series, with Harry and Ron in the cabin of the Hogwarts Express, challenging Ron to try a spell, and saying with total confidence when it didn’t work that all of hers had worked. It never occurred to Hermione to pretend to be incompetent, to dumb herself down for the boys, and this made her life, sometimes hard.

But, obviously, Harry would not have succeeded without Hermione. Everyone other character in the books were expendable, except Hermione. She was the linchpin. The brains of the operation. She was fiercely loyal and has a dazzling intellect. She was that girl – the one in high school who was bright, motivated, and ambitious. I was that girl (without magic). My daughter is that girl, too.

As a culture, we are deeply conflicted about girls like Hermione Granger, who challenge the status quo, who refuse to accept that there are limits to what they can accomplish, who work hard and succeed brilliantly. The smart ones. The ambitious ones. To some people, the bossy ones.

When my daughter was a little girl, we would go to plays together. I am a huge proponent of live theater, and reading, so we would go to lunch and then go to the Children’s Theater. We saw five plays a year, for at least six years – from the time she was five until she hit middle school. We played a game at lunch called “this” or “that.” I would pick two books, or characters, or movies, and she would pick her favorite of the two.

Hermione Granger always won. Hermione put up against anyone, the answer was always Hermione. She would break the game. Every single time.

G is for Genre

I am a broad and voracious reader. I used to be a book snob – confining my reading to primarily literary fiction by critical darlings who get nominated for things like Pulitzers and Bookers and, even, Nobels. Oh, yea, bring me your Salingers, your Morrisons, your Mantels.

My love was found in the time of cholera. My life, of Pi. I possessed The Bluest Eye, wore The Color Purple with Pride and Prejudice, consumed Grapes of Wrath, bore my Children at Midnight, and enjoyed the remains. Of the day. I was the English Patient, with the White Tiger, at Wolf Hall.

And then I got tired and rediscovered genre fiction.

And damn, I forgot how much fun it was to read genre. Urban fantasy by Patricia Briggs and James Butcher. Fantasy by Sanderson. Romance by Sarah McLean and Lisa Kleypas and Julia Quinn.

A reading snob no more. I still read serious literary fiction, but you’ll also find me with nose stuck in a piece of genre fiction, smiling to myself because it is just so much fun.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von ArnimThe Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Published by Virago on 1922
Genres: Virago Modern Classics
Pages: 361
Source: Purchased: print book

A discrete advertisement in The Times, addressed to "those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine," is the prelude to a revelatory month for four very different women. High above a bay on the Italian Riviera stands the medieval castle San Salvatore. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs. Arbuthnot, Mrs. Fisher, and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the gentle spirit of the Mediterranean, they gradually shed their public skins, discovering a harmony each of them has longed for but none has ever known. First published in 1922, this captivating novel is imbued with the descriptive power and lighthearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnim is renowned.

This was the first of my April reads.

It is a very fast, very engaging book. I’ve not read anything else by Elizabeth von Arnim, although I have heard good things about Elizabeth and her German Garden, which I have definitely put on the TBR.

The Enchanted April is fluff – enchanting fluff, set in an Italian castle. It is about love in all of its myriad permutations, and about how people can, sometimes, make their own families when the ones that they have leave them unfulfilled. The descriptions of the castle and its gardens are lovely. I highly recommend it as a lighthearted springtime read.

It is a little bit too convenient, the way that everyone ends up with someone, and the ease with which the struggling relationships are put to rights by the happy effects of a vacation are not terribly convincing. But, speaking as someone who vacations far too infrequently, and whose vacations NEVER involve an Italian castle, this doesn’t matter at all. Not a whit.

I want my San Salvatore vacation, please.


F is for Feminist

Hello there. Unapologetic feminist here.

What is a feminist? A feminist is, to put it quite simply, a person who believes that women are human beings who capable of participating in all areas of public and private life in a manner that is equal to, and on par with, men. Women’s rights are human rights.

A feminist is not someone who necessarily hates men. I’m married to a man, and I am mother to a son and I love them both. A feminist is not someone who believes that success for women can only come at the expense of men. I believe that the pie is ever expanding, and that all individuals can partake of it. The idea that for women to succeed men must fail is the flip side of the coin of the patriarchy, which holds that for men to succeed, women must be kept in a subservient place. I do not believe in subservience.

Feminism is one of the reasons that I read classic literature – including great women writers like Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. I enjoy seeing how the ideas of the past influenced women, and I enjoy seeing how many of the male writers of the past occasionally railed against the effect that those ideas had on women.

Imagine what George Eliot, creator of the brilliant Dorothea Brooke, would think of the options that today’s women enjoy.

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