February 9, 2012 by Me and My Monkeys
Flaubert takes us on a journey that changes pace and direction like a fugitive. Who is the protagonist? With whom should our sympathies lie? Just when we’re close to an answer, he takes us deeper into his patchwork assortment of introspections and interactions. No answers; just set pieces that we’re left to decode.
While Emma Bovary is “dreaming between the lines”, Flaubert’s reader is enticed to find meaning there. For example, the two key seductions of this reputedly saucy tale are entirely hidden from view, first by a councillor’s political rhetoric at a country fair, and second by the drawn curtains of a 19th century taxi: “Let it be stated that no untoward incident occurred to disrupt this family occasion”.
On the other hand, the two key grotesqueries (a club foot operation and, ultimately, Emma’s demise) are presented in vivid technicolour.
The romantic banalities of bourgeois culture is Flaubert’s joke; the grotesque underside is, perhaps, his point.
It is finally Charles who steals the limelight and, equally, our affections and our pity. Like the Charles of Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers over a century later, he slowly loses the girl that he’d so longed to win. He is, beautifully and helplessly, “like a man inside a falling house”. Aren’t we all?
Recommended? Not if you’re after a page-turner. But yes – and definitely – if you’re willing to do some work.
Out of 10? 8