Less Is More

Anita Brookner is the author of "Hotel du Lac," "A Private View" and "Falling Slowly." Her essay appears as the introduction to "Madame Bovary," published in a new edition by Oxford University Press

"Madame Bovary, c'est moi!" Flaubert famously exclaimed, a remark which has raised him to heroic status among writers. For what has the morose and reclusive Flaubert in common with the completely unsophisticated, even credulous Emma, on whom he lavishes such undeserved vengeance? Does this transformation imply an obscure punishment for his own romantic impulses, and if so is such an act temperamentally justified, or indeed justifiable? For to surrender one's own naivete, or what remains of it, to a form of self-mastery, which is in itself perverse, is not a benign performance however meritorious it may appear. In "Madame Bovary," Flaubert proved to himself and to the world that it is possible for a writer to identify so completely with a character as to lose sight of himself, an act that has about it an air of sorcery, of violence, necessitating an almost necromantic enactment that is not within the powers of humbler practitioners, who may merely lend their characters certain of their own traits and who may take their imaginings only up to the limits decreed by the outcome of their story.

Flaubert, what is more, achieves this by indirection, by encasing his story in a style so pure, so apparently simple, that his own immense efforts, practiced entirely on himself, are only known to us from other sources. This is where the heroism is apparent. The book, published in 1857, took him five years to write, years in which he refined each sentence over and over again, until no trace of his own temperament remained. If we did not know that he had vomited three times when describing Emma's suicide, we should still be able to appreciate the calm factual manner in which the details are given. Yet this act of vomiting, the most physically disruptive of phenomena, relays the intense love and hatred that Flaubert felt for the character and for the book that was to make him famous. Few writers can command such exhaustive excitement. For the undertaking, an undertaking which encompassed five years of 16-hour days, implies a terrifying commitment. And to translate this commitment into narrative involves an even more prodigious expenditure: to eliminate the author from his own work as completely as if he were nothing more than a mere bystander, an anonymous voice recounting an anonymous episode, so anodyne, so unconnected, that he picked it out of a newspaper, a simple fait divers that could be seen to have no reference to his own undramatic existence. The impartial, even genial style, the style from which Flaubert is absent, and from which he intended to be absent, represents an Olympian ideal in which the deity presides over his characters' fate but does nothing to intervene. The Jupiterian Flaubert therefore shares the divinity's lack of pity, of mercy. His only intervention is the simplicity of the account rendered. In achieving this, Flaubert encourages lesser writers to believe that they too possess such arcane powers. As much has been written about this process as about the book itself; even the vomiting seems prestigious.

The author--Flaubert himself--remains in abeyance. In the opening chapter he is present in the form of a boy at school who joins in the hilarity at Charles Bovary's clumsiness and at his inappropriate hat, a hat betraying the monstrous ineptitude that will distinguish Bovary's career as a village doctor. In fact Bovary is not a doctor at all, any more than Homais is a chemist. Bovary is an officer of health, a rank decreed by Napoleon, who made use of such half-trained practitioners on the battlefield. Having joined in the mirth that greeted Bovary's arrival in class, the narrator, temporarily thought to be present as Flaubert, then eclipses himself from the story, which follows the early career of Charles Bovary. This is done without elision, so that the handing over of the narrative is not noticed. The reader is quite naturally led into the character of Bovary and is able to follow his development without constraint. The author-subject has disappeared: Bovary holds center stage. From then on the story belongs to the characters, glimpsed as if at a distance, their actions all their own.

These actions are tragic, but the tragedy is not foreseen at the outset. Bovary himself is incompetent, not even up to the duties of a village medical officer. His one triumphant act is to marry the daughter of one of his patients, whose broken leg he has managed to set. Thereafter he subsides into domestic contentment or domestic stupor. But this in itself can be justified. He has done as well as he might have done, rather better, in fact, as the son of a wary ambitious mother, the widower of an unappetizing first wife. He has achieved happiness on his own terms, according to his station in life. He is not aware that the young woman he takes as his second wife is both demanding and unawakened. How could he be? His mind is not attuned to such matters, and for once he has a useful diagnosis to hand: nerves. This interesting condition is one in which most men would concur. And it is a masculine society that Flaubert depicts, the sort of society in which he felt most at home, for all that his own domestic life was spent between two women, his mother and his niece.

Emma Bovary has no friends. Her erstwhile friends at the convent did her a grave disservice by introducing her to a form of literature much prized by innocent young girls as birthday presents: keepsake albums illustrated by vignettes of improbably romantic settings, castles, moonlit ruins, Oriental fantasies in which lovers meet and part. We are told that as a dissatisfied young wife she reads Balzac and George Sand but, if so, she fails to understand either. At heart she remains faithful to the artifice which she incorporated at a young age. This artifice is completely devoid of sexual content, as is her first admirer, Leon, the lawyer's clerk who lodges with the pharmacist Homais in the small Normandy town of Yonville, to which the conscientious officer of health has taken his wife to cure her of her nerves.

Emma's reaction to what she perceives as an attraction is a piece of make-believe in itself. She bridles, becomes uxorious, mimics virtuous indignation. All this is possible, even enjoyable, in the complete absence of sex. Emma's feelings for her husband are routine, resigned; she loses interest in her child once the child has been sick on her collar. Unfortunately her one experience of social life--a ball at a nearby chateau--has reinforced her romantic tendencies. At the sight of a note being surreptitiously passed, she is filled with respect for the duplicity of the worldly. The memory of this, together with Leon's mute and nonthreatening advances, exacerbates her nascent moodiness. Her reading now consists of fashion papers, gossipy paragraphs interspersed with modish sketches. She is in fact back to the sort of reading she once enjoyed in the convent, only this time her aspirations have come into sharper focus.

Throughout the novel, Flaubert, according to his own decree, expresses no opinion of his own. The only evidence of his delight and exasperation is revealed in the many italicized sentences meant to illustrate bourgeois mediocrity. Thus Homais, the epitome of semi-educated, semi-politicized complacency, is full of dubious wisdom because he has read something or other in the paper. Flaubert, of course, could give chapter and verse for everything he had read, as could his many biographers. The lazy thinking and unsuited verbosity of Homais may be the final straw for Emma, and for Flaubert: Here they join hands. But the uninflected style gives no hint of this. The reader might be assisting at a simple spectacle of provincial life, hardly aware that the heroine is bound for a fall. Why should she be? A love affair does not always lead to ruin. In "The Lady with the Little Dog," Chekhov, who learned so much from Flaubert, manages an equally tragic but much more temperate outcome. But Chekhov is not entirely absent from his story, whereas later writers--Camus has been mentioned--are fascinated by the sovereign impartiality of the narrator, who declines to offer a reflection, let alone a judgment.

How is Emma to be set on the path to her own ruin? By the agency of a simple villain, so transparent as to be laughable but suitably illicit, and unsuitable enough to appeal to an unfledged romantic. They meet at the agricultural show, the famous Cornices Agricoles, in the chapter that is held up to students of literature as the consummate example of the novelist's art. For between the redundant cliches of the official speeches, Rodolphe, or Flaubert, places the no-less redundant cliches of the practiced seducer, bemoaning his dissatisfaction with life, his idealistic desire for some impossible fulfillment. To Emma, of course, this stale rhetoric is delicious: She is back in the world of the keepsake albums, as Rodolphe sighs his way through his performance. So far, so predictable. But what Flaubert springs on the reader is unpredictable. Emma not only surrenders; she takes over. She becomes the ideal mistress, practical, enterprising, even coarse. Rodolphe thinks better of it. When she receives his farewell letter, concealed in a basket of apricots, she falls ill, keeps to her bed for 43 days, almost believes in God. She no longer believes in her husband. For Bovary has disgraced himself. He has botched a simple operation on a club-foot, and all Yonville knows about it. And Emma is in debt to the draper, Lheureux, from whom she has ordered several expensive articles, supposedly for her elopement with Rodolphe. The novel might swiftly be brought to a close on the basis of these facts, each of which, singly, might signal an ending.

Instead of which, Flaubert introduces greater and ever more impressive climaxes: the performance of "Lucia di Lammermoor" to which Bovary takes her in Rouen, the reappearance of Leon, their meeting in the cathedral and the audacity of the ride in the speeding coach, in which nothing is specified apart from the names of the districts through which the bewildered driver is obliged to travel. Only the appearance of an ungloved hand at the window intimates what is taking place. Leon too has learned the manners of seduction; Emma has recently been emancipated by Rodolphe. Closure is thus postponed. This is the most masterly stroke of all.

Throughout these passages Flaubert has remained evenhanded, but in the enumeration of the Rouen streets, on that momentous drive, one can feel his tension rising, a tension which he himself perceived as dangerous, likely to precipitate an epileptic fit. Monastic in his sensuality, which was considerable, he regarded excitement as a threat which might detract from his task of reconciling the sensibility with which he sets forth Emma's predicament with the Olympian detachment he must command in order to do it justice. And he still has her death to contend with! In this context it is easy to understand the cold letter of dismissal he wrote to his mistress, Louise Colet, and even to sympathize. How could an imperfect living woman compare with his immaculate creation? How could anyone empathize with the physical burden he was carrying by imposing on a morbid temperament a control so severe as to endanger his health and to make of him the hermit of Croisset, the only way of life which could guarantee him safety, and with it the purity of his original conception?

The marvelous novel was thus brought to completion, but not without the travails for which Flaubert is renowned. The last line, the final comment on what Flaubert considered to be the invincible stupidity of his fellow countrymen, enables him to finish on a flourish of irony. While Emma, the romantic, is made to suffer the romantic's often unjust fate, Homais is awarded the Legion of Honor. This irony delivers Flaubert from his own romanticism and enables him to survive the fate he has reserved for the intractable, the foolish, the amorous, the intemperate Emma. "Madame Bovary c'est moi!" That he lived his creation is all too believable. That he survived it is almost miraculous.

Louise Colet, who had received so many bewildering letters about the work in progress and who had been kept so persistently at arm's length, hated the novel. Women do not warm to it in the way that men do, perceiving a harshness which they may find familiar. Flaubert had an entirely masculine temperament, enjoyed scabrous gossip among like-minded cronies, earned his credentials by contracting syphilis from visits to Egyptian brothels. In appearance he was corpulent, highly colored, his lips blackened by mercury. His habits were not delicate. Yet Emma is a creature of infinite refinement. Flaubert never withdraws his favor from her, yet never betrays indulgence. The life he reserves for her is confined to the page. And so thoroughly realized is that life that Emma has become an archetype, arguably more famous than Flaubert himself.

Growing up in close proximity to his father's dissecting room, Flaubert was early brought into contact with the more disagreeable aspects of the human condition. He learned to despise the inflated language and sentiments of the masters of the Romantic movement, Hugo and Musset. His own romantic impulses were disguised by a form of stoicism. The novelist is thus a hero of his own creation, as he intended to be. His famous exclamation contains both the heroine and her creator. No symbiosis was ever more ideally achieved.

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