Friday, October 15, 2010

Part One, Madame Bovary: The Literary Habits of Fictional Characters


On the other side of the hallway was Charles' office, a small room about six paces wide, with a table, three chairs, and an office armchair. The volumes of the Dictionary of Medical Science, whose pages were uncut but whose binding had suffered from all the successive sales through which they had passed, by themselves almost entirely filled the six shelves of a pine bookcase.

~~~

She had read Paul and Virgina, and she had dreamed of the little bamboo house, the Negro Domingo, the dog Faithful, but most of all of the sweet friendship of a good little brother who goes off to fetch red fruit for you from great trees taller than church steeples, or runs barefoot over the sand, bringing you a bird's nest.

~~~
At the convent there was a spinster who came every month, for a week, to work in the linen room. . . . Often the boarders would slip out of study hall to go see her. She knew by heart the love songs of the century before and would sing them softly as she plied her needle. She would tell stories, give you news, do errands for you in town, and lend the older girls, secretly, one of the novels that she always had in her apron pocket, and from which the good old maid herself would devour long chapters in the intervals of her task. They were always and only about love, lovers, paramours, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, gloomy forests, troubled hearts, oaths, sobs, tears, and kisses, skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in groves, gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever is, always well dressed, and weeping like tombstone urns. And so for six months, at the age of fifteen, Emma soiled her hands with the greasy dust of those old lending libraries. With Walter Scott, later, she became enamored of things historical, dreamed of studden leather chests, guardrooms, and troubadors. She would have liked to live in some old manor, like one of those long-bodiced chatelaines who, under the refoiled ogives, would spend her days, elbow on stone sill and chin in hand, watching a white-plumed horseman come galloping from the depths of the countryside on a black horse. At that time she worshipped Mary Stuart and felt an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women. Joan of Arc, Heloise, Agnes Sorel, La Belle Ferronniere, and Clemence Isaure, for her, stood out like comets against the shadowy immensity of history, in which there still appeared here and there, but less visible in the darkness and without any relation among them, Saint Louis and his oak, Bayard dying, certain of Louis XI's ferocities, a little of Saint Bartholomew, the Bearnis's plume, and alway the memory of the painted plates on which Louis XIV was extolled.

~~~~
She took out a subscription to Corbeille, a women's magazine, and to Le Sylphe des Salons. Skipping nothing, she would devour all the reports of first nights, horse races, and soirees, would take an interest in a singer's debut, the opening of a shop. She knew the latest fashions, the addresses of the good tailors, the days for going to the Bois and the Opera. In Eugene Sue, she studied descriptions of furnishings; she read Balzac and George Sand, seeking in them the imagined satisfaction of her own desires. She would bring her book with her even to the table, and she would turn the pages while Charles ate and talked to her. The memory of the Vicomte would always return to her as she read. She would find similarities between him and the invented characters. But the circle of which he was the center gradually grew larger around him, and the halo he wore, separating from his face, spread father out, illuminating other dreams.

~~~
Finally, in order to keep up to date, he took out a subscription to La Ruche Medicale, a new journal whose prospectus he had received. He would read a little of it after dinner, but the warmth of the room, in combination with his digestion, would put him to sleep after five minutes; and he would stay there, his chin on his hands and his hair spread out like a mane as far as the base of the lamp. Emma would look at him and shrug her shoulders.

~~~
Sometimes, too, she would talk to him about the things she had read, such as a passage from a novel, a new play, or the high society anecdote being recounted in the paper; for, after all, Charles was someone, always an open ear, always a ready approbation. She confided many secrets to her greyhound! She would have done the same to the logs in the fire in the fireplace and the pendulum of the clock.

~~~
"I've read everything," she would say to herself.

And she would hold the tongs in the fire till they turned red, or watch the rain fall.

--Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Lydia Davis translation)

9 comments:

Isabella said...

I love this, that Emma's a reader, but I can't quite figure out why. Because it genuinely thrills her and fulfills something in her? Because it was "forbidden"? Because it's the thing to do and reading is part of the kind of person she wants to be? A combination of all these things, I suppose. I'm finding she's a hard character to know.

Shelley (Book Clutter) said...

"I've read everything"
--inconceivable!

Jeanne said...

When I first read Madame Bovary I had just turned 18, and I was so taken with the line about "horses ridden to death on every page" that I got two friends to join me in writing a book in which that happens. We called it A Horse For All Seasons.

SFP said...

Oh, that's hilarious! Do you still have a copy?

Jeanne said...

Of course! I never get rid of a book, especially if I helped write it.

SFP said...

You should post at least some of it. You know you ought to.

Jeanne said...

Hmm, this would be the week, wouldn't it, while everyone's still reading Flaubert...

SFP said...

Yes it would. :)

Please oh please oh please. . . #shamelessbegging

Jeanne said...

Ok, there's a chapter up today!