You wouldn’t think Grendel’s mother would win any awards for being a great mom, but Oyster is giving accolades to literature’s most horrifying mothers in honor of the holiday. The list also includes Madame Bovary’s Emma Bovary as the most selfish mother and Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet as most nettlesome mother.
Last year, I pointed readers to Numero Cinq, a new Canadian lit mag with a notably memorable tagline. In the latest issue, which is split into seventeen parts, Benjamin Woodard talks with Lydia Davis about her Flaubert translation, her new story collection and the art of writing while traveling. (h/t The Rumpus)
As NASA readies its next Mars launch for today, we’re getting used to the idea of entertainment in space. Recently, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, shot a music video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” onboard the International Space Station and it quickly went viral. It’s had about 19 million views on YouTube — about half the population of Canada. And then Lady Gaga announced that she’ll be shuttling into space to perform a single track in 2015 as part of Zero G Colony music festival. But where’s all the literature in space? Actually, it turns out poetry is fairly well represented and there’s more on the way come Monday. But it’s pretty much a fiction desert up there.
There are two poetry recordings making their way through interstellar space. In 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, and the former has officially left the embrace of the solar system. It’s traveled roughly 12 billion miles since it was launched, becoming the first man-made object to reach the cusp of interstellar space known as the heliopause. For 36 years the probe has been carrying the Golden Record, Earth’s mix tape for future humanity or curious aliens who know how to spin vinyl, whoever finds it first. Etched into the grooves of the Golden Record (it’s actually gold-plated copper) are 116 photographs of earthly life, 90 minutes of music — from Bach to Blind Willie Johnson to a Navajo night chant — greetings in 54 languages, and a sonic essay that features wind, rain, birdsong, and the yowl of a wild dog. Because there is also a written Presidential address from Jimmy Carter, NASA felt that it should acknowledge the role of Congress by including a list of its members, many of whom advocated for the space agency in Washington during the 1970s. There are also two recorded poetry excerpts. The French delegate to the UN, Benadette Lefort, quotes the first two stanzas from Baudelaire’s poem “Elevation” in Fleurs de Mals:
Above the lakes, above the vales,
The mountains and the woods, the clouds, the seas,
Beyond the sun, beyond the ether,
Beyond the confines of the starry spheres,
My soul, you move with ease,
And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave
You wing your way blithely through boundless space
With virile joy unspeakable
Anders Thunboig, Sweden’s UN delegate, follows suit by reading from Harry Martinson’s poem “Visit to the Observatory.” Compared to the Austrian delegate’s utterance — “As the chairman of the Outer Space Committee of the UN and the representative of Austria, I am pleased to extend you our greetings in this way” — the Swedish and French sentiments feel like outpourings of pure, terrestrial emotion.
So there’s a smattering of poetry wending its way through space and apparently there’s more on the way. Over the summer, NASA announced that it would be hauling more than 1,000 haiku on this month’s launch of its Mars-bound spacecraft, Maven, courtesy of a University of Colorado Going To Mars competition (the winning entry: It’s funny, they named/ Mars after the God of War/ Have a look at Earth). But where’s the fiction drifting through the dark sea of ionized gas? Outside of whatever the crew of the International Space Station happens to have on their Kindles and iPads, it’s a fictional wasteland up there. If we could make the Golden Record all over again, wouldn’t we send at least one Chekhov story? And I’m pretty sure aliens or our distant future cousins would gladly swap out the list of congressional members for passages from Lolita or Madame Bovary.
What follows is a completely biased, unrepresentative sample of what I consider to be fictional cornerstones worthy of sending into the galactic void. In the spirit of compression — there’s only so much a copper-plated LP can hold — I limited myself to scenes or moments from fiction of the 20th century. My apologies to the three preceding literary centuries. And the current one.
The prologue from DeLillo’s Underworld
The road trip from Nabokov’s Lolita
The first encounter with Septimus Warren Smith in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
The scene in which Viri gets measured for custom shirts in James Salter’s Light Years
The first fevered dream in Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider
The harrowing moment when the Professor realizes his fate in Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode”
The scene on the beach between Seymour and Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”
The final dialogue between The Misfit and the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
The scene where Otto and Sophie seek respite at their country house in Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.
The opening pages of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, leading up to the line “This is the great invention of our time.”
Like all lists and mix tapes, this is a wildly imperfect one. It fails to take account of world literature and it’s probably got a heavy male bias. Asking for a top ten from any writer forces them to dispense with things they should include to things they must include. It’s reasonable to ask: what would anyone make of these fictional slivers without the full context of the story or novel in question? On the other hand, they’d probably glean more about our planet from these vivid and fraught moments, from the crafting of human language, than they would from the Voyager photos of a supermarket and the Sydney Opera House.
As it turns out, these selections have something in common with the Golden Record’s most intimate recording—the sound of a woman’s body as she experiences the first throes of romantic love. As Ann Druyan has described elsewhere, when she was first falling in love with Carl Sagan — to whom she was married until his death in 1996 — she went to Bellevue Hospital so they could record the sounds of her body. If the aliens can follow the scientific notation we’ve posted for them and fathom how to place the stylus into the gold-plated grooves, they’ll hear Ann’s smitten metabolism and the thrumming of her love-addled heartbeat. In other words, they’ll have direct access to human interiority. If we’d sent along some of our best and most haunting fiction, the effect might have been the same.
“Eye of Mars” image via NASA/Wikimedia Commons
I find Maira Kalman’s sensibility and work difficult to describe to the uninitiated. She’s a visual artist and writer whose work combines photographs, text, and deceptively simple paintings—the kind of simple that takes considerable thought and skill—to form a record of what seems to me to be a ceaseless quest to understand this world, to appreciate its beauty, and to create some record of her life.
She was born in Tel Aviv, and immigrated to the United States at the age of four. Her books are quirky, deeply moving, and beautiful documents of life on earth. She considers Spinoza, George Washington, fruit platters, her dog, the nature of war. If this sounds incoherent, it isn’t. “I am trying to figure out two very simple things,” she said once at a TED conference. You can find the video on YouTube. “How to live, and how to die. Period. That’s all I’m trying to do, all day long.”
I picked up The Principles of Uncertainty in a bookstore a year or so ago, and bought it because I couldn’t put it down.
I’d first been introduced to her work some years earlier by an office mate. Let’s call her Jane. We worked for different small businesses in the same Midtown Manhattan office suite, Jane and I, in a tower just above Grand Central Station. We were slogging it out together in the shadow world of dreary part-time day jobs and interesting-but-not-terribly-lucrative artistic careers. She was an actor, I was writing my first novel, and our jobs were neither particularly good nor particularly awful.
The office where I worked had white walls, a rippling carpet in a depressing shade of pink, and a horribly cheap desk whose fake-wood veneer was peeling off the particle board in strips. I worked on an ugly Dell laptop that only intermittently worked. When it stopped working I had to call Dell’s customer service line, by which I mean that I’d devote an hour to listening to hold music from overseas and then get disconnected in a burst of static. When I looked out the window the sheer glass wall of the Hyatt hotel only reflected my window back at me. The room’s saving grace was the existence of a floor lamp; when I was alone in the office I closed the door, turned off the fluorescent overheads and took refuge in low lighting and soft music.
In those days The Principles of Uncertainty existed only as a ravishingly beautiful weekly feature on the New York Times website. I thought, looking over Jane’s shoulder as she showed it to me: this is the beauty I long for. There were beautiful things in my life outside work, but my life in the office was a wasteland. This is sometimes the hardest thing to reconcile in the fraught territory of art and day jobs: the complete divide between the part of your life that pays your rent and the part of your life that you consider your career, the part that brings you joy and fulfilment. In a perfect world one’s art would be sustaining all by itself, but the truth is that particularly dreary day jobs are somewhat harder to bear before one’s had much success. I acquired an agent during my time in the office suite, but no publisher.
Just about the only beauty to be found in and around my day job in those days was Maira Kalman’s regular New York Times feature, and down below the office tower when I passed twice daily through the echoing cathedral of Grand Central Station. I would steal glances at the starred ceiling of the Main Concourse on my way to work every morning. Look at this beautiful city I’ve landed in. Look at this cathedral for trains.
Two or three day jobs and several years later, in an entirely different version of my life (two published books; Brooklyn; two cats) I attended a Bat Mitzvah at the Jewish Museum. After the service we slipped out of the event room to take a look at the Museum, my husband and I. “There’s an artist exhibiting on this floor,” he said. I saw the exhibition title and my heart sped up a little. Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World.)
The exhibition of her work, which runs through the end of July, has the feel of extreme curation. It occupies three rooms, but if they’d given her the run of the entire museum I suspect she could have filled it. She is a prolific artist and an avid collector. The New Yorker has a slideshow of Maira Kalman setting up her exhibit. She looks very focused. She wears an excellent hat.
There are the paintings, of course, many of them originals of the images that appear in The Principles of Uncertainty and in her other books. Paintings of flowers, a Snickers bar, a pickle tag (3 UNITED PICKLE), sunny days in parks and gardens, a body in the snow. Emily Dickinson in a white dress with a black dog at her side, radiant against a background of deepest blue. A pale boy of about twelve, all in white, legs crossed, smiling and carefree on a curved red chair, Kalman’s gorgeously uneven handwriting on the wall above him: “Nabokov’s family fled Russia. How could the young Nabokov, sitting innocently and elegantly in a red chair, leafing through a Book on Butterflies imagine such displacement. Such loss.” It might be my favorite image of hers.
In The Principles of Uncertainty the Nabokov piece is part of a larger musing on death and displacement that concludes with a map drawn by Kalman’s mother, a map of the world through her eyes: Canada is a grey mass along the top edge, a formless shadow that makes me think of Nabokov’s Zembla as described in the last four words of Pale Fire: A distant northern land. The states are jumbled chaotically together in the blue field of the United States, and down toward New York State the map slides into surrealism: Jerusalem abuts New York, with Tel Aviv and the name of the Russian town where Kalman’s mother grew up close on the other side. It’s a jumble, a map drawn by a woman who fled Russia for Palestine and then left Israel for the United States, a map of displacements and complicated flights. “She is no longer alive,” Kalman’s handwriting reads, “and it is impossible to bear. She loved Fred Astaire. And there you go. On you go. Hapless, heroic us.”
Her affection for us shines through every painting, every word. She moves through life with a camera and a sketchbook, documenting our passions, our hairstyles, our hats. She has a fondness for beautiful objects. Her collected objects dominate the largest of her Jewish Museum exhibit’s three rooms. Because so many of them appear in her paintings, seeing them is a bit like coming across old friends.
There are simple wooden ladders, an empty hat stand. A glass case whose contents I spent a long time studying:
A miniature white chair, hard and severe-looking.
A very small white funnel.
A dried pomegranate.
A selection of chaotic beautifully paint rags: “paint rags on linens taken quietly from hotels.”
Language self-instruction books, quite old: Colloquial Persian, Colloquial Bengali, Marathi Self-Taught, Telugu Without Tutor, Teach Yourself Gujarati. (Overheard by the glass case: “Gujarati! That would be good for you.”)
A brass whistle, a brass egg. A leather pouch. An enormous rusted skeleton key. Assorted varieties of string.
Another case holds a shoebox labeled Mosses of Long Island. A teacup. A jar of buttons. A slinky. A hotel desk bell. Something like a giant rolodex. Pinking shears. Elsewhere, a list of colours found in Madame Bovary (green cloth / black buttons / red wrists…) And old suitcases, which is wonderful, because I love old suitcases: one of my prized possessions is the small monogrammed suitcase that my grandmother took with her when she left home in the 1930s. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember.
I think sometimes about the way objects tie us to the past. My relationship with my grandmother was uneasy at best, but we had some initials and a love of books and travel in common, and there was an earlier version of her whom I wish I could have met: a stylish young woman with a fondness for smart hats who packed a suitcase stamped ESJ—Ella St. John—and set off for the capital of my distant northern land.
There are quotes written high up on the museum walls:
“As if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.” -Gustave Flaubert (Mme Bovary)
I feel like that every time I write a novel. Hung on the wall in another room, white fabric with embroidered text: My rigid heart is tenderly unmanned.
There are videos. Maira Kalman putting in an installation in the new library of PS 147: the theme was the alphabet, and she spent some months collecting objects to mount on the walls above the shelving.
I just started looking for all these beautiful objects around us, that are not expensive, and that are part of the vernacular of what children would be looking at in their daily lives and I wanted them to see that in every mundane object there’s incredible design and incredible ability to use your imagination and make it into something else, which is what everybody has to do in their life no matter what job they have.
In my favorite clip, Maira Plays the Accordion As Pete Listens Patiently, the artist plays the accordion with some hesitation while the camera pans over her dog’s fur, his patient face.
“I was going to say, she’s a little wacky,” an older woman said, putting down the headphones and moving away from the video with her friend. But aren’t most of us? And don’t you have to be? It’s not an easy world to live in.
The exhibition “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” runs at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan (1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York NY) through July 31.
I’ve been a slow reader this month. First, I slogged through The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles; the contemporary, omniscient narrator of this Victorian-age narrative fascinated my nerd-brain, but failed to truly interest my reader-brain. Then I took my sweet, sweet time gliding through Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, as translated by Lydia Davis. I hadn’t read the novel since high school, and this time around I found myself reading aloud passages that were truly a feat of magic, summarizing with rigorous and well-chosen details whole weeks or months or years at a time. I loved the way, too, that Flaubert distilled character into a single paragraph, stringing together a distinct list of experiences, memories, habits, and desires in a such a way that I knew that person. One sentence near the end of the book made me especially happy: “His gaze, keener than his lancet, would descend straight through your soul, past your excuses and your reticence, and disarticulate your every lie.” That word–disarticulate; I savored it for days.
But after these two books, I longed for a contemporary novel about contemporary life. I longed for references to malls, and to boners, and to “intense cell phones” and to a pillow made of denim with an actual jeans pocket on the front, “like it thinks it’s Bruce Springsteen.” Enter: The Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone. This funny, sad and engaging novel scratched this particular reading itch.
I first discussed wanting to read Rathbone’s debut novel in my essay about teenage protagonists. As I wrote in that piece, the novel is narrated by 17-year-old Jake Higgins, who has been sent to a juvenile detention center in Northern Virginia for armed robbery. The book is composed of Jake’s diary entries about his time at the JDC. With a lesser writer, this conceit might have exhausted me after 50 or so pages in, or at least shown its marionette’s strings, but Rathbone is skilled enough to maintain the veracity of her character’s teenage-consciousness while still including electric and surprising descriptions that further my understanding of him. Jake’s a smart kid, but (thankfully) not overly precocious, and Rathbone’s talents as a wordsmith easily become Jake’s. The woman who runs the computer room, Mrs. Dandridge, “is a pile of a person who smells like someone’s weird house,” and David, Jake’s partner in a class project, “had this like, air-conditioned aggression that’s more state-of-the-art than anyone else’s.” On every page there was a line like these two to delight in.
I loved the way this book was structured, as each notebook entry led me further into Jake’s soul-deadening, suffocating world, with its lack of nutritious food, its too-cold rooms, and its awful inspirational posters. They also led me further into Jake: his feelings for fellow inmate Andrea, who’s been sent to the JDC for selling pot to elementary school kids; his hatred for his abusive, alcoholic stepfather, whom he calls Refrigerator Man; and his conflicted feelings about adults beyond the facility who lead “normal” and “productive” lives.
I also loved this structure for how quickly and easily it led me through the story. These were bite-sized chapters, each one an amuse bouche of clever and/or heartbreaking information. I read Rathbone’s debut in less than 24 hours, and, holy frijoles, was it fun. The ending felt a touch rushed after such a wonderful build-up, but I didn’t mind: I was too pleased to be reading a page-turner, and to be laughing aloud, to be reveling in so many sparkling turns of phrase. Jake seems like a person who would appreciate the word disarticulate, as does Ms. Rathbone. I look forward to devouring her next book.
The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010. (Click each image for a larger view)
Point Omega by Don Delillo
Reality Hunger by David Shields
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Despite all the changes in literary fashions over the past 150 years, Gustave Flaubert remains an essential influence on how novelists approach their work, and Madame Bovary remains the key book in his career. Given Flaubert’s obsession with style and craft, any translation of Madame Bovary into English requires not merely competence but a touch of full-on windmill-charging madness. Lydia Davis has this madness, tempered by a Flaubertian fastidiousness and dedication to language. The results are exhilarating: an English Bovary that is in forceful, energetic tension with the original French. Sentence by sentence, Davis takes up the same quixotic struggle between idealism and pragmatism that Flaubert has set at the core of his writing.
The sense of the quixotic was always strong in Flaubert. Don Quixote was one of his favorite books, and Madame Bovary consciously reaches for many of the effects that Cervantes achieved in a less methodical fashion.
One of the surprises in reading Don Quixote is discovering how, especially in its early chapters, the characters are more cartoonish than human. Don Quixote is a madman, a delusional fool. His devotion to his book-fed vision of knighthood exposes him to incessant mockery and attack, not only from other people but from the author. Sancho Panza, even more surprisingly, is less a voice of reason than a dull-witted clown. His proverbs aren’t presented as insights—they’re the lazy observations of someone who is down-to-earth mainly in the sense that he lacks imagination. For much of the first half of Don Quixote, we’re reading something that’s close to a vaudeville routine: Sancho plays the sluggish straight man to his master’s flamboyant, hyperactive idiocy.
Gradually, though, Cervantes begins to probe some of his characters’ larger possibilities. I think most of us go into Don Quixote expecting the story of a noble dreamer and a levelheaded realist, but Cervantes only allows us to find this story by first working our way through his constant ridicule. Eventually, and particularly in the second half of the novel, Cervantes adds more subtlety to the satire, and rescues his characters from their puppet-show crudeness. He isn’t always consistent about this, however, and Don Quixote is one of those books where the changeability of the writing invites us to make endless interpretations of what its author is trying to accomplish.
Flaubert first read Don Quixote in 1832, when he was eleven years old, and he had heard tales from the book when he was even younger. By the time Madame Bovary was published, in 1857, he had already been thinking about Cervantes for at least a quarter of a century. Moreover, he had created in Emma Bovary a character who would renew and deepen the meaning of Don Quixote for the future.
Emma embodies, in one person, the conflict between idealism and pragmatism that Cervantes divides between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The argument between the knight and the squire is Emma’s argument with herself: she touches both of their extremes at once, as well as many points in between those extremes. This is why so much of the novel takes place inside her head. Her marriage to Charles and her adulteries with Rodolphe and Léon matter less than her fluctuating attitudes towards the world.
It’s traditional for English-speaking readers to think of Emma mainly as a deluded romantic, but this is a serious distortion of her complexity. Fortunately, the new Davis translation allows us a fresh chance to consider the harsh, observant aspects of Emma’s personality. The various strains of her sentimentality are always doing battle with the various strains of her cynicism. When Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he didn’t just mean that Emma expressed his secret yearnings. He also meant that she expressed all the different temperatures of coldness and despair in his many degrees of pessimism.
Even before her marriage, as an inexperienced young woman who knows little of the world beyond her father’s farm and the convent where she was educated, Emma “considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel.” Throughout the novel, she can’t help comparing her abstract hopes against her keen eye for everything that is discouraging and ugly. Within ten pages of the start of her affair with the well-to-do landowner Rodolphe, she realizes that he has become depressingly sensible and brisk towards her. Devastated by his detachment, she again mourns the loss of all her dreams. She feels she has spent her illusions “in all those successive stages she had gone through, in her virginity, her marriage, and her love…like a traveler who leaves some part of his wealth at every inn along the road.”
Her feelings for Rodolphe revive, of course, but he leaves her at precisely the time he has promised to take her away with him forever. Later she goes to the opera, and convinces herself that nothing in the performance could possibly move her, since she now knows “how paltry were the passions exaggerated by art.” At this same opera she meets Léon, a young law student. They start an affair, but she soon cools towards him, and her bitterness becomes all-encompassing:
Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust?…Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure.
Emma’s cynicism and pessimism are critical to our understanding of her. Yet if they were all she had to offer us, Madame Bovary would be as narrow and harsh as some of Flaubert’s later novels. I admire Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pécuchet—it’s hard not to enjoy Flaubert’s exacting technical skills—but the melancholy resignation of those books feels a bit mechanical to me. All action is doomed to failure and absurdity, all emotion is ghostly and pale, and nothing matters very much, either to the characters or to us as readers. I have friends who love the later Flaubert precisely for his refusal to hide his conviction that everything tastes bitter and stale. Still, on most days I want more than this from a novelist. I want a fuller sense of our possibilities: the heightened alertness to everything and everyone around us that Tolstoy and Woolf and Shakespeare provide at their best.
Emma is full of this alertness, a heady combination of physical, emotional, and intellectual responsiveness that makes her unique in Flaubert’s writing. Though it’s common for critics to ignore her intelligence, she is by a wide margin the smartest and most perceptive of the novel’s main characters. The world gives Don Quixote a beating for his romanticism, but he is usually in the honorable position of standing up for his convictions against external circumstances—circumstances that he amusingly chooses to reinterpret to his advantage. Emma, in contrast, gives most of her beatings to herself. She faces the difficult task of finding something to believe in when she must constantly fight her own mixed feelings. She is far too fierce for the tame choices available to her, and far too wise to find fulfillment in the limits of her socially allotted slots as either a contented wife or a secret adulteress.
Often in the novel we join her at the window as she looks outside and struggles with the subtleties of her dissatisfaction. She wonders how to “express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind…” At times she works towards a tentative feminist critique, and ponders how much more freedom her hoped-for son might someday enjoy compared to her. She sees quite clearly that much of her sense of confinement comes from the restraints placed on her as a woman, “always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.” Soon the gap between what she actually thinks and what she can openly admit grows intolerable:
She was sometimes surprised at the shocking conjectures that entered her mind; and yet she had to keep smiling, hear herself say again and again that she was happy, pretend to be happy, let everyone believe it…
When Emma receives the letter in which Rodolphe admits he is abandoning her, she runs up to her room “as if an inferno were blazing behind her.” In a sense, she carries this inferno with her everywhere she goes, and moves through the book with an intensity that none of the other characters comes close to attaining.
Flaubert continually brings out her restless energy. Thinking about her marriage, she “would hold the tongs in the fire till they turned red.” She sits down on the grass at one point, and quickly starts “digging into it with little thrusts of the tip of her parasol.” Later, as she listens to someone during a stroll, she begins “stirring the wood chips on the ground with the heel of her boot.” She talks to Léon before she sleeps with him for the first time, and we find her “contemplating the bows on her slippers and making little movements in the satin, now and then, with her toes.” She overflows with so much dynamism that she can’t even pass through a church without dipping her finger in the holy water.
Her tragedy is that her vitality has been diverted into channels which can’t possibly satisfy her. Like Don Quixote, she has let the fantasies of second-rate writers imprison her dreams. In her case, she is infected not with the ideal of knighthood but with the ideal of a perfect mate, as found in the novels and stories she read as a girl. Since this ideal is absurdly distant from the more difficult rewards of any actual relationship, it guarantees that she will always be unhappy.
Her love affairs can momentarily appease her frustration, but in the end they always take her in a false direction, away from the more mysterious passions that drive her at a level neither she nor anyone else in the novel can quite understand. When she begins her relationship with Rodolphe, she experiences for an instant this obscure desire, which is less for a lover than for transformation and escape:
But catching sight of herself in the mirror, she was surprised by her face. Her eyes had never been so large, so dark, or so deep. Something subtle had spread through her body and was transfiguring her.
Ultimately, it’s this promise of transfiguration that Emma seeks. She wants to break away from the confines of her life and undergo a metamorphosis into something better than the petty existence that surrounds her. Yet the only way she has been taught that she can attain any kind of transcendence—through the love of a man—repeatedly ends by making her feel cheated and unfulfilled. It’s appropriate that, by the novel’s climax, when she decides to kill herself, her rage against men takes on a magnificent ferocity, the flipside of Hamlet’s rage against women when he attacks Ophelia:
She longed to strike out at all men, spit in their faces, crush every one of them; and she walked rapidly straight on, pale, trembling, enraged, searching the empty horizon with her tearful eyes, as though reveling in the hatred that was suffocating her.
Madame Bovary is about a world where people’s highest aspirations are turned against them—are cheapened into standardized, prepackaged dreams that others can pillage and control. We’ll never know how Emma’s ambitions might have developed if she hadn’t become addicted to the romantic fantasies she read at the convent. She understands that those fantasies have failed her, but the novel prepares an even crueler recognition for her—one that’s as current for us today as the rows of foreclosures and bankruptcies along our streets.
Behind the story of Emma’s marriage and affairs, Flaubert quietly builds a hidden theme: the manipulations of Homais and Lheureux. After their introduction at the start of Part Two, their presence grows bit by bit until they finally replace Emma altogether and lead us to one of the most coolly nightmarish endings in literature.
For much of the novel we barely notice them, and we wonder why Homais, that absurd apothecary obsessed with prestige, keeps returning to the story. His mind consists entirely of received ideas: prejudices that parrot the hand-me-down Enlightenment notions of his favorite newspapers. Since he has no outstanding personal qualities to prop up his megalomania, he spends all his time trying to manipulate others and invent a public reputation that defies the extent of his ineptitude.
Emma is intelligent enough and independent enough to fight back against her fantasies at least as often as she indulges them. Homais, on the other hand, revels in the fatuousness of his ideas. He needs all thought to be secondhand and simplistic, needs all beliefs to fit strict rules of banality, because only in a society of the borrowed and the rote can he flourish.
At first he seems harmless. So does Lheureux, the merchant who loans money to Emma so she can buy the little luxury items that accompany her adulteries. As the novel goes on, however, we find that Homais and Lheureux work their way forward by exploiting and damaging the people around them.
Lheureux’s method is more obvious, and more immediately effective. He draws Emma into taking higher loans than she can realistically repay, and he keeps extending her credit in what she finally sees is an effort to ruin her. By selling her the romantic clothes and props that she thinks will spike her affairs with greater potency, he ends up winning the right to take all of her family’s possessions. This, for Emma, is the final disillusionment, the one that tips her towards her suicide. She is forced to understand that not only have her dreams failed to satisfy her—they’ve been twisted, through her own foolishness, to lead her into financial ruin.
Homais, in turn, accidentally provides the arsenic that Emma uses to poison herself. He also fails to purge her of the poison in time to perhaps save her life. His incompetence here mirrors his earlier incompetence in the novel’s famous clubfoot episode, where a young man’s leg has to be amputated after an unnecessary operation. (Interestingly, in both situations, Homais is less negligent than Emma’s husband, a medical practitioner who should know better.)
Moreover, in addition to the pain that Homais inflicts unintentionally, he becomes steadily more aggressive in mistreating anyone he perceives as a nuisance or a rival. He has a habit of practicing medicine without a license, and has always feared that Emma’s husband, the hapless Charles, will expose his misconduct. Because of this, Homais has done his best to undermine Charles in constant small ways while pretending to be his friend. Then Emma dies, leaving Charles plagued with debts, and Homais completely abandons him as soon as it becomes clear that Charles no longer has the social standing to interfere with anyone’s ambitions.
This is when Homais largely takes over the narrative. He tries to cure a blind man with a salve, fails,and then keeps the failure from harming his reputation by attacking the man in a series of newspaper articles. The success of his articles emboldens him, and he decides that he is an expert on government affairs and major social issues. He starts to crave awards and honors, and uses his public position to discredit and drive out of town three doctors in a row. The novel’s stark final lines tell us that he is protected by the authorities and local opinion, and has just won the cross of the Legion of Honor.
His conquest is complete. He has replaced conscientious medical practice with irresponsible quackery, and has successfully made over reality in his own image. Public recognition is all, and the manipulation of appearances not only hides his banality but enshrines that banality as the mark of superior skill. In the light of his grotesque victory, we see more clearly the confused splendor of Emma’s struggles, which have at least the nobility of her outsized passion. People like Homais and Lheureux, Flaubert suggests, are the source of much of the fraudulence that ensnares Emma and the rest of us throughout our lives. With our enthusiastic cooperation, they build mazes of debased aspirations and desiccated dreams, traps in which we lose our sense of direction, wasting our strength as we search for a way out.
Lydia Davis, already a formidable translator and short story writer, has now presented us with an English Bovary that powerfully recreates the different elements of Flaubert’s style.
Flaubert is often as hard on Emma as Cervantes was on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Davis brings a tart, astringent tone to much of the writing. Some reviewers have complained about this, but it seems to me that Davis is usually just following Flaubert more closely than, say, the overly placid Francis Steegmuller version does. I love the Steegmuller version, and he deserves permanent recognition not only for his Bovary translation but for Flaubert in Egypt and his two-volume edition of Flaubert’s correspondence. Still, Davis provides a necessary corrective to Steegmuller, similar to the corrective she provided to Scott Moncrieff’s florid Proust.
It’s an essential virtue of this Bovary that Davis conveys the full force of Flaubert’s harshness. After all, the novel’s constant mockery of Emma is part of Flaubert’s overall plan, and I suspect it was Don Quixote’s scornful prose he had in mind when he wrote passages like these, ridiculing the way that Emma uses her mother’s death as an excuse for indulging in self-conscious displays of grief:
Elle se laissa donc glisser dans les méandres lamartiniens, écouta les harpes sur les lacs, tous les chants de cygnes mourants, toutes les chutes de feuilles, les vierges pures qui montent au ciel, et la voix de l’Éternel discourant dans les vallons. Elle s’en ennuya, n’en voulut point convenir, continua par habitude, ensuite par vanité, et fut enfin surprise de se sentir apaisée, et sans plus de tristesse au cœur que de rides sur son front.
With characteristic sharpness, Davis reproduces Flaubert’s air of fast-moving amusement at Emma’s stylized mourning:
And so she allowed herself to slip into Lamartinean meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to the song of every dying swan, to the falling of every leaf, to pure virgins rising to heaven, and to the voice of the Eternal speaking in the valleys. She became bored with this, did not want to admit it, continued out of habit, then out of vanity, and was at last surprised to find that she was at peace, and that there was no more sadness in her heart than there were wrinkles on her forehead.
“Lamartinean meanderings” captures the rhythmic elegance of “méandres lamartiniens” and is much more concise than Steegmuller’s typically relaxed “meander along Lamartinian paths.” It’s also a bit less flat-footed than the “Lamartine meanderings” in the old Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation. More crucially, the second sentence shows the skill with which Davis renders the bounce and pace of the novel’s French. Flaubert rushes through Emma’s psychological changes with the comic deftness of a sped-up film clip, and Davis keeps the speed without losing the sense.
On page after page, Davis succeeds in conveying Flaubert’s invigorating bravado whenever he’s treating Emma’s foibles with unrestrained contempt. Part of what Flaubert learned from Cervantes is that you could make merciless fun of your characters without destroying them. Both Emma and Don Quixote emerge from their authors’ derision battered yet triumphant, oddly purified and preserved by the very attacks that superficially seem to discredit them.
For the most part, Davis sticks tightly both to the meaning of Flaubert’s text and to its constant changes of tone. She is especially good at following the different rhythms of the original and making them work in English, a difficult task with Flaubert. He is a hard writer to imitate. He approaches each sentence as a separate problem, and painstakingly fits each of those problems into the larger problem of the paragraph, the episode, the novel as a whole. Stylistically, you never quite know what the next sentence is going to be like—long or short, stoic or humorous, rich with description or sparse with subtle pathos. A key source of Flaubert’s greatness is that he manages to contain such variety within a voice that is still distinctive and strong. Davis has done a wonderful job of catching both the main voice—the rigorous, lucid tone that dominates the novel—and the wide range of other styles that wrestle with this voice throughout the story. Flaubert’s French practically seethes with all the moods and emotions that it includes. You have the sense, crucial to the novel’s impact, that powerful feeling is being conducted under powerful control.
Davis recognizes this. She knows that Flaubert’s style depends not merely on his renowned chill but on the heat that is constantly threatening to melt through the ice—the passion that the style needs to save while purging the words of sentimentality or sensationalism. Flaubert is celebrated for his irony, but we wouldn’t care about his irony if he weren’t equally good at moments like the one when Emma first considers killing herself in the wake of Rodolphe’s rejection. Upstairs in her home, she leans against the window and looks down at the paving stones while she listens to the whirring of a nearby lathe:
Le rayon lumineux qui montait d’en bas directement tirait vers l’abîme le poids de son corps. Il lui semblait que le sol de la place oscillant s’élevait le long des murs, et que le plancher s’inclinait par le bout, à la manière d’un vaisseau qui tangue. Elle se tenait tout au bord, presque suspendue, entourée d’un grand espace. Le bleu du ciel l’envahissait, l’air circulait dans sa tête creuse, elle n’avait qu’à céder, qu’à se laisser prendre; et le ronflement du tour ne discontinuait pas, comme une voix furieuse qui l’appelait.
Without doing anything especially tricky or spectacular, Davis gives this passage its full measure of life, the force of Emma’s despair mingled with the lathe’s turning:
The ray of light that rose directly up to her from below was pulling the weight of her body down toward the abyss. It seemed to her that the ground in the village square was swaying back and forth and rising along the walls, and that the floor was tipping down at the end, like a vessel pitching. She was standing right at the edge, almost suspended, surrounded by a great empty space. The blue of the sky was coming into her, the air circulating inside her hollow skull, she had only to give in, to let herself be taken; and the whirring of the lathe never stopped, like a furious voice calling to her.
Flaubert presses his translators into a nearly impossible position. They must balance fidelity to his meticulously chosen words against the desire to communicate his awesome stylistic achievement—must sway, as his characters do, between the earthbound and the ideal. Lydia Davis, stronger than Emma Bovary, sustains this balance from start to finish. The time is always right for a Flaubert revival. Davis has now given us the best possible reason to start one.
The Bad Boy’s Anger
One opens The Atlantic Monthly and is promptly introduced to a burst of joyless contrarianism. Tiring of it, one skims ahead to the book reviews, only to realize: this is the book review. A common experience for even the occasional reader of B.R. Myers, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft and execution. Myers writes as if the purpose of criticism were to obliterate its object. He scores his little points, but so what? Do reviewers really believe that isolating a few unlovely lines in a five hundred page novel, ignoring the context for that unloveliness, and then pooh-poohing what remains constitutes a reading? Is this what passes for judgment these days?
If so, Myers would have a lot to answer for. But in the real world, instances don’t yield general truths with anything like the haste of a typical Myers paragraph (of which the foregoing is a parody). And so, even as he grasps for lofty universalism, Brian Reynolds Myers remains sui generis, the bad boy of reviewers, lit-crit’s Dennis Rodman.
Myers came to prominence, or what passes for it in the media microcosmos, via “A Reader’s Manifesto,” a long jeremiad against “the modern ‘literary’ best seller” and “the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.” It earned notice primarily for its attack on the work and reputation of novelists lauded for their style – Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and E. Annie Proulx, among others. Many of these writers were ripe for reevaluation, and “A Reader’s Manifesto” was read widely enough to land Myers a contributing editor gig at The Atlantic. It was subsequently published as a stand-alone book. Yet the essay was itself little more than an exercise in style, and not a very persuasive one at that. It was hard to say which was more irritating: Myers’ scorched-earth certainties; his method, a kind of myopic travesty of New Criticism; or his own prose, a donnish pastiche of high-minded affectation and dreary cliché.
I can’t be the only reader who wanted to cry out against the manifesto being promulgated on my behalf, but Myers had insulated himself in several ways. First, he had been so thoroughgoingly tendentious, and at such length, that to rebut his 13,000 words required 13,000 of one’s own. Second: his jadedness was infectious. It made one weary of reading, weary of writing, weary of life. Finally, in the The Atlantic’s letters section, he showed himself to be no less willing to resort to pugnacious misreadings of his correspondents than he had been of his original subjects. “I have no idea why Jed Cohen thinks I have disparaged a hundred years of literature…” he wrote, in an exchange about his Tree of Smoke review. “Saying that reputations must never be reviewed would place reviewers above criticism.” No, one wanted to object. Saying that reviewers must never be reviewed would place reviewers above criticism. Mr. Cohen is himself criticizing a reviewer. But to argue with Myers was, manifestly, to summon his contempt. And so he whirled mirthlessly on, flourishing the word “prose” like a magic wand, working pale variations on his Reader’s Manifesto. In your face, Toni Morrison!
To date, I have yet to read a comprehensive debunking of the Myers bunkum. But his recent review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom really does seem to invite one – not so much because I liked the book and he didn’t, or because it caught the eye of David Brooks and from there spread to the far corners of the Internet, but because of the willfulness of his misrepresentations to the reader, and the radical degree of projection involved. To the long-time Myers watcher, the review, titled, “Smaller Than Life” looks to be a giant mirror: what Myers takes to be the philistinism of contemporary literature is an enormous reflection of his own.
Myers premises his complaints against Freedom on the “smallness” of its characters – their likeness to “the folks next door.” In support of these descriptions, he tenders a few details from the text: Patty Berglund bakes cookies and is “relatively dumber” than her siblings. Her husband Walter has a red face and his “most salient quality . . . [is] his niceness.” Richard Katz is a womanizing punk musician. See? Tiny. Insignificant. “Nonentities.” But even at this early stage of the argument, what should be obvious to even unsympathetic readers of the book is the smallness of Myers’ imagination. Set Richard Katz aside for the moment (maybe Myers lives next door to some priapic indie rockers). Isn’t “relatively dumber” – an elaboration of the idea that Patty’s siblings “were more like what her parents had been hoping for” – meant to tell us more about Patty’s self-image than about her IQ? Patty will return to the theme in her whip-smart autobiography, after all. And mightn’t some readers find this will-to-averageness “interesting,” psychologically speaking? Also: Isn’t Walter’s most “salient” quality (carefully elided in Myers’ quotation) actually “his love of Patty?” And “salient” for whom? Not for the author, but for the subtly anti-Berglund neighbors on Ramsey Hill, whose point-of-view mediates the novel’s opening section, “Good Neighbors.” Either unwittingly or purposefully, Myers has made a cardinal error. He has mistaken the characters’ angle of vision for the novelist’s.
As if to compensate for the oversight, he hastily concedes that the “insignificance” of its principals (again, insignificance to whom?) need not doom a novel itself to insignificance: “A good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates.” Invidious comparison alert! But Myers seems to have not read Madame Bovary, or, at best, to have paid it the same glancing attention he pays to Freedom. For the former has more to tell us about the latter’s style than about its “storytelling.”
Though Franzen’s temperament is warmer – he doesn’t aspire to Flaubert’s fearsome objectivity – his technique relies to an unusual degree on the free indirect discourse Madame Bovary pioneered. Flaubert inhabits his characters, Lydia Davis tells us in the introduction to her new translation, in order to “[hold] up a miror to the middle- and lower-middle-class world of his day, with all its little habits, fashions, fads.” Irony is everywhere present, especially, she writes elsewhere, “in the words and phrases in the novel to which he gives special emphasis” – that is, underlining or italics.
They appear throughout the novel, starting on the first page with new boy. With this emphasis he is drawing attention to language that was commonly, and unthinkingly, used to express shared ideas that were also unquestioned.
Freedom, too, aims to be contemporary – perhaps even, as Myers puts it, “strenuously” so. But the scattered instances of “juvenile” glibness and vulgarity he portrays as its mother-tongue (“the local school ‘sucked’. . . Patty was ‘very into’ her teenage son, who, in turn was ‘fucking’ the girl next door”) are not unexamined symptoms of “a world in which nothing can happen.” Rather, like Flaubert’s common, unthinking phrases, they are necessary constituents of the novel’s attempt to show that world its face in the mirror. And if Franzen “hints at no frame of reference from which we are to judge his prose critically,” it’s only because he assumes his readers have read other novels written since 1850, and so already possess that frame themselves.
Not that Myers has any apparent trouble “judging the prose”; Franzen’s is “slovenly,” he insists. Nor is this the only place he seeks to have it both ways. The vulgarity he imputes at first to Franzen he finally does get around to pinning on Patty…but only to demonstrate that she “is too stupid to merit reading about.” Conversely, Franzen’s attempts at eloquence reveal him to be one of those people “who think highly enough of their own brains” that they must “worry about being thought elitist.” (Stupid people, smart people, “middlebrow” people; is there anyone who doesn’t count as a “nonentity,” in B.R. Myers book?)
It would be a mistake, however – a Myers-ish one – to read too much into this incoherence. The simple fact is that Myers’ conception of language is itself vulgar. “Prose,” for him, equals syntax plus diction, and is expected to denote, rather than to evoke. He positions himself as prose’s defender. But when he uses the word, or its cousin, “style,” what he’s really asking is for it to give way to more and faster plot. (It’s a preference Flaubert would have regarded with some amusement. “‘These days, what I really adore are stories that can be read all in one go,'” he has his protagonist say. “‘I detest common heroes and moderate feelings.'”) Myers dismisses one of Franzen’s showier metaphors – “Gene…stirred the cauldrons like a Viking oarsman” – as “half-baked,” with no consideration for the way it connects to the Minnesota Vikings-themed rec room of the opening pages, or the Vikings garb these Minnesotans wear, or ultimately to “the old Swedish-gened depression” Gene’s son, Walter, feels “seeping up inside him . . . like a cold spring at the bottom of a warmer lake.” Similarly, Myers writes off Freedom’s ornithological tropes as clichés, while giving us, in his own voice, sinking hearts, pushed luck, “busy lives,” “[getting] a pass,” “aspects of society,” “interesting individuals” – shopworn phrase following shopworn phrase “as the night the day.”
(This is not to mention the larger cliché of think-piece provocation – the You thought it was black, but really it’s white school of journalism. It’s no coincidence that “A Reader’s Manifesto” appeared in a magazine that was clawing back market share with cover slugs like Is God an Accident? and Did Christianity Cause the Crash? and The End of White America? and The End of Men. The approach would be codified, with no apparent irony, in the 2008 relaunch slogan: “The Atlantic. Think. Again.” But is “thinking” really le mot juste here? It’s surely no commendation for a critic that we know what he’s going to say about a novelist before we’ve read the review. Or before either of us has read the book.)
Remarkably, Myers even manages to be wrong when he tries to concede something positive about Freedom. “Perhaps the only character who holds the reader’s interest is Walter,” he writes. But the adult Walter is by far the novel’s least fully realized character. Of course, this late softening in the review is probably, like the invocation of Emma B., purely rhetorical, but I’ll condescend, as a demonstration of my own fair-mindedness, to grant Myers exactly the same degree of benefit of the doubt he imagines he’s extending to Franzen.
He is absolutely correct that contemporary book reviewers are far too “reluctan[t] to quote from the text,” but he confuses close-reading with mere assertive quotation. He consistently shows himself, here and elsewhere, to be deaf to point-of-view, tone, and implication. Indeed, he seems to revel in this deafness. (He quotes a line of capitalized dialogue – “I KNOW IT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN” – and then confesses, with italics. “I have no idea what this is meant to sound like.”) This is sort of like an art critic trumpeting his glaucoma. Or like a restaurant reviewer who can’t stomach meat.
Who’s Down in Whoville?
Of course, Myers’ real target isn’t Jonathan Franzen, or even “the modern literary bestseller,” so much as it is “our age, the Age of Unseriousness.” The old values – truth, civility, Seriousness – are seen to be under attack from “chat-room[s] . . . Twitter . . . The Daily Show . . . the blogosphere,” and “our critical establishment.” Extremism in their defense can be no vice. But, as with conservative pundits of many stripes, Myers is perfectly willing to be “truthy,” uncivil, and unserious himself, when it suits his purposes. “I especially liked how the author got a pass for the first chapter,” he huffs at one point, with the sarcasm of a high-school Heather. Thus does he participate in the destruction of value he claims to lament.
Moreover, Myers has, symptomatically, mistaken a signifier for the thing it signifies. The underlying cause of the contemporary ills he keeps alluding to is not the coarseness of our language, but our narcissism, whose most “salient” form (as I’ve argued elsewhere) is a seen-it-all knowingness that inflates the observer at the expense of the thing observed. In this sense, B.R. Myers couldn’t be more of-the-moment. It’s no wonder he’s baffled by those turns of phrase by which the novelist seeks to disappear into his characters.
Finally – and most damningly – Myers has little to tell us about beauty. For Flaubert’s contemporary Baudelaire, beauty was
made up of an eternal, invariable element . . . and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be. . . the age – its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion.
In his dyspeptic disregard for what might be amusing, enticing, or appetizing about the world we live in – his inability, that is, to read like a writer, or write like a reader – B.R. Myers has placed contemporary literature in toto beyond his limited powers. He offers us, in place of insight, only indigestion.
New releases this week are Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary, Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir Even Silence Has an End, The Prizefighter and the Playwright, a book about the unlikely relationship between George Bernard Shaw and boxer Gene Tunney, and the poetry collection Human Chain by Nobel-Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney.