Monday, June 25, 2012

The Madame Bovary Drinking Game

I am currently reading Gustave Flaubert's 1856 novel Madame Bovary, alleged to be the first "realist" novel. I have no opinion about that "first" bit; my job isn't to construct a history of narrative technique, it's to just read books and see what the writer has done (and, not incidentally, to steal anything that looks to be useful if applied to my own work). This is the only Flaubert I've read at this point, so I had no idea what to expect. It's pretty good, though. I don't know why I've waited so long, aside from my general disregard for French novels and my already-impossibly-long "to be read" list. I am digressing in about seven different directions, amn't I? What about that drinking game, Scott?

When I read James Wood's collection of essays How Fiction Works, I couldn't help noticing how often Wood pointed to Flaubert's "invention" of free indirect style, which is essentially third-person omniscient in my world. So since I was familiar with free indirect style (and so are you if you've read Henry James or any of the Modernists), Wood's book didn't fill me with curiosity about Flaubert and his craft. See above comment about the length of my "to be read" list. Anyway, what I'm noticing in Bovary is not Flaubert's use of point of view, but his use of detail as foreshadowing. A great deal of the novel (or at least the first five chapters, because that's all I've read so far) is in narrative summary* but the dramatized scenes are full of concrete details. In fact, they are overfilled with concrete details, at least for a narrative style as crisp and light as this.

Look at the wedding chapter, for example. It comes in three or four sections, and each section begins with a list of things, all displayed in a positive and festive light:

The procession, first united like one long coloured scarf that undulated across the fields, along the narrow path winding amid the green corn, soon lengthened out, and broke up into different groups that loitered to talk. The fiddler walked in front with his violin, gay with ribbons at its pegs. Then came the married pair, the relations, the friends, all following pell-mell; the children stayed behind amusing themselves plucking the bell-flowers from oat-ears, or playing amongst themselves unseen. Emma's dress, too long, trailed a little on the ground; from time to time she stopped to pull it up, and then delicately, with her gloved hands, she picked off the coarse grass and the thistledowns, while Charles, empty handed, waited till she had finished.

See at the end there, where Emma's dress is "too long" and Charles is "empty handed?" Flaubert has begun to introduce imperfections into the gaiety. And let's not ignore the image of the bridal gown soiled and from time to time "pulled up" to be picked clean of all the detritus that's accumulated. Five bucks says that's a billboard of foreshadowing, as are Charles' empty hands. A little later in that same paragraph we have this:

The other wedding guests talked of their business or played tricks behind each other's backs, egging one another on in advance to be jolly. Those who listened could always catch the squeaking of the fiddler, who went on playing across the fields. When he saw that the rest were far behind he stopped to take breath, slowly rosined his bow, so that the strings should sound more shrilly, then set off again, by turns lowering and raising his neck, the better to mark time for himself. The noise of the instrument drove away the little birds from afar.

Flaubert plays that trick over and over during the wedding. The guests arrive in all sorts of finery (we are given a long and cheerful enumeration of the variety of coats the men are wearing) but there are not enough footmen to deal with the carriages and some of the poorer relations, it must be admitted, are not dressed so finely and will find themselves at the foot of the reception table where they will be convinced that they have been given the worst of the wedding meats and sweets and will gather in small angry knots to gossip about the father of the bride and wish him ill in the future. So it's that sort of game Flaubert plays with details, starting off in a positive mood and then coloring it darker and darker as he adds more detail, infusing toxins into the scene. It's a fine trick and an amusing one that lots of people have used, and possibly they all stole it from Flaubert. I'll keep an eye out for any other tricks, I will.

But that's none of it the Madame Bovary Drinking Game, is it? No, it's not. One thing I noticed is that this book should be called Mes Dames Bovary, because there are three Madame Bovaries (so far): the mother of Charles Bovary, the first wife of Charles Bovary (Heloise), and the second wife of Charles Bovary (Emma). I am hoping that Charles' mother continues to be a character in the novel beyond the wedding scenes, because the MBDG is, of course, having a drink every time the phrase "Madame Bovary" appears in the narrative. I am not sure what that drink should be, though. What did people drink as cordials in 1856? Emma and her father live in the country where they drink hard cider, but I don't think so. Perhaps it's time to lay in a new bottle of port?

*and since the narrative is written from the point of view of a specific individual--an unnamed person the same age as Charles Bovary who met him in high school--is it really free indirect style? And does the narrator ever reveal himself in the narrative? I don't know.


  1. Normandy hard cider is a substantially different drink than English cider. Much less beer-like. Apple champagne, sort of.

    But for this game you probably want the regionally appropriate Calvados.

  2. Yes, I think brandy is what I want.

  3. says that "Madame" appears 204 times in the novel, while "Bovary" appears 197 times. Even assuming only half of those "Bovary" hits are part of the "Madame Bovary" phrase, that's still a lot of Calvados. Perhaps I should buy several bottles.

  4. One has to be very careful when playing this game. Playing on the bus will cause...okay, I guess there are plenty of drunk people on the bus. I'm in!

  5. One of the things that caught my attention were the many lists. I like the writing, but the lists, often times, were inaccessible to me. They didn't help me create anything in my head. Instead, they just managed to scoot me along to the next scene, which is maybe what Flaubert wanted?

  6. You have to watch as the contents of the list change from sort of neutrally-positive items to things that point in less happy directions. It's Flaubert showing that the longer you look at a thing, the less you're able to stay certain that it's a good thing, and the more problems you see with whatever it is, be it an education, a party, a marriage or a house. I hope the trick doesn't get old: "Look at this, Madames et Monsieurs, how pretty, absolutely pretty life is, if you don't mind the rust and sharp edges and the creditors coming along to sieze it." And stuff. The actual items on the lists are less important than is the structure of the lists, the types of things that begin and end the lists.

  7. The high school writing exercise that first got me interesting in writing fiction was based on this book. We were supposed to adapt the first part of Chapter 2 to our own city, and I remember understanding that the description Flaubert used slowly circled closer and closer to some small image. When I wrote about my town of Arcadia, my image was of people coming home to pat their dogs, and it was about how boring everything was.

  8. Yeah, all those ruts and holes on the road to the farm, and the barking dogs held back by chains. Bovary should've been alarmed, but we already know Charles Bovary is none too bright.

  9. It's also possible that Flaubert's use of lists is more subtle than I give him credit for; maybe I only see the trick I sometimes play with piles of details in my own scenes.