This will probably be my last post about Madame Bovary. I've not finished reading the novel but by midnight tonight I'll have done. My current opinion is that this is a marvelous book. Last week I called it "uneven" and perhaps that's still true, but when I reached about the halfway point in the narrative all of my possible objections against the novel fell away and I've been reading as much of it as I've got time to read, hurtling through the story. I have not suddenly fallen in love with Emma Bovary--oh, wait: maybe I have. Maybe I've fallen in love with all of the characters, thoroughly dislikeable as they are. Of course I mean "love" here as I define it when talking about my own love for my own characters in my own novels: I accept them the way they are and don't judge them, and assume that each of them has a sense of their own nobility or something like that. Which is all probably by the way. I'll start over again.
I'm almost finished reading Madame Bovary, the (in)famous 19th-century novel by Gustave Flaubert, whose influence on subsequent generations of novelists is blah blah blah et cetera. Go look him up. Gustave and I had a rocky relationship for the first half of the book but now I'm just sitting back and enjoying the read, for it is quite excellent. Mighty Reader and I had an interesting discussion on Saturday (or was it Friday? I forget) about the need for a "sympathetic" character. I argued for "compelling" over "sympathetic." Though I will admit that I find myself thinking Oh, Emma, no rather than That bitch is bad business, so perhaps my sympathies go out to Mme Bovary (and Dr Bovary as well) more than I realize. Anyway, I find this novel to be ever so fine and I don't precisely know why I had such difficulties with it earlier except, perhaps, that I was demanding that Flaubert somehow prove himself and I spent a lot of time and effort picking nits with the book. “Flaubert’s not so great, look at blah blah blah, etc.” You know: kid stuff. Whatevs.
Possibly when I have finished the book I’ll have another look at it and confirm or refute my suspicion that the overall structure is that of a five-act Shakespearean tragedy. It’s certainly a tragedy, and Emma certainly has a fatal flaw that she can’t overcome. So we’ll see.
One of the constants in my reading of the great books of literature is that I tend to approach these books warily, expecting them to be more difficult (whatever I mean by that) than they are, expecting them to be better than they are, and also expecting them to be not as good as they are. By and large, these books turn out to be nothing more or less than what they’re advertised as: really good books that reward reading. Few of them make me redefine my expectations of what a novel should be. At the same time, all of them make me redefine my expectations of what a novel could be. So Madame Bovary was certainly worth reading, if you’re me. Probably if you’re you, too.
My next book, if I don’t go off course and read a Shakespeare play (which I might do), is Salman Rushdie’s much lauded Midnight’s Children. Mr Rushdie and I don’t much get along. I loved Haroun and the Sea of Stories because, you know, I’m a sucker for fairy tales, but I abandoned The Ground Beneath Her Feet after the first chapter because I hated almost every word of it for a variety of Damned Good Reasons. But two or three or four years ago I read The Satanic Verses and, while I have issues with a certain breed of English Modernist formalism that tends to result in fractured narratives that fail to integrate into a coherent whole (Byatt is also guilty of this though I usually forgive her), I mostly enjoyed The Satanic Verses. Midnight’s Children is widely claimed to be Rushdie’s finest novel, so I’m giving it a go, possibly starting tomorrow though likely I’ll wait until Thursday to start in. As I say far too often here, we’ll see.