Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mais non, Emma Bovary - c'est moi

Up in the aerie smiling as I hear notes waft in through open windows, a child capably if wobbily playing Happy Birthday on trumpet, followed by Hot Cross Buns (the climactic two a penny three a penny rendered in staccato blasts), followed by a lugubrious rendition of Happy Birthday again. Charming sounds on a summery day. I think it's the little boy in the house behind us, I'm guessing he's taken up trumpet this year because until the last day or two I've never heard anyone play here before. I wonder if it's his own instrument or if he was able to borrow it from his school's music department. I played piano starting in elementary school, and took up viola for a time too, unsuccessfully. I should have been better at it considering that my real first name both rhymes with and translates as "viola." But I was never good with stringed instruments, not guitar either, or my Jersey cousin's violin.

Three minute concert over. Silence again except for whir of computer. I'm slowly getting my energy back, fortifying myself with ice water and a slice of banana bread. I took a very long walk around here this morning, down by the creek, along Hogsback Road, up busy Route 9 - getting vertigo as I walked along a low handrail on the other side of which is a scary, surely fatal drop to the Stockport Creek shoals far below - down the hill of a charming lane - past the artist's house set back deep in the woods, the artist with the lilacs last spring and the tip about putting sugar into flower water which I've been doing since including yesterday evening with the zinnias and other cuttings - that culminates at an overlook to quiet shallows of the creek, and back home again, threading my way up the steep wooded ridge path behind the ancient church, pausing to catch my breath and thus to savor the fragrance of pine woods all around and the needles carpeting the path. At home I made a quesadilla for lunch, filling a flour tortilla with cheddar, black beans seasoned with chorizo, and grape tomatoes, frying it til the bottom toasted and the cheese melted, and topping it with beautiful lettuce and arugula from the CSA, plain yogurt, and salsa from a jar. Then I crashed into bed in the spare room with the New York Review of Books that came in today's mail. Before I fell asleep I read an appreciation of Tony Judt and an article about Sarah Bernhardt and when I woke up and put my readers back on, a review of a new translation of Madame Bovary by Lydia Davis, who I was surprised to learn from the first line lives in these parts. What a small world, as coincidentally I once referred to myself as the Emma Bovary of Hudson.

I haven't read the novel since college (one of my all-time favorite classes, The Modern French Novel taught by George Stambolian) and would like to re-read it. One thing I wonder about is an insistence that Flaubert disliked Emma Bovary. I'm not in a position to research the point at the moment, but I intuitively balk at the notion, wonder if it could be quite so baldly, one-dimensionally true. It just seems that in choosing her as his subject (even if she is not the most sympathetic protagonist) and rendering her so carefully, entering her character so completely and bringing her to life, if Flaubert didn't in fact in some thoroughly ambivalent way indeed love his creation, or at least have a complex love/hate relationship with her, and as an object (besides the crafting of language) of his literary focus, an obsessive regard - "Emma Bovary c'est moi." Could he not have been referring to vestigial petty bourgeois aspects of his own background that he recognized, despised and understood only too well and at the same time could empathize with? (Actually in checking the review again the reviewer seems to make a similar point "Even when he's looking downward socially, Flaubert's attitude toward his characters is far more complicated than Davis makes out.")

In fairness to Davis - her careful syntax too hints at a complexity of her own feelings towards Emma Bovary - "And I like a heroine who thinks and feels... well, I don't find Emma Bovary admirable or likeable--but Flaubert didn't either." Wait, now I don't know how to read that. I'm reading it as that Emma Bovary does think and feel - thus making her fascinating - even if, quite true, she isn't admirable or particularly likeable. If Emma Bovary doesn't think she most certainly feels, more than making up for a deficiency in common sense with an excess in fact of feeling, from which her impulsive actions inexorably spring and that lead her in mousetrap fashion to her inevitable doom.

Well, whatever. Rather than airily speculate I should reread the novel. There's a very well-received new translation, from a writer who - like me - lives in Yonville, New York.

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