31 March 2011

Five Faces of Emma (Flaubert, Anyone? - Part 2)

Today I’ll sketch out as many examples as possible of the bovarysme I mentioned in my last blog post. As I suggested there, this bovarysme involves reading or interpretation that may endanger or seduce the reader who identifies with the characters in a text, for example.

When in the Inferno (links here) Dante encounters Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta, she tells the poet how she and Paolo were drawn together, reading from a book recounting the legend of Lancelot and Guinevere. Paolo and Francesca quickly emulated the legendary lovers, and Francesca’s husband, Paolo’s brother, murdered them. Francesca blames the book alone—calling it a ‘Galehault’ (the name of the character in Arthurian legend who persuades Lancelot to declare his love to Guinevere).

The character we know as ‘Don Quixote’ is driven mad by his addictive reading of books of chivalry. He imagines both that the fictive world of chivalric romance is real and that he himself is a knight in it.

Catherine Morland, the young heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, is such an enthusiast of Gothic fiction (and especially Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho) that she comes to believe that the very Austen-like world in which she dwells, conceals a dark Radcliffean underside, rife with treachery, perhaps even murder.

Emma Bovary, first as a schoolgirl and then as a young wife, reads romantic fiction—‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘high’ and ‘low’—voraciously, and sees in it a sort of road map for life, a promise of what she can expect. She’s disappointed, and puzzled, by a marriage devoid of romance: ‘Emma wondered what people meant, exactly, in real life, by words like happiness, passion and intoxication, which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.’  She seeks love and happiness in vain, both in her marriage and outside it; her readerly tastes turn libertine, and she moves into successively more destructive relationships.

Finally, in Marguerite Duras’s 1958 novel Moderato Cantabile (which one contemporary reviewer described as ‘Madame Bovary rewritten by Béla Bartók’), Anne Desbaresdes, another woman bored with her middle-class marriage, strikes up a potentially dangerous acquaintance with a man in a café with whom she embroiders a speculative narrative about another man and another woman, killer and victim respectively in a crime passionnel that has just taken place in the café. As day follows day and one glass of wine follows another and another, Anne Desbaresdes and Chauvin weigh evidence they don’t really have, weaving hypotheses of how the other pair came together (as strangers drinking in a café?) and what may have driven the man to kill the woman. Anne Desbaresdes and Chauvin are drawn together by the murder, but it is not simply as bystanders: they seem to be talking not only about the other couple but also about themselves at the same time. The novel remains mysterious—there are no easy answers. Its version of interpretation is as ambiguous as anything in Faulkner (in this context, it has always reminded me of the long interpretive dialogue between the roommates in Absalom, Absalom!)—but one thing is clear: on some register their dialogue threatens to destroy Anne Desbaresdes’s world.

Still to come: a sixth face of Emma (Miranda Kincaid, naturally), and where we fit in.

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