26 March 2011

Flaubert, Anyone?

My first thought today was to blog collectively about several 'classics' that come under the rubric 'in Miranda's books': books that were reference points not only for me as the author of A Kiss Before You Leave Me but also for its characters, especially Miranda Kincaid, several of whose favorite books and authors from her college days are listed in chapter six. These are books and authors that Vince, then her boyfriend and now her ex-husband, might be said to have read over Miranda's shoulder, figuratively speaking, as part of an attempt to understand and share (some would say control) all of her passions.

What a number of those 'classics' (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary and Marguerite Duras' unspecified but very much intended novel Moderato Cantabile) share is a concern with what the French call bovarysme... meaning in this context the very familiar literary motif of (excessive or dangerous) identification with what we read (or interpret): the book as seducer, familiar in European literature at least since the 'Paolo and Francesca' passage in canto five of Dante's Inferno. It's a huge topic in general, and multifaceted even just within A Kiss Before You Leave Me--a topic to which I promise to return, soon, soon.

Today, I wish only to recognize the author of Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, as a surprising ghost who--in little ways--haunts me as the author of A Kiss Before You Leave Me. 'Surprising' because of all the names to be found on the spines of 'Miranda's books', Flaubert's is the one (I would have said) farthest from my heart: true, he's an absolutely inevitable point of reference for 'all of us' (at least if 'we' are Eurocentric male writers who grew up with a certain literary canon in place), someone I've read, studied, even taught, throughout my life... but little more than that. Anyone who's come to Kiss after reading both Flaubert and his predecessor Honoré de Balzac (author, among many other works, of A Woman of Thirty, the novel most often mentioned as the inspiration for Madame Bovary) can well imagine that I'm far more impassioned by the unruly, often melodramatic (not to say megalomanic) Balzac than by Flaubert, master of the mot juste and (in Sentimental Education) of the timetable. ('Balzac or Flaubert?' is the 'lady or the tiger?', the 'boxers or briefs?' question for those of us who are still stuck in the French 19th century.) When I do manage to think lovingly of Flaubert, it's usually because I've managed to turn him into something like a Balzac character lurking beneath Flaubert's professional surface; in other words, I've endowed him, rightly or wrongly, with a passionate, messy vulnerability which he would not have appreciated.

How, though, does his ghost haunt me? I think it would be trivial to summarize the plots of Bovary and Kiss in such a way as to highlight their parallels ('a discontented middle-class housewife takes lovers' etc.). But Madame Bovary is famous for three things, even in the minds of people who remember little else about it: an obscenity trial (1857) that put it on the map as similar trials were to do for UlyssesHowl and Lady Chatterley's Lover in the 20th century; the concept of bovarysme, however understood; and Flaubert's much-quoted statement that 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.' Obscenity feels like a severely dated issue in present-day Western democracies, but the issue survives, in a muted way, in the 'pages' of A Kiss Before You Leave Me and in the responses of a few readers. Bovarysme I've promised to go into another day. But I became aware very early in the writing of A Kiss Before You Leave Me that I was all of its characters--partially, imperfectly... but, to me, unmistakably, and perhaps to an extent that is possible or likely only in the case of a first novel. That last point is tricky, but while twice may be pure coincidence (Madame Bovary was Flaubert's first published novel, Kiss is mine), a third reference may sway you: Goethe's first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther--not named among Miranda's books, and yet, and yet....

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