Friday, November 28, 2014

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (35 down 65 to go)

(translation by Francis Steegmuller)

From that moment her existence was but one long tissue of lies, in which she enveloped her love as in veils to hide it.

This is the first time I’ve read Madame Bovary or Gustave Flaubert. The book is a Victorian-era, modernist novel, and third person narrative regarding the life of Emma Bovary, the wife of a provincial doctor in mid 19th century France.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

Although I had never read Madame Bovary before, it would not be true to say I had no expectations. The novel is somewhat infamous, even scandalous as it is a story of a married woman who has several adulterous affairs. I was a bit apprehensive as I was of the opinion this novel was rather explicit. But no; Flaubert treated the subject with delicacy and discretion.

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers, as well as spoilers for two other novels: Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre.

The protagonist, Madame Bovary or Emma, is the wife of Charles Bovary, a physician of neither great ability nor ambition. Though he is married, Charles develops an infatuation for Emma, but does nothing indecent. Not much later, his wife dies, and after a respectable period of time, Charles begins to court Emma, the well-educated daughter of a country landowner. Emma longs for a more glamorous lifestyle, one she presumably thinks the Doctor has to offer.

After they are married Emma is quickly disillusioned as Charles is perfectly content with a humble practice, provincial life, and a pretty wife. Emma keeps up appearances, but grows to resent her husband. She reads novels ***gasp!*** which further incite her discontent. She dreams of masquerade balls, opera, theater, in short a more elegant and cosmopolitan life. She entertains fantasies about Leon Dupuis, a much younger man who shares her ideals of elegance and sophistication. Leon also adores Emma, but neither act on their feelings. Leon eventually moves away to pursue his education, and perhaps escape the torment of being close to the unattainable Emma.

Emma quickly forgets Leon, when Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy gentleman, moves into the neighborhood. Upon first sight of Emma, and purely out of admiration for her beauty, he determines to seduce her, with every intention of casting her aside once he’s had his way. He succeeds on both counts. Emma is so distraught, she becomes ill, and makes a token turn to religion. Her new piety is quickly forsaken though when a more mature and confident Leon reenters her life. This time they make their feelings known to one another and Emma begins her second affair. Leon is only slightly less the cad than Rodolphe. He probably even believes he loves Emma. At one point the narrative says

He did not question her ideas; he accepted all her tastes; he was rather becoming her mistress than she his. 

Eventually, they both grow tired of one another and things come to an abrupt end.

This time Emma is not overcome by the loss, but by insurmountable debt resulting from her clandestine lifestyle that she cannot hope to hide or explain. She seeks assistance from all her acquaintances (note the word friends is not applied), including Rodolphe and Leon. She is denied at every turn and takes desperate measures.

As I read Madame Bovary, I kept thinking of two other women: Anna Karenina who was also an adulteress, and Jane Eyre, who was sorely tempted. I had more sympathy for Anna, as she put up resistance before succumbing, whereas Emma was all too easily seduced. There was a stark contrast on the day of their first infidelity. After Anna first gives in to her lover, she weeps bitterly, knowing she is ruined. On the day of Emma’s fall, she is ecstatic, giddy, even silly, whispering excitedly to herself, 
I have a lover…I have a lover! 
My heart broke for Anna, as I witnessed the painful surrender of her virtue. I had no such sympathy for Emma.

And both were indeed utterly ruined.

Then there was Jane Eyre. Who almost….almost had an excuse to commit adultery; I almost wanted her to. No one would have been hurt, her lover truly loved her, she truly loved him, it seemed her only chance of happiness, and I desperately wanted her to be happy. But Jane was not so weak, telling herself: 
Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth, so I have always believed…

Jane was rewarded for her virtue, and happy after all.

Well, they’re only stories. It’s easy enough for the author to turn things out as he wishes.

And I am only a reader of stories. I like them to turn out…oh not necessarily happily ever after, but I do hope to see the characters held to account for their actions.

I’m not too keen on guessing an author’s intent, and I don’t believe I’m especially good at it. But I will say, I was relieved with Flaubert’s handling of the subject. As I said, I began Madame Bovary with a perception. I thought it was going to be a voyeuristic glimpse at the illicit affairs of a bold and capricious woman, that it would exalt her as self-emancipated. I was completely wrong. If anything, it was an indictment…a very just indictment. Emma was childish and selfish. I don’t believe she would ever be happy no matter her circumstances. She thought fate owed her something, and that fate had cheated her, giving her license to pursue her own passions with impunity. It was hard to feel sorry for her, though I hate to see anyone driven to despair.

There is a just description of Emma, on her deathbed, as a priest gives the sacrament: 
First upon the eyes, that had so coveted all worldly pomp; then upon the nostrils, that had been greedy of the warm breeze and amorous odours; then upon the mouth, that had uttered lies, that had curled with pride and cried out in lewdness, then upon the hands that had delighted in sensual touches, and finally upon the soles of the feet, so swift of yore, when she was running to satisfy her desires, and that would now walk no more.

Madame Bovary was of course written in French. Even in translation, the writing was superb. I’d like to read it in the original French but, mon Francais est tres insuffisante. There is a particularly fine line I like: 
…human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance, when we long to move the stars. 
I cannot help but think it would be exquisite in the original: que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles. 
Of course, reciting of the alphabet is exquisite in Francais.

Strange Fact: This is the second novel in a row that I've read, and the fourth of the last seven, where someone has a leg amputated.


Narrative describing Emma’s discontent:

The nearer things were, moreover, the more her thoughts turned away from them. All her immediate surroundings, the wearisome country, the middle-class imbeciles, the mediocrity of existence, seemed to her exceptional, a peculiar chance that had caught hold of her, while beyond stretched, as far as eye could see, and immense land of joys and passions. She confused in her desire the sensualities of luxury with the delights of the heart, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment.

Narrative describing Charles’ contentment:

The idea of having begotten a child delighted him. Now he wanted nothing. He knew human life from end to end, and he sat down to it with serenity.

Narrative describing Rodolphe’s view of Emma: 

Emma was like all his mistresses; and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (34 down 66 to go) his face there was still the look of peace that is seen most often in those who are very wise or very sorrowful.

This is the first time I’ve read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or Carson McCullers. The book is a modernist, existential, southern gothic novel. The third-person narrative is the story of John Singer, a deaf mute, living in Georgia in the late 1930s.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my first time reading this novel, so I had no idea of the plot. Little did I know…it doesn’t have one. (bit of an exaggeration, but not much) That may sound like criticism, but it isn’t. The novel is decidedly character driven. The characters are hopelessly flawed, completely believable and utterly empathizeable. (I know…it’s not a word, but it’s the non-word I need.) For it is the characters that make this story enjoyable.

The story begins with John Singer and his roommate and friend Spiros Antonapoulos who is also deaf and mute. They have separate jobs, walk to and from work together, and have no other friends. Antonapoulos says very little, that is signs very little, but Singer “talks” quite a bit when they are home together. The reader, and Singer, are not certain how much Antonapoulos discerns. The two get along quite well, until Antonapoulos is institutionalized after several run-ins with the law. He shows no emotion when boarding the bus and leaving Singer. I was actually glad for this development, as I felt Antonapoulos was not a very good friend. He was a glutton, rather simple, and offered very little to Singer.

This leaves Singer to cope alone, which he manages quite well. He begins more interaction with people of the town, four of whom develop a friendship with him. Their admiration grows to a near obsession. There is Mick Kelly, a thirteen-year-old tomboy of a poor family, Jake Blount a drifter and communist, Biff Brannon a recent widower and owner of the local café, and Dr. Copeland an African-American physician.

Each pour out their hearts to Singer. He is fairly adept at reading lips, and his peaceful demeanor and intent smile lead each to believe he understands and sympathizes. In fact, they all believe Singer to be profoundly wise and good, proving what it says in the old book:  "….even a fool, when he holdeth his peace is counted wise."

Singer is no fool mind you, but neither is he the enlightened sage his friends imagine him to be. Mick dreams of being a musician but senses she is trapped in her life with no hope for her dreams. Jack, the communist agitator disdainfully categorizes people as those who know, and those who don’t. Dr. Copeland longs to fight for what he calls the strong, true purpose, but mostly he just broods on the plight of his people. Brannon doesn’t speak much, but he seems to be seeking something. All four hold Singer in confidence and seem to find comfort and hope in his presence. Unfortunately, the realization that he is as lost and confused as themselves, does not come gradually. It comes in a single, violent moment.

Singer is described often with his hands in his pockets. I thought it odd that McCullers kept mentioning this, until I realized…he speaks with his hands. Once Antonapoulos left, there was no one for Singer to speak to – hence he kept his hands thrust into his pockets.

Actually quite brilliant. Why McCullers is a published author and I am not.

There is a touching scene when Singer travels to visit Antonapoulos, and chances upon three deaf mutes that he can communicate with. They immediately welcome him into their group and for the first time in the story, I was happy for Singer because he had someone to listen to him. But sadly, he grows taciturn and the moment passes.

I enjoyed this story, even for the lack of a plot. The characters were compelling, especially Singer. Like the four lonely hunters, I too believed Singer had something special to offer. And in a sense, he did; he listened. That alone is something. But McCullers allowed me to gradually realize what the hunters did not. Their hearts were deluded…they thought…they believed…they perceived…that Singer understood. That’s the chord this story touches: the need to feel that someone understands.

A word about the author: Carson McCullers is a woman. To the very literary, this is not news, but to me it was. I probably should have guessed based on the title…I don’t think a dude would have come up with the title, though it is perfect. So for the record…Evelyn Waugh is a man, Carson McCullers is a woman. Mick is at least partially based on McCullers who was a promising musician, accepted to the Julliard School of Music, but unable to attend for lack of tuition. 
Fortunately, she studied creative writing at Columbia…and that worked out pretty well.

Narrative regarding Singer: 
All kinds of people became acquainted with him. If the person who spoke to him was a stranger, Singer presented his card so that his silence would be understood. He came to be known through all the town. He walked with his shoulders very straight and kept his hands in his pockets. His gray eyes seemed to take in everything around him, and in his face there was still the look of peace that is seen most often in those who are very wise or very sorrowful.

Film Rendition: There is a 1968 film version with Alan Arkin as Singer, and Sondra Locke as Mick. It was well cast, and fairly faithful, but it didn't quite capture the feeling of the book.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (33 down 67 to go)

This is the first time I’ve read Wuthering Heights or Emily Brontë. The book is a third-person narrative, Victorian era, romance. Set in England at the start of the 19th century, it covers three generations of the Linton and Earnshaw families.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I said, this was my first time reading Wuthering Heights, which is my favorite way to begin a book: no expectations and no idea of the plot. Well started, and then…Wow! What a miserable book. I don’t mean it is bad literature, I mean it is a miserable, miserable story.

You are not mistaken, this is not my review of Under the Volcano. The two are quite different, though at points both so miserably sad, I could not resist beginning this review exactly as I did the last.

Some call Wuthering Heights a love story. Me, not so much. In my humble opinion, Heathcliff, the main character and antagonist, does not know the meaning of love. There are some love stories within the story, but for me, the main story is one of revenge.

As I read Wuthering Heights, I kept thinking of that other great revenge story, The Count of Monte Cristo. The hero, Edmond Dantès, like Heathcliff, plots a brilliant revenge. But you might have noticed I called Edmond a hero, and Heathcliff the antagonist. Two reasons: First, the injustice suffered by Edmond is unbelievably cruel, whereas the insult to Heathcliff is very slight. Second, Edmond executes revenge on guilty parties, whereas Heathcliff punishes the innocent in order to strike his foes. (I’ll read and review The Count of Monte Cristo, much later in my quest, though I’ve read it before. It is brilliant, and offers an entirely different lesson on revenge.)

I suspect some will complain that Heathcliff’s insult was not so slight. I maintain it was. If you truly look back when he first swore revenge it was over something quite trivial, and he already retaliated disproportionate to the insult. After that, he nourished and relished hatred. I don't believe revenge is ever a noble pursuit, but Heathcliff has nothing like Edmond Dantès excuse.

I’m avoiding description of other characters in Wuthering Heights, because they are a bit difficult to keep track of even when reading the novel in entirety. I would surely confuse things trying to discuss them here. With the exceptions of Heathcliff, and lesser villain Joseph, they are mixtures of wise and foolish, innocent and conniving, likeable and detestable, loving, lovable, pitiable. I found none of them admirable.

But Heathcliff. I give Brontë high marks for being unpredictable. In the beginning, I was expecting the poor Dickensian orphan, unjustly denied a place in the world, who would rise by purity and courage to achieve a just, but not cruel recompense. Goodness was I wrong. Heathcliff is one of the most loathsome characters I’ve encountered in literature. He was evil.

Which made the ending difficult for me to accept. I saw insufficient catalyst to affect the change. Oh, I get what was supposed to be happening. It just wasn’t believable to me. I also found Cathy’s change of heart toward Hareton a bit inexplicable. It was essential, I just didn’t feel there was much impetus to explain it, though it was much more believable than the change in Heathcliff.

The reclamation of Hareton is the redemption of the story. It is a marvelous commentary. Hareton, was nearly despicable, but the reader, like Cathy easily forgets he was a product of circumstance. Circumstance, in the person of Heathcliff, had robbed him of fortune, education, dignity, and love. When these were restored, even imperfectly, there was hope, and by reclaiming Hareton, Cathy is herself redeemed.

Still, I did not like Wuthering Heights half so much as Jane Eyre by Emily’s sister Charlotte.


Heathcliff to Catherine:

I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer…but yours! How can I? 

Nelly the chief narrator comparing Edgar Linton and Hindley Earnshaw:

I used to draw a comparison between him and Hindley Earnshaw, and perplex myself to explain satisfactorily why their conduct was so opposite in similar circumstances. They had both been fond husbands, and were both attached to their children; and I could not see how they shouldn’t both have taken the same road, for good or evil. But, I thought in my mind, Hindley, with apparently the stronger head, has shown himself sadly the worse and weaker man. When his ship struck, the captain abandoned his post; and the crew, instead of trying to save her, rushed into riot and confusion, leaving no hope for their luckless vessel. Linton on the contrary, displayed the true courage of a loyal and faithful soul; he trusted God; and God comforted him. One hoped, and the other despaired.

Film Rendition: I finally got around to watching a film rendition, nearly two months after reading, and it only reminded me, what an awful story this is. I watched the 1939 rendition with Laurence Oliver as Heathcliff. It was only half true to the book, and I didn't enjoy it, even though it had one of my favorite actors, David Niven as Edgar. I often say skip the movie, read the book. I'm inclined to say skip both in this case.