I teach Madame Bovary, a book that has been a drug in my blood for a very long time. Why? I quote a few passages from the recent Lydia Davis translation:
After the ball, Emma returns to her dull life:
Reverently she put away in the chest of drawers her beautiful dress and even her satinshoes, whose soles had been yellowed by the slippery wax of the dance floor. Her heart was like them: contact with wealth had laid something over it that would not be wiped away. 48
As the affair with Rodolphe starts:
She said to herself again and again: “I have a lover! A lover!” reveling in the thought as though she had come into a second puberty. At last she would possess those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired. She was entering something marvelous in which all was passion, ecstasy, delirium. 142
Rodolphe prepares the note to drop Emma:
But once the pen was in his hand, he could not think of anything… 176
Indeed, these women, flocking into his thoughts all at the same time, impeded and diminished one another, as though by the sameness of his love. …his pleasures, like school children in a schoolyard, had so trampled his hert that nothing green grew there…177
The driver of the carriage in which Leon and Emma are having sex:
[The driver] could not understand what mania for locomotion was compelling these individuals to refuse to stop. 217
I’ll stop, but it hurts to do so. There are so many delicious sentences that give pleasure even as they remind one that the pursuit of pleasure (at least outside of art) is doomed to trivialization, cliché and disappointment. I’ve taught the novel dozens of times, and I still am thrilled by it. That’s why I can laugh as I quote from the master’s letters:
“Passion does not make verses; and the more personal you are, the weaker… The less you feel a thing, the more capable you are of expressing it as it is ..But one must be able to make oneself feel it. The faculty is simply, genius: the ability to see, to have the model posing there before you.” (Letter to Louise Colete, July 6, 1852)
“To have talent, you must be convinced that you possess it; and to keep your conscience pure you must set it above everybody else’s. The way to live serenely, in clean, fresh air, is t install yourself on some pyramid, no matter which, provided it be lofty and have a solid foundation. Ah! It isn’t always “amusing” up there, and you are absolutely alone; but there is some consolation in spitting from so high a place.” (Letter to Louise Colete, May 29, 1852)
I first read Flaubert at Wesleyan. Teaching it here now is wonderful!
Michael Roth is the president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he also teaches. He is the author of Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past (Columbia University Press 2011) and a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Click on the links for some of his articles in each publication.) His thoughtful, insightful Wesleyan blog can be found here.
Book hyperlinks courtesy of Broad Street Books, Middletown, Connecticut, and Columbia University Press.