Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book a Week, July 15

Chris recommended reading Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary after Stendhal's The Red and the Black, since that would allow something of a compare-and-contrast. And while I've read Madame Bovary, it has been quite a long time -- over a decade -- and it is sitting on my shelf. The particular version I have is a beat-up Critical Norton edition, using Paul de Man's revision of Eleanor Marx Aveling's translation. Paul de Man was a friend of a Derrida and a deconstructionist who, as it happened, was a nasty piece of work who became lionized in certain literary circles. (Paul de Man wrote for a collaborationist newspaper in Nazi-occupied Belgium, later lied profusely about this period of his life, absconded from various failed monetary ventures, and may have been a bigamist.) Eleanor Marx, often also known as Eleanor Marx Aveling, was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, and both a socialist activist and accomplished literary translator. She had an extended affair with Edward Aveling, an atheist and socialist; Aveling, however, secretly married another woman, but when he came down with a kidney disease, returned to Eleanor. When Eleanor found out about the secret marriage, she committed suicide. This led to such anger against Aveling that when he died four months later very few people even attended his funderal.

The air of scandal attaching to the translation perhaps fits well with the book, which owed its own original popularity to scandal. Written over a period of five years, it was then serialized in La Revue de Paris starting in 1856. The editor cut out one particular scene, the carriage ride in Book III; but as Flaubert pointed out at the time, the book was not really less shocking without it. And the magazine in question was already being closely scrutinized by the government. The prosecutor, Ernest Pinard, brought charges of offending public morality and offending religious morality against Flaubert. The defense lawyer, Senard, doesn't seem to have done a very good job at defense, but he did get an acquittal. When the book was published in book form, then, it had an eager audience. When writing the book Flaubert said at one point that he would, if he could, write a book about nothing, holding together by nothing but style. This would be hard to do under the best circumstances; but Flaubert was a perfectionist, sometimes spending days on a single page, scrupulously eliminating anything suggestive of an author's voice. But, as Baudelaire once said of the book, every great work of art must be accomplished as an impossible task.

My very first introduction to Madame Bovary was, somewhat ironically, through the Home Improvement television episode "Her Cheatin' Mind", which at least had the merit of making me interested enough to read the book. I remember enjoying it, but don't remember details, so it's about time to dust it off.

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