December, 2011: In a desperate panic to leave The Royal Hotel in Carcoar, I accidentally left behind my powdered goats' milk and Folklore Of The Australian Railwaymen, a book of my grandfather's that I've been reading on and off for a year. I was sorry to lose* my book, but if that was the price I had to pay to escape the clutches of the two-bottles-down-the-gullet publican and his dark and empty ("I cleared out the riff-raff - I had to go to court a few times to do it") pub, so be it. So I arrived at Cowra bookless, but glad to be alive and free. I picked Madame Bovary (1857), by Gustave Flaubert, off the shelves.
I've read it before, in that shadowy time between being a child and being the mature, worldly, sophisticated adult I am today (but perhaps wasn't before yesterday). I remember thinking it was cold and spiteful; I remember my brother, John, saying, "People accused Flaubert of being cold, so he wrote four short stories to prove that he could write with heart." Now that I think about it, I don't know why I wanted to read Madame Bovary again. It is still cold and spiteful. Flaubert spends a whole novel, and (according to the introduction), five years of his life, crafting a beautifully-finished novel about characters who are either stupid, boring and rather sweet (Monsieur Bovary), or else not stupid enough to be sweet (Madame). If his characters are not utterly stupid, then they spend their superfluity of mental resources on trying to serve their own sensual, materialistic, narrow interests.
As I read Madame Bovary, I kept complaining about it. Naturally the advice was, "Stop reading it!" Errol, in his shadowy youth, had abandoned it halfway through. No one said, "Oh, persevere, it's wonderful." Any doubt I had about Flaubert's attitude towards his characters ("Maybe he's going to redeem them?"), especially his attitude to Madame, is swept away by what he does to her. He has her using her wiles with the young Justin (who is seemingly the true romantic hero of the novel, or rather, of a different novel; I wonder - is Justin actually Flaubert?) to gain access to the chemist's supply-room. She grabs a handful of arsenic and stuffs it into her mouth. Flaubert makes her die in gruesome detail over ten pages. Her beauty putrefies. Here's a soupçon:
Soon she was vomiting blood. Her lips were drawn tighter. Her limbs were rigid, her body covered in brown patches, and her pulse raced away beneath your fingers like a taut thread, like a harp string just before it breaks.
The odd thing was that by the end of the novel, I despised Madame as much as Flaubert does, and didn't mind reading about her dreadful comeuppance. But why - why write a book about it? The way I see it is that we can find dispiriting ugliness just by walking out the door and mixing for a few minutes with our fellows. Books and art help me to find, out of all the ugliness, the beauty of life. So what was Flaubert doing - was he making himself and his craft the beautiful thing, set off by the foil of the stupid provincials? Or did he find something positive in his novel, something that eludes me? The detail is beautiful, the writing is beautiful. But to me, he, heartless, is even-worse-than-completely-stupid, just like his characters.
Obviously, I am puzzled by this book. I am puzzled about why it has survived for a hundred-and-fifty years. Most books that survive are written with great love. Maybe Flaubert's has survived because Madame Bovary appeals to our worst traits (when it comes to reading, which is a pretty harmless activity) - our love of petty, ghastly, sordid detail, our desire to put everyone else down in order to feel our own superiority, our ability to be entertained by someone else's miserable downfall. It is a moral tale, after all. Maybe every reader who makes it through to the end has failed Flaubert's moral test.
*Mumma, driving back to Sydney with a car-load of native Christmas trees, bravely stopped by the Royal and rescued Folklore.