Did the Modern Novel Kill Charles Bovary?

Jean Améry, the Austrian essayist and Primo Levi’s former barrack-mate at Auschwitz, wrote one last novel before he died. Its six angry chapters are written as if by Charles Bovary, accusing Flaubert of ruining his life.

Ankita Chakraborty | Longreads | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,602 words)

 

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There were three of them involved in the Bovary marriage to begin with: Charles Bovary, a mediocre doctor and husband, used to being woken up in the middle of the night to set a plaster or secure a tooth in the French countryside; Emma Bovary, reader of great novels and writer of promissory notes, who sneaked away to sleep with other men as soon as her husband left for work; and Gustave Flaubert, the thirty-five-year-old writer of Madame Bovary, morally repugnant, syphilis-infected bourgeois who hated the bourgeoisie for their stupidity. As in all marriages destined for failure, there were sides to be taken. With Madame Bovary began the modern novel; on her side was the virtue of being a pioneer, of being the first in a hundred-and-sixty-year-old model, the precursor to many great novels written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Stories of her adultery became sensational and her resistance to the boredom of living aspirational. For Emma could do no wrong. Great, immortal, hero — for her have been used words that are most likely to be used for men in real life. “What a woman!” how often have we thought like Rodolphe, one of her lovers, and watched her go.

“Of course all men had wanted her,” thought Charles Bovary to himself in the novel. By the time I come to read this sentence towards the end of the book, I am always reminded of something I once read in a transcript of a conversation between Mario Vargos Llosa and Julian Barnes at a literary festival in 1983. “I yield to you, Mario,” Barnes declared to Llosa, “in your passion for Madame Bovary. I respect her, I admire her, I might even fancy her, but you can have her in that carriage.” Barnes here was referring to the famous sex scene between Emma Bovary and her lover Leon inside a speeding cab. By the end of the novel, even the men who lived as small characters, on the sidelines of the story of her marriage and her affairs, are revealed to be in love with Emma, like Leon’s former employer Guillaumin and Justin the errand-boy. “Our love for Emma,” a sentiment shared among the many inconsequential men in the novel, is also a sentiment shared, off its pages, by a vast spectrum of famous writers who have written books on Flaubert, including Mario Vargos Llosa (The Perpetual Orgy, 1986) and Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot, 1984); who feel that they need to do right by her. 

The only reason ‘Madame Bovary’ isn’t a tragedy is because it’s a full-fledged scandal.

But no man could give her what she wanted. Emma was an idealist of men. She wanted to be able to think about them fondly. Her idea of man was a picture of gallantry, fashion, and passion. Even in death, she still seemed to be expecting all men to live up to that idea; to strive to be deserving of her. Charles Bovary started wearing patent-leather boots and white cravats to impress her in her grave. Flaubert, like Emma, influenced his successors, either to write with original style or to write intensive biographies of him. If Emma were to be ever sainted for her contribution to literature, she would be known as St. Emma Bovary, Our Lady of Expectations. But Emma Bovary had the qualities of both a man and a woman. One aspect of the novel that is strikingly progressive, even for the year 2018, is the fact that wherever she went — and she went all around, everywhere —she was never questioned for her whereabouts or for her absence. In what world is a woman who so freely moves never questioned by society regarding her movements? Only in a world where the woman also happens to be a man. The male qualities in Emma are Flaubert’s. It is no secret that in writing her character, he transferred some of himself into her. So if you are having Emma in that carriage, it is possible you are, in fact, getting Flaubert.

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And who was on Charles’ side? No one except for a French state prosecutor called Ernest Pinard. In 1857, as soon as Madame Bovary was published in France, it went to trial. Pinard on behalf of the Second Republic of Napoleon III had brought charges of moral and religious affrontery against the writer and the publisher of the book. Morality as defined by the state is often found in service of male honor and in preservation of the status quo between man and wife. Adultery committed by a wife was seen as obscenity and seemed to justify a tribunal for censorship. In court, it was as if Pinard was representing Charles at the same time that he was representing the state. “Art without rules is no longer art,” he argued. This statement, still used from time to time to rationalize censorship by fools and politicians, might have made sense if only the word “art” were to be replaced by words like “marriage” or even “bureaucracy.” “Marriage without rules is no longer marriage.” “Bureaucracy without rules is no longer bureaucracy.” But art is subservient to no one, has no rules and listens to no rulers.

As his defense, Flaubert got his lawyer to argue that Pinard was a failed reader who had failed to see the quality and the morality of his book. Not once did his lawyer defend writing Madame Bovary as his freedom of expression. Instead his defense was an implicit acceptance of the things the state had accused Flaubert of doing, but he gave different reasons for them. Flaubert’s intention, his lawyer said, was never to corrupt the public but to instruct them with a correct and realist portrayal of social vice. Madame Bovary was a moral novel, he argued. And so was Flaubert acquitted. And thus was born by trial the modern novel, in a cunning defeat of bureaucracy.

The only reason Madame Bovary isn’t a tragedy is because it’s a full-fledged scandal. The trial brought fame and recognition to the character of Emma Bovary while bringing shame and ridicule to her husband Charles. This is something that we first see in the book itself. Flaubert wrote the novel in the third person narrative, an impersonal style of writing which — Pinard argued in court — left the public with absolutely no scope and no room to judge Emma Bovary for her adultery. The first modern novel thus was not only judged for its content but also for its style. The modernity that Flaubert achieved in his novel was that, in order to free Emma from the inherent prejudices of society at the time, he ended up freeing the society from their own prejudices. In his writers’ ordeal to resolve the question of ‘how should the modern novel be written?’ he resolves the question of ‘how should the modern novel be read?’

That leaves us with Charles. But can you sympathize with a ridiculous man? At the same time that Flaubert makes it difficult for his readers to judge Emma for her actions, he makes it easy for them to judge Charles for his insufficiency. Charles Bovary seemed to be the biggest impediment to his wife’s happiness. In the beginning he was blind to his wife, aware only of her outward appearance in ways that flattered his own self-image. And he always seemed a bit too shallow to be able to imagine the depths of his wife’s longings or to ever suspect his wife of cheating. For his wife, he was “a man without feeling or understanding”; and for her lovers, the butt of bad jokes. In the novel, these are the only two perspectives that seem to matter. Charles Bovary was both a loser at the trial and a loser in the novel.

Was it necessary that, for Emma to be able to achieve the great heights of literature, Charles be rendered a failure? For Emma’s story to take place again and again on the center stage, Charles be kept waiting in the green room forever? The legacy of Charles Bovary brings to mind the life and legacy of Hemingway’s four wives — especially his second wife, Fifi, from whom we have never heard anything — who silently endured adultery, humiliation and possibly violence just so the husband, the great artist, could write his novels. Only that in Charles’ case, his marriage to the female protagonist provided an obstacle and a cause of resistance that she must overcome. Not everybody wins in literature. One gets the feeling that perhaps Flaubert got Emma married to Charles in the first place just so she could gain a husband and a married name. Marriage, after all, is the first condition for adultery. And Emma couldn’t possibly have been known to her readers by her maiden name, “Madame Rouault,” or by any of the mouthfuls her lovers are endowed with — “Madame Boulanger” or “Madame Dupuis”; the novel by any other name would never have gone to trial.

In 1857, as soon as ‘Madame Bovary’ was published in France, it went to trial…. In court, it was as if Pinard was representing Charles at the same time that he was representing the state.

What Charles was really up against was the “novel.” His mother was perhaps right to believe that the public libraries were ruining his wife by giving her ideas above her station in life. As much as Madame Bovary influenced the modern novel, she was herself a product of an earlier version of the novel and a consequence of reading too much. Her early education resembles the education that any writer might have received in his youth, an education that instructed her not only in theory but also in sensibility. Growing up in the convent, where she was reading the Bible every day, she was already plotting stories, inventing small sins to stay longer at the confession. It was there where she first began reading Lamartine and Walter Scott. Later she would read writers like Balzac, George Sand, and Eugene Sue. And what she expected from these novels, as from the stories in the Bible, was that she not be bored. “It was necessary for her to derive a sort of personal profit from things, she rejected as useless whatever did not minister to her heart’s immediate fulfillment.” Emma Bovary has been repeatedly and wrongly characterized in literary history as a reader only of sentimental novels, when in truth she was educated in theology and literature and took a further interest in reading journalism. “She started taking the women’s papers Work-basket and Sylph of the Salon, devouring in their entirety all the accounts of first nights, race-meetings and parties, and becoming interested in a singer making her debut or a shop that was being opened.” Emma Bovary was interested in life, not necessarily in her own life but life in its finest details as described in these books and papers. Like the extremely religious, she took the written word to be the only truth of life. She didn’t know how to distinguish fiction from literature. Emma Bovary was not just the subject of the modern novel; she was the “novel.” Charles died soon after Emma in the novel. But Emma, as we know, lived forever. One couldn’t live if the other survived. The modern novel killed Charles Bovary.

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Is that all there is to say about Charles Bovary?

In the year 1978, Jean Améry, the Austrian essayist and Primo Levi’s former barrack-mate at Auschwitz, wrote one last novel before he killed himself. Charles Bovary, Country Doctor: Portrait of a Simple Man, recently translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West, is a novel written in six chapters that tells his side of the story. “No fool is only a fool,” Amery writes in the novel, “petrified as such and beyond redemption in his foolishness.” Perhaps there is more to Charles than has been let on. For a long time Charles has been so entrenched in our mind and memory as a risible character and an unsuspecting cuckold that the task of his resurrection seems to be a feat attainable only by a writer like Améry, whose most prominent work, At the Mind’s Limit, is a volume of essays on the Holocaust. But perhaps there can be justice in literature if the subject of the novel is also the narrator. Even then, it is difficult to take Charles seriously as the narrator at first. It helps to remember, at the outset of reading the novel, what Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote with empathy about a certain kind of writer in New York — failure is not funny.


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Part of the reason why one can’t take Charles seriously in Flaubert’s novel is because of his inability to find sadness in ordinary life, unlike the rest of us. Can you be serious if you can’t be sad? After Emma’s violent suicide comes at last his moment to be serious, but even in his grief, he seems quick and superfluous. Charles Bovary, Country Doctor begins from this point in Madame Bovary. Emma is dead and buried, her creditors are at the door, and Charles is alone without money or society: a ruined and nervous man. Améry finds this small window in Flaubert’s novel through which to pull Charles, recasting a man outshined by his wife as a moral and loving husband viciously wronged by Flaubert. In the novel Charles claims to know more than Flaubert and is ready to reveal what Flaubert kept from his readers. Part fiction, part philosophy, the chapters are written as essays and monologues directly addressed to Flaubert, Emma Bovary, and to the jury of a trial that is ongoing throughout the book. Like Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, this is also a story about a grieving widower and doctor obsessed with the writer. But unlike it, the narrator here defends himself, and not his obsession, against everyone and against eternity. “Gustave Flaubert, I was nothing to you,” Charles talks back to his writer.

Hooting and sneering schoolboys crying charbovari, charbovari, charbovari on his first day at school — this is how Flaubert first introduces Charles Bovary and begins his book. Améry imagines that one of the boys bullying Charles that first day of the novel was, in fact, Flaubert. And that is where it all began. Charles was not merely a willful target of Flaubert but a lifelong victim, beginning on that day when along with the boys the teacher asked him to write as punishment the phrase “ridiculous sum” twenty times. He was a lonely child and an alienated schoolboy who didn’t fall in with the others and especially with the “gangly, blond, gimlet-eyed” Flaubert. Améry writes only about a single exchange between Flaubert and Charles where the latter asks to borrow a pen-knife. And Flaubert replied tersely. From school, they went home to families belonging to two different classes. Charles was born to a retired assistant army-surgeon who lost his purpose in life when his emperor, Napoleon the Great, lost his empire, and married a hosier’s daughter who sustained the marriage with her dowry. Flaubert was born to a rich landowner and an ambitious doctor who in reality received the Legion of Honor.

Améry imagines that one of the boys bullying Charles on that first day of the novel was, in fact, Flaubert.

Améry suggests that Flaubert never really reached out to the alienated schoolboy and hence lacked access to him or to the other similar people of his class on whom he later writes. In Madame Bovary, he writes about a farm-hand, Catherine, who receives a silver medal worth only twenty-five francs in return for fifty-four years of faithful service on the same farm. In A Simple Heart, he writes about the servant girl Felicite who dies alone after fifty years of service, dreaming of a parrot. Flaubert’s realism is questionable, Améry says. “The haute-bourgeois Flaubert knew the lower people no better than that aristocrat in Proust who meets a farmer and says affably, when the man devoutly removes his hat: ‘Je suis ton Prince!’ (I am your Prince!) The people outside his patrician class, save for a narrow circle of intellectuals, existed for him not as world, but as surroundings.” It is possible Madame Bovary is not derived from the existing social reality of France but rather from the existing social prejudice.

Perhaps Flaubert did suppress the truth of Charles Bovary. His was not a realist portrayal. Compared to the character of Emma, Charles’s character seemed like a pure invention of words. His outer truth was constructed only by suggestions which were brief and fleeting and sustained by constant caricature. From the beginning till the end, Charles remains charbovari in appearance and in thought, the tall boy dressed in “civvies” admitted to a lower grade in school. And his inner truth remained unexplored. We will never know what Charles Bovary was really like. “Flaubert’s Bovary was a dimwit,” Amery writes. “Such a person doesn’t reason, he takes things as they come, chimneys and change and corruption, same as wind and bad weather and the irritable impatience of his bride and when she said over and over amid his awkward approaches at tenderness and his prattling: Laisse-moi! ( Leave me)”

Améry’s Bovary, on the other hand, is confrontational, even vindictive in his grief. Subtly but surely he confronts his dead wife about being a bad mother to his child; Flaubert for his implausible inventions; Homais, the local quack and chemist, for floating the idea for the botched clubfoot surgery (“We were serving progress, and you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs,” Homais replies”); and the rich upper-class for corrupting Emma in her better days but failing to save her from her worst. Améry’s Bovary is an Officer of Health, unwilling till the last to relent his position by the side of his dying wife. He is a man of duty and service, who roams around the countryside treating the poor and the suffering, among whom, he assures us, he enjoys the mass appeal that is found lacking among the bourgeoisie of Yonville. So what if his friendships and marriage didn’t take as much priority as work did; “he who does his work is not ridiculous.” Like Felicite and Catherine, he has always been working in the “surroundings” so that people like Flaubert and Emma could occupy the center without having to worry about money. He assumes for himself the role of a proletariat hero, going as far as to associate the labor of his doctor’s practice to that of the farmer’s sickle. The people in this novel seem to belong more to their class than to their characters. Perhaps this is why he ultimately defends the fraud of Homais, for no reason other than the fact that the chemist belonged to the same class as him.

Charles and Homais; Ernest Pinard and Gustave Flaubert; land owners or not; in the end, all came from the same bourgeoisie. But a show of fraternity is consistently found lacking in Flaubert for the others. The bourgeoisie that once brought upon the French Revolution and believed in the spirit of the Enlightenment was also shown in Madame Bovary as being susceptible to stupidity; people who we thought to be the forerunners of progress could seem, just like that, to be the forerunners of 21st century populism. In Homais, the self-proclaimed man of science and rationality, we later get to see a xenophobic journalist bent on getting a beggar, a poor migrant, banished from town — an early prototype of the European nationalist who swears on the values of the Enlightenment at the same time that he disparages Muslims and refugees.

There is, however, some truth in the charge that perhaps Flaubert took it all out on Charles, his disdain and distrust for the bourgeoisie. He sided with Emma, naturally. And he refused to take Charles seriously or give him any space; Charles has always been found missing in the details of Madame Bovary. This lack of seriousness in dealing with Charles’s character was also conspicuous in the writer’s strategy in dealing with the prosecutor Ernest Pinard during the trial of his book. “Don’t reason with stupidity,” Flaubert seemed to be saying in effect. “Leave the bourgeoisie to their own means.” What he always suspected of Charles was proved true by Pinard in court: the bourgeoisie were, and remain, the greatest obstacle to modernity.

In spite of all his inabilities, Charles did have the ability to forgive, a quality that the bourgeoisie derived from Christianity rather than the Enlightenment. If Emma had come clean and told Charles everything about the men and the lost money, he would have had the ability to forgive her and move on. Had that happened, perhaps Charles could have been the man of promise that Emma was looking for. But Flaubert could not have allowed it. In Madame Bovary, faced with the prospect, Emma “felt furious at the idea of Bovary being superior to herself…She must await the horrible scene and bear the burden of his magnanimity.” It was a feeling that fueled her panic and speeded up her final despair. Emma killed herself on the same day. But this is not where the novel ends. A few years after Emma’s suicide, Charles Bovary, still holding in his hand a clump of Emma’s hair, is found dead by his child. Did he die of heartbreak or suicide? It is not clear. Flaubert doesn’t care to specify. A city doctor is requested to come and probe the cause of his death. “He opened up the body but found nothing,” Flaubert wrote. This is what Flaubert really thought of Charles Bovary and this is how he must be known in literature — a nobody.

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Ankita Chakraborty is a writer based in New Delhi. She has also written for The Caravan, and Outlook

Editor: Dana Snitzky