Monday, February 20, 2012
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Translator: Eleanor Marx Aveling
Read for: Fun
When Emma Bovary marries the bumbling but kind doctor Charles Bovary, she soon learns that she will not be living the life she has dreamed of in novels. Starting with a glamorous dance at a ball, she begins to long for a life of finer possessions and greater loves. However, her adulterous affairs lead to her destruction.
This was my first LibriVox experience, and for the most part, it was positive. For those unfamiliar with the site, LibriVox has hundreds of audiobooks recorded by volunteers in the public domain. I chose Madame Bovary arbitrarily, knowing it was a classic that I wanted to experience eventually but not one that I was extremely excited to read, and therefore one that I could afford to miss a sentence or two when listening by audiobook. The book had a few different narrators, and with the exception of one, who had a soft voice and an accent, I had no trouble understanding the book.
The story itself is like a train wreck -- Emma digs herself so deeply into trouble that it is painful to watch (or in this case, listen), but at the same time it is impossible to look away, not only because of the disaster but also because the writing and storytelling itself is fantastic. Emma is a fascinating character, full of flaws and unlikeable characteristics, and yet also at times sympathetic despite her twisted actions. She betrays her family both with her affections and her exorbitant expenditures, and yet at times I felt sorry for her longings for a world outside her narrow sphere. Then I remember how she threw herself at Charles Bovary before his first wife died and then how she rejects his heartfelt, albeit clumsy, shows of affection, and I don't feel sorry for her anymore. Then I picture the final scenes of the book, and I go back to feeling some compassion. And so it goes. Emma is the perfect example of the catastrophe of human nature -- sinful and selfish, and yet inspiring sympathy nonetheless.
The story also has a full cast of secondary characters that to me seemed like a cross between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens with a little French flavor thrown in. There is the Austenian bore, Monsieur Homais, who drones on and on about his business and knowledge. The Dickensian caricature of a rake, Rodolphe, is unable to resist adding Emma to his collection of beautiful women to chase. While Emma is the titular character, the full cast is essential to the story. (The final pages (minutes, for me) when Homais is juxtaposed against the Bovarys (Bovaries?) was sheer genius).
The translation was also excellently done, in my opinion. While I haven't read more than a few pages of Madame Bovary in French (and have no intentions to go further with it) and therefore don't know how true the translation was to the story, the sentences and phrasing were artfully constructed and contributed to my enjoyment of the story.
Despite the length and the frequently unpleasant main character, Madame Bovary is a masterpiece. Any reader of the classics should read it at least once in their lifetime. I may even revisit the book in print form some day.
Warnings: This is a book about affairs. While nothing is explicitly described, the plotline is essentially lovers' trysts.