Madame Bovary

Basket of apricots, stolen from

Good job the reading came back, because in preparation for my new job as the Fellow in Writing at Manchester Uni for this semester, I’ve been working through the reading list of the current MA cohort. I don’t have to, I suppose – I’m not teaching literature – but I want to. It’s nice to be nice, and I like a list. When in Rome, etc.

I first read Madame Bovary as an undergraduate. A lecturer I had (I can’t remember his name, but he had cream suits and beige shirts and my mind has filed him under ‘Colonel Mustard’ and will not be persuaded otherwise) claimed that none of us knew what we were talking about, weren’t worthy of the degrees we hadn’t been awarded yet (or the steam from his tea, we inferred), couldn’t have an opinion about novels, writing or anything else, until we’d read Madame Bovary. In French.

So I did (not in French) and even then I knew it was important, and a good book, and likely to become one of my favourites but I hadn’t read enough to be able to explain why it struck me the way it did. I don’t remember much else about the circumstances of that first reading. I ate books up quickly then, and had to read and write about several a week, while pretending to have considered every word.

I read it again (not in French) the year after I graduated – in my tea and lunch breaks while working at the Bodleian Library. You were still allowed to smoke inside then, in a special glassed in bit of the staffroom. Previously, when I’d claimed to be lonely or unhappy I’d been trying it on – playing at it. But in the glass smoking box, I really was, and I hunched over my cheap edition with the too-small text with my roll ups and my Earl Grey (some things, I was still playing at) and I forgot where I was.

Emma sparked off my interest in fallen woman stories, so through her I found Anna Karenina and Cressida and Cresseyde and a few other bored sluts that have their special place in my bookcase, skirts rustling behind the glass. And I read it again three more times the next year (my copy is tea stained and dog-eared) while I was working on the first draft of A Kind of Intimacy.

I can’t say I consciously made Annie into a reader of daft books, young wife of a nearly-successful, almost-good looking dentist, who himself had been married before and left childless. That I set out to make her into an escapist, an idealist, someone who acts out life rather than living it. But still, it is all in there. Her obsession with detail, with objects, possessions, food and clothes. I see now that the reading worked like it should do for a writer and I tried to steal the things I liked best: the noticing of gesture, the moral disinterest, the cynicism about love, marriage, religion, friendship, books, god, other people.

And as much as I liked the words, I liked the method. I learned a bit about how to do writing and more about how to be a writer. From what I have read, Flaubert was a writer to whom words did not come easily. He worked hard. It felt like work to him. He struggled. And kept at it.

It is very humbling to try to be a writer and read books like this.

And it is humbling to read it as a teacher, and to realise that the strange, rule-breaking things Flaubert is doing with point-of-view (who is this ‘we’ who appears in the first chapter to narrate the book – a ‘we’ that has an omniscient viewpoint, can dip into any of the character’s heads without warning – seems to be an old school friend of Charles’, who knows everything) would be frowned on in some creative writing classes, and are perfect and interesting and exactly right in this novel. That the narrative is mostly ‘tell’ and not much ‘show’ and the masses of irrelevant detail that would be struck out in a script handed in for marking are the stepping stones of this story.

So, reading this will make me a more humble writer and teacher, I hope. 

3 responses to “Madame Bovary”

  1. Tim Woodall says:

    Well, reading this tonight has made me quite happy. And I’m not sure why. Thanks though…….

  2. Your new website rocks x

  3. Hmm, very interesting Jenn, and now I want to go and re-read ‘Madame Bovary’ (as opposed to tackling all the tedious items on my ‘ought to have done three weeks ago’ list) x

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