Madame Bovary: A Desperate Housewife

Time Out New York's Book Editor Matthew Love and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham.

For those who haven’t read Madame Bovary, let me tell you a little bit about this story.

This is a story about a beautiful, talented young woman named Emma Bovary. As a young girl she lived alone with her father in the country after her mother had passed away. A married doctor named Charles Bovary came to her house one day on a medical call and fell in love with Emma. Though married, the doctor found ways to return to Emma’s house again and again. When the doctor’s wife died he wasted no time in asking Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. Emma’s father was eager to comply; he just wanted “to have someone relieve him of his daughter” who was not “any use to him in his house.” So Emma’s father told the doctor to wait outside of his house while he asked Emma whether she wanted to be married; if the answer was yes, Emma’s father promised to push a shutter open. The doctor waited 49 minutes for the affirmative sign form Emma’s father.

I don’t know what happened during these 49 minutes, but one can only assume that Emma did not spend that time expressing her unmitigated bliss at the idea of marriage to this boring man. Despite her “gaze” being “drowned in boredom” when she was with him, and despite being a young girl who had no experience of life or the world outside of her small country village, she was to be married.

As you can expect, a marriage that begins under these circumstances does not turn out well. From the very beginning her admittedly tawdry but modest requests are denied. Her father refuses her wish “to be married at midnight, by torchlight,” and instead she spends her wedding alienated and fearful of the country “pranks” of her relatives. After the two day wedding the doctor takes Emma to the prison of a dull provincial town where this young woman, with so many talents to speak of (drawing, painting, piano playing, cooking, dancing) is relegated to a dreary domestic existence; staring at maps of Paris, dragging the tip of her finger across the page, while her mother-in-law complains about the amount of charcoal Emma uses in the kitchen.

II.

OK, let me be honest: most people don’t see Madame Bovary this way. Most people read this book and think Emma is a silly, capricious girl in the beginning of the novel and downright sinister by the end. But it’s this ambiguity among many others that makes Madame Bovary worthy of the praise it has received over the past 150 years. It also makes this a perfect story for a book club, especially an event like McNally Jackson’s “Ask me about…” book club.

“Ask me about…,”, presented by Time Out New York and McNally Jackson, promises to be a “free bi-monthly event [that] is part lecture, part book club, part show and part social occasion.” And that’s exactly what it was.

I wouldn’t describe the talks as lectures necessarily. Instead, they were more like short introductions to the book. Publicist Lauren Cerand expressed her relief that the story of Madam Bovary occurred before the advent of social media. She was struck by “how unobstructed [Emma Bovary’s] descent was: ”there was no Twitter, no intervention, no reality show. She just goes all the way down.”

Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the “The Hours” declared that Madame Bovary “may be the book that matters most to me.” He emphasized that “in making her a great figure in world literature, Flaubert demonstrated for the first time and for ever after that if crappy little Emma Bovary can be a major figure in a great novel, then anybody can. Suddenly the gates of literature swing wide open.”

The book club aspect consisted of discussions that centered around questions handed out in envelopes at the beginning of the event. The questions concerned subjects like a comparison of Rudolph and Leon (two of Emma’s lovers), the nature of the narrator, and the comparison of the city with the country. We were given a set period of time, after which one person from each group would get up to the microphone and tell the crowd the group’s conclusions on the given topic. For this event, the discussions culminated in a showdown; two speakers would argue over whether Emma Bovary was a redeemable character. By chance (and tragically) I had sat down in the anti-Emma Bovary section of the room and thus was forced to argue against my own convictions; it fell upon me to discuss her greatest character flaws in 90 seconds, which I did, dutifully.

After the discussions there were the performances. Actors went through an insouciant (and at times surprisingly accurate) treatment of the novel, including the undeniably funny episode between Emma and Rudolph. Matthew Love’s portrayal of Charles Bovary as a weakling was spot on. Then of course, there was the musical performance, wherein New York based musician Andrew Vladick played two songs, one which referenced Madame Bovary. The he gave the crowd a choice for his second song: a song inspired by Freakonomics, or a song inspired by Keith Richards’s memoir. The crowd opted for the Kieth Richards memoir.

And of course, there was the social aspect, which could describe the entire event. One of the benefits of living in New York is that a show like this can draw such a large, diverse crowd whose only similarity seemed to be their condemnation of the Emma Bovary character. “Ask me about…” was fast moving, fun, and interesting, and I look forward to their next event, which will be Virginia Wolf’s “To the Lighthouse” on April 24 at McNally Jackson.

Event:
“Ask me about…”
A bi-monthly lecture/reading group/performance show at McNally Jackson

Book
Madame Bovary
by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
Viking, 342 pp.
For more please follow me on Twitter and Tumblr.


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