Saturday, August 24, 2013

Madame Bovary : Not a review

Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert

This is not a review. It is a post about lessons learnt while reading Madame Bovary.

I had to read Madame Bovary as part of my Modern and Post-Modern philosophy course on coursera. It is still not clear to me completely why we were asked to read this book for this course. After watching the lecture videos, the prof says: What Rousseau was to enlightenment, in a very similar way Flaubert was to Romanticism. Hmmm, i am yet to understand Rousseau completely and i have little idea about Romanticism anyways. So, that's that.

Madame Bovary is called as the finest work of fiction ever. It is called a masterpiece. It has inspired the whole generations of authors after its publication and pretty much every great author's work today can be traced back to this one novel. I had researched this bit before i started reading, so i was pretty excited.

I read the first 65% of the book on a kindle in my flight from Bangalore to SFO. I had taken Qatar and with total flight time of 27 hrs, i had plenty of time to read it. The last 35% were read in a Starbucks cafe in Bentonville sitting next to a window during afternoon time when sunrays were coming at an angle that directly touched my feet making me feel warm just enough to be cozy. My appreciation towards Starbucks is also quite high since i had moved back to India.

Madame Bovary, even though it is a work of fiction, it belongs to the genre of classic. It is not Hunger Games, it is not even Girl with Dragon Tattoo. All three have the common theme, each one of them is about a female protagonist. Rather, Madama Bovary is a very nuanced depiction of mundane life in 19th century. With its setting in small villages, towns and country side, it is basically about the  ordinary lives of people who live there, it provides with detailed accounts of what people do day to day, which is essentially gossip and nothing. It has a remarkable prose, beautiful, every word is chosen very carefully to concisely explain the scenery. Some of the metaphors are extremely well constructed. It is considered to be one of its first to right realist fiction, a realistic portrayal of the mundane written in a manner that even that becomes exciting to read. It is indeed a masterpiece.

However with all the above, it is not an easy read. At any rate it is not a book that is to be read in a flight at 5 am in the morning when you have not slept last night. It is not to be read at anytime during a flight when you are having a mild headache as you are unable to find sleep. It is especially not to be read when you are running a minor flu. What makes matter more complicated was that i was expecting it to be a novel like Girl with dragon tattoo, the high delta in expectation and reality was too much to bear for me. Yet it was the prose that kept my going. For the first 65% of the book, my reaction ranged from boring to infuriated to "what the hell is happening here" and somewhere it included "will the story ever move forward".

The last 35% of the book was a sheer delight. With proper sleep under me, my appreciation of the prose  grew beyond proportions. I was in love with the writing, the careful detailed construction of each line, how two lines associated themselves when they appeared next to each other and how smooth was the flow of a para . I was able to see the mastery behind this invention. It was also helped little bit by a slight quickening of the pace in storyline as well.

Overall, the lesson has been learnt. One should only read a pageturner-ish book on a flight journey. I had experienced a familiar difficulty as i tried to read Midnight's Children during my flight to US when i was going to start my masters there.  I had given after 150 pages or so marking the book as unreadable until i came back to it two years later and finished it, thoroughly enjoying this time. I had not clearly understood why i didn't appreciated the book first time around, now i know. One need all the senses available to understand "class" writing; great authors require great attention from their readers.  Also classics are best enjoyed in cafes.

I am not sure if i will re-read Madame Bovary again. I wish that i do. Meanwhile, the course is going brilliant. The video lectures have been a great compliment to the weekly readings and they just add another dimension of realization. Madame Bovary is actually a rebuke on Romanticism, it is strong critique on "Art for art's sake". It was hugely controversial  in its own time as all cult things are .

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