I feel like I’m writing one of those essays for a college application. “If you could invite three authors to dinner…”
Let’s narrow this down to one book each:
- Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
- Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (p. 125 to p. 178 on Flaubert)
- Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century
I decided to (re)read Madame Bovary because it was chosen for seminar discussion by my husband’s college alumni group. Also, we needed a long audiobook for the round trip drive to North Carolina.
Madame Bovary shows up on most lists of all time “great novels”. It’s regarded as a turning point in the development of the novel as a genre (Wikipedia). Flaubert wrote it in French in 1857. Professor and literary critic Nabokov, as fluent in French as in English (Russian was his cradle tongue), considers the translation he used while teaching at Wellesley and Cornell to be seriously flawed.
So what did I gain by reading Madame Bovary? It is so descriptive! Like watching a movie, or maybe a soap opera. It was originally released serially. The plot, set in rural France, is simple. Country doctor Charles Bovary marries Emma, the daughter of a patient. She yearns for a more exciting, romantic life. This starts with day dreams, moves on to a passionate but platonic friendship with a young clerk and then enters the realm of adultery with a rake from the local gentry. When that ends, she encounters the clerk again, and they begin a passionate affair. Emma begins borrowing money to support her lifestyle, and brings herself and her husband to financial ruin. Overwhelmed, she poisons herself with arsenic and dies in agony. Charles dies of grief, and their penniless daughter is sent to work in a factory.
Nabokov (1899 – 1977) wrote several novels, but his book Lectures on Literature (as well as Lectures on Russian Literature and Lectures on Don Quixote) is a compilation from classes he delivered at Cornell University. As such, it is not, perhaps, as polished as his novels. He analyzes Madame Bovary in therms of “structures…, thematic lines, style, poetry, and characters”. Nabokov asserts that only style and art matter in books.
One contemporary author who references Flaubert is Thomas Picketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2014 and one of those books many people argue about but few read. (I plead guilty, but my spouse worked his way through it. We discussed it extensively.) Picketty is a French academic political economist. He specializes in the study of “economic inequality, taking a historic and statistical approach” (Wikipedia). He cites literature to illustrate the impacts of income inequality, and mentions Flaubert and also Balzac.
Picketty makes clear the human and social costs of extreme income inequality. I think he refrains from suggesting alternatives, but he has become controversial because some readers interpret Capital as a call to revolution, or at least major reform.
Nabokov would probably disapprove of Flaubert’s name being brought into a discussion of economics. He makes it clear that “bourgeois” refers to low taste and character, not low (or middling) economic status.
If you read a novel covered in Nabokov’s lectures, I certainly recommend that you read Nabokov alongside it. You may not understand or agree with everything he says, but he will give you a great deal to ponder.
Keep an eye on Picketty. I expect he will continue to stir interest and controversy.