Tag Archives: literature

Flaubert, Nabokov and Thomas Picketty– how did I get into such distinguished company??

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.

Here’s my blog post on Thomas Picketty

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.

 

The Use and Abuse of Fiction – personal opinion

Why write fiction about real events? Why make up stories about World War II, or Ireland or the Great Depression? Why not stick to imagined worlds, like JK Rowling’s delightful, magic permeated version of England?

Consider the wild popularity of the “Humans of New York” Facebook site. There are SO MANY tales to be told. Why not tell them, as is done with Holocaust survivors and military veterans (to name a few) in oral history projects? I offer The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline as an example of a book written about events that, I believe, have been extensively documented. More about it below.

Sometimes the truth is just too painfully awful to bear.

  • Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, who participated in the battle for school desegregation as a high schooler, is a non-fiction account so harrowing I couldn’t read it.
  • The truth behind Beloved by Toni Morrison is even worse than that portrayed in the book/movie, in which an enslaved woman kills her child to keep him from slavery.

Fiction represents a selection of what is (or isn’t) “meaningful” or important about an era or event. I’m convinced that “meaning” is assigned, not inherent. The meaning that an author assigns to an event may be very different from what participants experienced. If the people are available (or left records), I would rather listen to real voices than read a fictionalized account.

I think fiction represents a consensus (of sorts) on what we are going to remember, emphasize and/or construe about events.

Fiction has its conventions. Usually major characters stay alive for most of the book. I was truly shocked when Vikram Seth killed off a major character in the middle of The Golden Gate. That’s what happens in life, not in novels!

Stephen Dunn (poet and professor) says that southern New Jersey (where I live) “hasn’t been imagined yet”. Very little fiction or poetry about this region has been written. To me, that means there’s no consensus about what we will or won’t discuss about South Jersey. Fiction sets boundaries. No one has decided what South Jersey means.

Means to whom? Our local poet? We the residents? Scholars somewhere else? (Will South Jersey Studies be invented one day?) We will surely choose to keep the sun and sand. What about the past? How long will it take to digest Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson? Will we study slaveholders or the underground railroad?

So how did Peter H Davies, author of The Welsh Girl, (a novel about WWII) decide what (and who) to keep and who to discard? Why did he include ONE historical figure (Rudolf Hess) in this work of fiction?

Maybe studying history is just TOO MUCH WORK, too intellectually challenging. The Orphan Train was selected as a Common Reading (for a college, with the emphasis on the Freshmen) because it was “accessible”. Translate that to mean not too long, not too complicated… (I found it didactic.) Serious study of the events and historical period was apparently not considered. (I get it, but are we underestimating student intelligence?)

I was surprised, when I checked, to find out that I split my reading almost 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction. I thought I was leaning more towards fiction.

I very much enjoy “fantasy” fiction, but I would guess it’s a small fraction of what I read, maybe 10%. I LOVE a good alternative world.

My point? Does anyone else have a problem with fictionalized accounts of real events? Do you worry that you might be misled? That an author might be biased? How should fiction be incorporated into education? If a book pops into your mind when you consider this, I’d particularly like to hear about it.