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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert, Thierry Laget Moira posted a terrific review of Rabbit Redux the other day, and it made me realise something I should have noticed years ago. Rabbit Angstrom is Emma Bovary's literary grandson! As Moira says, Updike was deeply influenced by Nabokov, a fact that had somehow passed me by. Nabokov, in his turn, was a disciple of Flaubert; he famously said that he'd read all Flaubert, in the original French, by the time he was 14. So the family tree is clear enough.

It's one of those cases, though, where things have sort of skipped a generation. It's not hard to see that the three authors are stylistically close. But Flaubert and Updike are both ultra-naturalistic and Nabokov is not, and Nabokov also has quite a different take on psychology compared to the other two. So you don't immediately link Updike to Flaubert, or at least I didn't; though I do remember, at least once, defending Rabbit by comparing him with Emma. It seemed somehow like a reasonable comparison, but I'd thought it was just a chance resemblance.

Now that I have the missing link, it's all painfully obvious. The central characters in both stories are marked by early experiences which give them exaggerated hopes of what they can expect out of life; Rabbit is a high-school basketball star, and Emma attends the unfortunate ball at the château La Vaubyessard. After this, everything is a disappointment to them, and they find life with their respective partners, Janice and Charles, dull and stultifying. Their sense of frustration drives them into increasingly disastrous sexual liaisons, which eventually kill them and destroy several other lives as well.

Flaubert makes no obvious attempt to judge Emma, which led to many of his contemporaries denouncing the book as wicked, immoral and even obscene, charges which are often applied to Updike for similar reasons; many American readers today dislike Rabbit as much as late nineteenth century French readers disliked Emma. To me, these criticisms are completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not Rabbit and Madame Bovary are great books. We see Emmas and Rabbits all around us; ignoring the novels is hardly going to make them go away. And the language is so delightful, especially Flaubert's.

I'm in the middle of reading Madame Bovary for the third time. Emma has just met Rodolphe: he's put together a crude but effective seduction strategy, which he's already starting to implement. As usual, I'm willing her not to fall for him, but I don't think it's going to work out the way I want it to. Poor Emma.


Finished. It's an almost perfect book, that you can read any number of times. Here are some of my favourite passages.

The trashy novels that Emma reads when she's feeling depressed during the early years of her marriage:
Ce n'étaient qu'amours, amants, amantes, dames persécutées s'évanouissant dans des pavillons solitaires, postillons qu'on tue à tous les relais, chevaux qu'on crève à toutes les pages, forêts sombres, troubles du coeur, serments, sanglots, larmes et baisers, nacelles au clair de lune, rossignols dans les bosquets, messieurs braves comme des lions, doux comme des agneaux, vertueux comme on ne l'est pas, toujours bien mis, et qui pleurent comme des urnes.
MM. Bournisien and Homais watch over Emma's corpse, while squabbling with each other:
Le pharmacien et le curé se replongèrent dans leurs occupations, non sans dormir de temps à autre, ce dont ils s'accusaient réciproquement à chaque réveil nouveau. Alors M. Bournisien aspergeait la chambre d'eau bénite et Homais jetait un peu de chlore par terre.
Rodolphe finishes his break-up letter:
-- Comment vais-je signer, maintenant? se dit-il. Votre tout dévoué?... Non. Votre ami?... Oui, c'est cela.

«Votre ami.»

Il relut sa lettre. Elle lui parut bonne.

-- Pauvre petite femme! pensa-t-il avec attendrissement. Elle va me croire plus insensible qu'un roc; il eût fallu quelques larmes là-dessus; mais, moi, je ne peux pas pleurer; ce n'est pas ma faute. Alors, s'étant versé de l'eau dans un verre, Rodolphe y trempa son doigt et il laissa tomber de haut une grosse goutte, qui fit une tache pâle sur l'encre; puis, cherchant à cacheter la lettre, le cachet Amor nel cor se rencontra.

-- Cela ne va guère à la circonstance... Ah bah! n'importe!

Après quoi, il fuma trois pipes et s'alla coucher.
And a little earlier, this, which I think is simply one of the most heartbreaking paragraphs ever written.
Il s'était tant de fois entendu dire ces choses, qu'elles n'avaient pour lui rien d'original. Emma ressemblait à toutes les maîtresses; et le charme de la nouveauté, peu à peu tombant comme un vêtement, laissait voir à nu l'éternelle monotonie de la passion, qui a toujours les mêmes formes et le même langage. Il ne distinguait pas, cet homme si plein de pratique, la dissemblance des sentiments sous la parité des expressions. Parce que des lèvres libertines ou vénales lui avaient murmuré des phrases pareilles, il ne croyait que faiblement à la candeur de celles-là; on en devait rabattre, pensait-il, les discours exagérés cachant les affections médiocres; comme si la plénitude de l'âme ne débordait pas quelquefois par les métaphores les plus vides, puisque personne, jamais, ne peut donner l'exacte mesure de ses besoins, ni de ses conceptions, ni de ses douleurs, et que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.