Penguin, 2010 (1856)
By Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary has been accurately described as the first sex-and-shopping novel. Emma is a farmer’s daughter with a head full of romantic fantasies. From cheap novelettes she learns that love is about “aching hearts, promising, sobbing, kisses and tears, little boats by moonlight, nightingales in the grove.”
Devouring historical novels, she dreams of living “in some old manor-house, like those chatelaines in their old corsages, under their trefoiled Gothic arches, spending their days, elbows on the parapet and chin in hand, looking out far across the fields for the white-plumed rider galloping towards her on his black horse.”
Neither her husband, a bumbling and bungling provincial doctor, nor her two lovers, a practised seducer and a feckless young man, come close to matching her expectations of rapture and bliss in exotic and expensive surroundings. What undoes her in the end, however, is not so much adultery as overindulgence in retail therapy.
Flaubert’s attitude to his heroine is exquisitely poised between sarcasm and sympathy, and his descriptions of her world make the smallest detail come to vivid life. Predictably, the story does not end well, but the bleakness is regularly relieved by justly famous comic set pieces.