In Search of Madame Bovary: Normandy, France

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By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Wanderingeducators.com is just what it sounds like, a cyberplace for peripatetic pedagogues. Okay, enough of that. The thing is, Wandering Educators founder Jessie Voights has posted an interesting article there: “Book Review: A Journey into Flaubert’s Normandy.” And what a journey it is.

The book that Voights tells us about is a visually opulent and sublimely literate travel guide focusing on Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary. In photos both contemporary and archival, it covers Rouen (pictured here), where the great French novelist was born, and nearby Croisset, where he lived for many years. The book’s author is Susannah Patton, a longtime student of French literature and political science, foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, and writer on business topics for CIO Magazine. Francophile Patton is also a part-time resident of Normandy, the district inhabited by the spirit of Flaubert.

There’s a great interview with Patton in the article, but I’m not going to spoil it for you. Except for this one part where Patton says of Flaubert:

On the one hand he closed himself off from the world to write, yet his close friendships with fellow writers sustained him at times also. His life story is full of unexpected intrigue, passion and pathos.

There’s a reason why clichés become clichés. Because they happen over and over again. The frustrated wife. The unsatisfactory husband. The attractive stranger. As Werner Erhard pointed out, everybody’s life is a soap opera. And there’s a reason why the classics are the classics. Because they’re freakin’ great, that’s why. And Madame Bovary is definitely one of them.

Did you ever notice that the name even works as an English pun, of which Flaubert himself may or may not have been conscious? Bovary. Bovine. Ovary. But isn’t that exactly what Emma, the story’s protagonist, was trying to escape? The dreary fate of a cow-like, fleshly incubator of babies?

Flaubert, incidentally, was an ambitious traveler. He liked to hike around in Corsica, and went on a long journey to Greece and the Middle East. One of his hobbies was the collecting of examples for a proposed Dictionary or Encyclopedia of Human Stupidity. He was a connoisseur of cognitive dissonance, the ability of the human mind to hold two opposite ideas at the same time.

Anyway, I read Madame Bovary not long ago, and it blew me away. In the novel, we find one of the all-time primo quotations. Here it is, from Gustave Flaubert:

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

photo courtesy of Rob Lee, used under this Creative Commons license

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