Great Books From Different Traditions: France (II)


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

This is one in an occasional series in which Mr. Carrigan, throughout this year, will be making lists of Ten Great Books of different traditions, cultures and countries and explaining his reasoning behind his choices.

When Alain Robbe-Grillet died last week, French literature, and modern literature in general, lost one of its leading lights. It’s hard to say how many people read his novels these days, but The Voyeur and The Erasers ushered in a new fiction in the 1960s in France and heavily influenced the fiction that would come to be called “postmodern.” Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction paved the way for minimalists such as Raymond Carver as well as the apocalyptic postmodernism of writers like Ronald Sukenick and Robert Coover. In addition to the novels and his critical essay, Robbe-Grillet is perhaps best known for his screenplay of Alain Resnais masterpiece, Last Year at Marienbad, one of the most masterful French films of the twentieth century.

Robbe-Grillet’s death reminds us of the far-reaching contributions of French literature to world literature. In For a New Novel, he reminds us that “Flaubert wrote the new novel of 1860 [Flaubert’s novel was actually published in 1857, but its influence reached beyond its date of publication, ushering in a new style of fiction for the new decade and decades to follow], and Proust wrote the new novel of 1910.” Indeed, French literature has provided us with some of the most memorable, the most heart-breaking, the most complex, the most light-hearted, and the most lyrical writings in all of history. Last week, I listed five great French books that represent various stages of French life and culture. This week, two more great French books, in chronological order.

Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Paul and Virginia. This gorgeous little novel is the least well known book on this list, but it deserves to be better known and to have a broader audience. The novel explores Rousseau’s themes of the nobility of natural humanity—raised naturally, without the constraints of society, children are good, loving and beautiful creatures; it’s part of their nature—as well as the philosopher’s ideas about the positive values that a close knit family group conveys. More than that, this is a heart-breaking love story that ends tragically; its pathos tears at one’s soul even more that the final scene of Madame Bovary when little Berthe, whose mother has already committed suicide, finds her father dead in the garden. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s novel deeply influenced Flaubert. After she is married, for example, Emma Bovary reflects on her reading of the novel and concludes that her marriage to Charles is missing the purity and the simple beauty of the love between Paul and Virginia. In fact, Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet that “Virginia’s death is very beautiful, but so many other deaths are equally moving (because Virginia’s is exceptional!). What is admirable is the letter she writes to Paul from Paris. It always tears out my heart when I read it. There will be less weeping at the death of my old Bovary than at Virginia’s, I am sure of that in advance.” Set on the tropical island of Mauritius, this Romantic novel tells the tragic tale of two children whose doomed love moves us deeply. Much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein [published thirty years later], Paul and Virginia evokes the innocence of human nature, the yearning for love all human experience, and the devastation we feel when love is robbed from us when the outside world breaks into our earthly paradises. The children are raised in an idyllic paradise, and it is only when Virginia leaves to go to France for her education that their world falls apart. Early in the novel, the narrator describes the beauty of Paul and Virginia’s paradisiacal life:

They had no other studies but helping and pleasing each other . . . never had the teachings of a gloomy morality filled them with anxiety . . . Thus did their early years pass like a lovely dawn which gives promise of a lovelier day . . . their eyes . . . made them seem like those children of heaven, those blessed spirits whose very nature is mutual love and who need no thoughts to render their feelings nor words for their affection.
In spite of its sentimentality, the novel raises a number of philosophical issues and greatly influences Flaubert and a host of other nineteenth-century novelists.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Emma Bovary turned 150 years old in October 2007. Yet, she remains as fetching and seductive as ever. The films made from this novel have never justly captured Emma’s sensuous and languorous beauty. Her description in the novel’s early scenes distinctly contrasts her with Charles Bovary’s first wife, a widow from Dieppe, who is “ugly, thin as a lath, with as many pimples as the spring has buds.” Charles’s life changes, of course, when he is called out late one night to the farm of old Monsieur Rouault. The farmer has broken his leg, and he rouses Charles—a provincial physician who is licensed to set broken bones and administer some drugs, but not to perform surgery—to ride out and set his leg. Charles first catches sight of Emma Rouault as she opens the door and invites him in to care for her father. In the way of a romantic novel, Charles falls almost immediately in love with this young woman, for he is enchanted by her beauty.
Charles was astonished at the whiteness of her nails. They were shiny and tapering, scrubbed cleaner than Dieppe ivory, and cut almond-shape. Her beauty was in her eyes—brown eyes, but made to look black by their dark lashes: eyes that came to meet yours openly, with a bold candor . . .

Her hair, so smooth that its two black braids seemed each a single piece, was parted in the middle with a fine line that dipped slightly with the curve of her head, and was swept together in a thick bun at the back, leaving the tips of her ears just visible . . . Her cheeks were like rosy apples; and she carried a pair of tortoise-shell eye-glasses attached, in masculine fashion, to two buttonholes of her bodice.
For her part, Emma envisions marriage to Charles as a means of moving upwardly from her farm life to village life and then to urban life. Enamored of the great love between two souls about which she has read in romance novels, including Paul and Virginia, she marries Charles, only to be sorely disappointed by the reality of love and marriage—at least marriage to Charles, whom she once describes in the novel as flat as the pavement on which everyone walks. Soon after their marriage, Emma grows increasingly dissatisfied and consummates two affairs. Her first, with the dashing and self-centered Rodolphe, brims with the overwhelming passion for which Emma yearns. Yet, when she tried to romanticize their relationship by sending Rodolphe love letters, he quickly drops her, sending her into a downward spiral. Rodolphe is Emma’s döppelganger, for he is as self-centered as she, seeking only his satisfaction. Between affairs, Emma seeks to assuage her depression about her marriage by shopping and overspending to surround herself with fine things. This, of course, sinks her deeper into debt and then into depression. She has a child, but she faints when she learns it is a girl, for she had wanted her son to be a dashing military character. She tries to love Charles, even goading him to perform a surgery on Hyppolite, their club-footed servant, even though muddle-headed Charles is neither qualified nor skilled to perform such surgery. She convinces herself that Charles will be a hero and she will love him madly when the surgery succeeds. Alas, the surgery fails, and she is thrown even more violently into her hatred of Charles and more determined to find passion and love. She thinks she has found new passion in Léon, a young lawyer, and they meet at the cathedral of Rouen to commence their affair. In the thrall of her adultery with Léon, Emma becomes even more beautiful:
Never had Madame Bovary been so beautiful as at this time. She had that indefinable beauty that comes from joy, enthusiasm, success, and which is only the harmony of temperament with circumstances . . . Her eyelashes seemed formed expressly for long amorous gazes where the pupil sank into depths, while a deep breath opened her delicate nostrils and lifted the corners of her ripe lips, shadowed by a bit of dark down . . . Her voice now took on softer modulations, her figure as well. Something subtle that took hold of you wafted from the very folds of her dress and the curve of her foot.
Eventually, however, Emma finds all the banalities of marriage in the affair and casts off Léon. Faced with mounting debt and a passionless marriage, Emma kills herself, leaving her daughter, Berthe, and Charles behind. Charles soon dies, leaving behind his young daughter.

Flaubert’s masterpiece deserves its own column, really. My very brief plot summary cannot begin to capture the beauty of the writing, the richness of the novel’s details, and the genius of the novel’s literary structure. It’s easy to say that Madame Bovary is the greatest French novel, and perhaps the greatest novel of the nineteenth century. It is the first realist novel, and Flaubert is the father of literary realism. Literary realism takes a mirror and holds it up to reality, and the novelist then describes the reality he or she sees in the mirror in all its detail. The novelist refuses to make moral judgments on his characters, simply presenting them with all their foibles and blemishes. With his characteristic genius, Flaubert constructs several scenes in the novel that build in rapid-fire intensity to a humorous and revealing climax. In Part Two, Rodolphe and Emma visit the annual agricultural fair. As they exchange romantic words, the narrator juxtaposes them with the words of an auctioneer. As the couple’s romantic conversation builds, Rodolphe remarks, “A hundred times I wanted to leave, and I followed you, I stayed”; almost immediately the auctioneer yells out, “Manures!” The language of the scene itself reveals to us Rodolphe’s real nature; he’s full of manure. Emma does not yet realize this, though, because at the end of the scene, her hand is warm and trembling, and she is ever more ready to give herself to her lover. Even though some readers of Madame Bovary want to condemn Emma’s adulterous ways, the narrator never questions her activities, only presenting them as they occur. Is Emma a strong woman, throwing over the vagaries of romanticism in order to develop her own identity and live life her own way? Or, is she trapped by the sentimental elements of romanticism, trying to capture in her own life the momentous but all too fleeting passions about which she had read in her novels? What caused Emma to commit suicide? Unhappiness in love and marriage? The strictures of a nineteenth-century patriarchal society? Simple despair over her debt and her inability to pay it? Do we feel sorry for Emma in her marriage to Charles? Do we mourn over her death? Flaubert never answers these questions, of course, but allows us to decide for ourselves. Madame Bovary richly repays reading after reading, for the beauty of the novel is in its details.

Next week: Balzac, Proust, and Camus.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became
Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
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