Saturday, July 22, 2006

"A book lives longer than a girl"

Louis Begley has come up with his favorite novels about cheating lovers.

His top two choices:

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

Set in rural Normandy in the 1830s and 1840s, Madame Bovary tells the story of a peasant's daughter, Emma, who has had her head filled with romantic notions at the convent school to which she was sent at the age of 13. She marries Charles Bovary, the local doctor, and quickly discovers that this well-meaning man is incompetent, timid and a dullard. His personal habits revolt her; the life she leads is squalid. She seeks escape in two tawdry love affairs, but her passion wearies and frightens her lovers, who abandon her. Humiliated, ruined by the usurer from whom she borrowed for expensive gifts and wardrobe, she dies a suicide.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Anna is married to an irreproachable high government official, Karenin, who is also obstinate, habitually ironic and unable to express emotion. She finds his appearance repellent. Then Anna meets Vronsky, a dashing cavalry officer, and the attraction is immediate. Soon she is pregnant. Karenin offers her a divorce, but a mixture of pride and scruples causes Anna to reject it. Instead she lives "in sin" with Vronsky. Good society ostracizes Anna, forcing her and Vronsky to rely on their own resources. He is bored by this mode of existence. Increasingly jealous and unreasonable, fearing that she has lost Vronsky's love, Anna throws herself under a train.

Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina would top my list, too. Begley's other three nominations--click here to read about them--are formidable, but they would not have occurred to me so readily.

Click here to read my bottom-line view of Anna Karenina.

When lecturing on Madame Bovary, Nabokov told his Cornell students, "A book lives longer than a girl."

Of Flaubert's greatest work, Michael Dirda wrote: "Madame Bovary still stands as the most controlled and beautifully articulated formal masterpiece in the history of fiction."

Jane Smiley examined one of Begley's other choices: click here for her analysis.

There are a number of translations of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina available. The general consensus today is that Margaret Mauldon has better served Flaubert and his readers, as have Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky served Tolstoy and his readers.

--Marshal Zeringue