Flaubert and “Madame Bovary”, according to Vargas Llosa

The French writer Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821 and died on May 8, 1880. The Peruvian Nobel Prize for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, says that “Madame Bovary” changed his life as a reader and writer.

Photo: Private Archive and EFE

The first memory I have of Madame Bovary is cinematic. It was 1952, a blazing summer night, a newly opened cinema in Piura’s palm-fringed Plaza de Armas: James Mason appeared as Flaubert, Rodolphe Boulanger was the tall Louis Jourdan and Emma Bovary took shape in the gestures and nervous movements of Jennifer Jones. The impression should not have been great because the film did not incite me to look for the book, despite the fact that, precisely at that time, I had begun to read novels in an awakened and cannibalistic way. (We recommend: Nelson Fredy Padilla’s essay on Flaubert’s “Bouvard y Pecuchet”).

My second memory is academic. On the occasion of the centenary of Madame bovary, the University of San Marcos, Lima, organized a tribute in the Aula Magna. The critic André Coyné questioned, impassively, Flaubert’s realism: his arguments disappeared amid the shouts of “Long live free Algeria!” and the shouts with which a hundred San Marcos people, armed with stones and sticks, advanced through the hall towards the dais where their target, the French ambassador, awaited them livid.

Part of the tribute was the edition, in a booklet whose letters stayed on the fingers, of Saint Julien l’Hospitalier, translated by Manuel Beltroy. It’s the first thing I read about Flaubert. In the summer of 1959 I arrived in Paris with little money and the promise of a scholarship. One of the first things I did was buy, in a bookstore in the Latin Quarter, a copy of Madame bovary in the Garnier Classics edition. I began to read it that same afternoon, in a small room in the Hotel Wetter, near the Cluny Museum. That’s where my story really begins. (More: Talk by Mario Vargas Llosa and Nelson Fredy Padilla about the library of the Nobel Prize in Literature in Lima, Peru).

From the first lines the persuasive power of the book operated on me in a withering way, like a very powerful spell. It had been years since no novel had so rapidly vampirized my attention, thus abolishing the physical contour and immersing me so deeply in its subject matter. As the afternoon progressed, night fell, dawn began, the magical transfer was more effective, the substitution of the real world for the fictional one.

It was early morning – Emma and Léon had just met in a box at the Rouen opera – when, in a daze, I put down the book and went to sleep: in the difficult morning sleep, the farm continued to exist, with the truthfulness of reading. of the Rouaults, the muddy streets of Tostes, the good-natured and stupid figure of Charles, the massive pedantry of the River Plate of Homais, and, on those people and places, like an image foreseen in a thousand childhood dreams, guessed from the first adolescent readings, Emma Bovary’s face.

When I woke up, to resume reading, it is impossible that I did not have two certainties like two lightning bolts: that I already knew what writer I would have liked to be and that from then until death I would live in love with Emma Bovary. She would be for me, in the future, like for the Léon Dupuis of the first time, “l’amoureuse de tous les romans, l’héroïne de tous les drames, le vague elle de tous les volumes de vers”.

Since then, I have read the novel a half dozen times from cover to cover and have reread individual chapters and episodes many times. I never had a disappointment, unlike what has happened to me when reviewing other dear stories, and, on the contrary, especially rereading the craters — the agricultural elections, the walk in the fiacre, Emma’s death—, I have always had the feeling of discovering secret aspects, unpublished details, and the emotion has been, with varying degrees that had to do with the circumstance and the place, identical.

A book becomes part of a person’s life for a number of reasons that have to do simultaneously with the book and the person. I would like to find out what some of these reasons are in my case: why Madame bovary it removed such deep layers of my being, what it gave me that other stories could not give me.

The first reason is, surely, that propensity that has made me prefer, since I was a child, works constructed as a rigorous and symmetrical order, with a beginning and an end, that close on themselves and give the impression of sovereignty and what is finished, over those, open, that deliberately suggest the indeterminate, the vague, the in-process, the half-done.

It is possible that the latter are more faithful images of reality and life, always unfinished and always half done, but precisely what I have instinctively searched for and have liked to find in books, movies, paintings, has not been a reflection of this infinite partiality, of this immeasurable flow, but, rather, the opposite: totalizations, ensembles that, thanks to a bold, arbitrary but convincing structure, give the illusion of synthesizing the real, of summarizing life.

That appetite must have been fully satisfied with Madame bovary, example of a closed work, a book-circle. On the other hand, a previously nebulous but growing preference in my readings had to be fixed thanks to that novel. Between the description of the objective life and the subjective life, of action and reflection, the former seduces me more than the latter, and the description of the latter through the former always seemed to me a greater feat than the reverse (I prefer to Tolstoy than to Dostoevsky, the realistic invention to the fantastic, and among unrealities the one that is closer to the concrete than to the abstract, for example pornography to science fiction, pink literature to horror stories).

Flaubert, in his letters to Louise, while writing Madame bovaryHe was sure to make a novel of “ideas”, not actions. This has led some, taking his words at face value, to argue that Madame bovary it is a novel where nothing happens, except language. It’s not like that; in Madame bovary As many things happen as in an adventure novel — marriages, adulteries, dances, trips, walks, scams, illnesses, shows, a suicide — only it is usually petty adventures.

It is true that many of these events are narrated from the emotion or memory of the character, but, due to Flaubert’s maniacally materialistic style, the subjective reality in Madame bovary It also has consistency, physical weight, just like the objective one. That the thoughts and feelings in the novel seemed facts, that they could be seen and almost touched not only dazzled me: it discovered a deep predilection in me.

* “The perpetual orgy. Flaubert y Madame Bovary ”, a work originally written by Mario Vargas Llosa in 1975, is available in Colombian bookstores under the Debolsillo label. This excerpt is published with permission from Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial.

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Flaubert and “Madame Bovary”, according to Vargas Llosa