Monday, 15 October 2012

Three Novels of Adultery



Spoilers for Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Cousin Bazilio.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has got me thinking about novels of adultery. This controversial topic led in the 19th century to a proliferation of such novels, beginning with template-setter Madame Bovary (1857), Anna Karenina (1877), Cousin Bazilio (1878), Effi Briest (1896), The Awakening (1899), and extending into the next century, with the infernal Ethan Frome (1911) and too many more to mention. But let us focus on the first three.

Madame Bovary is about an adulteress. Anna Karenina is about a cuckolded husband. And Cousin Bazilio is about a loathsome cad who seduces a married woman, and cousin to boot. I know that in principle Anna Karenina should be about Anna Karenina, but I defy anyone to say the first couple of hundreds of pages aren’t more interesting when they deal with Karenin’s tortured thoughts, feelings and actions. Anna dominates the final chapters of the novel, there’s no doubt about that, no preamble to a suicide has ever been better written than the fast impressions that cross Anna’s mind before she puts an end to her life.

The way each woman dies is interesting in its own different way. Gustave Flaubert gets Emma Bovary to drink poison out of despair after her mounting debts, which she contracted during her illicit affairs, threaten to expose her infidelity to her husband, Charles; alone, unable to obtain money from her former lover, Rodolphe, who disdainfully turns his back on her, she dies a slow, agonising death lying in bed. As she expires a blind beggar sings a dirty song outsider her bedroom window. It’s a tragic novel, allegedly. But this juxtaposition of the tragic and the profane say much about Flaubert’s intentions with this novel.

Anna Karenina dies because, after developing a severe depression, she develops a paranoid jealousy of her lover, Vronsky, and fear of becoming alone if he abandons her; this contributes to constant irritations at Vronksy and fights with him, which only increases her delusions that he’s planning to abandon her for another woman. An irrational urge to punish him incites her to kill herself. If realism were an important criterion, I would put Anna’s motivation below Emma’s. I don’t use the word irrational lightly for Anna for even Tolstoy has difficulty explaining what truly motivates her and eventually stops at a wall that doesn’t allow him to go any deeper into her thoughts. As a character says in All the Names, a José Saramago novel I’ve just finished re-reading, perhaps suicide can’t be explained. But I find Emma’s fear of social embarrassment, of losing face, more convincing.

Eça de Queiroz, whom I adore above the other two, takes the least artistic way out, the simplest one: he just has Luísa expire. Luísa is the victim of a terrifying blackmail by her maid, Juliana, who possesses letters involving her in an affair with her cousin, who hurriedly returns to France after his frolic. Overwhelmed by fear, shame and the mental anguish Juliana causes her, she falls into a lethargy that slowly consumes her health. Although a friend manages to recover the letters before they cause any harm, Luísa dies. Like Machado de Assis justly observed in a review of the novel, that’s not very believable. Luísa dies because she has to die, or rather, adulteresses have to die. The fact is these three novels follow moral conventions. The heroines must die punished for their social transgression. “Anna Akhmatova,” writes Isaiah Berlin in The Sense of Reality, “once complained that Tolstoy killed Anna Karenina to satisfy not his own moral code – for he knew better – but that of his Moscow aunts.” How true. The question, for me anyway, then becomes who pulls off the better death? For me it’s undoubtedly Flaubert – the impression he transmits of Emma’s final days is that she’s like a trapped wild animal, desperately gnawing its own paw to escape the hunters. A sense of urgency is in every action of hers.

Flaubert, nevertheless, wrote differently than Tolstoy. Flaubert was concerned with images, description, the famous mot juste, whereas Toltoy preferred the interiority of his characters. Flaubert doesn’t give us access into Emma’s mind, we can only interpret her from her actions. Tolstoy, on the contrary, doesn’t leave out the minute movements of Anna’s thoughts, he’s a master at converting impressions into convictions into decisions into actions. A typical passage describing Anna’s thoughts before her suicide:

In her soul there was another vague idea, which alone interested her, but of which she could not get hold. Again remembering Karenin, she also remembered her illness after her confinement, and the feeling that never left her at the time. She remembered her words, ‘Why did I not die?’ and her feelings then. And suddenly she understood what was in her soul. Yes, that was the thought which would solve everything.´

Emma Bovary is external, mildly chaotic, her descent into suicidal despair conveys primitive, instinctive reflexes. Anna Karenina is analytical and clinical, every nuance is meticulously registered, the whole chain of ideas is laid down before our eyes, organised, logical. Tolstoy was especially interested in understanding how people thought, in getting into their heads, and this he achieves with every character, but masterfully so with Anna in the chapters preceding her death.

Tolstoy is also the most tragic writer of the three, in the classical sense of the word. His tone is solemn and grave, his characters full of dignity. Flaubert, and Eça even more, wallowed in the sordidness and coarseness of human relationships. They were both materialistic writers and were going for the scandal; one can almost imagine them rubbing their hands in anticipation of the shock their novels would cause on their readers. Tolstoy favours the spiritual, his novel is a serious study of the consequences of an adulterous affair. While Flaubert turns it into a grotesque farce, and Eça, true to his wonderful self, turns the volume of satire up to eleven, Tolstoy relinquishes easy comedy while addressing the important questions of love, honour, jealousy, fidelity, propriety, life and death. His refusal to add a touch of levity to the novel is present in almost every page. Flaubert and Eça wrote what we call piquant novels, they enjoy the sexual innuendos and try to shock with strong appeals to luridness: who can forget Emma and Léon’s cab ride after their tour of the Rouen Cathedral? And Eça doesn’t mince words when describing Luísa and Bazilio’s secret love nest and everything that goes on in there. There’s titillation galore in both. But in Tolstoy there’s no trace of sexuality. Every time we see Anna and Vronsky it’s in moments of conflict, or in someone else’s company, never sharing intimate moments. What happens in the bedroom is completely irrelevant to his purposes.

This seriousness of tone obviously sets apart Tolstoy’s characters from the other two’s. Vronsky, unlike Rodolphe or Bazilio, has true, pure feelings for Anna; his love for her lasts well after she kills herself – in the novel’s final book, Vronsky volunteers as a soldier in a war between Serbians and Turks, since he’s lost a reason to live. By contrast, Rodolphe is a despicable bastard who seduces Emma, has fun with her, abandons her and refuses to aid her when she asks for his help, being indirectly responsible for her suicide. Eça, who has been called better than Flaubert, indeed created a character even more repulsive. Bazilio’s reaction, after returning from France, on hearing that Luísa has died is unforgettable in its callousness: he laments he didn’t bring a French mistress with him because he doesn’t have a woman now.

Vronsky starts as a careless man, using his beauty and uniform to dazzle women; in this manner, without malice, he breaks Kitty’s heart; but when he falls in love with Anna he decides he really wants to live her forever, to help her arrange a divorce from Karenin and marry her and have a son with her. When she dies he just wants to die. He’s therefore a character who changes a lot in the novel. In comparison, Rodolphe and Bazilio are caricatures, off-springs of the Gothic rake who threatened the heroine’s sexual purity. Likewise Karenin isn’t the foolish buffoon that Charles and Jorge are. For one thing, Karenin finds out Anna’s infidelity immediately. This changes the dynamic of the character. Instead of Charles and Jorge, who only find out the betrayal after their wives’ deaths, and who are almost excrescencies in the novels, Karenin has an active role in shaping Anna’s actions, not to mention that it gives us a far richer insight into the mind of a man cheated on by his wife. His initial attempts at ignoring the affair, then containing it within the bounds of propriety, followed by his threatening her with divorce, and trying to forgive her, make him, as I’ve said, a character more interesting than Anna in several ways.

Tolstoy was obviously interested in writing a complex and vast treatise about human feelings. He had a tragic view of life. Flaubert and Eça had different aims. Flaubert was concerned in destroying a whole inherited tradition of Romantic love, true love, pure and honest, by making it as filthy and ignoble as possible. Flaubert, I think, didn’t believe in the tragic dimension of human existence. Often he writes scenes that ordinarily would be solemn and imbued with dignity but that in his hands are juxtaposed with touches of sordidness that deflate all their tragedy and seriousness. Flaubert’s novel exists in the tension between the sacred and the profane, the tragic and the comic, lofty feelings and vulgar reality. When Rodolphe feigns a confession of love to Emma, they’re both attending an agricultural fair; as he declaims his love to her, in exalted forms, people around them discuss chickens and manure. His writing of a very heartfelt letter to her, complete with tears, is accompanied by his cynical thoughts that show that every line lacks any spontaneous feeling. My favourite example is the Rouen Cathedral tour: Emma and Léon, a young man she’s fallen in love with, are trying to discuss their feelings, but a guide constantly interrupts them in order to show them the cathedral. It’s a hilarious use of an ordinary incident to disrupt what should otherwise be a serious scene. In Flaubert’s world, real, serious conversations can’t exist. It’s the opposite world of Tolstoy’s. Eça, who was equally cynical, explores the unnoticed figure of the maid. If Emma is worried about being discovered, Eça shows what happens when a resentful maid gains power over her mistress. Eça creates a topsy-turvy world where Juliana is the de facto mistress of the house, turning Luísa into her slave. His novel is, more than the other two, about class. Although he’s labelled as a realist, Eça’s love for the bizarre denounces the limitations of that label when applied to him.

All have their strengths and weaknesses, all offer something novel and different insights. I’m not asking the reader to make any judgments on them. My own cynicism makes me sympathetic of Flaubert and Eça, even if Anna Karenina stands out as the most mature of the three. But I’d recommend reading all of them.

19 comments:

  1. Both Anna and Emma are dear to my heart; I read their stories at an early age (17 I think) and they have affected me deeply.

    I recently finished Anna Karenina for the sixth time or so, yet each time I read it I come away with something new. I'd forgotten that at the end of her life Vronsky still loved her, while at the end of Emma's she was abandoned by her lover.

    Still, each of them show us how we ought to be faithful to the ones we love, or suffer the consequences. Which may be dire indeed.

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  2. Great Post Miguel.

    It did make me think a novel that for me, was a poignant and fascinating exploration of adultery and human feelings, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night"

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  3. Bellezza, I don't think that, in Emma's case, she had anyone to love. She was bored with Charles and Rodolphe wasn't a question of true love, she was just a plaything for him. I don't believe Flaubert was making a point about faithfulness, but that there is no longer love in the love, real love stories have become impossible.

    Brian, I never read that novel. Fitzgerald has disappointed me in the past, I'm wary of giving him another chance :)

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    1. The only other Fitzgerald novel that I have have read was The Great Gatsby which I also liked. I have heard that the balance of his writing is not up to those two books.

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    2. Ah, that's exactly the one I read; I fear the saga of Jay Gatsby just doesn't appeal to me.

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  4. Ah, this has almost inspired me to do a post comparing La Regenta and Fortunata and Jacinta, both of which were highly influenced by Flaubert. Almost. I've considered it but it looks beyond me. But hey, that's never stopped me from bludgeoning something.

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    1. Dwight, I'd like to read that. Give it a try.

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  5. I haven't read any Tolstoy yet but Emma Bovary was hard to kill, the lengthiest death I've ever read. Have you read about what scandal Madame Bovary was when it was published? By the way have read o remorso de baltasar serapião by valter hugo mãe? Upon finishing I decided to read all winners of Prémio José Saramago...(this one will be quite hard to translate)

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  6. toutjour, hello. I don't know a lot about the scandal the novel caused. What happened?

    And I haven't read anything by valter hugo mãe. Contemporary Portuguese literature is one of my weaknesses. I know he's popular and has received lots of praise, so I presume he must be good. But I haven't been curious enough to read him yet. Let me know more about that novel.

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  7. "When it was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, the novel was attacked for obscenity by public prosecutors. The resulting trial, held in January 1857, made the story notorious. After Flaubert's acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller when it was published as a single volume in April 1857." from Wiki. o remorso is a violent (very disturbing) and obscure novel written in what seems to be (pretends, make believe) an archaic portuguese form of language, that's why I wonder about it ever being translated, the story also dwells in adultery in the middle ages, its a different kind of novel and it was the only one from hugo mãe that i've read so far. I'm now reading José Luis Peixoto's Nenhum Olhar also a recipient of the Saramgo's prize, and liking it quite a lot.

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    1. toutjour, it's great to know the novel was a bestseller. Not many masterpieces are initially.

      Your description of valter hugo mãe's novel is curious: an archaic language? I'll have t check it out.

      José Luís Peixoto is another young writer I haven't read anything about. I'll add I've read a collection of short-stories by Gonçalo M. Tavares and found it execrable. That's my brief experience of contemporary Portuguese literature.

      So you read in Portuguese?

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  8. I believe Madame Bovary's huge success was partly due to its (negative) publicity, are you familiar with Flaubert's expression "Madame Bovary, c'est moi", seems like those journalists were deeply annoying the writer. Guy Maupassant was a Flaubert's disciple and you should read his short stories, they are the best I've ever read. I've read GMT's Jerusalem, another Saramago prize recipient and found it a good story and well written. I've read some pages of GMT's Histórias Mexicanas, but your comment - execrable - got me thinking on how some books are just 'um desfile de horrores', and yes, o remorso de baltasar serapiao also falls on that category (the archaic language is make believe), as well as Peixoto's Nenhum Olhar. As a Portuguese myself and living in Portugal, I mainly read in Portuguese but have read easy classic books in English like Count of Monte Cristo, Mrs. Dalloway and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, I think I've bitten more than I can chew when purchasing Faulkner's The wild palms, that remains unread to this day... Looking forward to read some of this year's Nobel Mo Yan, check out the synopsis of his books, and the portuguese translation of Pynchon's Gravity Rainbow.

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    1. Well, scandal always sells.

      What is Jerusalem about?

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  9. Jerusalem is strange story about some five or six characters that builds tension, as the story unfolds through each character point of view, it reminded me of Pynchon's V. but not as much massive work. I remenber a passage of shoes as being a dirty stuff.

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    1. I've been curious to read his novel Um Homem: Klaus Kamp. Have you read that one?

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  10. No, I've only read Jerusalem from GMT and only flipped some pages of his other books at the bookstore.

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    1. Histórias Falsas disappointed me a lot, it seemed like a cheap, unsatisfying hybrid of Borges and Schwob, but it was probably a bad start. I'll try one of his novels soon and review here, whenever I have the time.

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  11. Fascinating. It's been some time since I read "Madame Bovary", and I'm sorry to say that I haven't read anything by Eça de Queiroz other than "The Maias". But "Anna Karenina" is one of that small handful of novels that I keep re-reading almost obsessively, and, having just finished my most recent reading,I am finding it difficult to start another novel.

    Anna's motives are never clear: indeed, the uncertainty of characters' motives, even - or rather especially - to the characters themselves, seems to me among the novel's central themes: none of these characters can come close to understanding themselves; they are driven by forces beyond their control, and also beyond their comprehension. Near the start of her liaison with Vronsky, Anna seems almost deliberately to misunderstand Karenin; towards the end, she seems, again almost deliberately, to misunderstand Vronsky. She misunderstands Karenin seemingly to convince herself that her husband is an unfeeling automaton (which he isn't), because she wouldn't be able to bear the thought that she was betraying a man capable of feeling hurt; but by the end, she misunderstands Vronsky in such a way as to cause herself maximum mental anguish. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Anna is - perhaps unconsciously, perhaps partly consciously - punishing herself. But her motives are too complex, too mysterious, even to herself. Tolstoy takes us as far as it is possible to go into her mind, but, as you say, beyond a point we hit a wall: human motivations are too profound, too complex, ever to be fully understood.

    With "Madame Bovary", we are in a very different fictional world. As you say, Flaubert wastes no opportunity to make farcical what should be tragic, to make absurd and ridiculous what should be grand and sublime. But it is not, I think, cynicism merely for its own sake: there seems to me to be a great sadness there - and the sadness is precisly *because* the state of tragic exaltation cannot be achieved. I don't think Flaubert was entirely joking when he famously declared "Madame Bovary, c'est moi": Flaubert too, I think, would like life to be beautiful and romantic, but his sadness comes from his awareness that this is not possible, that humans are incapable of rising to this. And this sense of sadness seems to me to temper his otherwise savage cynicism. Take for instance Charles Bovary - a booby of the first order: how easy it would have been to have depicted him merely as absurd and ridiculous! But Flaubert doesn't do this. After Emma has died, in that unforgettable passage in whch he and Homais stay awake through the night, Charles is genuinely heartbroken. Indeed, he dies soon afterwards, we are told, unable to live with such grief. On one level, we may see this as another stroke of cynical irony: the woman for whose sake his heart has broken cared nothing for him. But on another level, it seems to me tremendously sad that even a person as absurd as Charles Bovary is capable of experiencing such profound emotion. Anyone can be merely cynical: but Flaubert's perspective seems to me far more nuanced.

    "Cousin Bazilio", as I said, I haven't read: I'll try to remedy that as soon as I can.

    I always find it fascinating, incidentally, that the 19th century writer who had most closely examined the institution of marriage, Henrik Ibsen, had never depicted adultery in any of his plays.

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    1. I agree Anna's motives always remain indefinite, as if Tolstoy is incapable of piercing into a mysterious core of human existence that eludes everyone, even a writer so sensitive to the nuances of the spirit.

      I didn't remember that Charles dies heartbroken, that is another lovely irony. I do think Flaubert was Tolstoy's spiritual opposite, incapable of seeing anything tragic about human life in his age, incapable of writing about it because he somehow sensed how ridiculous that would soon seem. And in a way he created modern tone - Tolstoy's solemnity, for good or bad, has fallen out of favour with writers who can't write about these topics with identical sobriety anymore.

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