Lydia Davis: Why she fell in love with Flaubert

From The Telegraph:

Davisumm_1755159c Reading the novel in her twenties, Davis was disappointed. “I think I must have been expecting something different, maybe a romantic love story with an uplifting ending, something along the lines of Jane Eyre.” But the story of Emma Bovary offered no “reader, I married him” thrill. Flaubert’s 1856 novel begins with marriage and what follows is the archetypal tale of a desperate housewife. Davis quotes Henry James’s assessment: “Anything drearier, more sordid, more vulgar and desolate than the greater part of the subject matter of this romance it would be impossible to conceive.” James also thought it was a masterpiece. Flaubert had set out to write a “book about nothing”, a book, in other words, the interest of which did not lie in its subject but in “the internal strength of its style”. Having initially read the novel in a poor translation, Davis couldn’t “see what was so remarkable about the style”. Now, she says, she understands. “One passage after the next is superbly accomplished. Each individual aspect of the novel is admirable – Flaubert’s handling of transitions, of points of view, of description, its recurring humour, its lack of sentimentality, its ruthlessness, and, in the end, Flaubert’s compassion for his characters”.

From the very first page of the novel, in which the young Charles Bovary arrives at a new school wearing a strange cap “whose mute ugliness has depths of expression”, we know that this is going to be a book in which details count. Our first glimpse of his soon-to-be second wife, Emma, comes in chapter two and, this time, through his eyes. She’s sewing and “as she sewed, she kept pricking her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth to suck”. Next time he visits she’s sewing again and “one could see, on her bare shoulders, little drops of sweat”. The reader, like Charles and Flaubert, can’t help but derive pleasure from these minute observations. They are sexy, fetishistic even, but at the same time suggest a certain detachment. Emma is certainly as demanding as her creator. She believes that love can only flourish if the perfect man appears in the perfect setting. He should be elegantly dressed, perhaps in a “long-skirted black velvet coat, soft boots, a pointed hat, and ruffles at his wrist” and his beard, ideally, would smell of vanilla and lemon. The affair would take place in Switzerland, possibly, or at the seaside, or in a “boudoir with silk blinds, a good thick carpet, full pots of flowers, and a bed raised on a dais”.

More here.