I have recently completed Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Some thirty years ago I read it in an English translation, and it honestly didn't make an enormous impression on me. But because of its formidable reputation as a high water mark of French literary prose, I thought I ought to try it in the original.
The novel's reputation has always been rather daunting. Rather than try to summarize my own impression of the kind of praise the novel tends to receive, I did a quick search on the web and found the following, not untypical, from an interview of Julian Barnes in The Paris Review:
"Madame Bovary is the first truly modern novel, by which I mean the first through-composed novel. In the nineteenth century, many novels, especially in England, were published as they were written in serial parts in magazines; novelists wrote with the printer’s boy tugging their sleeve for copy. The equivalent English novel to Madame Bovary would be Middlemarch, which in terms of structure and composition is more primitive—partly, I believe, because of its serial composition. I’m sure that in terms of the description of society Balzac is Flaubert’s equal. But, in terms of artistic control—the control of narrative voice and the use of style indirecte libre—Flaubert shows a new line and says, Now we are starting again."
Flaubert's own conception of what he was doing was no less ambitious:
“J’en conçois un pourtant, moi, un style qui serait beau, que serait rythmé comme le vers, précis comme le langage des sciences, et avec des ondulations, des ronflements de violincelle, et des aigrettes de feu, un style qui vous entrerait dans l’idée comme un coup de stylet….”
So it's admittedly a little bit of a let-down to turn from the criticism and aspiration to the novel itself, which is a rather ordinary story of an unhappy wife and and her clueless husband. I had actually thought of Barnes' comparison with Middlemarch on my own. Country doctors in country towns with bored, impecunious wives. But I didn't think the of differences in terms of "artistic control." Eliot in Middlemarch seems as expert in interweaving far more narrative threads than are followed in Madame Bovary. But Middlemarch is shot through with a sincere Victorian earnestness, its characters motivated by various idealisms frustrated in the end by the most common vices and habits. There are no such aspirations in Madame Bovary--no high ideals, no dreams of sacrifice, no chivalry (at least outside of Emma's succession of assumed and discarded romantic poses).
It's been said that Madame Bovary sometimes fails to impress because its then-novel approach to the novel has become commonplace. The characters are ordinary people and the plotting straightforward, with just enough scandal to give it a melodramatic flavor. (It's hard to believe that the novel was actually prosecuted as indecent). The life of a small, mostly agricultural town is painted with considerable detail, always in the third person, but shot through with Emma's insatiable boredom and the author's pitiless naturalism.
And I found it difficult to really enjoy a novel where none of the characters have anything at all admirable or distinctive about them. I suppose that that's Flaubert's naturalism, but it certainly makes for a different experience from following the career of a Jean Valjean, or Edmund Dantes, or even a villain like the Marquis de Valmont.
That's not to say that there aren't some memorable set-pieces, like the pathetic attempt to correct the tavern boy's club foot. Even now I can't think of it without cringing. But in the end Emma is undone, not by her adulteries, but by her attachment to expensive trifles. The banality of her fall becomes, again, more cringe-worthy than tragic, and the behavior of the men around her--her husband, her lovers, her enemies--mainly invoke shame at male excuses and irresponsibility when their promises are actually believed.
In all this I realize I've said nothing about style, about the rhythm and precision of the prose. Flaubert's aspiration to "science" does little (for me) to advance the notion that a scientific conception of life can be as rich and full of wonder as the older notion of a world full of gods. In the end it's a sad book about a thwarted and unhappy life, whose miserable end ripples out in the brief and rapid conclusion to blight the lives of husband and daughter. It is a realism that I have to believe is too bleak to be entirely representative of the real.