Tag Archives: Lawrence

Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.

Film Review: X-Men: First Class


Flickering Myth ran a poll earlier in the year about which summer superhero movie people were most looking forward to. The contenders were surprise hit Thor, The Green Lantern, Captain America and this X-Men prequel, steered by director of Kick-Ass Matthew Vaughan. For me X-Men: First Class was the most anticipated of the selection by a mile.

The trailers promised a truly epic reinvention of a stagnating franchise. Vaughan went for a completely new look cast of mutants, with the exception of one comic cameo. Amongst this cast the partnership of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender takes centre stage, with the enormous task of matching and exploring the rivalry portrayed by thespian heavyweights Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the previous Bryan Singer films. For the most part, their youthful interpretations bring something different that really works.

The film starts off brilliantly with Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr and McAvoy’s Charles Xavier on separate paths. Xavier is a brilliant Oxford academic with a fondness for pubs and science heavy chat up lines, which seem rather redundant when he can read minds. Lehnsherr however is driven by revenge into stalking the globe in search of his enemy and his mother’s murderer, Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw.

We see both of our key protagonists as children. The film starts with the young Erik, played rather limply by Bill Milner, being threatened in a Nazi concentration camp, by a toying doctor who turns out to be Shaw, into manipulating metal by moving a coin. We see the young Charles, far more convincingly played by Laurence Belcher (who was also excellent in the Doctor Who Christmas special), finding a fellow mutant, shape shifter Raven, in his kitchen and taking her in as a sister.

Things really get interesting when Xavier has graduated as a Professor in genetics and the CIA come to call on him. He then demonstrates his mind reading telepath tricks in a variety of ways, until he is believed enough to get free rein to create a team of mutants to take on Shaw, who is engineering a nuclear war via the Cuban Missile crisis, which he hopes will leave only mutants as Earth’s dominant species. The best bit of First Class however, is Fassbender’s pursuit of his Nazi nemesis.

What really excited me, more than anything else, was the historical setting of this film. Fassbender has been championed as a future 007 in the past and there hasn’t been a review of X-Men: First Class that doesn’t praise the mini James Bond adventure within it. Adult Erik travels in stylish, suave period suits to banks in Switzerland to interrogate the keepers of Nazi gold for info, by painfully plucking out fillings with his powers, and to bars in Argentina in cool summer gear to kill hiding Nazis with flying knives and magnetically manipulated pistols. In all these locations Fassbender speaks the native tongue and oozes the steely determination of a complex and damaged killer. His quest is a snapshot of what a modern Bond set in the past, bilingual and faithful to Fleming’s creation, could be like.

Aside from the dreams of a reinvented Bond though, the Cold War setting is exciting and thought provoking for other reasons.  The mutant situation mirrors the struggles at the time for civil rights for black Americans and other minorities, such as homosexuals (hinted at by the line “Mutant and Proud”). The whole film can make the most of the visual benefits of period costume, with fabulous suits and dresses, as well as period locations and set designs. The rooms on Shaw’s secret submarine resemble a villainous Ken Adam Bond set. And the ideological conflict between the US and Russia, echoes the differences in outlook between Xavier and Lehnsherr.

Despite rave reviews at first, respected critics have given X-Men: First Class an average rating. I think this is mostly because the film doesn’t live up to the enormous possibilities of its setting and doesn’t explore as well as it could the beginnings of the relationships in the X-Men. It is still a good film. For a blockbuster this is a slow burning watch, which I liked, but I admit that the action scenes could have been more frequent; even though a couple are terrific the film never really ignites. All in all Vaughan’s prequel is good but not as good as it could have been.

One of the reasons cited for disappointment is a lack of focus on the rest of the X-Men. It was a difficult balance to strike, with Xavier and Lehnsherr’s relationship proving so fascinating and McAvoy and Fassbender having so much chemistry, both comic and serious. I actually thought that characters like Beast and Raven were fleshed out more than I was expecting. A much criticised code name scene, in which the younger X-Men members sit around joking about what they’d like to be called, has been pummelled with criticism. I thought this scene was funny, as much of the film is, for not taking itself too seriously and entertaining for introducing the powers of the characters.

X-Men: First Class will divide audiences. Some will think it’s boring, others will love its action punctuated with character development and solid acting. Fans of X-Men will differ with some salivating over the explanations to Professor X’s wheelchair and Magneto’s helmet and others feeling letdown by the promise of so much more. Perhaps the most reliable fan base for this film is James Bond fans waiting for next year’s Bond 23. Fassbender’s literally magnetic and chilling performance is Bondian, as are the locations, the villains and babes on show like January Jones and Rose Byrne.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Days 8, 9, 10 and 11


I apologise for the failure of the blogging aspect of this challenge over the past few days. But I’ve had an epiphany. My laptop is evil and an agent of procrastination and distraction. Its seemingly harmless, sleek frame conceals the delights and dangers of the world wide web and countless other ways to fritter away time pointlessly. I therefore attempted to simply knuckle down. This post will take the form of a basic list, as I am keen not to waste time or disrupt what rhythm I have. Rest assured I am making better progress behind the scenes.

So a list of what I have been reading/read, predominantly comprised of short stories:

–          Lady Chatterley’s Lover (ongoing) by D.H. Lawrence

–          Love by Grace Paley

–          The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera

–          The Lady with the Little Dog by Anton Chekhov

–          Lovers of their Time by William Trevor

–          Mouche by Guy de Maupassant

–          The Moon in its Flight by Gilbert Sorrentino

–          Spring in Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov

–          Yours by Mary Robison

–          Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

–          Cat in the Rain/One Reader Writers/Homage to Switzerland by Ernest Hemingway

–          There will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury

–          Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (collection) by Haruki Murakami

Some readers might find it amusing to know I made the grave typo of “Bling Widow” in the above last line.

A great number of the above short stories come from the collection My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, compiled and edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. This was recommended to me by Tomcat and as usual I thank him for a trustworthy tip.

The next few days will see discussion of these stories and others, along with some attempts of my own I hope and I’ll plough on with some novels.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Days 5, 6 and 7


What’s the old saying; one step forward and two steps back? After finally making progress by finishing The Day of the Triffids (and easily answering a question on its opening line from University Challenge this evening as a result) I then went to see a friend for the weekend and did no reading whatsoever. I took an assortment of books, I intended to read and she intended to revise, but neither of us succeeded. I could hardly be rude could I? This is my excuse I know. But the break, not from this challenge but from life, did me good. So in reality this post could be entitled simply Day 7.

To make matters worse I haven’t devoted today solely to reading. Distracted by writing I haven’t actually read a great deal. However I do feel that I have a plan of action and that I made some considerable strides in terms of understanding today. I finally read Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog in its entirety, along with an introduction to a collection of his stories by Richard Ford. I’ve also read some more of Haruki Murakami’s short stories and I plan to read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice before I sleep tonight. Lady Chatterley is on the back burner for the time being, but next on my list, whilst I get my head around different short story writers and hopefully attempt an article on them this Wednesday.

Reading the introduction to Chekhov’s stories really helped me appreciate the unique value and insight of short stories compared to novels. Much like essays they can single out a particular issue or aspect of existence for closer inspection. Chekhov’s writing was economical and concise in making its points, something I need to begin to hone. His stories also reveal life’s hidden truths that we’re sometime reluctant to acknowledge, often from mundane events and goings on. I shall hold back the rest of my musings for another time.

I also recalled a Ray Bradbury short story from The Martian Chronicles that I’m going to re-read, as it’s another example of a type of short story and something else they can do.

Tomorrow night I’m going to attempt serious physical exercise for the first time in ages. I shall be a shattered and broken man. Hopefully my eyes will still be able to read. Until then I suppose.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Day 4


Today I finished The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham. I’ve also nearly finished a collection of short stories by Murakami I’ve been nibbling at for some time and begun Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, as well as reading The Kiss, a short while ago. On the recommendation of Tomcat (see his insightful, well written blog on books here: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/) I have ordered an additional collection of short stories and shan’t post anything on “The Art of the short story” or attempt any creations of my own until I’ve delved through it and added further variety to my depth of knowledge.

I think that short stories are something I need to seriously study if I aim to be both a better reader and writer. They are economical examples of excellent craft, as well as being sublime, symbolic and inspired in their brevity. They often better capture the essence of a single idea or emotion than a fully fledged novel, padded out with all its requirements. I need to learn how to think of original ideas, as well as be more efficient with my language. Anyway enough of that till I’ve read some more and pieced some half decent musings together.

With my plans for short stories on hold, and an unexpectedly busy weekend ahead, I’m unsure where to turn for my next read. Certainly I have a pile of books to choose from and I can continue to consume short stories but I also feel I should be choosing something else substantial and making headway with it. My audio book too is on hold as I shall be unable to listen as attentively as I would like over the next few days. At the moment I’m leaning towards Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence as my next hurdle in this marathon month.

I say hurdle but on completing Triffids today I am starting to relish the immense range of books ahead of me. I was surprised by how different the novel by Wyndham was to an adaptation by the BBC, with Eddie Izzard as a villainous figure, a couple of years ago. From what I remember of this adaptation, Izzard played a character called Coker, brimming with a lust for power and the manipulative, ruthless personality to acquire it in a fallen world.

I might have remembered the BBC version incorrectly. If it was indeed BBC; could have been ITV? Probably BBC. Anyway in the novel Coker is an enemy of the protagonist and narrator initially. He believes that the sighted should do what they can to help the blind and cunningly kidnaps some of those that can still see, who were intending to start a new community in the country. He puts them to work looking after groups of the blind in the city, a plan destined to fail. But later he and main character Bill become friends, and Coker admits the error of his well intentioned ways. Throughout the book, because of lingering notions of the adaptation coupled with his earlier behaviour, I was expecting Coker to turn nasty and reveal his own personal malice and ambition. Instead he was very likeable, an intriguing and helpful character.

Triffids seems on the surface like sensational, pulp sci-fi. My girlfriend smirked and seemed put off the novel when the summary of the plot I gave her was inevitably ludicrous. But despite how ridiculous giant plants menacing the streets and fields of Britain may seem, Triffids is good, serious science fiction. Almost every page has Bill’s first person narration grappling with the ethical dilemmas of such an uneven apocalypse; with most of the population blinded but a few spared by odd circumstance. There are well written explanations of loneliness, realistic dialogue and fascinating interactions and bonds between strangers thrown together by terror. Not to mention warnings about nuclear weapons, biological experimentation, future energy crises and unsustainable lifestyles rolled into one idea. This book is impossible to adapt well. Nothing can replicate the way the Triffids are described or the realistic realisation of the probable truth with the passing of time. Screen versions require more drama, more enemies; a conspiracy of some kind that loses the truth in the essence of the original.

Triffids, for all its doom and grand ideas, was not a heavy or taxing read. Wyndham manages to keep things remarkably light. Part of this is to do with the zippy pace, another the narrative voice of Bill. But for me it was the quirky touches of early 1950s, post-war British period detail that made me smile amongst the horrors. Characters would constantly refer to situations as “queer” and Bill would refer to his love interest in an old fashioned way with terms like “darling” and “sweet”. She would often reply with “honey” in the most grave of circumstances or idea laden conversations. None of this was derogatory for women when balanced with the overall impression and philosophy of equality evident in the book; simply a sign of the author’s times and an innocence that would not leave his characters, no matter what.

So one book down. Hopefully many more to go. And I promise some accompanying articles at some point.