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.