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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.

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The i: Media revolution or pointless newspaper flop?


At Waterloo station the other day I finally succumbed to curiosity. I found myself staring blankly at a WH Smiths emblazoned with a small red letter “i”. In just one moment, demoralised and waiting for a train, all the hype and advertising culminated for me. It was only 20p, let’s see what all the fuss is about. I lugged my stuff over to the store, handed over my solitary coin and headed for a drink to dissect the nation’s latest news phenomenon.

Or is such a big deal? I sit here with two copies, having purchased a second for the purposes of writing this piece. And from the outside it doesn’t look so extraordinary. Sure I’m familiar with the concept, the image they’re trying to sell. It’s a concise compilation of news and opinion, an intelligent but manageable information snack to be devoured by your busy city type. It ought not to appeal so greatly here in my rural setting, and yet the first two local shops I tried were sold out yesterday. Not just a paper for commuters rushing through London terminals and underground stations then? Perhaps it does have some foundations of longevity; having said that, it could simply be the novelty buy of the moment.

If you’re reading this and saying to yourself “what on earth is i?” I am frankly astounded. I don’t believe you can have avoided the marketing blitz accompanying its release. It adorns the side of London buses, plasters newspaper stands and rules the ad breaks at times. The strap-line at the top of the front page reads: “As seen on TV: Britain’s concise quality paper”.  They’re fully aware of the exposure i is getting and I’m guessing the idea is to hook regular readers early. The dirt cheap price will be crucial to the appeal, as will the two key selling points; concise and quality. It’s broadsheet meat in tasty tabloid nuggets.

Essentially it’s a bite-size version of The Independent. The fact that it’s The Independent launching the i does bode well in many respects; The Independent is the newest established national paper in this country. Launched in the eighties it knew how to exploit gaps in the market with price, design, image and politics. Nicknamed the Indy, it used the slogan “It is. Are you?” at its birth in 1986. Such lines show that even back then this was a paper that knew how to bag itself a target market of aspiring intelligent types looking to distinguish themselves from The Guardian or The Times. It would be simultaneously liberal and opinionated, and respected and trusted. In 2003 it took on a tabloid format, which begs the question, why the need for the i?

The clue is in the name. The i is unashamedly jumping onto the Apple bandwagon. We arrive in a new decade, the teenies or whatever follows the noughties, grappling with the coming of the iPad. The iPad seems to herald a new media age in a lot of ways. Countless commentators and reviews argue over its purpose, with many concluding it does not have a particularly functional one. In technology the iPad is halfway between a laptop or netbook and a smartphone or iPod. It fails to do certain things these old staples do so well, whilst also doing some new things no one is quite sure whether we want yet. Most reviews also conclude that the iPad is so much fun, it scarcely matters what it’s for. It’s an inexplicable indulgence, until the content starts to catch up.

 But unavoidably the ethos around the iPad is the direction of travel, the way things are going. People want everything they do, everything they consume, to be aesthetically dazzling and finely crafted. They want to look cool when they read the news and they want to feel cool. They want it to be easy but still be well informed afterwards. They want colour and images. The i is the newspaper equivalent of the iPad; it’s well designed and bright and fun, but it hovers in a new uncertain territory between purposes. Is it broadsheet or tabloid? Paper or magazine? Light or heavy news?

At first I was reading the i trying to work out whether it lived up to its brief of “concise quality” sufficiently, and even if it did, whether it was good enough to warrant such a category of publication. I mean can’t even the busiest person simply selectively scan their favourite paper? I was judging each article to decide whether it had the depth of broadsheet and snappy digestibility of tabloid. The selection of topics for articles is certainly suitably intelligent, with nothing too light or smutty about cheap celebrities creeping in. On the snappy front the opening double page has a “news matrix” with summaries of the day’s top stories, so the reader has at least an overview of everything. This does seem surprisingly handy.

In fairness to most of the articles about serious stories, they do an admirable job of cutting right to the point without being patronising or watering the issue down. But unavoidably there is an unsatisfying lack of depth. Everyday there is a fairly substantial opinion piece however, which can’t be accused of cutting corners. Indeed the opinion section of the paper is a good example of successful fusion between manageable and satisfying content. An “opinion matrix” summarises views from other publications, a bold and genuinely informative move in keeping with The Independent tradition, adjacent to an article from one of their writers. I really like that it quotes other papers, and I imagine the average commuter without the time to buy and read a range, does too. There is only the one opinion piece per day though.

This week the content of the i has been somewhat heavy on anti-Murdoch sentiment, what with the ongoing hacking story and the takeover of Sky forever raging, which I found tiresome. It’s of course admirable to expose such stories, under reported in other papers, but it compromises the potential for other news and comment in such a small paper, and also The Independent tradition of staying above the fray (despite an undoubtedly left-wing reputation).

The television schedule is well designed, split as it is into categories with key programmes, and a smaller list with the all junk underneath. Ideal for those that work all day. There’s also a section called “iq” which seems to be dedicated to the likes of style and recipes and again has a good balance between brevity and depth. The arts area of the paper seems somewhat recycled each day, with film and theatre listings and descriptions; no reviews. Not being a businessman I wouldn’t know if the business section was adequate, but it has its own “news matrix” which seems a good, broad introduction to all the main action of the day. The sports pages are really quite short but do touch on all the main issues; football transfer gossip, Six Nations, Andy Murray.

After all this analysis though I remembered how crucial the comparison with the iPad is to understanding the i. Frequently I toy with it in those cavernous Apple stores, knowing full well I haven’t the funds for such an extravagance or even if I would use it at all, should I win the lottery or rob a bank. But every time I go in for a discrete fondle of the touch screen, that indescribable feeling Apple manufactures so well washes over me. That feeling of being at the forefront; the vanguard of technological advancement. As if I’m in an incredibly cool sci-fi film, not my mundane life. That feeling of childish play, somehow fused with the realisation you’ve arrived as an adult with the James Bond gadget to prove your maturity and success. Look at the tech they let me unleash! Behold the luxuries that make up my exciting everyday existence!

Like the iPad, the i is a symbol of a life style choice, a lot more than just a paper. Now it might be the case that your choice of paper has always been a significant indicator of outlook and ambition, but the i is a heightened version, harnessing the 21st century Apple fever. It popularises that choice and makes it available to the masses as a statement of intent. “Look at me, I am intelligent but too busy to stop, I’ve arrived!”

Even if you don’t consciously think this, the colourful design and appeal of the i put it on that similarly luxurious plain to the iPad. It really is well designed, easy to read and pretty to look at on some pages. And why shouldn’t intelligent news be a pleasure to look at? Why does it have to be bunched in dense text and an excruciating eyesore? Especially when you’re jammed in like sardines on the tube. The colour coded pages help you swiftly find what you’re looking for and the multitude of colour photographs let you feel the news, experience the world, rather than simply read about it. Like the touch screen of the iPad, the i feels interactive at times and immersive despite its concision.

One thing that really baffles me is the continually shabby state of The Independent website following the launch of the i. To truly capitalise on the stylish Apple-like aesthetic they’re cultivating with the i, they would lure people to their equally swish website. But for ages The Independent’s website has been the drabbest online newspaper around. Some would simply call it functional, with its white background and lack of trimmings. But a hideous mustardy brown colour is used across the top and the font is squat and awkward to read. It’s a real shame, because it’s so bad it often puts me off delving into the regularly insightful, impressive content, which has real depth that goes beyond the snippets in the prettier i.

I would do well not to push the comparison with the iPad too far. The i lacks the level of interactivity and excitement cutting edge technology like the iPad can provide. It is, at the end of the day, a slimmed down newspaper. But its design and marketing reflect a cultural trend. There’s nothing wrong with what the i is trying to achieve, and it’s admirable in fact to see something try and keep print publications fresh and competitive. The threats of the iPad and the internet could jeopardise journalism and courageous solutions are needed. The i does the right thing by embracing the challenge of our new aesthetically obsessed, Apple stuffed world, rather than denying it. With its colour, cool and seamless advertising spaces and refreshingly un-patronising news, the i has the potential to be more than an early 2011 fad. Crucially, at 20p, you may as well give this stylish “essential daily briefing” a whirl, before properly digesting your preferred daily in the evening.