The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary

The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary

by Mario Vargas Llosa
     
 

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The Perpetual Orgy is Mario Vargas Llosa's brilliant analysis of Gustav Flaubert's masterpiece Madame Bovary. In this remarkable book, "we not only enjoy a dazzling explication, but experience a master discoursing at the top of his form on the craft of the novel" (Robert Taylor, The Boston Globe). It is a tribute to The Perpetual Orgy

Overview

The Perpetual Orgy is Mario Vargas Llosa's brilliant analysis of Gustav Flaubert's masterpiece Madame Bovary. In this remarkable book, "we not only enjoy a dazzling explication, but experience a master discoursing at the top of his form on the craft of the novel" (Robert Taylor, The Boston Globe). It is a tribute to The Perpetual Orgy that it sends the reader back to Flaubert's work with renewed interest.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Vargas Llosa begins by explaining the special meaning Madame Bovary has for him. Then he deals with the story the novel tells and ``the sources it uses, the way in which it transforms itself into time and language.'' Here he examines the ``added element'' Flaubert joined to his perceptions of realityfor example, his humanizing of objects, his obsession with pairs, and his manipulation of fictional time and narrative. Finally, focusing on such issues as the antihero and interior monologue, the author discusses the place of Madame Bovary in the development of the modern novel. This knowledgeable and highly readable book may not break any new scholarly ground but is valuable as an intelligent introduction and personal appreciation by an important novelist. Richard Kuczkowski, Dir., Continuing Education, Dominican Coll., Blauvelt, N.Y.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429922357
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
03/04/2011
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
File size:
372 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Perpetual Orgy

Flaubert and Madame Bovary


By Mario Vargas Llosa, Helen Lane

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1975 Mario Vargas Llosa
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2235-7



CHAPTER 1

An Unrequited Passion

* * *

Criticism would perhaps be simplified if, before setting forth an opinion, one avowed one's tastes; for every work of art contains within itself a particular quality stemming from the person of the artist, which, quite apart from the execution, charms us or irritates us. Hence only those works which satisfy both our temperaments and our minds arouse our unqualified admiration. The failure to make this fundamental distinction is a great cause of injustice.

— Preface to Dernières chansons by Louis Bouilhet


"The death of Lucien de Rubempré is the great drama of my life," Oscar Wilde is said to have remarked about one of Balzac's characters. I have always regarded this statement as being literally true. A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly than a great number of the flesh-and-blood beings I have known. Although there is no denying that when literary characters and human beings are an immediate presence, a direct contact, the reality of the latter prevails over that of the former — nothing is as alive as the body that can be seen and touched — the difference disappears when both become part of the past, of memory, to the considerable advantage of the first over the second, whose fading in our minds is irremediable, whereas the fictional character can be brought to life indefinitely, merely by opening the pages of the book and stopping at the right lines. In that heterogeneous, cosmopolitan circle, a gang of friendly ghosts whose members come and go, depending on the period of my life and my mood (today I might mention, offhand: D'Artagnan, David Copperfield, Jean Valjean, Prince Pierre Bezukhov, Fabrice del Dongo, the terrorists Cheng and the Professor, Lena Grove and the tall convict); none of them has been present as persistently, and with none of them have I had as clearly passionate a relationship, as Emma Bovary. That story may perhaps serve as a small example that will help to shed light on the much-discussed, enigmatic relationships between literature and life.

My first memory of Madame Bovary is cinematographic. It was 1952, a stifling-hot summer night, a recently opened movie theater in Piura, on the Plaza de Armas with its waving palms; James Mason appeared as Flaubert; Louis Jourdan, tall and svelte, was Rodolphe Boulanger; and Emma Bovary took on visible form by way of the nervous movements and gestures of Jennifer Jones. I couldn't have been terribly impressed, because the film didn't cause me to rush out and hunt up a copy of the book, despite the fact that it was at precisely this period in my life that I'd begun to stay up nights devouring novels like a cannibal.

My second memory is academic. On the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Madame Bovary, the University of San Marcos, in Lima, organized a ceremony in honor of the occasion, in the main auditorium. The critic André Coyné was impassively considering Flaubert's reputation as a realist when his arguments suddenly became inaudible amid shouts of "Long live free Algeria!" and the war cries of a hundred or so San Marcos students, armed with sticks and stones, as they made their way through the hall toward the platform where their target, the French ambassador, awaited them, white as a sheet. Part of the celebration in honor of Flaubert was the publication, in a little booklet whose ink rubbed off on our fingers, of Saint Julien l'Hospitalier, in a translation by Manuel Beltroy. That was the first work of Flaubert's I ever read.

In the summer of 1959 I arrived in Paris with very little money and the promise of a scholarship. One of the first things I did was to buy a copy of Madame Bovary in the Classiques Garnier edition, in a bookstore in the Latin Quarter. I began reading it that very afternoon, in a tiny room in the Hôtel Wetter, near the Musée Cluny. It is at this point that my story really begins. From the very first lines, the book's power of persuasion was like an extremely potent magic spell. It had been years since any novel had vampirized my attention so quickly, blotted out my physical surroundings so completely, plunged me so deeply into the story it told. As the afternoon wore on, as night fell, as dawn began to break, the magical decantation, the substitution of the fictional world for the real one, held me spellbound. Morning had already come — Emma and Léon had just met in a box at the Rouen opera — when, dizzy with fatigue, I put the book down and went to bed: in my troubled sleep at that hour the Rouaults' farm, the muddy streets of Tostes, the figure of Charles, good-natured and stupid, the ponderous pedantry of Homais (who might well have been Argentine) continued to exist, as vividly as when I'd been reading about them — and above these persons and these places, like an image foreshadowed in a thousand childhood dreams, dimly glimpsed from the moment I'd begun devouring books so avidly in adolescence, there hovered the face of Emma Bovary. As I woke up so as to go on reading, two certainties flashed through my mind, like two bolts of lightning: I now knew what writer I would have liked to be; and I knew that from that moment on, till my dying day, I would be in love with Emma Bovary. In the future she would be for me, as for Léon Dupuis in the first days of their affair, "the beloved of every novel, the heroine of every play, the vague she of every volume of verse."

Since then I have read the novel from beginning to end half a dozen times and reread various chapters and episodes again and again. Unlike what has happened to me on going back to other cherished stories, I have never been disappointed; on the contrary, especially on rereading those scenes that are volcanic craters — the agricultural fair, the ride in the fiacre, Emma's death — I have always had the sensation that I was discovering secret facets, unpublished details, and, to varying degrees depending on the place and the circumstances, I have always felt precisely the same emotion. A book becomes part of a person's life for a number of reasons appertaining at once to the book and the person. I should like to explore what some of these reasons are in my case: why Madame Bovary stirred me to such profound depths of my being, what it gave me that other stories could not.

The first reason is, surely, my particular penchant, ever since childhood, for works that are rigorously and symmetrically constructed, with a definite beginning and a definite end, that form a closed circle and gave the impression of being perfect, finished works, in preference to those open-ended works deliberately aimed at suggesting something inconclusive, vague, in the process of becoming, only half over and done with. It is possible that these latter works are more faithful images of reality and of life — always unfinished, ever at some halfway point between this and that — but what I have doubtless sought instinctively and been pleased to find in books, films, paintings has not been the reflection of this infinite incompleteness, this boundless ongoing flow, but rather the exact opposite: definitive overviews, wholes which, thanks to their bold structure, arbitrary yet convincing, give the illusion of being a total picture of reality, of summing up all of life. That appetite was to be fully satisfied by Madame Bovary, the very exemplar of the closed work, of the book that is a perfect circle. On the other hand, an increasing preference, which up to that point in my reading had nonetheless remained quite vague, must have taken definite shape thanks to this novel. Between the description of objective life and subjective life, of action and reflection, I am more attracted by the former than by the latter, and I have always considered the description of the latter by way of the former a more impressive feat than the converse (I prefer Tolstoy to Dostoevsky, invention rooted in reality to that rooted in fantasy, and if I am left to choose between unrealities, the one closer to the concrete has my preference over the one that is abstract: I prefer pornography, for example, to science fiction, and sentimental stories to horror tales). In his letters to Louise Colet while in the throes of writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert was quite certain that he was composing a novel of "ideas," not a novel of "action" with a lively plot. This has led certain critics who have taken his words literally to maintain that Madame Bovary is a novel in which nothing happens except on the level of language. But this is not so; in Madame Bovary as many things happen as in an adventure novel — weddings, acts of adultery, balls, journeys, outings, financial skulduggery, sicknesses, theatrical spectacles, a suicide — even though for the most part these events turn out to be inconsequential or sordid ones. It is true that many of these happenings are narrated as seen through the emotions or the recollected memories of the character involved, but because of Flaubert's maniacally materialistic style, the subjective reality in Madame Bovary is possessed of a solidity, a physical weight, as palpable as that of objective reality. The impression that the thoughts and the feelings in the novel were facts, so concrete that they could be seen and almost touched, not only dazzled me: it revealed to me a profound predilection on my part.

These are formal reasons, stemming from the structure and conception of the book. Those concerning its subject matter are less invertebrate. The greater the role that rebellion, violence, melodrama, and sex, expertly combined in a compact plot, have played in a novel, the greater its appeal has been to me. In other words, the maximum satisfaction that a novel can bring me is to arouse, as I read, my admiration for this or that revolt against the established order, my anger at some stupidity or injustice, my fascination for melodramatic situations, for excessive displays of emotion that romanticism seemed to have invented, since it both used and abused them, though they have always existed in literature, as they have doubtless always existed in reality and in my secret desire. Madame Bovary is chock-full of these ingredients, they are the four great rivers that irrigate its vast geography, and the distribution of these contents in the novel reveals the same careful balance of its formal division into sections, chapters, scenes, dialogues, and descriptions.

Rebellion in Emma's case does not have the epic dimensions of that of the masculine heroes of the nineteenth-century novel, yet it is no less heroic. Hers is the rebellion of an individual, and to all appearances a self-centered one: she violates the codes of her milieu because she is driven to do so by problems that are hers alone, not in the name of all humanity, of a certain ethic or ideology. It is because she feels that society is fettering her imagination, her body, her dreams, her appetites that Emma suffers, commits adultery, lies, steals, and in the end kills herself. Her defeat does not prove that she is wrong and the bourgeois of Yonville-l'Abbaye right, that God punishes her for her sins, as was maintained by Maître Sénard, the attorney for the defense at the trial of Madame Bovary (his defense of the novel is as pharisaical as the accusation against it put before the court by Pinard, the public prosecutor, a composer in secret of pornographic verses), but simply proof that the battle was one-sided: Emma was alone, and because she was an impulsive and sentimental creature, continually inclined to go astray, to become more and more deeply enmeshed in situations that in the end gave her enemy the advantage (setting forth arguments doubtless suggested to him by Flaubert himself, Maître Sénard assured the judges at the trial that the moral of the novel is: Dangers lie ahead for a girl who receives an education superior to that of her class). This defeat, foredoomed due to the conditions governing the battle, takes on the overtones both of genuine tragedy and of a cheap newspaper serial, and that is one of the mixtures of genres to which — poisoned, like Emma, by certain books I read and movies I saw when I was an adolescent — I am most likely to succumb.

But it is not only the fact that Emma is capable of defying her milieu — family, class, society — but also the causes of her defiance that force me to admire that elusive little nobody. These causes are very simple and stem from something that she and I share intimately: our incurable materialism, our greater predilection for the pleasures of the body than for those of the soul, our respect for the senses and instinct, our preference for this earthly life over any other. The ambitions that lead Emma to sin and death are precisely those that Western religion and morality have most savagely combated throughout history. Emma wants sexual pleasure, she is not resigned to repressing this profound sensual need that Charles is unable to satisfy because he doesn't even know that it exists; she wants to surround her life with pleasing and superfluous things, elegance, refinement, to give concrete form by way of objects to that appetite for beauty that her imagination, her sensibility, and her reading have aroused in her. Emma wants to know other worlds, other people; she refuses to reconcile herself to the prospect of spending the rest of her days hemmed in by the narrow horizons of Yonville; and she also wants her existence to be different and exciting, to ensure that adventure and risk, the magnificent gestures of generosity and sacrifice, will play a role in it. Emma's rebellion is born of one conviction, the root of all her acts: I am not resigned to my lot, the dubious compensation of the beyond doesn't matter to me, I want my life to be wholly and completely fulfilled here and now. A chimera no doubt lies at the heart of the destiny to which Emma aspires, above all if it becomes a collective pattern, a common human goal. No society can offer all its members such an existence; it is evident, moreover, that in order for communal life to be possible man must resign himself to keeping a close rein on his desires, to limiting that will to transgress that Georges Bataille called Evil. But Emma represents and defends, in an exemplary way, a side of our humanity that has been cruelly disavowed by almost all religions, philosophies, and ideologies, and made out by them to be a cause for shame shared by our entire species. Its repression has given rise to as great and as widespread unhappiness as have economic exploitation, religious sectarianism, or the thirst for conquest. With the passage of time, ever broader and broader sectors of society — including even the Church today — have come to recognize that man has the right to satisfy his hunger, to think and to express his ideas freely, to enjoy good health and a secure old age. But the same taboos as in Emma Bovary's day still hold sway (and in this regard the right and the left are in total agreement and work hand in glove to enforce them) — taboos that universally deny men and women the right to pleasure, to the fulfillment of their desires. The story of Emma is that of a blind, stubborn, desperate rebellion against the social violence that stifles this right.

I remember having read, in the opening pages of a book by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, that violence is almost always beautiful as an image, that is to say, in art, and having felt more or less reassured thereby. I was seventeen years old at the time, and it frightened me to note that despite my peaceful nature, violence — whether implicit or explicit, refined or raw — was an indispensable requisite for a novel if it was to persuade me of its reality and arouse my enthusiasm. Those works that did not possess at least a little taste of violence seemed unreal to me (I have always preferred novels that pretend to be real, just as others prefer novels that pretend to be unreal), and as a general rule unreality bores me to death. Madame Bovary is steeped in violence, which manifests itself on many planes, ranging from the purely physical one of pain and blood (the operation, gangrene, and amputation of Hippolyte's leg; Emma's poisoning of herself) or the spiritual one of ruthless rapine down to the last sou (the merchant Lheureux), selfishness and cowardice (Rodolphe, Léon), to its social forms represented by the animalization of the human being through backbreaking labor and exploitation (covered with embarrassment and paralyzed with confusion amid the crowd at the agricultural fair, old Catherine Leroux, who has taken care of the animals on a farm for fifty-four years, receives a silver medal worth twenty-five francs; as she walks off, those standing near her hear her murmur that she is going to give it to the parish priest to pay him for saying Masses for her), and above all, in its most generalized form of stupidity and the insidious traps that men lay for themselves and one another: their prejudices, their envy, their intrigues. Against this background Emma's fantasy, her hunger for a world different from the one that shatters her dreams, stand out like snow against pitch-black darkness. It is precisely the scene, the most violent one in the book, in which Madame Bovary meets her final defeat, by her own hand, that moves me most. I know by heart this chapter which begins with Emma walking, in the fading light of day, to Rodolphe's château to try one last maneuver that may save her from ruin, from shame, from Charles's forgiveness, which would force her to change, and which ends the following day as Emma enters death as one enters a nightmare, overcome by the vision of the Blind Man covered with purulent sores, as he crosses Yonville humming a vulgar song. These are pages marked by an amazing mastery of the art of narrative and by a terrible cruelty — Maître Sénard couldn't have lost the case if he had shown what horrible punishment Emma's sin met with, thanks to the hideous effects of the arsenic — effects that have given me simultaneous pain and pleasure, that have totally satisfied my literary penchant for sentimentality and sadism a hundred times over. Moreover, I owe this episode a special debt of gratitude, for reasons that are a secret between Emma and me. Quite a few years ago now, for the space of several weeks, I suffered from the feeling of a definite incompatibility with the world, a stubborn despair, a profound distaste for life. At one moment the idea of suicide crossed my mind; on another night I remember having hung about outside the offices of the Foreign Legion (the fateful influence of Beau Geste) near the Place Denfort-Rochereau, with the idea of inflicting upon myself a romantic punishment, by way of that most odious of institutions: fleeing everything, changing my name, my life, disappearing by taking up a rough and despicable occupation. The help lent me in this difficult period by the story of Emma, or rather, the death of Emma, is a debt I cannot possibly repay. I remember having read, during those days, the episode of her suicide with anxious, avid anticipation, having hastened to my reading and rereading of this scene as others in similar circumstances take to religion and the parish priest, to drinking, or to morphine, and having each time found consolation and a sense of proportion, a revulsion against chaos, a taste for life in those heartrending pages. The fictional suffering neutralized the suffering I was experiencing in real life. To help me, Emma each night entered the deserted château of La Huchette and was humiliated by Rodolphe: she wandered out into the fields, where pain and helplessness brought her for a moment to the brink of madness; slipped like an elf into Homais's pharmacy, where Justin, innocence become death's henchman, watched her swallow the arsenic in the half-shadow of the capharnaüm; went back home and suffered her unspeakable calvary: the inky taste in her mouth, the nausea, the chill in her feet, the shivering, the fingers clutching the sheets, the cold sweat on her forehead, the chattering of her teeth, the wildly rolling eyes, the howls of pain, the convulsions, the vomiting of blood, the tongue lolling out of her mouth, the death rattle. Each time my sadness and melancholy were mingled with a curious sense of relief, and each time the agonizing ceremony left me with a feeling of admiration, of elation: Emma was killing herself in order that I might live. On other occasions when I have been deeply upset, depressed, or simply in a bad mood, I have had recourse to this remedy and almost always it has had the same cathartic effect on me. This experience and others like it have convinced me that the theories defending edifying literature in terms of its results are highly debatable. It is not necessarily happy stories with an optimistic moral that raise the spirits and gladden the hearts of readers (virtues attributed in Peru to Vargas Pisco); in some cases, as in mine, the somber beauty of stories as unhappy and pessimistic as Emma Bovary's may achieve the same effect.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Perpetual Orgy by Mario Vargas Llosa, Helen Lane. Copyright © 1975 Mario Vargas Llosa. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mario Vargas Llosa is Peru's foremost author and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1994 he was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most distinguished literary honor, and in 1995 he won the Jerusalem Prize. His many distinguished works include The Storyteller, The Feast of the Goat, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Death in the Andes, In Praise of the Stepmother, The Bad Girl, Conversation in the Cathedral, The Way to Paradise, and The War of the End of the World. He lives in London.


Mario Vargas Llosa is Peru's foremost author and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1994 he was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most distinguished literary honor, and in 1995 he won the Jerusalem Prize. His many distinguished works include The Storyteller, The Feast of the Goat, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Death in the Andes, In Praise of the Stepmother, The Bad Girl, Conversation in the Cathedral, The Way to Paradise, and The War of the End of the World. He lives in London.


Helen Lane contributed to In Praise of the Stepmother from Picador.

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