“If you live to be one hundred, you’ve got it made. Very few people die past that age.” (George Burns)

This is my 100th post.  For more prolific, better bloggers than me this would not be a big deal but it’s taken me nearly 3 years so I’m making it A Thing:

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For the 100 theme I thought I would pick two books from my TBR that are also on the Norwegian Book Clubs 100 Best Books of All Time list (compiled by 100 authors from 54 countries). And it was at this point that the post became derailed, because the first one I chose was Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I have no idea how to discuss this novel.  I have no idea if it’s even a novel. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read The Monk. I can only think it’s called a novel because there isn’t a genre of whale-compendium-philosophical-disquisition-on-the-state-of-humankind-tragi-farce-quest-adventure-stream-of-conciousness-homoerotic-existentialist-romance. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I thought it was a story about a monopedal seafaring lunatic’s obsession with a white whale. That’s some of it. But saying that is what Moby-Dick is about is like saying Animal Farm is about pig husbandry.

“With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I — being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, — how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships’ standing orders, ‘Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.’”

So you see my problem. Once upon a time one of my tutors was talking me through how to write a research proposal and the only thing I remember him saying was “don’t do what I did, and write down a tirade of barely-literate pseudo-threats”. This comment makes complete sense now, because his research was on Moby-Dick, and if I was trying to capture it in any sort of meaningful analysis I think I’d end up resorting to a tirade of barely-literate pseudo-threats.

I realise this may sound like I didn’t like it, which is not true.  Moby-Dick is beautifully written, compelling, hypnotic, thought-provoking, and completely unique. It’s full of sage counsel for life:

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

The ending is devastating, and it is without a doubt the weirdest thing I’ve ever read.

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

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If you’d like to read a thoughtful, useful discussion of Moby-Dick rather than the confused nonsense you’ve just waded through here, then I highly recommend that you head over to Shoshi’s Book Blog for her excellent review.

Secondly, Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert (my edition trans. Alan Russell), whose linear narrative helped me recover from my Moby-Dick book hangover. Apparently Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” I find this extremely unlikely. Madame Bovary is a silly, vain, self-pitying materialist who places value in all the wrong things. She never changes – this is how she begins and ends the novel.  Madame Bovary could never have written Madame Bovary, which is scathing in its treatment of bourgeois aspiration and acquisition. However, while she runs up debts to fill her house with things and constantly hankers after some ideal self-indulgent life that is based entirely on what she has read books, there is not a total lack of sympathy for Emma:

“Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied she must have been mistaken. And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the words ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’, which had looked so beautiful in books.”

So, she’s naïve, and in her naiveté has married a man whose “conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everybody’s ideas trudged past, in their workaday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.” But she is also self-pitying, believing herself so hard done by in her comfortable middle-class existence with a man who loves her: “Had she not suffered enough? Now was her hour of triumph.” that at times I really wanted to slap her.

Emma really doesn’t know what she wants “She longed to travel – or go back to the convent. She wanted to die, and she wanted to live in Paris.”, and this makes her ripe for seduction by an absolute rake.  Although I didn’t like her, I did feel a bit ashamed for laughing at seduction which involved lines such as this:

“Goodbye! I’ll go away, far away, and you’ll hear no more of me. But today, some mysterious force has impelled me to you. One cannot fight with fate! Or resist when the angels smile! One is simply carried away by what is charming and lovely and adorable!”

Emma in her vanity falls for this nonsense, spoken by a man whose “pleasures had so trampled over his heart, like schoolboys in a playground, that no green thing grew there.” Of course her appeal wanes, and she is deserted by the cynical seducer:

“Emma was like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, gradually slipping away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, whose forms and phrases are forever the same.”

Madame Bovary is a wonderful novel, accomplished and engaging, and while the sexuality of the heroine may no longer be scandalous, it remains an entirely relevant challenge to the socio-cultural values placed on materialistic gain.  I suspect Madame Bovary is a character who divides readers, and in this instance she divided the one reader. One the one hand, I thought her utterly contemptible. But at the same time she was a woman who wanted more, at a time when women didn’t have very many choices.

“Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze that blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains.”

Very possibly if I’d been born into nineteenth-century bourgeois French society I’d end up a silly, vain, self-pitying materialist, placing value in all the wrong things (of course, I’m nothing like that now *cough*). I’ll end on a more sympathetic view of Emma than I’ve given here; this recent film adaptation seems to view her more kindly, if the trailer is anything to go by:

 

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32 thoughts on ““If you live to be one hundred, you’ve got it made. Very few people die past that age.” (George Burns)

  1. Happy 100th! You don’t look a day over 21! Haha! Moby Dick is on my reading list and should be reaching the top soon – I don’t know whether your comments on it have made me keener or even more terrified… 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve never read Moby Dick… and thanks to this post, I think I’ve read enough of it now and will never attempt the whole book. Bovary on the other hand *sigh* – I loved that book (although read it many years ago). I didn’t know there was a new movie on the way – I might need to do a quick re-read before seeing the film (which looks exquisite).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Big congratulations MadameBibi – never mind the quantity, what about the magnificent quality! I ALWAYS get a little thrill when you pop up in my reader, as there will be a treat in store. Happy 100. Your blog often reminds me of the huge chasms in my classics reading. I’ve somehow skirted Melville, and with a major reading project under construction he may well become a part of it! As for Bovary, I think a re-read is long overdue.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Congratulations – what a fantastic post to hit your century with! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your thoughts on Madame Bovary, I felt exactly the same about her, and you’ve actually made me WANT to read Moby Dick. This is a good thing, as it’s looming on my Guardian’s 100 greatest novels challenge and I’ve been putting it off. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved reading your post. Onto the next 100…. Moby Dick nowhere near any pile of To Be Reads in this house but a return to Mme B is beckoning, especially now the film is here. Can’t tell if a visitation would be a good idea or not, but too tempted to avoid it really. I’ve been informed that Isabelle Huppert is considered to be the definitive Emma B, so ought to try and track that down too, just a problem of not enough hours and too many adaptations all over again.
    Look forward to seeing where your reading takes you next, x

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I tried reading Moby Dick once. I think I made it about halfway through before giving up. It was one of my first intentional DNFs. Good on you for persevering. I might try it again one day…

    And congrats on the 100th post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Happy 100 🙂

    I didn’t enjoy Moby Dick, I wanted to shout at the Ishmael that WHALES ARE NOT FISH, YOU NUMPTY and that whole chapter on ‘white things’ and how bad they are, like polar bears, that really made me want to employ some Arctic hares and barn owls to hunt Melville down. Although, while I didn’t like it I can remember enormous chunks of it, so it really made an impression on me. I felt he same way about Bovary, it was no fun but really stayed with me, and if Ishmael had been chasing her with a harpoon I’d have been more sympathetic.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Congratulations! I’ve never read Moby Dick but your post made me go from ‘no, I don’t think so’ to ‘Oooh, I really want to read this’. Excellent teasing there! As for Madame Bovary, how I hated that book! It was required reading on my MA. I spent most of it wanting to slap her, although I wonder if I’d feel differently if I were to reread now. Anyway, here’s to your next 100 posts!

    Liked by 1 person

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