Saturday, 16 February 2013

Adamantine Madame. Enamelled Emma.

My last post raises the question of Nobel prize-winners with feet of clay boosted to stand on the adamantine shoulders of giants.


Now that descriptor, I confess, is suggested by a remark made by novelist and Francophile Julian Barnes at the Hay Festival Cartagena de Indias last month, reminding us of his ever-intensifying veneration for Flaubert.
For myself, I continue to read him, and I find that I do read the books differently, still. I go back the most often to Madame Bovary, and I still find, in its adamantine perfection, that there are new things to discover, things I had not noticed before.
A remark which makes me wonder whether Julian Barnes is aware of the subtle workings of his subconscious, which have led him to well-nigh an élégance palindromique in his choice of adjective.

Indeed, an adamantine Madame.

The fact that this palindromic effect is subliminally perceived at the threshold of our awareness might be taken as further evidence, should we need it, of the magic Flaubert continues to exert on us each time we return to him.

I was reminded of an interview conducted by novelist Megan Taylor in 2009, where my own veneration for Madame Bovary is given full rein

Also I am re-reading ‘Madame Bovary’ in the first (and brilliant) English Edition translated by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor ( I have an original copy; it cost me £250 even twenty-five years ago!). How’s this for an image from Flaubert: ‘The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace …’ However, I suspect Flaubert may have been chiding the indolent Emma for neglecting to have her chimney swept!
Perhaps I should have mentioned, too, those sticky unwashed cider glasses...
Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider. The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders. Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders.

Of course, Julian Barnes has famously remarked that the colour of Emma’s eyes is puzzlingly changeable throughout the novel.

Seen thus closely, her eyes looked to him enlarged, especially when, on rousing, she opened and shut them rapidly many times; black in shade on waking, dark blue in broad daylight, they were like layers of different colours, and darker in the background, grew paler towards the surface of the enamel.
... la surface de lémail.

Yes, I can see the character of Emma there in her eyes. Her superficiality. Enamelled Emma.

That the DNA of Madame Bovary remains still to be unthreaded is the measure of the adamantine integrity of this complex masterpiece. That is why we should be very cautious indeed as to whom, in any age, we should single out to wear the laurel crown for honour as supreme Man (or Woman) of Letters... Flaubert set the bar so high, at such a rarefied altitude, that none but authentic titans can command a pedestal worthy of comparison.   

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