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December 15, 2017

Madame Bovary, in Court and Cab

On this day in 1857, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary was published. The serialization of the novel in the Revue de Paris the previous winter generated one of the most famous literary trials in French history, and so much publicity that the book was an immediate hit. It was Flaubert's first novel, and it made him little money -- 800 francs for 5 years of writing, about what the stenographer he had hired for his trial earned in two weeks -- but it made his reputation, introduced a new style of writing, and vindicated his adamant refusal to allow anyone to tamper with his detailed portrait of "ignoble reality."

The editors of the Revue had insisted not only on making such changes themselves, but on charging Flaubert for them:
    We will make the cuts we think indispensable.... You have buried your novel under a heap of details which are well done but superfluous: it is not seen clearly enough, and must be disencumbered -- an easy task.... We shall have it done under our supervision by someone who is experienced and clever...the job will cost you about a hundred francs....
Though a first-time author, Flaubert was well-off and with definite ideas about writing. His attempt to find a style "as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science" had been agony, a labor calculated by a recent biographer to have proceeded at the rate of five words an hour. He did not react well to the idea that his "imperfect and padded" text would now be "pruned" by magazine hacks: "If the bourgeois are exasperated by my novel, I don't care; if we are taken to criminal court, I don't care; if La Revue de Paris is suppressed, I don't care!"

Some changes were made and some were not -- at one point Flaubert forced the magazine to run a notice which expressed his outrage -- but in the end the government charged all involved with corrupting public morals, and Flaubert had to "take my place on the bench reserved for pickpockets and pederasts." Though lectured for his bad taste and his "poetry of adultery," Flaubert was acquitted, and passages such as the one in which Emma and her lover take their famous cab ride were allowed to stand.
    . . . From time to time the driver would cast despairing glances at the taverns as he drove past. He could not for the life of him understand what mania for locomotion possessed these individuals that they inexorably refused to stop. He made as if to pull up once or twice, and, immediately, exclamations of wrath broke out behind him. Whereupon he slashed his sweating jades harder than ever, heedless how his old caravan lurched and swayed, running into this, just shaving that, not caring what happened, demoralized, and nearly crying with thirst, fatigue and utter weariness of spirit.

    And on the quays, amid the lorries and the barrels, along the streets, at every corner, the citizens stared in amazement at what amounted to a portent in a country town, to wit, a vehicle with drawn blinds, which kept continually coming into view, sealed up like a tomb and rocking like a ship at sea. . . .
Within the year, the life of "ignoble reality" was imitating art: in Hamburg, Germany, such hack cabs, the vehicle of choice for the local prostitutes, were being called "bovaries."

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