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Madame Bovary

Finally, what could be more true to life than this? Leon is trying to seduce Emma inside the Rouen Cathedral, but "she seemed determined to let him talk without interrupting him. She sat with her arms crossed, looking down at the rosettes on her slippers, occasionally wriggling her toes slightly inside the satin."

Though Madame Bovary escapes Flaubert's predilection for overblown, histrionic description, his heroine is primarily a woman of gestures, a mime of the grandly operatic emotions she yearns to feel. In her love-talk Emma can be as saccharine as a P.G. Wodehouse female lyricizing over the stars as "God's daisy chain." Because she comes to fear any diminution in passion, Emma inevitably takes to growing more brazen, more desperately fantastic, with each sexual encounter. Fundamentally, she is an empty vessel, a pretty B-movie actress trying out new roles which she then overplays.

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And yet it's hard not to sympathize with this doomed young woman. Flaubert may have wanted us to regard her as essentially kitsch, a creature formed by impossible reveries of blissful self-fulfillment, whether in marriage, passion or religious observance. But Emma nonetheless tries, and tries hard, to live her dreams and in this sense is hardly different from, say, Fitzgerald's Gatsby. Or any of the rest of us. Don't we all ache with unabashed hopes, unassuaged desires? For Emma, the ball at La Vaubyessard shines as a golden interlude in her drab life, a glimpse of paradise. Nonetheless, "little by little, in her memory, the faces all blurred together; she forgot the tunes of the quadrilles; no longer could she so clearly picture the liveries and the rooms; some details disappeared, but the yearning remained." The yearning always remains.

For the modern reader, familiar with adultery through magazine articles, television soap operas or personal experience, Madame Bovary shows how surprisingly common, how standardized, is the blueprint for such illicit affairs: The soft-focused imaginings, the touch of a hand, a suggestive phrase or smile, the search for seclusion, the breathless rush to the lover's arms, the fear of exposure, the financial outlay (and the need to hide it), the ever-growing recklessness, and then, more and more often, the violent arguments and impossible demands, the violation of promises, mutual recrimination and, finally, inevitably, the tearful break-up, leading to further heartache or embitterment and, sometimes, relief. As Flaubert writes about the last days of the affair with Leon, "They knew one another too well to experience that wonderment of mutual possession that increases its joy a hundredfold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma was discovering, in adultery, all the banality of marriage."

When Emma tells her first lover, Rodolphe -- cad, bounder, scoundrel, rake -- how much she adores him, how she will be his servant, submit to his every desire as his concubine, Flaubert observes:

"He had heard these things said to him so many times that they no longer held any surprises for him. Emma was just like all his mistresses, and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, which never varies in its forms and its expression."

Such world-weary, Gallic cynicism. But Emma truly loves Rodolphe (or thinks she does). Still "he could not see -- this man of such broad experience -- the difference of feeling, beneath the similarity of expression. Because wanton or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he only half believed in the sincerity of those he was hearing now; to a large extent they should be disregarded, he believed, because such exaggerated language must surely mask commonplace feelings: as if the soul in its fullness did not sometimes overflow into the most barren metaphors, since no one can ever tell the precise measure of his own needs, of his own ideas, of his own pain . . ." That is movingly true in itself -- how often do words fail us when we wish to express our deepest feelings -- but Flaubert, in his genius, caps even this with one of his most imaginative and disheartening similes:

" . . . and human language is like a cracked kettledrum on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to pity."

In his excellent introduction to this new edition, Malcolm Bowie further analyzes this passage to demonstrate how Flaubert is actively arguing with his own characters, thus enhancing the narrative dynamic of the novel. That's certainly true, but ordinary readers can think about it later. What truly matters is this: Madame Bovary is available in a superb new translation, in a handsome hardback volume, and if you've never read it, or if you've only worked through it in first-year college French, you need to sit down with this book as soon as possible. This is one of the summits of prose art, and not to know such a masterpiece is to live a diminished life. Some early critics complained that Emma's story was a sordid and commonplace one, yet that is, paradoxically, its glory. The novelist once famously proclaimed that he himself was Madame Bovary -- but failed to add that so are you, so am I. We are all the victims of unrealized or unrealizable dreams. They somehow slip from our grasp or glitter before our eyes, only a little beyond our reach. "I admire tinsel as much as gold," Flaubert once wrote in a letter. "Indeed, the poetry of tinsel is even greater, because it is sadder." •

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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