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The Notorious Madame Bovary

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Perhaps you think the headline, above, adds too much sizzle to what might seem a dusty 19th-century novel. But I will contend that “Madame Bovary” was a notorious kind of a character whose downfall is still relevant to the modern world. 

I had a teacher describe her once as “a woman who was ruined by her decorator.” Madame B. is more commonly described as a bored provincial who tries to escape the boundaries of her small world by spending too much money on HGTV products, with tragic consequences for all involved. 

Oh, sorry, wait, there was no HGTV in 19th-century France. Perhaps a modern remake will be made someday, and Emma Bovary will be abetted in her ruin by television shopping channels and the internet.

I confess I never quite finished this book in French class. I found Emma so unlikeable that I didn’t want to read about her.

Roxana Robinson, a novelist and Cornwall, Conn., resident, understands that the novel’s protagonist can easily be loathed. In a New Yorker magazine article that she wrote in 2017, she reveals that she teaches “Madame Bovary” to her graduate writing students at Hunter College in New York City — and the question that frames their book discussions is “Does Flaubert want us to feel contempt or compassion for his characters?”

Perhaps you already have an  opinion on this topic; perhaps you’ve never thought about it before but have now had your interest piqued … Perhaps you’ll finally want to take on this classic novel under the tutelage of a skilled expert.

Robinson is offering area readers a sort of online master class in “Madame Bovary” through the Cornwall Library. She’s been reading aloud from great works online for the library for several weeks now. Her tour of great works of literature will end with a three-session dissection of Flaubert’s greatest novel. It will begin on Wednesday, May 27, at 4 p.m. and continue on June 3 and 10.

She will read sections out loud and then there will be discussion. The translation from the French that she will use is the one by Lydia Davis, considered one of the finest translators of all time of French literature into English. It’s surprisingly difficult to find a copy. Try abebooks or alibris online.

Robinson gives page assignments on the library website, so you’ll want to get the edition she’s using: the 2010 hardcover from Viking. The cover shows a sepia-toned photo of a woman with a Swiss dot veil tucked tightly over her face.  

To sign up for Robinson’s Zoom classes on “Madame Bovary,” email director@cornwalllibrary.org and ask for the link. 

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