Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Flaubert vs. the Oysters
A Journey into Flaubert's Normandy

I once spent a week in Rouen, France, without ever realizing I was in the hometown of Gustave Flaubert. The Joan of Arc connection, I got. The oysters, I got (more on them, later). Famous nineteenth century author? Je ne savais pas.

Then again, I hadn't actually read any of his books at the time. No Madame Bovary. No Sentimental Education. So maybe the signs of Flaubert were all around me and I was too busy looking for the oyster guy at the market to notice.

Or, maybe my family and I took a Flaubertian walking tour of the town and my memory of that has evaporated in the intervening twenty years, having been obliterated by the memory of wandering Rouen's deserted streets late on New Year's Eve, desperately searching for a home for the shells of the two dozen (or was it three dozen?) oysters we'd feasted upon in our hotel room. We'd realized belatedly that the remnants of our bivalvian feast might not be welcomed by the hoteliers--or, frankly, by us--the next day. Public trash cans were distressingly hard to find in Normandy at the time.

If only I'd had Susannah Patton's A Journey Into Flaubert's Normandy, I'd have been in no danger of missing or forgetting the author's connections to Rouen and the rest of Normandy. Patton's book, packed with pictures and maps, takes readers on an armchair tour that includes Flaubert's old haunts, the museums and monuments devoted to his memory, and the towns that may or may not be the setting for Madame Bovary.

This last point is apparently quite the controversy. Despite Flaubert's insistance that the imaginary Emma Bovary took her legendary carriage rides in a purely fictional location, more than one town has laid claim to being that location. Road signs in the town of Ry bear Emma Bovary's image. Shops are named things like Video Bovary and Le Jardin d'Emma. Patton details the rivalry with the traces of humor that make her narrative so enjoyable to read.
Ry is undistinguished and plain. No famous writers or artists were born there, and its history can be reduced to a paragraph. So even though the Yonville described by Flaubert is filled with prudes and hypocrites, Ry clings to this distinction.
Patton puts the author's life into historical, as well as geographical context. She illustrates the ways in which his life and work were impacted by the 1848 February Revolution in Paris and the Franco-Prussian War, as well as his friendships with other writers and artists of the time, including George Sand, Emile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant.

A Journey Into Flaubert's Normandy offers a glimpse into the author's world that will likely be a welcome guide for his devotees, and motivation for others to delve in and give his work a try. If you're of the latter category, why not try a taste of Gustave? There's even a full pdf file of Madame Bovary (which was quite shocking at the time and got the author into serious legal trouble), though you can probably pick up a used copy for just a few dollars at your local used bookstore.

The Soundtrack: During Flaubert's time, the French were listening to the likes of Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner. But when Robert Wilson created an opera based on Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony in 2003, he chose Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock fame, to write the libretto. A sample of one of the numbers, I knew the Carpenter's Son, can be found on Reagon's website.

Other books in the ArtPlace series, reviewed on Worducopia:
A Journey Into Steinbeck's California
A Journey Into Dorothy Parker's New York
A Journey Into Michelangelo's Rome
A Journey Into Ireland's Literary Revival

Additional ArtPlace titles can be found at Roarting Forties Press.


  1. Well I knew it was Rouen because it's a big crossword puzzle clue! Otherwise, no way. But how wonderful it would be to go there and walk around and find out! Even the cover of the book looks beautiful! Very neat about the soundtrack.

  2. This sounds like a great series!

  3. Rhapsody, Seriously? A crossword puzzle clue? I must have been missing that one all these years! LOL Thanks for the feedback on the soundtrack, I always appreciate when people notice those.

    BermudaOnion, it's been a very fun series to read so far. I have two more to review--Matisse's South of France, and Trancendentalist's New England. Really looking forward to both of those.

  4. I think I need this for my France collection! :-)

  5. fyi - it was 3 dozen oysters, not 2! I know this because Dad tried to order 2 (by holding up 2 fingers), but forgot that in France, the thumb counts too! (ask him, he'll remember...)
    Love, Ka

  6. Ka, I thought he tried to order a dozen and got two dozen...? But considering that you and he ate them all almost single handedly (double handedly?), you two probably remember better than me!

    Marie, if you have a France collection, you definitely need this one in it!