Charles Bovary, Country Doctor

Jean Améry, trans. from the German by Adrian Nathan West. New York Review Books, $14.95 trade paper (168p) ISBN 978-1-68137-250-1
In this polemic novel-essay, Austrian-born philosopher Améry (On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death) makes a forceful if overheated case that Madame Bovary’s Charles Bovary is ill-served not only by his adulterous wife but also by Gustave Flaubert, the novel’s author. Améry (1912–1978) gives voice to Charles as he mourns the death of Emma Bovary, whom he loves and desires even more after her death. This is a different Charles than the one in Flaubert’s novel: more self-aware, suspicious, poetic, and passionate. He is not always convincing: “I feel others’ lust in my own base body, against all precepts of the bourgeoisie and conjugal honor.” Apart from these monologues, the book includes a critical disquisition, peppered with the occasional abstruse formulation, on the failures of Madame Bovary as a realist novel. First, Améry contends that Flaubert lets Charles live and die “improbably,” that the country doctor’s blind trust beggars belief. Second, he argues that this crime against realism stems from the author’s prejudices against the petite bourgeoisie, and that this crime is in part political: Charles, fictional though he may be, has been denied the rights of liberty, equality, and fraternity “inscribed in the principles of 1789.” Améry’s broadside, however, fails to create a more compelling Charles or successfully indict Flaubert. What it does do is raise thorny questions about an author’s responsibility toward his characters, even or especially the secondary ones, making it an object of interest for certain readers. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 07/23/2018
Release date: 09/04/2018
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