Madman Bovary by Christophe Claro
In this literary hijack, Claro infiltrates a classic text and takes the controls. Or does the novel submit willingly?
Our narrator, unnamed until he adopts this twisted title, is reeling from his lover Estée’s departure. He retreats to bed, where for solace he reaches for the nearest novel: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. He will cure himself of his hopeless attachment by a non-stop re-reading, ‘like a derailed train’. A few pages into Madman Bovary’s journey, ‘derailed’ looks like a serious understatement.
Madman replays key Bovary scenes over and over – particularly the famous opening scene with schoolboy Charles Bovary in his much-theorised composite hat. His rationale is that through numerous reiterations we nevertheless move forward and may escape our past. Flaubert’s shadow at his shoulder, Madman works himself, in brief, crazed chapters, simultaneously into the minds of both author and creation, soon speaking and seeing as Emma herself.
Flaubert insisted “Emma Bovary, c’est moi”, but he cannot have imagined the liberties this identification lark would inspire. Madman’s Emma and Charles get drunk in a sweaty bar full of boyz givenchyvisé sporting bluetoothé phones; they get it on and in violent prose Madman describes Emma’s first time. Crucial moments from the original text flash by: the glitter of the society ball that accelerates Emma’s disaffection; Charles’s failed operation on a young man’s club-foot. Flaubert becomes Madman’s drinking partner, spurring him on to further reading; characters from others of Flaubert’s texts intrude; the busybody pharmacist Homais looms over the book’s last sections like a provincial Frankenstein.
Claro’s literary games mark out a broad personal canon, from the tiniest puns and references – ‘dequixotised’ windmills, shandyesque elided chapters and spelt-out ‘commas’ – to longer, Beckettian, unspaced outpourings. One chapter consists simply of increasingly distorted facsimile pages from the original novel. His fascination with the eroticism of electricity recalls Ballard: Madman feels the current of ‘power-plant Flaubert’ pulsing through him. Such shameless borrowings make a novel that is almost a manifesto, a demonstration of how to re-connect literature with life and so revitalise both. Translator of an impressive number of (mostly American) heavyweight writers – Gass, Pynchon, Vollman, Barth, Rushdie, Markson and others – as well as author of 12 previous novels, Claro can still give a mean lesson in taking literature lightly.
A slightly shorter form of this review appeared in the TLS in the June 13th issue. It is reproduced here with kind permission.