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By Gustave Flaubert
Translated by Lydia Davis
New York: Published by the Penguin Group, 2010 Original was publish serially beginning in 1876
ISBN: 978-0-670-02207-6 311 pages

Bob Corbett
October 2015

What follows below are not really comments on the novel Madame Bovary. Rather, this is sort of a comparison / contrast of the novel Madame Bovary and the novel The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa. I read THE BAD GIRL just a month ago and wrote my comments on it. Those comments may be found at: --

The Bad Girl

After reading the Llosa novel and having written my own comments, I decided to see what some of the literary critics had to say about the novel. I was quite surprised to see one critic say that this Llosa novel is actually a “retelling” of the famous late 19th century novel, Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Thus, after having read and being very excited about Llosa’s novel I decided to read Gustave Flaubert’s MADAME BOVARY primarily to see just how similar the two novels were to one another. However, knowing the fine reputation of Flaubert and never having read him before, I did come to this novel delighted to finally be “tasting” the work of this French master. At the same time I was most curious to see if, as the critic suggested, the Llosa novel is some sort of “retelling” of the earlier Flaubert work.

That claim was made in Kathryn Harrison’s review: “Dangerous Obsession” in The New York Book Reviews, NY Times, Oct. 14, 2007. She says (in part): Do you recognize the story? It’s been told before, by Gustave Flaubert, whose Emma Bovary has fascinated Vargas Llosa nearly all his writing life, from his first reading of “Madame Bovary” in 1959, when he had just moved to Paris at the age of 23. In 1986, “The Perpetual Orgy” was published, and it’s as much a declaration of Vargas Llosa’s love for Emma as a work of literary criticism. Now, in his most recent book, a splendid, suspenseful and irresistible novel, he takes possession of the plot of “Madame Bovary” just as thoroughly and mystically as its heroine continues to possess him. Translated by Edith Grossman with the fluid artistry readers have come to expect from her renditions of Latin American fiction, “The Bad Girl” is one of those rare literary events: a remaking rather than a recycling.

There is no question that Kathryn Harrison is correct that there are some noticeable similarities in the story line of the two novels. However, at the same time there are some very important differences as well. Harrison obviously sees this as well and notes, as I cite above that she is suggesting this is “a remaking rather than a recycling.”

In looking at the similarities we find in each story the tale of a woman who is willing to have affairs with various men and whose primary concern in life is her own pleasures regardless of what this does to others. However, even in that line of behavior there are also some glaring differences in the two women. In Flaubert’s “original” story the woman, Emma Bovary, has secret affairs with two men, and would likely have had others had the chance or need occurred. However, in Llosa’s tale, the woman, “the bad girl” as she is often referred to, is not married to the narrator of the tale who is the one seemingly most hurt and even destroyed by her behavior.

In both cases the woman has affairs with men, but in “the bad girl’s” case, she normally marries the men with the exception of her Japanese lover. But in Llosa’s case the narrator of the tale is a man who has loved “the bad girl” since he was 15 years old, and later has sex with her numerous times when she is actually either married to or “connected” with a man other than the narrator.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two treatments, however, is that Gustave Flaubert in his Madame Bovary uses the “all knowing author” to narrator the tale and we readers then can be told the behaviors and thoughts of many characters. However, what seemed to me the most powerful part of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel is that the novel is primarily a first person narration of a single person, Ricardo Somocurcio, and what we know about the bad girl is what he tells us and that is always from his point of view. This is a stunning difference since in the Llosa novel we don’t really know just how much of this he gets right and how much he gets wrong about what she is and what he thinks she is doing. Further, we really don’t know what she’s THINKING about her position in this or that situation, we only know those things from Ricardo’s story as he has heard it from her when she’s with him.

A second significant difference is the seeming “attitudes” and “motivations” of the two women. In Flaubert’s story the narration is the all-knowing author and we are told what she is thinking and planning, and by and large she is often a very naïve young woman who has had extremely little experience with men, but wants and wishes for much more in her life. On the other hand, we have no idea of what really motivates “the bad girl” other than her desire for wealth and all that goes with it. It does seem, however, that she has become genuinely touched and even attached to her Japanese lover, something that Madame Bovary never really seems to do. She is primarily only after the excitement, luxury and sex of the relationship. She wants to be wanted.

In the end the two women seem to me quite different. Emma Bovary is a very insecure and uninformed young woman who is desperate for something more exciting and “larger” in life that what she had as a child and in what her husband can provide her. However, “the bad girl” is, while of poor and humble origins and little formal learning, is sophisticated, very independent, able to manipulate her world with tremendous success and ability. She almost always gets what she wants, at least for some significant amount of time before it all goes wrong. Emma Bovary is extremely insecure and is worried constantly about her simple husband finding out about her infidelities and what he might think or do. “The bad girl” seems to lean on Ricardo only when things go bad for her and she knows that he so loves her that she can treat him almost anyway she wants and he will do her bidding.

Having said all that, I would say, a definite YES to the fact that there are some dramatic similarities in the two stories and the personalities of the two women and in the key male figure who plays the role of “home base” for the woman, Charles in Emma’s case, and Ricardo in “the bad girl’s” case.

So just how true is it to think of Llosa’s novel and being significantly influence by Flaubert’s story and to what degree is this a sort of retelling of the story, while yet making it Llosa’s “version” of it? Despite the clear evidence that Llosa was very knowledgeable and fascinated by Flaubert’s writing, and despite all the similarities of the two stories, the degree of difference in the stories leaves me a bit suspicious of going as far as Kathryn Harrison does in linking the two novels. In any case, it is a degree of difference in her thinking of the novel and my own and, independent of this issue, each novel is gripping, well-written and definitely worth a read by anyone loving good literature.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett