Summer of My Scandalous Novel

In my Quarterly Retrospective post I mentioned being consumed by a few things this summer and promised to post about them.  Quite unintentionally, my summer reading was tied together with the common thread of scandal.  But what better time for a little steamy reading than in the summer, right?

It all began with Madame Bovary.  After I finished that book, I wanted more.  So I followed it up with Bel Ami, a book by a protégé of Flaubert.  Then in an effort to keep it French, I turned to Zola.  My next choice of Lolita might seem a bit out of place in that line-up, but equally scandalous.  In fact, concluding my scandal run with Lolita might even be considered going out with a bang.  I’m pretty sure that Emma Bovary, Therese Raquin, and George Duroy combined don’t create as much controversy as the indelible Humbert Humbert.

Here’s the rundown:

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

I’ve probably devoted enough time to Madame Bovary already.  But one thing I didn’t touch on in my 3 part post series was the trial surrounding this book. Upon it’s publication, Flaubert was charged with obscenity and went to trial in 1857.  Initially, parts of the book were censored by a French literary magazine but Flaubert was adamant that the book be published as he wrote it and therefore faced the inevitable consequence.  The government banned it and charged Flaubert with “offending the public morality.”  The charges were eventually dropped but the book was banned again in Italy in 1864 and in the United States in 1954.

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Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Bel Ami is a rags-to-riches tale about a 19th century Parisian named George Duroy.  Only Duroy’s story isn’t one of those warm, fuzzy rags to riches tales that makes your eyes well up with tears and concludes with loud cheers and applause.  Duroy was ruthless.  He employed whatever means possible to climb the social ladder, always scheming and manipulating to get what he wanted.  The guy literally had NO SHAME.  Instead of being disliked for his despicableness, people couldn’t seem to get enough of him, especially the women.  He’s the sort who somehow always ends up on top because he’s charming and because he’s attractive (we all seem to know at least one of that sort, don’t we?)  As Maupassant was a follower and admirer of Flaubert, naturally his social criticism is ripe.  This book is all social status and scandal.  Its conclusion reminds readers that this society is not just.  The ruthless succeed.  Dirty tactics work.  Vice goes unpunished.

Maupassant’s fluid, economical style makes this a quick and easy read.

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

This book is not for the faint of heart, or the easily depressed.

Therese is an orphan who is raised by her aunt and grows up alongside her aunt’s son, Camille, who Therese eventually marries.  Camille has a weak constitution, rather sickly and sallow, from years of being overly coddled.  Similar to Flaubert’s Emma, boredom makes an entrance and casts a shadow of pointlessness on Therese’s mundane life and her passionate distress leads her down a disgraceful path.

What makes it scandalous?  Hmmm, let’s see . . . adultery, murder, deceit, hysteria, lunacy.  Things turn downright absurd as guilty characters actually start to believe that a watchful cat might blow their cover and the murderer can’t stop inadvertently painting pictures of his victim while physical wounds from the attack flare and refuse to heal.  And in the end, there’s never any real, genuine remorse over all that’s transpired.

It must have caused a stir because eventually Zola prefaced the book by telling readers how to read it, what he did and didn’t mean by it.  Scandal wasn’t Zola’s intention.  He didn’t write Therese Raquin  to be sensationalist or shocking.  He referred to himself as “a mere analyst,” a scientific observer with the experiment being his novel and his subjects the individuals with opposing temperaments.   He wanted to demonstrate through the outplay of events, how individuals with diverging temperaments would react in certain circumstances.  Or as Zola himself put it, he sought to demonstrate the consequences of “a certain temperament in contact with certain facts and certain beings.”  Zola said that he approached the writing of Therese Raquin with the “curiosity of a scientist,” which I take to mean that the novel was an expression of cause and effect; what happened was what had to happen, given all the variables.

Even though I appreciate what Zola was doing, I still give it the “downer of the year” award.


Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I won’t say too much about this book as I’m planning on devoting a post to it, which I *hope* to publish by Oct. 1 as it corresponds well with Banned Books Week.  We’ll see.  I might not be able to manage it.  Coincidentally, there was a post on Boing Boing while I was reading Lolita regarding the book’s Wiki page, which has apparently undergone 2300 edits since it first went up and continues to be edited on average about every other day.  A few matters of controversy include whether or not Humbert should be called a pedophile, how to describe Lolita’s age, and whether or not she should be labeled a “heroine.”  Some of the debate is very miniscule, down to the choice of a single word.   So yeah, it’s a controversial book.