Tuesday, July 13, 2010

i'm on the pursuit of happiness and i know... i'll be fine once i get it, i'll be good

A while ago I read 'Fire in the Blood' by Irene Nemirovsky, then more picked up 'Madame Bovary' by Gustave Flaubert, and thought "this sounds familiar". Not that I am accusing Flaubert of copying a work written about 90 years after his, or Nemirovsky of copying Flaubert. I just noticed that 'Madame Bovary' is subtitled 'Patterns of Provincial Life', and that's what these two books provide- patterns. It's hard to describe the patterns exactly- there's the obvious (watch out there may be spoilers) pattern of infidelity in young French provincial wives, but that sounds a bit broad. There are the large country weddings, the hope of happiness that turns to discontent- or merely marriage as a chance to get away from home.

While these patterns repeat themselves between books, and within books in the case of 'Fire in the Blood', I reacted very differently to the two. 'Fire in the Blood' seems all about patterns. The title refers to youthful passion which supposedly makes everyone act crazily and is contrasted to  the contentment and passivity of the aged narrator. As a bit of an aside- what I really liked about this book is that the apparent contrast and the detachment of the narrator is brought into question at the end, and you are left questioning his true feelings. There is also the pattern within families- the children repeat the sins of the parents. It's an interesting dynamic that's presented- the children believe their parents are above reproach and vice versa, but in reality they all make the same mistakes.

While 'Fire in the Blood' sees infidelity as one of the inevitable mistakes of youth, in 'Madame Bovary' it is perhaps a tragic side effect of being female. Or maybe an individual foible. Despite the fame of 'Madame Bovary' I didn't really know much about it, and had the impression that the main character was very unsympathetic. So I was surprised at how much sympathy I had for her, particularly to begin with. It really made me think how limited a woman's life was at that time, particularly in a small country town. Emma Bovary seemed fairly intelligent, but with no outlet for her energy she became extremely bored and dissatisfied, looking to wild schemes and affairs for love and happiness that continued to elude her. At the beginning I was sympathetic to her, she had very little choice in her marriage, in where she lived, and very few available occupations. But her dream of grand living and grand romance appears from the beginning to be flawed. When she becomes discontent I was reminded of the words of Merlin in Prince Valiant: 'Only a turtle on a sunny rock knows contentment' (ie no human is ever content). In this instance the search for contentment is indeed futile, and becomes more and more selfish seeming as it continues. I don't think Prince Valiant is alone in talking about the difficulties inherent in pursuing happiness, take the words of Kid Cudi for instance:

I'm on the pursuit of happiness and I know
Everything that's shining always gonna be golden.
I'll be fine once I get it,
I'll be good. 


  1. Anonymous15/7/10 23:55

    “While 'Fire in the Blood' sees infidelity as one of the inevitable mistakes of youth, in 'Madame Bovary' it is perhaps a tragic side effect of being female.”

    Or as we know: one of the tragic side effects of being human. And this particular mistake is not inevitable, despite fashionable belief to the contrary. (Although of course making mistakes of some sort IS inevitable. I'm not claiming perfection.)

    Happiness is one of those things best approached indirectly. If it is your goal, you won't get any. If you have some other passion, you might get lucky.

  2. Anonymous16/7/10 00:06

    Actually, the other thought (I should have put it with my first comment) that occurs to me is that I have just had a copy of Alain De Botton's book "Essay's in Love" come into my hands. A funny little book that very closely dissects one of the author's own affairs. Have you read it? For him the whole business of falling in love is quite uncalculated. But perhaps it is different for the French?

  3. Well to clarify: my point was that 'Fire in the Blood' showed the mistakes of youth, among them infidelity (the focus of this book), and I felt like the infidelity in Madame Bovary was very tied up in the protagonists gender (was definitely not trying to say that only women are unfaithful!).

    I think on happiness you are probably right.

    I haven't actually read any Alain de Botton, was it any good?

  4. Anonymous16/7/10 16:07

    I have only read a few chapters in to where his relationship is starting to show stress - the first fight I guess. And then some chapters at the end where he is mulling over the meaning of it all. A love story written by a philosopher I suppose you would call it, and all laid out a a series of propositions, with a lot of introspection. Interesting and sometimes insightful.
    I will bring it home.