Confession: I had never read Madame Bovary

until this past week.  This could be considered shameful not just because I have serious interest in reading and writing fiction, but also for my interest in French and French literature.  However, it could be considered less shameful for the reason that I was putting it off:  I wanted to read it in the original.  And I had started doing this, in fact.  I could have muddled my way through, skipping words and expressions I didn't understand, but this would defeat the whole purpose of reading the original text of ostensibly one of the greatest works of literature ever.  So my only option in this case was to sit down with a dictionary and devote enough time to picking my way through.  But I never seemed to have the patience.  And seeing as how I've been fighting the same battle with Proust's A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu for years (I have all seven volumes on my shelf, and this is only partially my own doing), and seeing as how I happened to read a sample of Lydia Davis' new translation of Madame Bovary in a recent issue of Tin House, my general feeling as of about a week ago was "Screw it."

(Edit :  If it wasn't clear, I broke down and read a translation.)

The only thing is, though, now I'm not so sure that I hadn't read it.  Some parts (aside from the bit I read in Ms. Davis' translation) I could have sworn seeing before, particularly toward the end.  I guess it's entirely possible or maybe even probable that I've stumbled across excerpts in some literary anthology(s) or other.

My reaction upon finishing it is that I feel a little deflated.  Not in a bad way, but it's weird thinking that I've read it now after having thought about it for so long.  Considering that I was already familiar with some of Flaubert's other work, that the book has been so incredibly influential on literature in general, and that I may have already read at least some of it, it's not shocking that none of it really took me by surprise.  There were many passages that I was particularly impressed with and had to stop and read over again.  But there was also something a bit creepy about it.  I imagine it would be like going through life never listening to the Beatles but only all of the music that came after them, and then, one day, coming across Revolver.  With music that's not even possible.  You would have to never go to the grocery store.  But literature is, of course, an entirely different ball game.

I remember I felt relieved when Jonathan Franzen, in one of his essays, listed a bunch of novels he had started and never finished, including Don Quixote and Moby Dick.  The fact that I'm a college dropout and somewhat defensive about it makes it difficult for me to admit that there are "great" works of literature that I haven't read, because I feel certain that some asshole will wag his head and tsk knowingly.  But in fact I find myself curious about how many authors have gaping (or at least substantial) holes in their resumes as readers.  I would guess most of them; it's just a matter of what precisely they haven't read.  When I was in high school I just assumed that all of my English teachers had read all of the "great books," but what are those books, exactly, and to what extent does canonized = great?  I think probably most books acknowledged as great are at least worth reading for the sake of context, and I'm sure there are some teachers and professors who spend their free time and summer vacations slogging through all of Dickens and all of Melville and so on.  But everyone only has so much time to devote to a certain specialization, and you can be pretty sure that these same people have not also read everything by Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth.  I'm not using this example to say there's a split between two camps of people (modern and classic literature) but that in terms of sheer quantity of reading you can't teach and/or write and READ EVERYTHING and also possibly have a spouse and/or family and/or unrelated job.  Especially if you also like to keep up with the latest comic books or mystery novels.  Choices must be made.

I'm amused by the idea of characterizing literary-minded people by what they haven't read rather than what they have read.  With that in mind, here's a quick list of what I haven't read:

War and Peace (Eli, age 1 and 1/2, is apparently ahead of me here)
Anna Karenina (started and in process)
Moby Dick (started)
Don Quixote
no Pynchon except a few pages of The Crying Of Lot 49
no Dickens other than A Tale Of Two Cities
no Austen other than Pride and Prejudice
Heart of Darkness (started)
One Hundred Years of Solitude (started)

That's just what comes to mind.  Feel free to share your own.

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