‘Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we are wishing to move the stars to pity.’
— Flaubert, Madame Bovary
My notebook is filled with passages copied out of Madame Bovary, which I finished in bed last night. It wasn’t what I expected—Emma is far removed from the hopeless grandeur of Anna Karenina—but I wept for her all the same. With her discontent, her striving after gimcrack dreams of frills and trimmings and romantic love, she is the model of a modern heroine. She died not because she was an adulteress, but because she was addicted to retail therapy. Poor Charles Bovary weeps today in twenty villages in Long Island.
As Emma thrashed in arsenic agonies, a woman in the bungalow next to mine yowled at a boyfriend.
‘Fuckin’ piece of shit. Fuckin’ piece of worthless shit. No more. He’s bad. He’s a bad person. I take his love away from him. Take all my love back. No good. Bad. Evil, evil, evil. Take all my love back.’
She kept wailing like a drunken, potty-mouthed toddler. It was midnight already. I gave her until Emma Bovary died to sort herself out before I banged on her door. Then she started to play the flute hysterically, which I hadn’t known was possible.
Charles Bovary was plunged into despair. The flute warbled on, accompanied by further rantings. Charles Bovary discovered the letters from Emma’s lovers. Still my neighbor ranted. Charles Bovary keeled over in the garden, dead.
I think she fell asleep.
The next morning, I saw her gulping water on the porch. She was not, as I’d thought, a backpacking teenager from Ohio, rather, she was a plain fortysomething with a motorbike out front. I threw her a dirty look but my heart wasn’t in it. She’ll never move the stars to pity.