“Isn’t this the life then?” – Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry

mbotssdLovers of French Literature will be familiar with Madame Bovary, the story of a bored housewife who seeks refuge in the arms of a wealthy lover, falling victim to her own middle-class, bourgeois social aspirations as she finally commits suicide. Sophie Divry is a French novelist with two novels translated into English, The Library of Unrequited Love, and now this one, a story that relates the life of one woman from childhood to death and includes the sort of incidental detail we would rather forget about but which tends to make up a life of triviality. Depressing, you might say, and quite honestly, it is, rather. But I still felt that I had to keep on reading it, with the same sort of compulsion as I will watch a horror film right through to the end even if I don’t really want to.

The entire book is written in the second person, a rare feat for an author since it is so difficult to use effectively. It has the effect of making the reader the focus of the book, and implicating them fully in the action. In effect, we become the protagonist; the narrator tells us who we are, and we don’t always like it.

This is a novel deliberately sprinkled with clichés and stereotypes, a lifetime of them to be exact, giving a sensation of almost uncomfortable exposure. Our life is being laid bare in all its used up, worn out detail. Not only do we feel that our story is being told, we also feel that it is being ridiculed. What are we supposed to take away from this strange parody of life?

The protagonist, which the reader ‘becomes’ and whom the narrator refers to from time to time as M.A.,

“had failed to understand that what fills a life is a way of being, the present tense of the sentence in which one is breathing, not an event situated in the future which, after being consumed, will leave us standing disappointed in front of the refrigerator.”

Significantly, Divry has us standing in front of the refrigerator at both the beginning and the ending of this book, so perhaps this life story is some sort of accusation. We are not ‘living in the moment’; we suffer from the Madame Bovary disease of never being happy with what we have.

Flaubert, the creator of Madame Bovary, had a deep loathing for middle class values. The French middle class was the Bourgeoisie. At one time, to be called bourgeois was one of the most effective French insults. It defined the opposition between the capitalist and the proletariat: between those who had money and those who didn’t. It still does, really, except that the notion of bourgeois has been redefined in modern terms, and has found its way into Divry’s book, which is what makes it so French.  Broadly speaking, (and I know this is a generalisation) the bourgeoisie have now become the property owners, while the proletariats are the renters. The protagonist of Divry’s Madame Bovary of the Suburbs thus achieves the ultimate ambition of the bourgeois individual: that of becoming a homeowner. But does it make her happy? Of course not, the bourgeois individual is destined to be miserable. Once the joy of the house purchase is over, things go downhill faster than you can say adultery in the home of the protagonist and her husband. Naturally, it doesn’t help that the husband “chewed his meat inelegantly”, and was “spineless in his penetration”, which became rather an obstacle to happiness. Nor does it help that he “coughed up too much phlegm in the sink”, or that he said things such as, “isn’t this the life then?” when clearly it wasn’t.

I can imagine that this book would be a big hit in France, but to an English-speaking readership it could be a bit of a puzzle. I think in the end that you have to know the French to love them, and the same could be said of this book. It offers a fascinating window on the French mindset and it is mostly very funny; its use of stereotypes and clichés exposes the underside of French society, the disdain for money and the middle classes, the foibles and the fears. In an interview Divry said that she was obsessed by modern life, by questions such as, “what do we do about life, about other people?”

Fortunately by the end of the book we needn’t worry about that because Divry’s obsession is resolved by nature — everybody dies (except the children, who inherit the house, presumably). Not sure where it leaves the reader however, since the reader has by now become the protagonist. Amused but ill at ease? Dead, in any event.

Any Cop?: Fascinating and well worth reading for its dark humour.

 

Lucille Turner

 

 

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