Book guilt and the classics: how to get rid of that feeling.

book guilt

You must be familiar with that feeling that haunts you every time you’re thinking of starting a new book. The feeling that your choice means some other book will have to remain unread… The doubt whether you have made the right decision on how to spend reading time. It is pure book guilt and is paralyzing enough to make you give up reading altogether. The “so little time so many books” syndrome can either turn you to a compulsive reader or a non-reader at all.

How can we beat that fear of missing out and indulge in the reading process per se which is immune to what you’ ve read so far and what will follow? How about enjoying some book pride for a change and every time the toxic thought tries to settle we focus on the book we are reading and not on the others who line up and crave our attention?

It won’t happen overnight, if it is to happen at all. A true literature lover will always struggle between book choices and not-enough time, so, what I suggest is to be pragmatic, accept the fact as a… fatal condition and adopt an irreverent attitude even to the masters -and monsters- of literature.

What follows is a list of my alibis for not having read some 19th & early 20th century classics, for having read others instead and how I suggest we should cope with book guilt. The list is partial and conceals my true embarassment in not having read some important french classic literature (Zola, Stendhal, Balzac, De Maupassant) to the extent i would like. Any advice on that?

11 classics and how to deal with book guilt

Charles Dickens

You know the opening lines of “A tale of two cities” (1859) by heart “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”, but this is as far you’ ve got. You’ ve read Oliver Twist  as a junior but then again you were only reading for plot. And you tried “Great Expectations” after you had seen the movie but Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke kept messing in the pages and you couldn’t feel the original characters. You can always discard him as too Victorian or too Dickens to buy you some time but your chances are you will read “Bleak House” to find its two volumes actually poor for its… 157 characters.

Jane Austen

“Pride and Prejudice” (1813), “Sense and Sensibility”, “Emma”, “Mansfield Park” are such household names you can’t even remember if you’ ve read them as a child or seen them in film or have “met” them in every other genre they inspired. You can discard Jane Austen as too Georgian, too marriage-obsessed (although single herself); but can you really? Can you resist reading a novel which begins “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” and hosts the character of Mr. Benett, the father of the four daughters who, when his wife reprimands him “you have not compassion for my poor nerves” he answers  “you mistake me my dear, I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends”. So if you must settle with one of her books, go for “Pride and Prejudice”. But, chances are you’ll look for the rest.

George Eliot

It’s not that you didn’t try “Middlemarch” (1871). You did but reading Middlemarch is rereading some sentences for three times to grasp the meaning- and still having doubts. A book even Henry James who worshipped George Eliot called obscure and philosophical: “The author wishes to say too many things and to say them too well”. Of course, he loved it. But he didn’t have to wake up at 7.00 o’clock in the morning to go to work.

Mark Twain

You’ ve devoured his writing tips and witticisms but not much of his fiction. And then you have Ernest Hemingway naming “The adventures of Huckleberry Fin” (1884) as the definitive American masterpiece:“All modern American literature comes from that book. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Mark Twain was discarded as a humorist and definitely not a literary product by his peer critics but was soon  to be considered the ultimate American novelist. So not to have read Huckleberry Fin is one thing. But how can you defy Papa Hemingway ?

Henry James

I am afraid there is little one can say in your defense for not having read anything Henry James. “The Portrait of a lady” (1881) is unparalleled in making Isabel Archer such a vivid and three-dimensional character facing her destiny and James’s prose and rendering of detail, both scenic and emotional, is unique. And then, there’s the short novella “Daisy Miller” and the innocently sinister “The turn of the screw”, you shouldn’t really miss.

Edith Wharton

If you’ ve read Henry James then you can skip Edith Wharton, aka… masculine Henry James. Or is it that Henry James is a… feminine Edith Wharton? Still, how can you really miss “The Custom of the Country” (1913) and Undine Spragg, one of fiction’s most uncharming female characters- which is such a delight to read-, Countess Elena Olenska and her dilemmas in “The Age of Innocence” or the stunning but impoverished Lily Bart in “House of Mirth” and her emotional struggles?

Kate Chopin

Critics speak of “The Awakening” (1899) as being one of the model books for women’s emancipation. A woman not finding the purpose of her life in raising her children, -a taboo even today- in searching for other ways to find happiness and stimuli in her life… If you haven’t tried it, well, it’s a very easy book to read, you can do it overnight– but, no, it won’t spare you from reading “Madame Bovary” (1856), the… original first “desperate housewife”, written 50 years before.

Gustave Flaubert

It’s not only the subject, it is also Flaubert’s elaborate prose which made him a master among his peer novelists and his successors. His visual style, his fixation on style and the material world, the cadence of his sentences and the study of the human subject make it an essential read. If there is only one you had to pick from the French novelists of the 19th, make it his “Madame Bovary”. And, for a closer and more thorough look on the inexhaustible subject, go for “Anna Karenina” (1873).

Leo Tolstoi

You probably know that Anna Karenina committed suicide in a railway station, you must have quoted several times its opening line “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but still haven’t read the novel. Do, please. It’s a masterpiece. And don’t stop there. If “War and Peace” seems long enough (even Ernest Hemingway would argue: “I can write it like Tolstoi and make the book seem larger, wiser, and all the rest of it. But then I remember that was what I always skipped in Tolstoi”, don’t miss out on the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonatas”, outstanding tokens of what literature can do to describe the human predicament in death and love.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When it comes to the Russians, it’s difficult to lure the true lover of fiction out of their spell. Because the thing that best describes the relationship of an adequate reader  to them is… binge reading. Fyodor’s Dostoyevsky “Crime and Punishment” (1866), “The Idiot”, “The Brothers Karamazov”, “Demons” , “The Gambler”, “Notes form the Underground” are reference books on life and death dilemmas and moral issues written on paper and treated as literature for the first time. When you make the acquaintance with Dostoyevsky’s universe there is no coming back.

Anton Chekhov

And then again there is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). The master of theatrical plays and short stories that has probably influenced every short story writer ever since. Binge reading is a common practice with Chekhov too. The struggle of his characters to come to terms with their incongruous desires and the mundane life that weighs on them are apparent even in his shortest stories. The doctor with a genuine passion for stories and talent for humanity is difficult to put down, so read at your own pace and risk.

Madame Bovary: a fairytale gone bad.

madame bovary

If we had to come up with literature’s top 10 narcissistic female characters, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary would have probably topped the list (with Edith Wharton’s Undine Spragg following her close- from the novel “Custom of the Country”). Self-centered, conceited and ultimately self-destructive, Emma Bovary is still a character we keep returning to not only for the pleasure of indulging in Flaubert’s unparalleled prose but because once exposed to the unbearable lightness of her romanticism, there is no going back.

Below are some random musings after rereading the novel which after its scandalous publication (1856) would become the template for all literary depictions of adultery and female struggle with conventional family life.

The love scene in the carriage

Flaubert seems to be doing cinema here, long before it was invented. You almost see and hear the carriage with Emma and Leon (her lover) that wanders about Paris’ streets for hours condemning the coachman to physical exhaustion. With hardly a description of what is happening inside that carriage-cab, you can experience its urgency, extremity, gravity and inescapability. This is perhaps the most underdescribed and insinuated love scene in classic literature which is so felt that once read, it gets under your skin.

The protagonist in this love scene is… the cab’s coachman who is at a loss to understand “what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him“. Through the coachman’s physical weariness we realize the advent of time and the character of the emergency that has entrapped the two lovers inside the cab: “Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralized, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue and depression”.

Flaubert’s cinematic virtuosity is unique in lines such as “that sight of  a cab with blinds drawn, and which appeared thus constantly shut more closely than a tomb, and tossing about like a vessel” which “without any fixed plan or direction, wandered about at hazard“.

And then you have the last sentence of the chapter where the writer dispassionately, with an air of indifference, rings down the curtain on one of the most passionate private love scenes of literature: “At about six o’clock the carriage stopped in a back street of the Beauvoisine Quarter and a woman got out, who walked with her veil down and without turning her head.”

The compulsion behind the woman

Emma Bovary was a shopaholic. A romantic novels’ devourer. A boredom enthusiast. A passion addict. With all her larger than life characteristics, Emma Bovary makes for one of the most hard to forget, vivid characters in fiction.

New dresses, new hats, new gloves, new lingerie, new furniture and decoration of the house: her consumerism as a compulsive tick takes all over her, using up all her healthy qualities- if there were any. This nervous compulsion to shop in order to exist, so relevant today, gives her another essentially modern allure and it’s difficult not to recognize some of ourselves in her insatiable need to possess.

A bad reader

If Emma Bovary was alive today and not just a fictional character of the 1860’s, she would probably be an avid consumer of beach reads, though all year-long. She would rather even find Anna Karenina a tiresomely long story and would hate the Russian writers. She would love most of Edith Wharton’s female characters but would have to look up many of her novels’ words in the Merriam- Webster dictionary. She would have liked Fifty Shades of Grey, but would have been appalled at its graphic language. Her favorite movie would be “Pretty Woman”- and she would deplore not having the chance to read its printed version.

The first desperate housewife

It seems the original desperate housewives that haunted last decade’s TV screens weren’t so original after all. Emma Bovary seems to have been the authentic “desperate” housewife who never came in terms with the dream of domestic bliss and invented a parallel universe to enact her daydreaming. A woman who romanticized herself to the last detail and acted out her fantasies to such an extent that they didn’t have a chance but to take place.

But life doesn’t give you a red carpet treatment just because… it’s you. Emma had to find it out the painful way. Her escapism would soon collapse to reality’s confinements while her sense of entitlement would only bring forward her sense of failure. A recipe than never fails.

The “i have a lover” quote

“She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired. She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. An azure infinity encompassed her, the heights of sentiment sparkled under her thought, and ordinary existence appeared only afar off, down below in the shade, through the interspaces of these heights.”

It’s easy to denounce Emma Bovary here as superficial, individualistic, self-righteous, insensitive to real love and only dragged to it for its cosmetic and external value. But still, there is a girlie essence in this delirium that enchants us and even makes us feel an affection for that woman who is lured to those feelings just because she must feel them no matter what – and because other women have felt them so why not her? Who can blame La Rochefoucauld who had the sharp eye to notice not so many years before Flaubert that People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” Food for thought.

Flaubert’s lists

Flaubert, to a letter to his friend and French poet Louise Colet, mentioned that he wanted the reader to feel his universe “almost physically”. That’s a key word to get a glimpse of his craftsmanship, his fixation on detail, his almost listing of things on so many levels and in such a natural way that the reader gets the feeling first of the verisimilitude of the description and then of its uniqueness. It takes a literary master to produce such a result without letting the reader realize the struggle behind the sentences.

Fabrics, textures, upholstery, cosmetics, foods and colors of pantone-like accuracy are all rendered to their last details so that you feel it couldn’t have been otherwise. The material world in Flaubert is a key character in the novel surrounding Emma Bovary with its firmness and rooting her deeply by its voracious capacity.

The deathbed splatter

Flaubert doesn’t spare you the details of Emma’s slipping to death, granting her with one of the most blunt and certainly not romantic deaths in fiction (especially of that era). Irony at its best here for the woman who spent most part of her life living as the heroine of her own romantic novel.

“Her chest soon began panting rapidly; the whole of her tongue protruded from her mouth;  her eyes, as they rolled, grew paler, like the two globes of a lamp that is going out, so that one might have thought her already dead but for the fearful labouring of her ribs, shaken by violent breathing, as if the soul were struggling to free itself { …}As the death-rattle became stronger the priest prayed faster; his prayers mingled with the stifled sobs of Bovary and sometimes all seemed lost in  the muffled murmur of the Latin syllables that tolled like a passing bell {… }They had to raise the head a little and a rush of black liquid issued, as if she were vomiting, from her mouth.”

A naturalistic prose that throws you right in the middle of the scene, exposing the dramatic effect of realism in literature. Flaubert’s lens frames only the “technicalities” that result in a heartbreaking but not sentimental scene. He handpicks the details that highlight the tragic weight of the moment through blunt realism- always stronger than its romantic counterpart.

Charles, the husband: a good man is hard to find

He never lived to his wife’s expectations. Even from their honeymoon he let down his wife who wished they had never visited Tostes but a romantic chalet in Switzerland (Though he was fighting a lost battle here, how difficult it was not to fail Emma Bovary?) Emma was practically disgusted at the man who had idealized her to the extent of believing that her skin was giving its fragrance to her clothes and not the other way around, was shattered due to her loss and didn’t even believe his eyes when he read one of her love letters he found in the attic after her death. His transparent soul and his worship for her misread it to an innocent, platonic letter of no importance, incapable of altering his love for her.

Too prosaic for his woman’s refined tastes, he would have been the ideal husband for her, if only she was cut out to be a housewife.

Coining a term after her: bovarism

I quote from Merriam-Webster: Bovarism = domination by such an idealized, glamorized, glorified, or otherwise unreal conception of oneself that it results in dramatic personal conflict (as in tragedy), in markedly unusual behavior (as in paranoia), or in great achievement.

Too bad our girl, the authentic Emma Bovary after whom the term was coined, resulted in tragedy and not in great achievement.