Honoré de Balzac in Le Père Goriot (1835) is seemingly cruder in his characterization than is Gustave Flaubert in his L'Éducation sentimental (1869)—the closeness and the humanness (rather than the difference or the distance of a personage drawn by Balzac) of Frédéric Moreau bind one to him—and superior to a difference, or perhaps to a fault, in the Henry James' Portrait of a Lady (1881) where all the characters are tiresomely witty, even the simpler ones.
I'm sure I'll change my views the more I read.
Every Tuesday I take lambs to a slaughterhouse upstate; I'm on the highway about 4 hours RT. I listen to books being read to me while I drive. This Tuesday I listened to Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert read by Claire Bloom. In How Fiction Works (what I listened to last Tuesday) The New Yorker critic James Wood describes how well Flaubert uses Free Indirect Discourse: third person narration that issues from the character as first person narration which can be as subtle as diction, even the choice of one word over another.
I wanted to see how Flaubert narrated his story—but try as I have in the past to read Madame Bovary, in either French or English, I can't. I always put the book down after several chapters in utter boredom. Finally, I think I've come upon the reason why for me the novel is unreadable.
Flaubert in a letter to his lover Louise Colet mentions that he doesn't like Charles or Emma Bovary—could this be why—do I require that authors like their creations? Curious. I feel, for example, that Jane Austen likes her sweet Emma and that Patricia Highsmith likes her most evil Mr. Ripley; sweet or evil—no matter which—I like reading about the adventures of these characters.
Here, Flaubert humorously, but meanly, goes between the formal speech of the president of the jury announcing the winning farmers and the sweet nothings of Rodolphe, written in Free Indirect Discourse, that seduce Madame Bovary at the local agricultural show almost under the nose of Charles her doltish and soon to be cuckolded husband.
'And he seized her hand; she did not withdraw it.
"For good farming generally!" cried the president.
—Just now, for example, when I went to your house.
"To Monsieur Bizat of Quincampoix."
—Did I know I should accompany you?
—A hundred times I wished to go; and I followed you—I remained.
—And I shall remain to-night, to-morrow, all other days, all my life!
"To Monsieur Caron of Argueil, a gold medal!"
—For I have never in the society of any other person found so complete a charm.
"To Monsieur Bain of Givry-Saint-Martin."
—And I shall carry away with me the remembrance of you.
"For a merino ram!"
—But you will forget me; I shall pass away like a shadow.'
Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Karl Marx's daughter, who like Emma Bovary committed suicide using poison. The italics above are mine.
By the way, I did finish listening to most of the novel but it was an abridged edition from Audible.com. There are treasures in his writing. Flaubert wrote slowly making sure his language was precise and that he used the mot juste.
"During the lovely summer evenings, at the hour when the warm streets are empty and the maids play shuttlecock on the doorsteps, he would open his window and look out, leaning on his elbow."
Translated by Mildred Marmur.