It is widely known that boys are reluctant readers. The data supports the view too. It was with this fact in mind that Claude Chabrol’s well-crafted tale of his initial reading of Madame Bovary struck me as very unusual.

Chabrol went on to make the best film adaptation of the book and it’s not too surprising that a boy should read – or try to read – such a novel; after all Bovary was classified as a smutty book, or perceived as one, and his first reading was when he was thirteen, an age when looking out for raunchy pages is part of adolescence.

The way Chabrol tells the story he was not just interested in Madame Bovary, he was truly hooked in the way that some things possess the entire being. The odder part of his infatuation is that he was so utterly bewitched by the novel that on the occasion of losing his virginity all he could do was rush home and resume reading again. Not for Chabrol the need to share his milestone experience; perhaps brag to signify he was no longer a mere boy; no, he had another woman waiting for him.

To add to his adolescent obsession, he says, in his rush to get home, he lost a clog. The additional detail over the lost clog (sabot in French) is potent; the clog is a synecdoche of peasant, and of the authentic France.

Chabrol losing footwear to get back to his book should be a jacket blurb, not just for Madame Bovary but for any great novel: “So good, I lost my shoes!”.

One wonders what Chabrol’s accomplice turned to when she got home. Did she confide in her diary, do some homework, or have domestic duties to do, such as wash and peel some vegetables for the pot au feu which her grandmother had begun when the Germans first came in 1871.

The director Billy Wilder imagined the lot of the man who let his apartment to the couple in Brief Encounter (or as a French friend once called it, ‘Brief Accountant’). His question turned into the film, The Apartment.  It seems in Chabrol’s version too, Emma Bovary has once again supplanted another character. Her egotism is timeless.

As I said, Chabrol’s story is well-crafted: it completely avoids the physical detail, and ignores the emotional impressions of what occurred in the woods but like the textured and crafted paragraphs of Madame Bovary, the book, the clogs and that the event occurred in 1943, combine into a tale of French symbolism. Chabrol’s intention was to articulate the influence of the novel on him, in spite of all other elements. Hunger and sex are the two strongest forces but Chabrol implies, excellent writing too. In that he may have assumed too much of Emma Bovary’s style.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.



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