Jul 31, 2017

Reading The Classics: Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary 1857 (hi-res).jpg
Image from Wikipedia.org

Gustave Flaubert's 1857 novel Madame Bovary is considered one of the first novels to represent the style of literary realism (as opposed to romanticism). It tells the story of Emma Bovary, a 19th century desperate housewife who tries to escape her mundane existence by having affairs and buying things she doesn't need and can't afford. Spoilers ahead, beware!

I have to say, Emma Bovary is one of the most unlikeable women characters I've come across in literature so far. She's selfish, callous, mean to her husband and daughter, materialistic, vain, and a total drama queen. Not that there are many likeable characters to be found here; maybe Charles Bovary, the kind but dull husband, or the daughter, Berthe? The rest are a deplorable bunch. There's Rodolphe, the serial womaniser who seduces Emma and then casts her aside, Leon, the clerk with whom Emma has her second affair, Homais, the town pharmacist and frenemy to Charles, and Monsieur Lheureux, who sells Emma goods for credit and manipulates her to buy more and more things while at the same time offering credit to her husband until the Bovarys are completely ruined.

Emma is easy to despise because she makes so many stupid decisions during the story. She's never content, always yearning for something more. She doesn't appreciate her husband or enjoy watching her daughter grow up and is always fawning after the fripperies of wealth and totally unrealistic romantic expectations that her illicit lovers can't hope to live up to. There's a feeling of being stifled and trapped about her, mentally and physically. At first she's happy at the prospect of marrying Charles and escaping her father's humble farmhouse, but then the realities of marriage set in. Her extramarital affairs help her feel alive for a moment, but then they, too, start to feel as dull as married life. Then she tries to fill the void in her soul with materialistic things. In the end she takes her own life and is at peace in her final moments, having at last escaped.

I have to wonder, would things have been different if Emma had lived in the present? Perhaps she'd be a career woman sleeping around to fill the emptiness within, or a young stay-at-home mom trying to keep up with the Kardashians by ordering designer bags and clothes on the internet with money she doesn't have? There's something about Emma's ennui, dissatisfaction, and materialism that feel very contemporary. How many of us are really satisfied with our lives? We, too, escape into fantasies and use shopping to lift our spirits when we're feeling low. Many spend over their means and are up to their ears in credit card debt. But it is true that women have other options than being a mother and wife these days. Would Emma have found a career that gave her life purpose? Could she have been truly happy?    

Many have complained about Flaubert's long and meticulous descriptions, but I quite enjoyed them. Unfortunately my French isn't good enough to read the book in the original language, but as I've studied French it's easier to see that some parts that feel overly sentimental have to do with the translation. I did have a hard time seeing why this book is considered to represent realism, though. The plot is full of melodrama and the ending is almost Shakespearean: pretty much everyone dies/is cast into destitution. Maybe the descriptions of club foot surgery and life in a small town in France in the 1800s are the reason. And Emma is certainly not a romantic heroine.

I wonder what Flaubert really wanted to accomplish with this story. Is it a cautionary tale to scare women into being meek and faithful little housewives, or was Flaubert trying to show how narrow the role of women was at the time and what it could lead to? Somehow I suspect the former. Apparently he also despised the bourgeoisie with their yearning for social climbing and making money, and while he was at it, he also made fun of the silly romantic novels they read by making those one of the causes Emma acted like she did.

On the writerly front, what did I learn? I felt the descriptions were worth studying, even if they're probably too long for the modern reader. And there's a fine line between drama and melodrama. Drama goes over better. I also felt the opening and ending were weird: the story opens with Charles as a boy, but he's not the main character, and it takes quite a while for Emma to appear on the scene. Is this the best way to proceed? Is Flaubert trying to make the reader feel more sympathy towards Charles by introducing him first? The ending, on the other hand, drags on after Emma's death with long passages about Homais and his business affairs while stating the fate of Charles, Charles' mother, and little Berthe in a very clunky and callous way that feels like "Hey, look, here's the moral of the story." Nobody likes being lectured to.

Once again, not a book I enjoyed or would read again, but I can see why it's considered a classic.

Classics read: 31/100


Jul 23, 2017

Coffee and Cake: The Qwensel House Café

The Qwensel House Café is located in the inner courtyard of the Pharmacy museum near the center of Turku. The museum is only open in the summer (from May to the end of August) and at Christmastime, but now is the best time to visit, I think. 

The café is located in a 1700s house that survived the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, a rare occurrence for a wooden house of the time. Maybe the house's proximity to the River Aura had something to do with it? The house is named after Wilhelm Johan Qwensel, who bought the house in 1695 when he moved to Turku from Stockholm to work in the court of appeal.   

The café serves homemade cakes, pies, and pastries along with coffee and tea. 

I tried a savoury cheese-and-tomato pie this time, which turned out to be a good choice, although the sweet treats my friends had looked really good too.

Definitely a café to visit as much for the atmosphere as the food. I'm thinking it would be a great place to write some steampunk or historical fiction, but bringing a laptop here would be sacrilege; this is clearly notebook-and-pen territory. If you have the time, do check out the museum, too.

Jul 14, 2017

Tournament at Turku Castle

Wondering what to do this weekend? If you're anywhere near Turku and a fan of historical combat, do check out the tournament at Turku Castle. They've got everything from jousting to archery, and there's lots to do in the castle, too: special tours, activities for children, and a fair in the castle courtyard. Attendance is free, except for the museum activities.

Here's the program: http://www.tournament.fi

Jul 9, 2017


I got some good news yesterday. My short story "Waiting for the Dawn" earned a silver honourable mention in the Writers of the Future contest, 2nd quarter!

The silver honourable mention apparently falls somewhere between honourable mention and semifinalist, not too shabby for someone speaking English as a second language :) I'll definitely send something in for the 4th quarter.

Jul 8, 2017

Varjojen lumo, coming soon!

Here's some info on the anthology of Gothic stories I've been talking about. We're in the last round of edits now, and the anthology will be coming out in September. My contribution is called "Kun nokkoset kukkivat" ("When Nettles Bloom" in English). As the anthology is in Finnish, so is the announcement, sorry. 

Here's a link to the publisher's website: http://www.vaskikirjat.fi/varjojenlumo.html if you want to check it out. 

Katri Alatalo (toim.): Varjojen lumo - suomalaisia goottinovelleja

Mielen salaperäisimmät ja synkimmät piirteet ovat aina kiehtoneet ihmisiä. Goottilaisia tarinoita on julkaistu 1700-luvulta alkaen, ja niistä löytyvät myös kauhukirjallisuuden juuret. Nykyisin gotiikan kuvastolla on merkittävä osa kirjallisuudessa ja populaarikulttuurissa.
Varjojen lumo kokoaa ensimmäistä kertaa yhteen suomalaisten kirjoittajien goottinovelleja. Antologia sisältää 12 aiemmin julkaisematonta tarinaa, joissa suku on pahin ja vanhojen, hämyisten talojen kellareihin sekä ullakoille on kätketty synkkiä salaisuuksia. Novelleissa liikutaan eri maissa ja aikakausissa, ja ihmisten keskuudessa vaanii yliluonnollisia olentoja. Keskeisiksi hahmoiksi nousevat myös jylhät, rappeutuneet rakennukset, kuten linnat, kartanot, sairaalat ja maatilat.
Luvassa on tummia sävyjä ja jännittäviä mysteerejä - kauhulla ja romantiikalla maustettuna.
Jos jotain kirjoitatte, kirjoittakaa rakkaudesta.
- Milka Hakkarainen: Reaktorirakkautta

Antologian on toimittanut Katri Alatalo, ja se sisältää seuraavat novellit:
Marko Järvinen: Talo nummien keskellä
Henna Sinisalo: Salaisuus vahassa
Samu Kaarna: Luutnantti Mielfeldin viimeinen matka
Minerva Piha: Toiset kädet
Inkeri Kontro: Neiti Fridenstenin päiväkirja
M. G. Soikkeli: Verivelvolliset
Susanna Hynynen: Tulevan suven morsian
Artemis Kelosaari: Se mistä ei voi puhua
Marika Riikonen: Ei aina käy kuin elävissä kuvissa
Edith Arkko: Karannut sielu
Anna Salonen: Kun nokkoset kukkivat
Milka Hakkarainen: Reaktorirakkautta

Kirjassa on myös Markku Soikkelin kirjoittama esipuhe Gotiikka tyylinä ja perinteenä.