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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Charles Bovary, Country Doctor

Jean Améry

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To purchase Charles Bovary, Country Doctor

Title: Charles Bovary, Country Doctor
Author: Jean Améry
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 153 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Charles Bovary, Country Doctor - US
Charles Bovary, Country Doctor - UK
Charles Bovary, Country Doctor - Canada
Charles Bovary, médecin de campagne - France
Charles Bovary, Landarzt - Deutschland
Charles Bovary, medico di campagna - Italia
Charles Bovary, médico rural - España
  • Portrait of a Simple Man
  • German title: Charles Bovary, Landarzt
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Adrian Nathan West

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Our Assessment:

A- : impassioned oddity

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 2/11/2018 Doug Battersby
The Guardian . 23/12/2018 Houman Barekat
Wall St. Journal . 6/9/2018 Sam Sacks
Die Zeit . 20/10/1978 Fritz J. Raddatz

  From the Reviews:
  • "This strange but compelling book is at once a passionate critique and courageous reimagining of Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece of psychological realism, Madame Bovary. (...) The metafictional self-consciousness and surreal atmosphere of Charles Bovary might suggest an archetypal postmodernist work, but its unwaveringly earnest tone and emotional directness result in something else entirely, a thing apart. (...) Charles Bovary is at its best when Améry follows his central character into the dark places of envy, grief and desire. Yet the success of the fictional chapters serves to underline how awkwardly they sit alongside the essayistic ones." - Doug Battersby, Financial Times

  • "Améry’s book is structured as a “novel-essay”, with chapters alternating between novelistic fan fiction and literary criticism. This idiosyncratic format would doubtless have vexed booksellers and librarians when it was first published in German in 1978; today we call it “creative non-fiction” and scarcely bat an eyelid." - Houman Barekat, The Guardian

  • "Améry’s book, nimbly translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West, is a defense of both Charles Bovary and of the qualities that Flaubert is so keen to ridicule: moderation, decency, responsibility. Some of its chapters are literary essays. (...) (T)here’s a satisfying feeling of delayed justice in this brief, thought-provoking book." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Es ist eine in ihrer Grazie, intellektuellen Verspieltheit und freundlichen Hartnäckigkeit eher altmodische Denkübung, keineswegs erinnernd an Amérys großes Vorbild Sartre, sondern eher an die poetologischen Anschleichungen Thomas Manns (.....) Diese hochkomplizierte Mischform aus Pastiche und Palimpsest ist Améry hier gelungen; jedenfalls immer da, wo er seiner gallischen Freude an dem Spiel der Ratio Lauf läßt." - Fritz J. Raddatz, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The third chapter (of five) of Charles Bovary, Country Doctor shifts from fiction to essay, author Améry here posing the question(s) that are the foundation of this unusual text:

But how is one to rescue from the morass of enigma, where it lies in disarray, the reality of Charles Bovary, from whom everything -- love, his beloved, his possessions, even his memory -- is taken away, just as he comes to realize he has lived badly ? And what does this even mean: the reality of a figure of art ?
       Améry's subject is the pathetic figure that is the cuckolded husband of Flaubert's Madame Bovary -- with Améry making the case that Flaubert doesn't give Charles his due, and then trying to do that himself. He does so both by resurrecting the character and filling in some of the blanks -- three of the chapters in Charles Bovary, Country Doctor are fiction, addenda to Flaubert's novel that suggest a possible fuller and more realistic picture of the man/character -- and by more directly addressing and explaining, in the two essayistic chapters, what he sees as Flaubert's failures.
       Améry is hardly the first to think Charles has gotten short shrift from Flaubert; indeed, several authors have devoted complete novels -- Monsieur Bovary-variations -- to telling things from his side (e.g. Laura Grimaldi (1991), Antoine Billot (2006)). After all, as Améry's Charles points out about Flaubert's Madame Bovary: "The story begins as though it were mine". Améry's variation also limits the story to Charles' -- no (living) Emma, barely a whisper of "little Berthe" (talk about neglected characters ...) -- though limited to the time after Emma's death.
       Here a distraught Charles explains himself, his feelings, and his (in)action, reëxamining his life with Emma, and acknowledging what he failed or refused to see, despite how obvious it all was. (Finally confronted with incontrovertible proof he notes; "There it all is, clear as day, and whoever can read, must know everything"). He imagines also seeking revenge on Emma's lovers, a fantasy in which Améry very nicely captures Charles' ambivalence about taking action and facing consequences. Beside allowing Charles to look back over the entirety of their relationship (and deal with and reflect on the ugly realities of Emma's actions and betrayals), the approach gives Améry some cover for his impassioned writing, an excuse why Charles is so overwrought -- his continued passion and devotion to his beloved even presented as explicitly necrophilic.
       Améry argues that Flaubert, the dedicated realist, dropped the ball when it came to Charles; he just couldn't be bothered -- an injustice which Améry takes very much to heart. He thinks the doctor's son Flaubert just couldn't get over his dislike and contempt for the petit bourgeois class and Charles (i.e. Flaubert's (re)presentation of Charles), as a perfect representative of it, suffered for it. The class issue is a fundamental one Améry has with Flaubert's work -- "the author never truly troubled himself to engage critically with the bourgeoisie" -- and he finds it damning, an odd little flaw in an author otherwise so devoted to thoroughness in his novels.
       Charles may not be heroic, Améry suggests, or in any way exceptional, but:
     Charles, a man of duty, does what he can. Maybe it isn't much -- but how much more did the great Doctor Achille-Cléophas Flaubert accomplish ?
       He has Charles admit: "I have no ambition", and: "I clung to moderation, in work and marital love, it wasn't my lot to strive for the heights" -- the attitude that allowed Flaubert to treat his character so dismissively. Yet Améry makes the case that there's nobility in such small lives as well, and that Flaubert was wrong to be dismissive and then so neglect the character -- indeed, that it flaws the novel. In resurrecting Charles, in re-writing the scenes after Emma's death and allowing Charles to come to the fore, and exploring the depths of his mind and emotions, Améry tries to take some steps to rectifying the matter -- to show that there was indeed more to the man.
       It's an interesting experiment in fiction -- and in reading and interpretation. Améry's approach -- a mix of fiction, focused very much of Charles, and then exegesis, interpretation, and critique in the essay-chapters in which Améry lectures -- makes for a fairly effective two-pronged attack. Nicely, too, the fiction itself blends into critique -- right down to Charles' cri de cœur, "Je vous accuse, Monsieur Flaubert !" (Okay, Améry is dangerously close to going over the top in spots -- the veering-too-far-into-the-straight-out-necrophilic passion is another example -- but it's in keeping with how passionately Améry seems to feel about the subject -- though, yes, accusing Flaubert of: "intellectual sodomy" may be the one step too far.)
       The question of (fictional) realism is central to Améry's concerns -- amusingly (and interestingly) complicated here by his appropriation of what is, after all, a fictional character in this novel-based-on-a-novel. In a nice twist of the fiction, he (re)imagines not just Flaubert's character(s) -- specifically Charles -- but slips in Flaubert, too: Madame Bovary famously begins in the first person plural, a we of school-children whose class Charles joins, and Améry suggests the obvious -- that Flaubert is among this 'we' -- and has Charles recall the "gangly, blond, gimlet-eyed" Gustave who said: "not a word about the stories he made up and scribbled in his Latin notebook under the school desk". Améry has Charles recall that, back then already:
Gustave Flaubert, I was nothing to you.
       Indeed, the claim in Madame Bovary about this insignificant fellow is that: "Il serait maintenant impossible à aucun de nous de se rien rappeler de lui" ('It would now be impossible for any of us to remember anything about him') -- an exaggeration belied by the very sketch of the character this is part of. But it does help make Améry's point.
       Améry's work is as much a reading of Flaubert as of Flaubert's work; he comes to it also via Jean-Paul Sartre and his monstrous-fantastic Flaubert-study, The Family Idiot -- noting, however:
Sartre's Flaubert is the Sartre-Flaubert, and should remain such. It is now left to others to discover their own Flaubert-Flaubert, according to the map each sketches out for himself.
       Améry's little map is creatively presented and a fascinating engagement with an author (and an author's approach -- Flaubert's dedicated realism), a novel, and a character. Charles Bovary, Country Doctor is a very odd little work, in numerous respects, but well worthwhile.
       (Note that familiarity with Madame Bovary is, if not entirely essential -- the gist of Améry's claims and argument are (just) comprehensible without it -- certainly advisable, and certainly add greatly to the enjoyment and appreciation of the work.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 November 2018

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Charles Bovary, Country Doctor: Reviews: Jean Améry: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Jean Améry (Hans Meier) lived 1912 to 1978.

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© 2018-2023 the complete review

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