Quite a few books have been published in recent years that presuppose a readership acquainted with at least some of the literary classics. We've had novelists offering sequels to "Pride and Prejudice" and "Rebecca," at least one modernized version of "Little Women" and a fictional reworking of the lives of the Brontes transported to Australia(!), not to mention a plethora of books on literature and literacy, lists of must-read classics essential to cultural wellbeing, and even a novelistic version of the life of German Romantic Novalis.
What are we to make of all these? On one hand, it is nice to think that the authors of these books are conversant with literary tradition and are seeking a like-minded readership. On the other hand, we might find ourselves wondering about the vitality of a literary culture that prefers playing ingenious games with established classics to the lonelier, more arduous task of creating its own original classics.
Some of these bookish books of course can be a real pleasure. In his odd little jeu d'esprit "Flaubert's Parrot," British novelist Julian Barnes, inviting us to share his obsession with the creator of "Madame Bovary," came up with a casual and playful form of literary criticism. Less arch, more straightforward, and in many ways even more engaging, "Proust's Way" by eminent scholar and critic Roger Shattuck is just what the hesitant, overawed reader needs to persevere and succeed in his or her attempt to master the French master's incomparable masterpiece. And in the mid-1980s, Little, Brown published a delightful volume by an English editor, William Amos, titled "The Originals: An A-Z of Fiction's Real-Life Characters," which was not only exhaustively cross-referenced -- a saint in W. Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage" apparently had the same real-life progenitor as a villain in Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier" -- but also so sparkling in conception and style that it was enormous fun to dip into or read straight through.
But there is also another sort of bookish book that might better be described as a literary parasite, a book that togs itself out in the regalia of literariness rather in the manner of a child dressing up in Mommy's evening gown. "Madame Bovary, C'est Moi" purports to tell us about the genesis of some of our favorite fictional characters. Much of the material that Andre Bernard includes is already well-known, and most of his anecdotes are not especially interesting.
Totally without elan or flair, his book is a hodgepodge of the great and the mediocre, the eternal and transitory. There is too much padding, and the text is tricked out with quotes, some edifying, others amusing, others beside the point, and a few downright misleading. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, is quoted as making an absurd remark about the "unrealistic" names Charles Dickens gave his characters. This, of a writer who took immense pains over finding the most evocative names possible for his characters, from the proud Miss Havisham to the chilling Mr. Murdstone.
Desperate to eke out this slender volume to its full length of all of 136 small pages, Bernard also throws in boxes containing stuff like lists of characters with alliterative names. These, along with the quotes, are strewn all over the text in a haphazard fashion that actually impedes one's reading. Readers looking up the genesis of "Winnie-the-Pooh" will find that brief tale interrupted by a quote from Dawn Powell disparaging Proust, another in which the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope describes why he killed off one of his long-standing characters and yet another in which Edith Wharton gives her view on Trollope's killing off that character. Alas, for poor old Pooh Bear!
Far from being a sign of renewed interest in literature, "Madame Bovary, C'est Moi" is an "unbook" -- even its layout and the way it is printed seems designed to defy reading. Conceived, perhaps, as a kind of Christmas stocking-stuffer, this is, at least, an innocuous gift, if not a particularly exciting one. It may appeal to shoppers who view literature as a status symbol, like a designer label, but it is not likely to satisfy anybody who is interested in actually reading literature or even in finding out where characters come from.