Pushcart 2015/BASS 2014: Karen Russell, “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” from Zoetrope, #17:2

Art by Ruma Hari: “Emma and Djali”

A dog’s love is forever. We expect infidelity from one another; we marvel at this one’s ability to hold that one’s interest for fifty, sixty years; perhaps some of us feel a secret contempt for monogamy even as we extol it, wishing parole for its weary participants. But dogs do not receive our sympathy or our suspicion – from dogs we presume an eternal adoration.
In the strange case of Mme. Bovary’s greyhound, however, “forever” was a tensed muscle that began to shake.

In her BASS Contributor Note (highly detailed and informative, well worth reading) Russell described a moment during her writing of this story: “blinking into the light of a hard truth: OK, I thought, I am writing Flaubert fan fiction.” So what: Homer, Ovid, Dante, Milton, Shaw, Joyce, revered members of the literary historical canon, all wrote fan fiction, not to mention more contemporary writers like Smiley, Oates, Brooks, and Chabon, and no doubt a host of others. Some themes bear additional exploration, and if an author depends on an existing work to lend background, to cover ancillary ground, well, when was the last time writing didn’t evoke something previously written. Get over it.

I read Madame Bovary for a MOOC just last year, but I didn’t remember the greyhound. That’s a shame, because the whole question of why Flaubert included the dog in his story opens the door to speculation and, yes, fan fiction. Russell really takes the alternate-protagonist idea for a ride, managing to evoke Flaubert’s style and parallel part of Emma’s emotional journey while at the same time drawing some important distinctions between the woman and the dog. Spoiler alert: the dog comes out looking much, much better than the woman. But with Emma Bovary as a base, who wouldn’t.

The greyhound was ignorant of many things. She had no idea, for example, that she was a greyhound. She didn’t know that her breed had originated in southern Italy, an ancient pet in Pompeii, a favorite of the thin-nosed English lords and ladies, or that she was perceived to be affectionate, intelligent, and loyal. What she did know, with a whole-body thrill, was the music of her woman coming up the walk, the dizzying explosion of perfume as the door swung wide. She knew when her mistress was pleased with her, and that approval was the fulcrum of her happiness.

In Flaubert’s narrative, a gamekeeper gives the dog to Emma in gratitude for Charles having cured some ailment; Russell instead has Charles as the source of the dog. I’m not sure if this is a minor oversight (I suspect not, given the attention to detail of the original with which this story is constructed) or if there’s a point there, Perhaps it would’ve been assumed that the gamekeeper in fact gave the dog to Charles, and it naturally happened that it became in fact Emma’s dog. It’s a curious discrepancy. The name “Djali” was in Flaubert, perhaps referring to the goat from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (I wasn’t able to find any literary analysis on Flaubert’s use of the dog); whether it was the gamekeeper, or Emma, who named the dog, I don’t know, though it seems reasonable to assume Emma would have been familiar with the book, and the notion of having a sidekick to her performance might appeal to her. The pronunciation, similar to “jolly,” is a red herring, since Flaubert of course wrote in French, but it lends an interesting touch to the English.

Because the full depth of Russell’s story depends on Flaubert, I made a few side-by-side comparisons of passages that struck me as particularly parallel:

Flaubert Russell
She began by looking round her to see if nothing had changed since last she had been there. She found again in the same places the foxgloves and wallflowers, the beds of nettles growing round the big stones, and the patches of lichen along the three windows, whose shutters, always closed, were rotting away on their rusty iron bars. Her thoughts, aimless at first, wandered at random, like her greyhound, who ran round and round in the fields, yelping after the yellow butterflies, chasing the shrew-mice, or nibbling the poppies on the edge of a cornfield. Then gradually her ideas took definite shape, and, sitting on the grass that she dug up with little prods of her sunshade, Emma repeated to herself, “Good heavens! why did I marry?” They took walks to the beech grove at Banneville, near the abandoned pavilion. Foxglove and gillyflowers, beige lichen growing in one thick, crawling curtain around the socketed windows. Moths blinked wings at them, crescents of blue and red and tiger-yellow, like eyes caught in a net.
Emma sat and poked at the grass with the skeletal end of her parasol, as if she were trying to blind each blade.
“Oh, why did I ever get married?” she moaned aloud, again and again.
The greyhound whined with her, distressed by her distress. Sometimes, in a traitorous fugue, the dog forgot to be unhappy and ran off to chase purple butterflies or murder shrew mice, or to piss a joyful stream onto the topiaries. But generally, if her mistress was crying, so was the puppy.
She bought a plan of Paris, and with the tip of her finger on the map she walked about the capital. She went up the boulevards, stopping at every turning, between the lines of the streets, in front of the white squares that represented the houses. At last she would close the lids of her weary eyes, and see in the darkness the gas jets flaring in the wind and the steps of carriages lowered with much noise before the peristyles of theatres.
She took in “La Corbeille,” a lady’s journal, and the “Sylphe des Salons.” She devoured, without skipping a word, all the accounts of first nights, races, and soirées, took an interest in the début of a singer, in the opening of a new shop. She knew the latest fashions, the addresses of the best tailors, the days of the Bois and the Opera. In Eugène Sue she studied descriptions of furniture; she read Balzac and George Sand, seeking in them imaginary satisfaction for her own desires. Even at table she had her book by her, and turned over the pages while Charles ate and talked to her. The memory of the Viscount always returned as she read…Paris, more vague than the ocean, glimmered before Emma’s eyes in an atmosphere of vermilion.
Even asleep, the little greyhound trailed after her madame, through a weave of green stars and gas lamps, along the boulevards of Paris. It was a conjured city that no native would recognize – Emma Bovary’s head on the pillow, its architect. Her Paris was assembled from a guidebook with an out-of-date map, and from the novels of Balzac and Sand, and from her vividly disordered recollections of the viscount’s ball at La Vaubyessard, with its odor of dying flowers, burning flambeaux, and truffles.
Emma, on the other hand, knew how to look after her house. She sent the patients’ accounts in well-phrased letters that had no suggestion of a bill. When they had a neighbor to dinner on Sundays, she managed to have some dainty dish—piled up pyramids of green-gages on vine leaves, served up preserves turned out into plates—and even spoke of buying finger-glasses for dessert. From all this, much consideration was extended to Bovary. Dr. Charles Bovary returned home, whistling after another successful day of leeches and bloodletting in the countryside, to a house of malcontent females.
Emma was stacking a pyramid of greengage plums.
The little greyhound was licking her genitals.
She asked herself if by some other chance combination it would not have been possible to meet another man; and she tried to imagine what would have been these unrealized events, this different life, this unknown husband. All, surely, could not be like this one. He might have been handsome, witty, distinguished, attractive, such as, no doubt, her old companions of the convent had married. She wondered if there might not have been some other way, through a different set of circumstances, of meeting another woman; and she tried to imagine those events that should not happen, that shadow life.…Djali had observed a flatulent malamute trailing his old man in the park, each animal besotted with the other. Blue poodles, inbred and fat, smugly certain of their women’s adoration. She’d seen a balding Pomeranian riding high in a toy wagon, doted on by the son of a cane. Not all humans were like Emma Bovary.
An accident had delayed him. Madame Bovary’s greyhound had run across the field. They had whistled for him a quarter of an hour; Hivert had even gone back a mile and a half expecting every moment to catch sight of her; but it had been necessary to go on. Emma had wept, grown angry; she had accused Charles of this misfortune. On the way to Yonville, the greyhound wandered fifty yards from the Bovarys’ stagecoach. Then she broke into a run.
“Djaliiii!” Emma shrieked, uncorking a spray of champagne-yellow birds from the nearby poplars. “Stay!”
Weightlessly the dog entered the forest.
“Stay! Stay! Stay!” the humans called after her, their directives like bullets missing their target. Her former mistress, the screaming woman, was a stranger. And the greyhound lunged forward, riding the shoals of her own green-flecked shadow.

Russell compares dog and woman more directly as well, in a couple of particularly fun tributes to parallelism-turning-towards-bathos, while still bringing in Flaubert:

This strain of virulent misery, this falling out of love caused different symptoms, unique disruptions, in dogs and humans.
The greyhound, for example, shat everywhere.
Whereas Emma shopped for fabrics in the town.
Emma was stacking a pyramid of greengage plums.
The little greyhound was licking her genitals.

Perhaps the stacking of the greengage plums can be viewed as Emma’s self-gratification since she gets none, sexual or otherwise, from Charles at this point. The fabrics are particularly interesting; not only is there a note of passive-aggressiveness about her overspending, but Homard, the merchant who sells the fabrics, is the ultimate agent of Emma’s doom, systematically (and quite cold-bloodedly, I might add) driving her invisibly into debt, until she is without, not money, which in itself holds little interest for her, but without the means to provide herself with entertainments and fashions that become her sole source of pleasure. It’s a nicely constructed mini-dichotomy in that passage.

The style overall follows Flaubert’s overinvolved narrator, the free indirect discourse that got him tried for indecency. She even extends it to self-referential authorial intrusion (if I understand those concepts correctly) in one passage linking Emma’s and Djali’s discontent: “It is tempting to conclude that, somehow transmitted her wanderlust to Djali; but perhaps this is the sentimental impulse, a storyteller’s desire to sink to flickering hearts.”

While there isn’t an exact one-to-one correspondence of the above passages, they convey parallel scenes, and Russell brings in details from other sections – the truffles at La Vaubyessard, Charles’ favorite medical techniques, the subtle reference to Homard – which increases the sense of cross-over. It is, after all, the story of two individuals falling out of love – and what they do about it. And what they do about it is quite different: Emma escapes via deception thus retaining security unearned with loyalty and fidelity; the dog, a more honest creature, simply flees.

If you get the impression this has been a massive spoiler – not so. This is merely the beginning of the story. Djali’s character continues to develop over several more sections (even the use of named sections brings to mind Flaubert’s named chapters) until a natural recapitulation is reached. But I’ll leave that for the reader.

The differences between how Emma and Djali deal with their disaffection play out over time. For me, that’s where this story, which I found very successful (as, I see, did the Pushcart editors, as they’ve included it in XXXIX), lives. The dog definitely comes out on top.

3 responses to “Pushcart 2015/BASS 2014: Karen Russell, “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” from Zoetrope, #17:2

  1. Pingback: Bye-Bye BASS 2014 | A Just Recompense

  2. I haven’t read this story yet; I was zipping through your recent posts and just wanted to say that I love the table you made to compare the passages. I’ll read this story in BASS next so I can see what I think in comparison with your thoughts.

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