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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism

Searching for Emma

Dacia Maraini

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To purchase Searching for Emma

Title: Searching for Emma
Author: Dacia Maraini
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1993 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 143 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Searching for Emma - US
Searching for Emma - UK
Searching for Emma - Canada
Nachforschungen über Emma B. - Deutschland
  • Gustave Flaubert and 'Madame Bovary'
  • Italian title: Cercando Emma
  • Translated by Vincent J. Bertolini

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Our Assessment:

B : inetresting discussion of Madame Bovary and the background to the novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Dacia Maraini's book closely considers the sources of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (see our review). In particular, Maraini finds that Flaubert has used his sometime lover, Louise Colet, as a source and inspiration for much of the book -- often in a not very flattering manner.
       Maraini's close reading, presented in short sections, shows the many biographical titbits Flaubert recycles for his own purposes. Almost typical -- outrageous though it is -- is the medallion Emma gives Rodolphe, engraved with the words "Amor nel cor". As Maraini describes it: "The author represents it as a gift in the poorest of taste by a hare-brained lover". As it turns out, Louise gave Flaubert a cigarette case engraved with those same words. Indeed, Louise found much of her life thrown back at her in Flaubert's fiction .
       Maraini's study is not only a literary-sourcebook (though she does that aspect of it well, providing a great deal of supporting material from Flaubert's letters and other accounts), but also considers what a curious and in many ways unpleasant man Flaubert was -- as well as giving a fuller picture of long-suffering Louise (though there's considerably more to be said about her -- and one would wish for something more of an explanation about why she puts up with all she does).
       Searching for Emma is worth reading alone for the background material regarding the novel: Maraini presents a good deal, and she does so in an engaging and not at all scholarly-pedantic manner. But there are also problems with the book, including its whole underlying approach. Maraini gushes: "The tenacity of women readers is boundless, as boundless as their creative enthusiasm" -- generalizations of the most nauseating and offensive sort. She continues:

They delve into books like knowing moles and try to shape literary characters after their own model, according to their deepest needs, careless of whether traits attributed to a character of their desires truly correspond or not.
       One first imagines that she means these words jokingly, a nod towards Emma herself -- a woman who insists on a world as she finds it in books and can't deal in any way adequately with the reality around her. But no, Maraini is serious. (Male readers aren't even worth a mention, beyond the fact that "female readers are more numerous".) And while all this might sound right for Oprah's Book Club it can't withstand much scrutiny. Fortunately, much of what Maraini writes doesn't depend on these sentiments -- but enough does to mar her efforts.
       The publishers describe Maraini as "a leading figure in the Italian feminist movement". Searching for Emma is presumably meant to be considered in some such feminist light (something that is quite beyond us). But surely notions such as this one about Louise should be considered offensive, regardless of the sex and philosophy of the writer:
     Louise not only sought out great writers; she often became their lover. This was her generous and tactile way of living literature.
       It's an idea that also seems to contradict what Maraini writes elsewhere: that Louise wasn't pleased (and rightly shouldn't have been) with Flaubert incorporating so much of her into his book -- which allowed her, after all, to literally become literature (and what more could anyone who wants to live literature want ?)

       There's a great deal of interesting commentary in Searching for Emma and Maraini is very good at making historical and biographical connexions (there's considerable material here that isn't found in Mario Vargas Llosa's Bovary-study The Perpetual Orgy). There's also some dubious analysis, and much comes from a point of view that seems, too often, cloudy.
       Worthwhile, but too often just a bit irritating (and not in a good way).

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Searching for Emma: Reviews: Dacia Maraini: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Dacia Maraini has written numerous books and also works as a journalist.

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