MADAME BOVARY'S HABERDASHERY
Madame Bovary's Haberdashery was launched at the iconic Readings Book Shop in Lygon St, Carlton, Victoria.
A warm thank you to the fabulous Allison Croggon who opened the evening with this fantastic talk:
The title alone of Maurilia Meehan’s fifth novel – Madame Bovary’s Haberdashery – gives a flavour of this book. For one thing, it’s very pleasurable to say out loud. For another, it suggests the witty subversiveness of this playful novel. This is a novel that knits together – knitting being the operative word – the unlikely. Gustav Flaubert and Agatha Christie. Eroticism and crochet.
It’s really hard to know where to begin with this slyly knitted work of fiction. It’s an often hilarious satire on the battle of the sexes, which portrays sexism as a series of delusions, willed or otherwise, on the part of both sexes.
Given that prejudice requires the careful editing out of frame any facts that challenge the idea that particular classes of human being are inferior to others, this is a fair thesis. It’s also one of the traditional bases of comedy, which has always relied on the gap between how people perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others. Maurilia Meehan exploits this freely with her absurd and unlikely gallery of characters.
But first of all, this is a book about two friends, Cicely and Odette. We see them first through the eyes of Zac, one of several feckless men who feature in this novel, who briefly becomes the lover of both of them.
Odette is a ceramicist who has adopted the free-wheeling sexual lifestyle traditionally reserved for men, “flitting to lover to lover, fitting them around her ceramic creations”. She is blonde, sculpted and quicksilver. Cicely, a writer and knitter, is presented as her “dark matter counterpart” – underneath her shawl of crocheted granny squares, she has the silhouette of the “perfect Venus of Willendorf”. While Cicely is always, although often confusedly, herself, Odette changes with each lover, taking on all their tastes and inclinations. When she meets Zac, this has unfortunate results.
Zac himself is a writer and wannabe circus knife thrower. But unlike Cicely, who writes her own stories and has even been published, Zac’s pretensions are, like his lifestyle, vampiric: he is making what he believes is a brilliant, definitive translation of Madame Bovary. Its authenticity is underlined by the fact that he s handwriting it with a quill in purple ink.
Zac isn’t letting the fact that he can’t speak French get in the way of this: he has seven English translations which he cheerfully appropriates, as he evolves his definitive theory on Flaubert’s novel. The first half of Zac’s theory is the obligatory pseudo-Marxist gloss, in which Madame Bovary “foreshadowed the rise of consumer culture and the role of the international banker”. But more importantly, “The novel showed, more than anything else he had ever read, the truth about women. And the irony was that none of the women Zac had lived with, discussed the novel with, realised it. The first truth… was this: No matter what you did for women, they were never satisfied. The second truth: Women bled men dry, if given the chance.”
Cicely’s novel (which Zac, of course, considers to be a terrible example of feminine literature) heavy alludes to Madame Bovary, Zac’s own obsession. So it’s only a matter of time before Zac, wounded by his rejection by a publisher, begins to resent Cicely, and finally hate her, for plagiarising his work, even though her work preceded his by several years. The scene where his translation is rejected by Claw Publishing, after the editors discover that he actually hasn’t read Flaubert in French, is worth the price of admission alone.
Inconvenient facts that Zac ignores include his own plagiarism of the work of other writers, and indeed his material exploitation of the women in his life, who have supported him in his Great Work. Anyway, after Zac’s brief ménage a trois with Cicely and Odette disintegrates, he vengefully sets out to destroy their friendship. He succeeds: Odette moves out to live exclusively with Zac, and she and Cicely lose contact.
This, however, is merely the novel’s set-up. Like Cicely’s freestyle crochet creations, which have “their own mysterious way, pulling her along behind it”, Madame Bovary’s Haberdashery is an organically knitted structure that takes on its own life and invents its own form. It includes excerpts from Cicely’s writings, including a short story deleted by the film producer Dragan Greid from the film script he plans to make of her novel, emails from an internet dating site, letters, memories and dreams.
There are narrative divagations that blossom into comedies of their own: the foisting of the ghastly invalid Uncle Bill onto Cicely, for example, who moves into her house and takes over her life, or the fanatical eye surgeon who corrects Cicely’s cataracts.
The spine that holds this together is Cicely’s search for Odette, who has mysteriously disappeared after moving in with Zac. This investigation – presided over by the spirit of Miss Marple – is in fact Cicely’s struggle to see more clearly, to transform herself from a passive recipient of the responsibilities of others, to an agent of her own life. That this transformation is less than perfect, and that her investigation turns out to be of a rather different crime than she initially imagined, is all part of life’s rich tapestry.
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the writer I thought of most often in this book so intricately woven with writing and writers was Barbara Pym, one of the great (and criminally underrated) writers of mid-20th century Britain. Maurilia shares Pym’s mordantly ironic vision and her gift for sly satire, even if she eschews the conventions of the realist novel.
But I think it runs deeper than that: there’s a gift for detail, an observational accuracy, that infuses even the least likeable and most absurd of these characters with a sympathetic life. I’m tempted to call it compassion. You’ll have to read this wonderful book and discover it for yourself. You won’t regret it.
Alison Croggon , Readings Launch , 11 April 2013
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