'Madame Bovary' foreshadows Starr report Literature: For such a '90s kind of gal, Monica Lewinsky seems to have taken a page out of Gustave Flaubert's 1857 classic.

September 18, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Before the Starr report, there was "Madame Bovary."

Any number of literary and artistic efforts can shed light on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, from "Beowulf" to "Liar Liar." The president himself identified with the beleaguered hero in "Darkness at Noon," Arthur Koestler's novel of Stalinist psychological torture.

But Flaubert's classic 1857 account of Emma Bovary's love-sick spiral into madness stands out. Like Lewinsky perhaps, Bovary lived -- to a fault -- in her imagination, daydreaming of dashing beaus and manor-houses, while neglecting her domestic responsibilities. Ultimately, her idealized notions of romance and her naivete destroyed Bovary's entire family.

In plot and in specific passages, "Madame Bovary's" text bears uncanny similarities to the independent counsel's opus. And in the author's meticulous and exhaustive documentary of Bovary's gift-giving, her fairy-tale fantasies and her tenuous grip on reality, Flaubert proves himself to be the Starr writing team's equal.

As happened with the report's release, the publication of "Madame Bovary" sparked a huge scandal. Only back then, it was the government that brought charges of immorality against the author, not the other way around. Today, the French are much more sanguine about such affairs.

Other differences to keep in mind: Bovary took two lovers (Rodolphe and Leon) to Monica's one; she was married, her lovers weren't; and the frustrated French housewife's extracurricular affairs, however euphemistically chronicled, clearly met the legal definition of "sexual relations."

On close reading, the similarities between Flaubert and Starr are startling. Voila the evidence below: Several delectable and eerily prescient passages from "Madame Bovary," categorized to correspond with Starr fodder.

The lesson? Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Monica flips her jacket flaps to reveal the straps of her thong underwear to the leader of the Free World:

Emma's enthusiasm, which his bourgeois good sense disdained, seemed to him in his heart of hearts charming, since it was lavished on him."

Monica showers her beloved with gifts:

Besides the riding whip with its silver-gilt handle, Rodolphe had received a seal with the motto Amor ne cor, [a loving heart], furthermore, a scarf for a muffler, and finally, a cigar-case exactly like the viscount's ...

Monica proves her expertise with smoking materials:

... Her looks grew bolder, her speech more free; she even committed the impropriety of walking out with Monsieur Rodolphe, a cigarette in her mouth, "as if to defy the people."

After five sexual encounters, Monica demands of the president: "Is this just about sex?":

Then she had strange ideas.

When midnight strikes, she said, "you must think of me."

And if he confessed that he had not thought of her, there were floods of reproaches that always ended with the eternal question --

"Do you love me?"

"Why of course I love you," he answered.

"A great deal?"


"You haven't any others?"

"Did you think you'd got a virgin?" he exclaimed laughing.

Monica begins to believe that she and the president will live happily ever after:

... "It is because you are going away?" she went on; "because you are leaving what is dear to you -- your life? Ah! I understand, I have nothing in the world! You are all to me; so shall I be to you. I will be your people, your country; I will tend, I will love you!"

Monica seems to have trouble getting a grip on reality:

Hers was an idiotic sort of attachment, full of admiration for him, of voluptuousness for her...

Monica keeps her soiled Gap dress as a souvenir:

The moon ... appeared dazzling with whiteness in the empty heavens that she lit up, and now sailing more slowly along, let fall upon the river a great stain that broke up into an infinity of stars; and the silver sheen seemed to writhe through the very depths like a heedless serpent covered with luminous scales ...

The president falls asleep following phone sex:

He was bored now when Emma suddenly began to sob on his breast, and his heart, like the people who can only stand a certain amount of music, dozed to the sound of a love whose delicacies he no longer noted.

Bill's ardor cools; Monica "threatens" him, and demands a job: And he missed three rendezvous running. When he did come, she showed herself cold and almost contemptuous.

Bill calls off the affair:

The humiliation of feeling herself weak was turning to rancor, tempered by their voluptuous pleasures. It was not affection; it was like continual seduction. He subjugated her; she almost feared him.

The president tries to be resolute:

... "What an imbecile I am!" he said with a fearful oath. "No matter! She was a pretty mistress!"

"... For after all," he exclaimed, gesticulating, "I can't exile myself -- have a child on my hands."

He was saying these things to give himself firmness.

The president begins damage control:

Then, on reflection, he began to think his mistress's ways were growing odd, and that they were perhaps not wrong in wishing to separate him from her.

Things fall apart:

She accused Leon of her baffled hopes, as if he had betrayed her; and she even longed for some catastrophe that would bring about their separation, since she had not the courage to make up her mind to it herself.

She none the less went on writing him love letters, in virtue of the notion that a woman must write to her lover.

Pub Date: 9/18/98

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