Last Sunday’s NYT Book Review has a front page feature on Edith Grossman's new translation of The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa. The review looks at the influence of Flaubert at play in Llosa's book. A great admirer of Flaubert's, Llosa casts his titular bad girl as the familiar love 'em and leave 'em heroine of—among other books—Flaubert's Madame Bovary. The interest in Emma goes back to Llosa’s early fiction. In 1986, he published The Perpetual Orgy, where he makes clear where his sympathies lie:
It is because she feels that society is fettering her imagination, her body, her dreams, her appetites, that Emma suffers, commits adultery, lies, steals, and in the end kills herself.
Although the review is only marginally helpful in fleshing out the role of these literary wantons and ne'er-do-goods, I think it's great that it leaves us to extrapolate further about the attraction we feel for the passions of the inveterate liars, thieves and outright jerks of literature. Is it the literary bombast of characters like Emma Bovary that makes them impervious to moral and reasoned criticism? I can’t say that I feel overwhelming pity for Emma when she meets her terrible end, but that does little to mitigate the awesomeness of her descent. You get the sense that, whatever her moral failings (such as they are), Emma will ultimately be judged on the merit of her fantastic self-fuelled rampage against polite French society, not on the propriety of her dalliances and petty and major lies.
Of course Flaubert and Llosa aren’t unique in their choice of heroine. Cleopatra comes immediately to mind, as a progenitor to these intractable and stormy lovers—the woman who balked in battle against Octavian at Actium, leading her fleet and Antony into a most ignominious defeat. In an act of fabulous self-possession, she then hurries off stage to fake her death, to subvert the rage of her furious lover. But there are countless others; literature is full to capacity with women who have led men happily to their certain ruin.
Of course there’s no shortage of women to whom writers have applied for inspiration and succour, either. The Virgin Mary is perhaps most famous among men’s intercessors and defenders, but she keeps a large and varied company—from Dante’s Beatriz to the various Muses who’ve been evoked by everyone from Homer to Joseph Brodsky (To Urania) to Al Brooks(The Muse, with Sharon Stone). And though the temptation is strong to think of these as the over-pious, indulgent caretakers who play the foil to the bad girls of literature, it’s clear that there’s more that binds them together with their bad company than tells them apart from it.
I haven’t read The Bad Girl yet, but my interest is certainly piqued, not least of all because of the grand tradition the book inhabits; one that traces the disordering influence of characters greater than the moral framework that they inhabit. These bad seeds flout our puerile hankering for sympathetic and likeable characters and we are better off for it. We may be glad not to have them in our living rooms and after our arsenic bottles, but how much richer we are for having them in our books.