Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides
A new short story by Pauline Melville, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Brandon Taylor
As a child, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the characters in my favorite books and cartoons were up to when they were offstage. What were their favorite foods and hobbies? Where did they go when they didn’t have to save the world or go on big adventures? I was more drawn to the lulls between big moments and the quiet drone of dailiness. There’s a kind of silly perversity to it, a child investing his imagination in dreaming up daily routines as opposed to the heart-stopping thrill ride. I guess it makes sense that I’d end up editing short stories, which as a form, tends to favor the moment at which the ordinary swells with meaning and thereby illuminates some key shift in a life.
Pauline Melville’s “Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides” perfectly illustrates the fun and pleasure to be found in the human drama that rustles at the edge of some of our most famous stories. It opens with a delightful, panning view of a forgotten Invisible City: “It is only when you enter the missing city that you understand it consists of nothing but linked waiting-rooms.” The reader is then ushered into one such room of waiting whereupon they discover who else but Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. What follows is something of a Beckettian pastiche as the two women discuss their lives and follies and their shared ultimate fate. The dialogue shimmers and crackles with psychological insight and wit. Take, for example, Emma’s response to Anna on the effect her children had on fresh infatuation: “Did you find that once you had fallen for someone else you suddenly couldn’t stand your child? I remember shoving my daughter away and thinking she was an ugly little so and so.”
How deftly Pauline Melville summons these characters. Via dialogue and flashes of subtle stagecraft, Anna and Emma come brilliantly right to life. It’s not all direness and gloom. Humor fills this story. When Anna asks if Emma would like to read her story, Emma responds, “I don’t think so. Not if it doesn’t have a happy ending.” And then adds, “I don’t think that Flaubert could have approved of me if he gave me such a long drawn out, unattractive death. In the books I read when I was at the convent death was romantic and brought tears to your eyes.” To which Anna says, “I’m not sure that Tolstoy liked me either.”
It’s a marvel of a story about stories that asks probing questions about agency and narrative and what it means to take one’s story back for oneself. All told with charm and warm intelligence.
– Brandon Taylor
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading
Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides
“Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides” by Pauline Melville
Of the many invisible cities described by Calvino, there is one remarkable city that is missing. If you approach this city by road you can see the main station on the outskirts. A handful of people loiter on the platform. It is only when you enter the missing city that you understand it consists of nothing but linked waiting-rooms: private waiting-rooms, public waiting-rooms, foyers, lobbies, public waiting spaces. The entire city is constructed for the sole purpose of waiting.
In high-ceilinged rooms with crimson silk wall-coverings and elaborately embossed carpets, ambassadors and dignitaries wait to be presented to the emperor or caliph or president. Liveried servants hang around waiting to usher the chosen elite into the hallowed presence but, of course, that moment never arrives. Then there are dentist’s and doctor’s waiting-rooms where patients flick through magazines but no-one is ever called in to see the consultant. Passengers wait in the dank, badly-lit waiting-rooms of railway stations with old benches and dated posters where, naturally, no train puts in an appearance. People mingle in theatre foyers for drinks before a show which they will never see. Students gather together and talk a little as they wait outside the examination room. Through the window they can see the invigilator laying out exam papers meticulously, one on each desk, for an exam they will never sit. And, of course, two actors, costumed as tramps, wait endlessly in the wings ready to step onto a brightly lit stage whose set is nothing more than a country road and one tree.
Rooms on different floors are linked by moving escalators where people wait to progress from one level to another, slowly rising or descending until they can resume waiting elsewhere. From a distance the city appears to be full of people moving around meaningfully occupied, but this is not the case.
Some people believe that the city is really an enormous art installation where people wander from one period of history and from one experience to another but in reality the experience is always the same, the experience of waiting. All the same, there are no signs of serious discontent in the population. Hope keeps people quiescent. Expectancy is all.
The meeting between the two women took place in a spacious room on the second floor of a large four-story house. They were seated, engrossed in conversation, on a high-backed oak settle which also served as a storage chest. Anna Karenina was in a light-hearted frame of mind. Over her blue dress she wore a pale cashmere shawl embroidered with thin wool in a floral pattern round the edges. Her face was animated, her grey eyes alight with surprise and curiosity as she turned to Emma Bovary:
Do you mean that your husband never suspected anything?
Emma Bovary, the shorter of the two, had a sturdy body suggesting peasant stock. Her shiny black hair was styled a la Chinoise, parted in the middle with a neat knot on top. She wore a cream cotton dress that fitted tightly over her plump breasts and smart black boots that showed off her ankles to advantage. Mistaking Anna’s curiosity for admiration, Emma cocked her head to one side and gave a small smile of satisfaction:
Charles never had any idea. Not a clue.
How did you manage that? Anna managed to suppress a hint of disapproval.
Well, in some ways I always thought Charles was an imbecile. He had absolutely no ambition. I would have liked our name to be famous. He was just content to bumble about as a country doctor. I was furious once when he botched an operation that could have made our names. Anyway, my beloved Charles never noticed a thing. I even used to slip out of bed early in the mornings to meet my lover, Rodolphe, in the arbour at the end of the garden and Charles never knew. Emma giggled. Oh yes. And he never knew about Leon either. Heaven knows why he didn’t spot what was going on. Didn’t your husband ever suspect anything?
Anna raised a disdainful eyebrow as she recalled the early days of her affair with Vronsky:
Oh Karenin – he sniffed something from the first moment. He didn’t exactly suspect anything himself but he noticed that people were talking about me and Vronsky and he didn’t like that. It was all a matter of appearances for him. I think he just refused to believe it was possible that I should do such a thing. But anyway, in the end I told him.
Emma looked appalled:
You told him?
Anna nodded and smiled:
I really don’t like living with that sort of deceit. And Vronsky hated being involved in lies. He was too honourable. He couldn’t have tolerated it for long.
Emma looked directly at Anna, and the freshness, openness and self-possession she saw in that lovely face made her feel inferior and a little cheap. Perhaps Anna was not capable of being sly or duplicitous? And what was all this about honour? If confessing the truth to one’s husband was the price of honour she could do without it. But perhaps this was how the aristocracy always behaved, Emma wondered. How odd. She had been thrilled to find that her new friend was a member of the Russian nobility and listened enthralled as Anna talked about Prince This and Princess That and casually referred to footmen and servants. Oh, was your Vronsky a count? Emma had exclaimed in awe. And Anna had shrugged and laughed as if it were nothing.
Feeling that she had not been completely straightforward about her confession to Karenin, Anna hastened to explain:
Well actually, I was pregnant with Vronsky’s child. I had to tell him.
Oh how awful. Thank heavens that never happened to me. One child was bad enough. Emma lowered her voice to a whisper. Did you find that once you had fallen for someone else you suddenly couldn’t stand your child? I remember shoving my daughter away and thinking she was an ugly little so and so. But then I was obsessed with Rodolphe.
Anna was a little taken aback:
Oh no. I still loved my son with Karenin…at least I think I did. In fact, I once risked everything to visit him secretly on his birthday. But I know what you mean. When things were going well with Vronsky I never gave my son a second thought. And I do remember coming home at one point after I’d been with Vronsky and thinking what a disappointment my son was. He just seemed so tedious and unexceptional. Vronsky occupied my thoughts entirely.
Emma nodded in sympathy:
Children get in the way, don’t they? When Rodolphe and I were planning to run away together he asked what we should do about my daughter. Without thinking I just said ‘We’ll take her with us’. Emma shook her head in exasperation. That was my big mistake. It must have put him off. I should have said I’d leave her behind. Emma straightened the long skirts of her dress and pushed her lips out in a defiant pout:
Anyway, my husband ate slowly. That drove me mad.
My husband was stubborn and aloof. A shadow crossed Anna’s face and she twisted her hands together as she blurted out: To be honest, when my daughter was born, Vronsky’s child that is, I just didn’t take to her. I felt bad about it but I never really liked her. Not even when she was ill. I think I was scared because I knew Vronsky had always disliked family life and here I was trapping him into domesticity. Worse still, according to Russian law I was still married to Karenin and so the child had to take the name Karenin unless my husband agreed to give me a divorce so that I could re-marry. That disturbed Vronsky no end. Besides, after the birth I nearly died. Vronsky was so distraught he tried to shoot himself.
Emma was impressed and a little envious. No-one had ever tried to kill themselves on her behalf. She searched for a comparable experience of her own: I was desperately ill too. I nearly died when Rodolphe sent me a letter saying the elopement was off. In fact, I was just going to throw myself out of the window when Charles happened to call me down to supper. It would have been better if I’d done away with myself then. Better that way than arsenic, I can tell you. Anyway, I had a nervous collapse that lasted for months.
The two women lapsed into silence, each of them caught up in her own thoughts.
After a few minutes, Emma got up and crossed to the window on her side of the room. Calico curtains hung there. The canary-coloured wallpaper around the window was peeling with damp. She leaned her elbows on the window-sill and looked out over the market square of Yonville l’Abbaye. Nothing had changed. The plaster figure of a Cupid with his finger on his lips still stood on the gate of the notary’s house opposite. In the distance she could see the flat and characterless landscape typical of that region of France. Before long she was overcome with the familiar feeling of suffocation. She was stifled with ennui. ‘Oh why, dear God, did I marry him?’ she repeated again and again. Down in her soul Emma Bovary was waiting and longing for something to happen. That was the enduring image of her existence. The summary of her life. Waiting and longing. After a while she broke away and returned to her conversation with Anna:
Was it love at first sight for you? Emma inquired, inspecting the heel of her boot as she settled back down beside her companion. I always thought love should strike like a clap of thunder.
Anna Karenina gave the matter careful consideration:
Well no, not really. I met Vronsky in a railway station. Nothing happened at the time although I could sense I had made an impression on him. There’d been an accident. A guard died. Vronsky very generously offered money to the man’s family. I knew immediately that he’d done it to impress me. I saw him later in the house….there was something. But nothing really happened until the ball that was being held for Kitty my young sister-in-law. I shouldn’t have behaved as I did. Anna turned to Emma and made a slight grimace. Vronsky was more or less betrothed to Kitty. But what happened between me and Vronsky that night was irresistible. It was overpowering. We were both incapable of withstanding it. Anna rolled her eyes and threw her head back and for a moment Emma looked at her and saw in her eager face something strange and diabolical and enchanting. But when I was leaving Moscow the next day to catch the train home to Petersburg I remember thinking ‘Thank goodness that bit of excitement is over and from now on my life, my nice everyday life, will go on as before.’ But half way home when I got off the train for some fresh air, Vronsky was there on the platform. He’d followed me. Anna’s eyes were shining as she leaned against the high back of the settle.
Not to be outdone, Emma chattered on:
I went to a ball once. We were invited to the home of the Marquis de Andervilliers. Charles had cured his abscess. I wore the loveliest pale yellow gown with flounces on the skirt and three little pom-pom roses pinned to the neck. Charles sat to one side all evening but I danced the night away. It was after we got home that I looked around and realized my provincial life was dull, dull, dull. I longed to go to Paris and mix with…well…a better class of person. The day after the ball I bought myself a street-map of Paris and imagined shopping there.
But Anna Karenina was not listening. At that moment, she left the seat, frowning, and hurried towards the window on her side of the room. The tall leaded window was set in wooden panelling. It overlooked a Moscow courtyard which had its gates already wide open to receive a carriage. Anna glanced out of the window and then began pacing up and down. Why did Vronsky always have to stay out so late? He was growing cold towards her, no doubt about it. He must know how miserable she was in Moscow. And there was still no news from Karenin about a divorce. She thought she heard the sound of carriage wheels on the cobbles and hurried back to the window. No sign of him. This is not living, she thought. Waiting for a solution that never comes is not living. I know he’s getting tired of me. Why doesn’t he come? It doesn’t even matter if he doesn’t love me. As long as he’s here. The strain and anxiety of her situation caused a permanent change in Anna’s characteristically cheerful temperament. She bit her lip, shook her head and returned slowly to where she had been sitting.
Emma could not help noticing how graceful Anna was when she walked:
How do you keep that lovely figure? I had to drink vinegar to keep slim.
Anna ignored the question and posed one of her own as she sat down:
What happened anyway with your Rodolphe and your Leon? There was something sharp in the tone of her voice. Emma sighed:
Well Rodolphe was rich. We went riding together. Charles encouraged it – he thought it was good for my health. We started an affair. I became really bold. I couldn’t stop myself. One morning when Charles was at work I ran all the way over to the chateau and burst in on him. Emma held her hand to her mouth and her eyes flashed with amusement as she recalled her own behaviour. It was lust, she admitted. I couldn’t keep away from him.
Anna found Madame Bovary entertaining and a welcome distraction from her own thoughts. She could see how men would be attracted to this pert creature with her red lips and wayward manner. Emma rattled on:
After that I went to the chateau whenever I could although he warned me that I was becoming reckless. Now I realize I gave him too many gifts, expensive riding-whips, cigar cases, that sort of thing. I became over-sentimental, talking to him in baby language which got on his nerves. And I was borrowing money like there was no tomorrow, ordering clothes and traveling bags for myself, thinking we were going away together. Then, out of the blue, he did a bunk. How despicable is that? Emma let out a hiss of disgust. She took some eau de cologne from a small bottle in her bag and sprinkled it on her arms.
Go on. At that moment Anna chose to be a listener, fearful of what she might reveal about herself if she talked. Feeling flattered, Emma continued:
Well then, Leon was somebody else I’d taken a fancy to. You’ve no idea how boring life is in the country. But Leon moved away to Rouen before anything happened. Then after the disaster with Rodolphe, I bumped into Leon again. He was sweet. We had this amazing ride in a horse-drawn cab. We just pulled the curtains and got on with it. I’d been worried that he’d be too timid. But he wasn’t. I don’t know why but after that I became more careless, sort of slapdash. I didn’t really bother about anything anymore. I paid everything on credit. Signed promissory notes. Spent a lot on clothes. I forged bills for the piano classes I pretended to Charles I was having – my excuse for going to Rouen. I was getting into huge debt. Trying to dodge bailiffs. Now I can see that everything was going to pieces.
Were you jealous? Asked Anna.
Emma held her hands in front of her to study the nails she had shaped so carefully. She thought for a moment and then replied:
Not really. But I was pushy. I see that now. I demanded Leon write me love poems. I kept turning up at his office and he didn’t like it. I’d made the same mistake with Rodolphe. Were you jealous of Vronsky?
Anna stared straight ahead with a brooding look in her grey eyes:
I was jealous of everything. I was even jealous of my child’s nurse. I wanted total possession. ‘Love for man is a thing apart. ‘Tis woman’s whole existence’. Have you read any Byron?
Emma shook her head: I used to read Walter Scott at the convent. And I loved all those romances and the stories about martyred women. Passion. That’s what I wanted.
Anna gave a wry smile:
I wrote a little myself. Children’s stories, mainly. And I once re-wrote the first sentence of that famous novel by Jane Austen. My version went: It is a truth not universally acknowledged that all married women, even when they are reasonably contented, are still looking for a husband. It’s a sentence almost as famous as the one at the beginning of my own life story. She pointed to the Penguin Classic copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that lay beside her on the bench
Emma gave a puzzled shrug and pulled her own Penguin Classic copy of Madame Bovary out of a draw-string bag. She frowned at the cover:
I don’t know why they’ve put me in that weird outfit. They could have shown me in the gorgeous yellow ball dress I wore with my little bouquets of pom-pom roses all trimmed with green. And I had satin slippers. That would have been a lovely picture.
Emma flicked through the pages:
Oh I’m such a fool. I hadn’t realised that Leon held such a candle to me for all that time. I should have guessed and done something about it before he left.
She came to the part of the book which described her long drawn out death. Her lips puckered with distaste:
Why did he have to say my tongue was protruding like that? And black liquid was coming out of my mouth? Sometimes I wonder if Flaubert even liked me.
Anna felt a surge of affection for her:
Why did you do it?
Kill myself? Emma took a deep breath: Debt. It was poverty that did me in, not adultery. I was desperate. Always fleeing debt-collectors. Running from bailiffs. I just rushed into the pharmacy, grabbed a handful of arsenic powder and that was that. What about you?
Anna Karenina took a while to reply. She played with a loose strand of her curly black hair before turning directly to Emma, a strange gleam in her eyes:
Vengeance. A vague fury and a craving for vengeance. She shuddered as she remembered the heavy iron blow of the train’s wheel on her head. That was more or less my final thought. Of course, I was upset and confused too but if men knew our capacity for vengeance they would tremble in their socks. Never have I hated anyone as I hated that man. Love turned to hate. I can still see his stony face when we began to quarrel. All I wanted to do was hurt him. Death was my way of reviving his love for me, punishing him and finally gaining victory in the contest.
Emma was slightly shocked. For the first time she felt a little superior to her new friend. She did not think she had it in her heart to be as ruthless as Anna. She closed Flaubert’s novel and laid it on her lap. Anna looked at her in surprise:
Have you stopped reading? Do you not want to know what happened after you died? I do.
Emma, with some reluctance opened her book again and turned to the last few pages. She reached the point when her mother-in-law moved in to comfort Charles after her death:
Oh I see the old bat got him back after I’d gone. She was always jealous of me.
Vronsky’s mother hated me too. He’d given up a prestigious military career for me. She adored me at first then she thought I’d ruined her son’s life.
How do you mean? Emma tried to hide her prurience. The colour rose up through Anna’s neck and into her cheeks at the memory:
Well Vronsky and I chose to live together without my being divorced. That meant we were social outcasts. We were refused invitations. Spurned by old friends. Nobody would visit us. And once I was at the opera when the wife of a couple in the next box ostentatiously rose and left rather than be seen to be sitting near me.
For a few moments Emma was quite glad she did not move in those circles. It crossed her mind that maybe the French revolution hadn’t been such a bad thing. She read on: Oh it seems that Charles really did love me. He kept a lock of my hair and gave me a very grand tombstone. Then her hand shot up to cover her mouth. Oh no. She looked up in horror at Anna. He’s found all my love letters. The ones to Leon and the ones to Rodolphe. Now he knows everything. She continued to read: Shit. Now he’s actually bumped into Rodolphe in the market at Argueil. This is dreadful. She covered her face with her hands and then peeped back at the book: Oh and now he’s died. Just as well, probably.
Anna was studying the last pages of the Tolstoy novel with great intensity: Good. I’m so glad I was looking beautiful when Vronsky came to see my dead body at the train station. She put the book down and said with some sarcasm: I suppose we have to be thankful that Kitty and Levin carry some hope of happiness in the world. She explained to Emma: Kitty couldn’t get Vronsky so she had to make do with Levin. Vronsky always thought Levin was a crackpot with his communist ideas. Anyway, I got what I wanted. Vronsky rejoined the military and went off to war. He would almost certainly have been killed. At least nobody else would have him. She snapped the book shut with triumph and offered it to Emma:
Do you want to read mine?
I don’t think so. Not if it doesn’t have a happy ending. Emma continued to gripe about her author: I don’t think that Flaubert could have approved of me if he gave me such a long drawn out, unattractive death. In the books I read when I was at the convent death was romantic and brought tears to your eyes.
I’m not sure that Tolstoy liked me either. Anyway apparently Tolstoy was a complete pain in the neck but look at what he created. Anna’s eyes flashed with humour and she pulled the cashmere shawl around her shoulders in a shiver of delight.
Do you think people will remember us? Asked Emma.
Oh yes. Said Anna, smiling. People will remember us more vividly than they remember their own relatives.
But soon the women were drawn back to their respective windows. As long as they were residents in that city of waiting they spent most of their time at the window re-living certain short but very particular moments of their lives.