Now, I love lists as much as the next person, so what better way to while away a few of these darker autumn evenings than by writing about one of my favourite things: comic books. Over the next few posts, I’ll be giving you my Top Five plus some extra information about a couple of Also-Rans and an Outsider. I’ll try to avoid spoilers as far as I can, but please be warned that there may be a few here and there. First, straight in at number five is Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds.
I’m a big fan of Simmonds’s other work – Tamara Drewe, Mrs Weber, and so on – but Gemma Bovery gets top five placing for the fascinating conflict generated between the various narrators and narrative levels, and the sheer beauty of the delicate pencil and pen-and-ink drawings. It’s a story told in words and pictures rather than in strips made up of panels, but it’s seamlessly put together so there’s no sensation of being jolted about between text and image: the eye of the reader always knows where to go next. I have a penchant for beautifully executed plain pencil drawings, and Simmonds’s artwork here is truly stunning.
Our narrator is the baker, Joubert, who tells us his side of the story and also reveals to us the contents of Gemma’s diaries which he has stolen from her husband Charlie, so we hear Gemma’s voice weaving in and out of Joubert’s narrative. Joubert, who I think is supposed to be a sort of textually reincarnated Gustave-Flaubert-controlling-author figure, becomes convinced that Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary has some kind of sinister power over the lives of his new neighbours, Gemma and Charlie Bovery, and indeed there are many parallels between the two texts. The more obvious similarities at story level are pointed out for the reader through Joubert, but there are possibly many more parallels at narrative or discourse level that I’ve missed, having not read Madame Bovary for over twenty years. Madame Bovary was considered obscene and Flaubert was taken to court in January 1857, but was acquitted when it was successfully demonstrated that his use of free indirect discourse meant that what appears on the surface to be Flaubert’s words are in fact Emma’s words reported through the narrator. Flaubert could not, therefore, be held responsible for the sentiments expressed.
I’ve mentioned Joubert’s story and Gemma’s diaries, but it seems likely, given the number of scenes that Joubert does not witness directly, that there is a third narrator at work here, linking and fleshing out the two main narratives. There are other texts and voices present too: mainly letters, but bills and faxes also feature alongside examples of Gemma’s artwork, thus the whole story is a complex mesh of competing narratives all held together under the over-arching umbrella of Flaubert’s novel, which repeatedly surfaces in this new and autonomous text. There is a nice distance too between Joubert’s self-deluding narrative and what the reader can pick up either between the lines or from the images: information and impressions which work either to undermine or to flatly contradict Joubert’s narrative. There’s a good example on page 59 when Joubert tells us that he thinks Gemma’s reinvention of herself as The Blonde is a tired cliché; he says he finds her ‘quite without allure’, but the reader can see him in the picture, positively drooling behind his baker’s counter with his eyes popping out of his head. Joubert is an unreliable narrator because he chooses to fool himself and the reader recognises a long time before he does the reality behind Joubert’s rampant voyeurism: he has fallen in love – or, more likely, lust – with Gemma and wishes to replace Hervé (and later Patrick) as Gemma’s lover.
Simmonds has added to the original story of a bored housewife the thrill of a whodunnit, employing the techniques of unreliable narration and repetition used by writers of detective fiction. When the story begins, Gemma is already dead and both Charlie and Joubert are mourning her. Joubert is convinced that Gemma’s death was inevitable because she bore almost the same name as Flaubert’s ill-fated heroine, and Charlie’s subsequent grief-stricken decline seems to indicate that he too will follow in the footsteps of his Flaubertian namesake. There is some mystery surrounding Gemma’s death, however: when Charlie arrives to beg for help on the day Gemma dies, he bears the marks of a struggle – so what really happened? The narrators piece the story together for us bit by bit, but the reader has to balance what s/he is being told against who is doing the telling.
In fact, all three narrators are in some sense unreliable: Joubert because he is self-deluding; Gemma because she is self-absorbed and self-obsessed; the implied narrator behind the ‘camera angles’ of each drawing because the chosen angle excludes all others and thus renders this narrative as selective as the other two. It could be argued that Gemma’s narrative is the most reliable of the three because it is delivered posthumously from her diaries, and diarists are not writing for an audience so tend not to tell fibs. Although diaries are not usually intended for public consumption, writing them is still a selective process because one does self-edit, whether consciously or not. (As a personal aside, I burned seven or eight years’ worth of my own diaries: on re-reading them when I was older and wiser, I didn’t like the self I’d unwittingly revealed in those naïve pages and knew that it would make me feel better if I just chucked them on the bonfire.)
The main character in both books – Gemma in Gemma Bovery and Emma in Madame Bovary – is an impossibly irritating woman, because both women are fantasists and have fed their imaginations on a diet of rubbish literature, poisoning their minds against the reality with which they are faced. Emma reads trashy romantic fiction and she metaphorically regurgitates the literary poison she has swallowed after her death, when black bile pours from her mouth as her body is being prepared for burial. Gemma, on the other hand, reads glossy magazines, and has done ever since she was allowed to peruse such publications in the waiting room of her father’s dental surgery when she was a little girl. Gemma learns of Patrick and Pandora’s marriage from one of these magazines, a bitter moment for her: what she sees is the life she had imagined for herself, after all. But Patrick and Pandora’s marriage doesn’t work either, and the reader realises what Gemma doesn’t – that life as portrayed in the glossies is nothing but an elaborate fake. Gemma, meanwhile, continues to build her castles in the air, as depicted on page 70 in a full-page illustration with explanatory text. (Spoiler: Gemma herself chokes to death on a piece of Joubert’s bread. She too, like her literary predecessor, cannot contain what she has swallowed, either in a realistic or a metaphorical sense. And on another level, G/Emma is once again killed off by Flaubert/Joubert).
It quickly becomes quite clear to the reader of both Flaubert and Simmonds’s text that G/Emma will never be satisfied with what she’s got. And G/Emma is not the only annoying one. Simmonds gives us a whole line-up of fabulously repellent characters: the ghastly Rankins, the awful Judi and her revolting spoilt children, the spineless Hervé and his snobbish, domineering mother, and finally, the borderline sex-pest Joubert.
It’s all great stuff, and it’s my Number Five.