XY: You seem so restless today, XX. Every bit your wonderful ravenous self, but wild, as if satisfaction were only fleeting. Tell me what’s behind that searching gaze.
XX: I do feel that, darling XY—but it isn’t you, never! Sometimes, after days and weeks of not seeing you, with only letters to conjure you next to me, when I finally see you, it’s like a crescendo, overwhelming. But after the first waves of pleasure settle, something in me does become restless again. It’s like a constant murmur that says more … what else? What you write feeds me when we aren’t together. When we are, I feast on you. But even so, your words run through my head, written and spoken, and that hunger grows. It was Flaubert who said: ‘language is indeed a machine that continually amplifies the emotions’—how true that is. I might not be the tragic Emma in Madame Bovary, but oh, when I feel like I do today, I understand her perfectly.
XY: My dear XX, I certainly hope you’re not feeling as tragic as poor Emma. What a life she had, in the end! But before the inevitable comeuppance—or was it simply an accurate reflection of the punishment adventurous women faced at the time?—her flame burned bright. There is one moment in particular I love, ‘three intense, exquisite, glorious days, a real honeymoon’ in ‘the most splendid place on earth’, which comes at the very peak of her happiness with Léon:
They stayed at the Hôtel de Boulogne, down on the quay. They spent their time in their room, with their shutters latched and their doors closed, their floor strewn with flowers, drinking chilled fruit cordials that were brought to their room all day long.
Nothing but fucking and rehydrating—is there anything better? This, I am certain, is the reason the book was condemned at the time: for the moments of pure, animal pleasure it depicts. But too much of her love was mere fantasy, and it melted into thin air.
XX: I think we must all—at times—create images of an ideal person in our heads, built of the things we desire and the people we’ve come across. Emma’s desires are so lofty, almost inhuman. No man could ever have been enough. Not Charles, her husband, well-meaning but unable to understand her mysteries; not Rodolphe, the worldly cad who plays at what Emma doesn’t realise is just a game of love; not even the young law clerk Léon, who thinks he has found both a carnal and philosophical mistress. Each sees a facet in Emma and fills themselves with it, but what Emma desires is the man who is an ever-changing fantasy, that can give her an unreal life. Flaubert is beautifully explicit in his veiled language: the pair’s consummation in the carriage travelling madly round Rouen, ‘… what passion for locomotion drove this pair into never wanting to stop.’—you think only of heated bodies writhing inside! But that is where she and I part: because I want to know my lovers are humans, as flawed, as I am, and able to see the beauty of mundane love as well as the fantasy. There is something beautiful about an intimate partner in love and life, don’t you think, XY?
XY: Yes, XX, I do—even if that partner is a secret lover. For it must be said, XX … that, well, this isn’t really a sex book per se, is it? Not like our usual fare anyway. There is plenty of ‘langour’, the euphemism for arousal, but there’s not a lot of whips or chains or candlewax on the nipples. Madame Bovary, to me, captures the essence of adultery—the thrill and rush of desire, the anxiety and heartache, the feeling of leading two lives, of being (as Wilde put it) ‘Earnest in town and Jack in the country’. Sometimes we have to escape the everyday arrangement, even if it is good and healthy and stable, to find the fulfillment we seek, to be our truest selves—truth in the mask. Emma’s life would not have ended in tragedy if she hadn’t pursued other men, but neither would it have reached the heights it did.
XX: That is the question, is it not? She would have been miserable if she had not been able to escape into those desires—perilous as they were. Are we ever able to be different people when we are only with one? If we dream, are we destined to feel forever unfulfilled? It makes me determined to live openly, without regret—I feel better already. Shall we celebrate that, XY? Open the champagne so it spills over us, then let’s drink each other in as well …