Language and Dreaming in Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery

Gemma Bovery is a comic by English cartoonist Posy Simmonds. Originally serialised in The Guardian, it tells the story of the last years in the life of Gemma, an Englishwoman who moves to the Normandy countryside with her new husband, Charlie Bovery.

Simmonds tells her story through beautiful pencil drawings combined with text captions and direct speech placed in the drawings, floating around the characters, sometimes in bubbles, sometimes not. The drawings are detailed in a readable way. I always appreciate this style of drawing because the pencil is such an organic instrument that you can see the hand of the artist in the work, in shadings and hard lines alike. Most comics use pencils which are usually inked over and couloured. Simmonds’ style here allows what is usally a foundational step on the way to a finished product act as the art itself.

The image below is a good demonstration of the range of Simmonds’ toolkit. It also gives you the… opportunity… to witness Joubert’s obnoxious personality.

Simmonds, Posy. Gemma Bovery. New York : Pantheon Books, 1999. p. 72.
Simmonds, Posy. Gemma Bovery. Random House, 1999: Great Britain. pg. 72.

I feel that Simmonds must know French herself. She frequently uses it, and translates it inexactly for comedy purposes. One of my favourites is when our main narrator, the oafish old romantic Raymond Joubert, witnesses Gemma after she starts her affair with a local rake. He says “Je suis prét à parier ma couille gauche qu’elle a un amant… ” which Simmonds translates as “I’ll bet she’s got a lover” (pg. 41). Clearly, the French sentence is more complex than the English one and when you know some French yourself, the disparity is amusing (prét à parier means ready to bet and gauche means left, so… fill in the blanks). I did French in college, so I like these little extra touches.

It works the other way too. Joubert relates Gemma’s story while reading her diaries (which he steals from the mourning Charlie at the start of the story), so occasionally he comes across a word he doesn’t recognise. Early on, he finds the word wankers and thumbs through his French-English dictionary, disappointed to find that this mysterious word isn’t there. Anyone who’s ever done a language at any level knows that feeling, I’m sure.

Simmonds characterises everyone well, making space for the reader to empathise with each, while also presenting their faults. Gemma, Joubert and Charlie are each dreamers, not in the melodramatic or sentimental sense of the word, but in that they seek to elevate their lives in different ways. Charlie uses Gemma to escape from his ex-wife and their children, by proposing to her in the first place and by following her to France. Joubert uses Gemma to elevate his life to the level of the classic French literature with which he draws parallels to her. He remains largely an acquaintance to the Boveries, fascinated with Gemma’s life, though from her perspective, he is just the local baker. They invite him and his wife to a small dinner party with another old couple in the village, but he hardly plays the role of the intimate confidant to which he aspires. At the end of the story, he is surprised when his wife, who throughout the comic has had no time for his nonsense, appears in Charlie’s house to drop off laundry, completely unaware that she has become friends with the English couple.

But Gemma, despite Charlie and especially Joubert’s best efforts to force her into the role of tragic romantic saviour, is the character with the greatest depth. In her, Simmonds best demonstrates the main theme of the story- dissatisfaction. This is what drives Gemma’s thoughts and actions throughout. Her attempts to find something more than the life she lives always eventually fade and her restless spirit is always disappointed.

The story benefits hugely from its medium. Shifts in narrative voice occur more subtly than they would in a purely textual work. Simmonds’ work involves more text than is usual for a comic. I generally prefer to use the word comics as opposed to graphic novels, but the latter term certainly applies here. Reading Gemma Bovery reminds me of reading through my aunt’s copies of The Guardian as a teenager, where Simmonds’ cartoons appeared for many years. Given those broadsheet origins, the text works well with the images. If rendered as a prose novel, the text alone would limit us to Joubert’s perspective, but in tandem with the images, the book presents different parallel voices.

Joubert’s narration is written in English with occasional French words in italics, whereas in the pictures, he speaks and thinks mostly in French (naturally), only half of which is translated. To indicate when Joubert is actually speaking in English, Simmonds writes his dialogue phonetically. Rather than cribbing a stock French accent, there is a detail to this dialogue that reflects how a real French person actually sounds when speaking English (I speak from experience here). In other words, French pronunciations of similar sounds carry over into English. This is another reason why I’m certain that Simmonds speaks French herself. Raymond’s sentence structure, both in his heavily accented direct speech and in the text, often reflects French syntax (over which I have spent many hours labouring in airy university classrooms). Each of the characters communicates poorly with one another. At the risk of stretching a metaphor, each one is in some way speaking their own language (I know, sorry). The dreams they apply to others take the place of real connections.

In Joubert’s desperate attempts to understand Gemma, he fails partly because he uses her diaries to support his pre-existing desire to insert her into his mould. The alternative perspective that the pictures provide, as well as the rare reproduction of the diary entries themselves, written in cursive, allows us to hear Gemma’s own voice. Here, text and image have their own dialogue where each comments on the other, meaning all the characters connect more to each other in the constructed dream environment of the comic than they do in the world it depicts and in which they live.

I really enjoyed this comic, which I read during the autumn. I’ve read some excellent comics in the past few months and I especially like Simmonds’ style. She made another comic called Tamara Drewe, which I also got. It was made into a French film with Gemma Arterton in the title role, who also played Gemma Bovery in the 2014 adaptation of this comic (which I haven’t seen). It’s set in the English countryside, so I’ll miss Simmonds’ unique use of French, but I’m looking forward to more of her art (this time with colour, albeit used with restraint) and characterisation.

Citation for the comic:

Simmonds, Posy. Gemma Bovery. Random House, 1999: Great Britain.

Image taken from:

Mikkonen, Kai. (2010). Le narrateur implicite dans la bande dessinée. La transformation du style indirect libre dans deux adaptations en bandes dessinées de Madame Bovary. Image and Narrative : Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative. 11.

Incidentally, the Mikkonen paper’s abstract says it seeks to explore narrative voice in visual adaptations of Madame Bovary, so that might be the place to read more detailed, expert-level analysis on visual media than my layman’s blog (though I suspect it’s in French).

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