Writing back

Magnetic Diaries, Sarah James
(94pp. £9.00, Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

When I picked up The Magnetic Diaries for the first time, I couldn't help doubting its ambition. It's been more than ten years since I first read Madame Bovary. It marked a maturation in my reading and I was concerned that modernising such a familiar text would feel clumsy or gratuitous. However, The Magnetic Diaries is a sensitive reworking and beautifully rendered writing back, as well as a lyrical and experimental response to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, a book that still has the power to disrupt widely recognisable norms, like dysfunctional relationships and the boredom of the everyday.  Sarah James modernises the novel, releasing it from its nineteenth century binding, and gives it freedom to move in the contemporary. Somehow, the way a novel like Madame Bovary can dance between you and the page is captured perfectly:

   ... How do they do it,
   those who run across lightly, stopping only
   for elegant flourishes of dance?
       [from 'Vertigo']

James uses the contemporary setting to frame her collection and there are several references to it throughout, such as email, QR code and doctor's case notes. These structure the collection and are embedded in the text, fitting naturally as formal choices rather than gimmicks:

   Reassessed after four weeks of treatment (20 sessions)
       [from 'Case Notes']

The only weakness, for me, is a practical one. The presence of the QR codes cut me off from fully understanding some aspects of the collection. A QR is a matrix of patterns that you scan with your phone, which reads the code like a message and performs its command. It is a potentially interesting way of interacting with the text but I won't be alone in not having the technology to translate it.

Sarah James contextualises Emma in the twenty-first century in a way that breathes life into the nineteenth-century cadaver. Emma is no longer bargaining for her property or caught in the saint/whore binary of the fin de si¸cle
. In the Magnetic Diaries, she is raw with modern sensitivities; a diagnosed depressive, complex and struggling to find meaning in her life. This fatal mix is no less destructive in her marriage but her struggles seem closer to home for a contemporary readership. We are more used to the anti-hero.

There are moments in Madame Bovary
that read like prose poetry and James acknowledges Flaubert's use of the lyrical by borrowing and re-using his imagery. She has managed to weave the text convincingly into the collection. This tight binding reveals a sensitive discourse between James and Flaubert.

Emma Bovary is now Emma Bailey and Normandy has become Southern England.  Emma is a poet, as well as a reader, and her bouts of fancy and caprice are transformed into writing poems that are intelligent and expressive. The poems in her diary reveal Emma's inner turmoil and her battle with depression. This Emma occasionally emerges in Madame Bovary
but is pushed aside in Flaubert's eagerness to describe a fallen woman. Neither Emma can find happiness in picturesque dreams of married life or extra-marital affairs.

In her diary, Emma Bailey writes to her daughter Beth,

   Oh rose, though art, so lifeless, trimmed
   to thin-stemmed smoothness in this vase.
   Small sharp edges clipped, our budding
   faces shaped to one sameness. Arranged.
       [from 'Denatured']

She juxtaposes the traditional image of the rose, its thorns cut smooth and civilised, with harsher, more contemporary ideas of high definition and Photoshop. 

One of the most successful poems in the collection is 'Unmedical Notes'. The poem is made up of quotations collected by Emma and its simplicity and recalling of Madame Bovary
shows us the relationship between the collection and its source material.

   - She wished both to die, and to live in Paris
   (Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary)
       [from 'Unmedical Notes']

The twenty-first century Emma gets both her wishes. James replaces Paris with London, which Emma Bailey finds disappointing and destructive to mental well-being. Her death wish comes at the end and is just as bleak as Emma Bovary's.

Life is an unwanted present to Emma Bailey and her nineteenth-century shadow. Her emotions are always moving in and out of extremes, but behind the flourishes of sentiment there is a blankness, a desperate desire to feel something.

   ...The therapist tells me to walk
   aware of the senses, present in each moment.
   Ice winds sting, my throat is grated beetroot.
   Even without reality's coldness,
   my brain refuses to be drained of what ifs.
       [from 'Unwanted Presents']

James gives us a glimmer of hope. She ends her collection with Emma's death, but after the last poem she invites the reader to choose a different resolution for Emma. You can access five alternative endings by scanning the QR code of your choice. Or, if you're a Luddite like me, you can email James and she'll send you the link for your chosen ending.

I received two endings, both written with sensitivity and subtlety. Nothing can quite undo the fatalistic tone of Madame Bovary's
outcome, but there is much to be glad of in the everyday uncrumpled. I am glad my Emma eventually saw the shadow she cast. 

       © Sarah Cave 2016