In her ‘Note on the Translation’ of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis writes, “‘A good sentence in prose,’ says Flaubert, ‘should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.’ To achieve a translation that matches this high standard is difficult, perhaps impossible.” Reading a translation of Madame Bovary is a compromise, a dilution not only of style but of idiom.
Intending to satirise the bourgeois of his day, not bourgeois with any Marxist connotations but referring to the philistine obsessed with material circumstances, Flaubert drew heavily on his work-in-progress, the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas. Over three decades, Flaubert, recorded in this Dictionary his personal irritations and as Davis describes, “certain traits such as intellectual and spiritual superficiality, raw ambition, shallow culture, a love of material things, greed, and above all a mindless parroting of sentiments and beliefs.”
The dialogue between Emma Bovary and her husband and lovers, and, of course, the pedantries of Homais, are lifted straight from Flaubert’s dictionary. Hugh Kenner adds, “If the Dictionary is useless for guiding conversation, it is useful for the writer; and the writer who used it was Flaubert himself, turning, it would seem from entry to entry precisely like a correspondence-school novelist . . . For the dictionary entries on which he based the discourses of Emma and Léon, Flaubert need not have listened to thousands of Emmas and Léons; he could have gotten “Sea: image of the infinite” [from their cliché-filled introductory conversation] directly out of other novels, and perhaps did.”
With Madame Bovary, Flaubert writes a study of provincial life as polished and crafted as a diamond, but also commences a life-long theme, “Writing books about what books do to the readers of books, one eye always on the sort of thing his own book is going to do to its own reader.”
And what Flaubert does in Madame Bovary, is to present a dubious array of unsympathetic characters, whom he subsequently annihilates with apparent relish. “Who are the ‘good’ people of the book?” asks Nabokov in his precise examination of Madame Bovary, concluding, “Emma’s father, old Rouault; somewhat unconvincingly, the boy Justin, whom we glimpse crying on Emma’s grave, a bleak note; and speaking of Dickensian notes let us not forget two other unfortunate children, Emma’s little daughter, and of course that other little Dickensian girl, that girl of thirteen, hunchbacked, a little bleak housemaid, a dingy nymphet, who serves Lheureux as clerk, a glimpse to ponder. Who else in the book do we have as good people?The best person is the third doctor, the great Lariviere, although I have always hated the transparent tear he sheds over the dying Emma.”
As I complete my rereading of Madame Bovary, I remember why she always has my sympathies in the end. Not only because of her savage destruction by the book’s narrator, Flaubert if you go back far enough, but also because she represents the repressed sensuality within us. Our response to the ennui of everyday life is to throw ourselves into work, our children, our work, or to self-medicate with alcohol, tobacco or drugs, or any combination of these. A part of us, I suspect, however deeply repressed, wants to live with the abandon of Emma Bovary.
My much-younger reading of Madame Bovary had left an impression of an artist producing the last Victorian novel. Although there are traces of high Romance, this novel presents romance of a baser nature, and a closer pre-cursor to the Moderns. Kenner, drawing a straight line between Flaubert and James Joyce, makes the point, “His [Flaubert] tight, burnished set pieces slacken considerably in translation: if we want to see something in English that resembles them, we cannot do better than consult Ulysses, where Bloom’s cat ‘blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes,’ or ‘Frail from the housetops two plumes of smoke ascended, pluming, and in a flaw of softness softly were blown,’ or ‘Two shafts of soft daylight fell across the flagged floor from the high barbicans; and at the meeting of their rays a cloud of coalsmoke and fumes of fried grease floated, turning.’”
Lydia Davis counted nineteen translations of Madame Bovary, there are at least a dozen film interpretations, numerous serious critical works, by writers like Nabokov, Sartre and Proust. The book’s irresistible attraction is undeniable. There are few novels I have read three times; clear evidence of Madame Bovary’s masterpiece status is that multiple readings illuminate different facets.
To end, an apt conclusion from Harold Bloom, “Though he murders her, Flaubert performs the work of mourning for her, a work that takes the shape of his masterpiece, the purest of all novels in form, economy, and the just representation of general nature.”
Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett, three writers that redefined the medium of the novel. Hugh Kenner, a passionate reader first, and insightful critic second, traces how each man pushed the form of the novel to a conclusion, or impasse. Each writer evolved the novel on a steady journey towards interiorization. Kenner illuminates the path of this journey. Kenner’s Stoic Comedians is that rare work of criticism, writing of the highest order.
>I’ve added Claude Chabrol’s interpretation of Madame Bovary to my Lovefilm list. I am very choosy the films that I watch. I’ve yet to see a Chabrol film that hasn’t provoked a powerful reaction. He is a first-rate artist.
While mooching on the web I came across the poster below for Jean Renoir’s (another inspiring director) Madame Bovary. My first reaction was ‘Perfect! Tony Curtis is the perfect Rodolphe Boulanger.’ Don’t you think? Curtis (RIP) has the right balance of cheesiness and charm to pull off oily Rodolphe.
Except that isn’t Tony Curtis in the picture. I think it is Daniel Lecourtois, who played Leon in this version of the film.
>Rereading Part II of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is for me, an odd experience, if only because it is where I expected this story to come flooding back. After all, I read the novel twice before, albeit over twenty years ago. Yet only a faint impression remains, thus I enjoy this remarkable book almost afresh.
A recurring theme puzzled me whilst reading some of the comments on various blogs about Part I. A few commenters reported that they had abandoned Madame Bovary because they found it boring. Boring? I could just about understand readers giving the book up because they find Flaubert’s descriptive prose suffocating or cloying, or because of the lack of sympathetic characters. But boring?
Harold Bloom wrote, “With her [Emma] the novel enters the realm of inactivity, where the protagonists are bored, but the reader is not.” Perhaps Flaubert attracts polarised reactions because Madame Bovary is profoundly unsettling. Bloom again, “I wonder indeed if she does not provoke our fear as well, since she involuntary exposes the contingency of most of our passions. Even our most violent attachments are functions of mere juxtapositions of time and space.”
In the second part of Madame Bovary, the foundation of Flaubert’s pitiless destruction of his protagonist is laid. After the disappointment of Léon’s departure we glimpse the narcissism at the core of Emma’s downfall, “A woman who had required of herself such great sacrifices could surely be permitted to indulge her whims.”
Madame Bovary’s initial seduction, at the Agricultural Fair, by the oily Rodolphe, is my favourite chapter of Part II. The scene’s outcome is predictable but at, “And he grasped her hand; she did not withdraw it,” my immediate thought was ‘no, don’t do it.’ Flaubert succeeds in making this woman sympathetic, despite all.
Thereafter I read slightly breathlessly as the horrors mount: poor Hippolyte’s operation, Emma gets jilted and suffers a nervous or hysterical illness. The illness mirrors Flaubert’s nervous affliction, of which I know little. For me, Madame Bovary leads inevitably to a question: ‘why.’ Why Flaubert, a meticulous writer, who famously declared “I am Madame Bovary” chose to create and then destroy, so mercilessly, this character.
“The Notion of Procreation was a Delectation” (translating Madame Bovary)
>Alongside continuing to slowly read Madame Bovary this weekend, I’ve also been reading about the book and its writer. The posts and subsequent discussions that took place in Comments, both here and on the blogs of others participating in Nonsuch Book’s shared reading of Madame Bovary, inspired me to think and read more deeply into the hazards of translating Flaubert’s complicated prose.
Nabokov’s lecture on Madame Bovary is the yardstick, but many serious critics address the art of Flaubert. Both Hugh Kenner and Harold Bloom offer perceptive criticism of Flaubert, but the critic that, in recent years, offers the most penetrating analysis of Flaubert is James Wood.
Wood’s The Broken Estate and How Fiction Works contain helpful insight. In particular this paragraph fascinated and amused me. In the Lydia Davis translation, the sentence is: ” The idea of having engendered a child delighted him,” and shows how close Davis remains to the original.
So what did Flaubert mean by style, by the music of a sentence? This, from Madame Bovary – Charles is stupidly proud that he has got Emma pregnant: ‘L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait.’ So compact, so precise, so rhythmic. Literally, this is ‘The idea of having engendered delighted him.’ Geoffrey Wall, in his Penguin translation, renders it as: ‘The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him.’ This is good, but pity the poor translator. For the English is a wan cousin of the French. Say the French out loud, as Flaubert would have done, and you encounter four ‘ay’ sounds in three of the words: ‘l’idée, engendré, délectait.’ An English translation that tried to mimic the untranslatable music of the French – that tried to mimic the rhyming – would sound like bad hip-hop: ‘The notion of procreation was a delectation.’
>Via night rpm, Ted Hughes’ poem about the night of Plath’s suicide.
“Last Letter” by Ted Hughes
What happened that night? Your final night.
Double, treble exposure
Over everything. Late afternoon, Friday,
My last sight of you alive.
Burning your letter to me, in the ashtray,
With that strange smile. Had I bungled your plan?
Had it surprised me sooner than you purposed?
Had I rushed it back to you too promptly?
One hour later—-you would have been gone
Where I could not have traced you.
I would have turned from your locked red door
That nobody would open
Still holding your letter,
A thunderbolt that could not earth itself.
That would have been electric shock treatment
Repeated over and over, all weekend,
As often as I read it, or thought of it.
That would have remade my brains, and my life.
The treatment that you planned needed some time.
I cannot imagine
How I would have got through that weekend.
I cannot imagine. Had you plotted it all?
Your note reached me too soon—-that same day,
Friday afternoon, posted in the morning.
The prevalent devils expedited it.
That was one more straw of ill-luck
Drawn against you by the Post-Office
And added to your load. I moved fast,
Through the snow-blue, February, London twilight.
Wept with relief when you opened the door.
A huddle of riddles in solution. Precocious tears
That failed to interpret to me, failed to divulge
Their real import. But what did you say
Over the smoking shards of that letter
So carefully annihilated, so calmly,
That let me release you, and leave you
To blow its ashes off your plan—-off the ashtray
Against which you would lean for me to read
The Doctor’s phone-number.
Had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted,
Only wanting to be recaptured, only
Wanting to drop, out of its vacuum.
Two days of dangling nothing. Two days gratis.
Two days in no calendar, but stolen
From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.
My love-life grabbed it. My numbed love-life
With its two mad needles,
Embroidering their rose, piercing and tugging
At their tapestry, their bloody tattoo
Somewhere behind my navel,
Treading that morass of emblazon,
Two mad needles, criss-crossing their stitches,
Selecting among my nerves
For their colours, refashioning me
Inside my own skin, each refashioning the other
With their self-caricatures,
Their obsessed in and out. Two women
Each with her needle.
My dellarobbia Susan. I moved
With the circumspection
Of a flame in a fuse. My whole fury
Was an abandoned effort to blow up
The old globe where shadows bent over
My telltale track of ashes. I raced
From and from, face backwards, a film reversed,
Towards what? We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.
Why did we go there? Of all places
Why did we go there? Perversity
In the artistry of our fate
Adjusted its refinements for you, for me
And for Susan. Solitaire
Played by the Minotaur of that maze
Even included Helen, in the ground-floor flat.
You had noted her—-a girl for a story.
You never met her. Few ever met her,
Except across the ears and raving mask
Of her Alsatian. You had not even glimpsed her.
You had only recoiled
When her demented animal crashed its weight
Against her door, as we slipped through the hallway;
And heard it choking on infinite German hatred.
That Sunday night she eased her door open
Its few permitted inches.
Susan greeted the black eyes, the unhappy
Overweight, lovely face, that peeped out
Across the little chain. The door closed.
We heard her consoling her jailor
Inside her cell, its kennel, where, days later,
She gassed her ferocious kupo, and herself.
Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day.
I did not take her back to my own bed.
It had occurred to me, your weekend over,
You might appear—-a surprise visitation.
Did you appear, to tap at my dark window?
So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you,
In our own wedding bed—-the same from which
Within three years she would be taken to die
In that same hospital where, within twelve hours,
I would find you dead.
I drove her to work, in the City,
Then parked my van North of Euston Road
And returned to where my telephone waited.
What happened that night, inside your hours,
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen,
As if it was not happening. How often
Did the phone ring there in my empty room,
You hearing the ring in your receiver—-
At both ends the fading memory
Of a telephone ringing, in a brain
As if already dead. I count
How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road, crossing over
Between the heaped up banks of dirty sugar.
In your long black coat,
With your plait coiled up at the back of your hair
You walk unable to move, or wake, and are
Already nobody walking
Walking by the railings under Primrose Hill
Towards the phone booth that can never be reached.
Before midnight. After midnight. Again.
Again. Again. And, near dawn, again.
At what position of the hands on my watch-face
Did your last attempt,
Already deeply past
My being able to hear it, shake the pillow
Of that empty bed? A last time
Lightly touch at my books, and my papers?
By the time I got there my phone was asleep.
The pillow innocent. My room slept,
Already filled with the snowlit morning light.
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: ‘Your wife is dead.’
This year my attention so far, has been drawn to artists like Joyce, Woolf and Kafka. Reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, though I’ve read it twice before, requires an adjustment. Unlike those writers, Flaubert leaves less space for contemplation, he describes relentlessly, building up his fiction, layer by layer.
When Flaubert wishes to make a point he abjures subtlety. A lengthy paragraph describes hapless Charles Bovary’s graceless cap:
It was one of those head coverings of a composite order, in which one can recognize components of a busby, a lancer’s cap, a bowler, an otter-skin cap, and a cotton nightcap, one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile. Ovoid and stiffened with whalebones, it began with three circular sausages; then followed alternately, separated by a red band, lozenges of velvet and rabbit fur; next came a kind of bag terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon, covered with an embroidery in complicated braid, from which hung, at the end of a long, excessively slender cord, a little crosspiece of gold threads, by way of a tassel. It was new; the visor shone.
The same technique is used when describing Charles’ and Emma’s wedding cake, an equally vulgar object:
At the base, first, there was a square of blue cardboard representing a temple with porticoes, colonnades, and statuettes of stucco all around, in niches spangled with gold paper stars; then on the second tier was a castle keep made of sponge cake, surrounded by tiny fortifications of angelica, almonds, raisins, and orange sections; and lastly, on the topmost layer, which was a green meadow with rocks and with lakes made of jam and boats of nutshells, a little Cupid was swinging on a chocolate swing whose two poles ended in two real rosebuds, for knobs, at the top.
I’ve been eager to read this first part of Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary, delaying my reading of it to participate in Nonsuch Book’s shared reading of the book. The opening part is, I suspect, my favourite, at least it’s the part I always think of when I recall Madame Bovary.
Having adjusted to Flaubert’s prose and style, it is a joy to indulge in the detail and imagery: the crass cap, the vulgar wedding cake, the little drops of sweat on Emma’s bare shoulders when widower Charles come to visit and, not forgetting one of literature’s more erotic moments:
As was the fashion in the country, she offered him something to drink. He refused, she insisted, and finally invited him, laughing, to have a glass of liqueur with her. So she went to get a bottle of curaçao from the cupboard, took down two small glasses, filled one to the rim, poured almost nothing in the other, and, after having touched it to his, raised it to her mouth. As it was almost empty, she leaned back to drink; and with her head back, her lips thrust out, her neck tense, she laughed at feeling nothing, while the tip of her tongue, passing between her delicate teeth, licked with little stabs at the bottom of the glass.