Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (trans. L Davis)

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.”

19 thoughts on “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (trans. L Davis)

  1. >I read Madame Bovary years ago and I did sympathize with Emma. She was just trying to be a man – going for the freedom that comes with it at least. How many other novels featuring men squandering their properties, having mistresses and neglecting their wives and children get frowned upon?(forgive me for the provocation but you were only weeks ago wondering at your female author reading rates so why not get the gender analysis into the novels themselves)

  2. >claudia A gendered reading of Madame Bovary is interesting, particularly given the confused social mores of France 150 years ago. Even today, there is greater hostility toward a mother acting like Emma Bovary than her husband.Would my sympathies have been different if Charles, rather than Emma, had been the needy seeker of love affairs? I like to think not but I couldn't swear it.Thank you for the provocation.

  3. >Shelley – I faced that Joyce fear, it was worth every moment. After being completely absorbed by Portrait it felt natural to tackle Ulysses. You know what, it is hilarious. One day .. one day, I will brave Wake.

  4. >One of the biggest surprises in store for me as a first-time reader of MB, Anthony, was how tremendously moving this "polished and crafted as a diamond" novel could be. What a lovely combination of the raw and the refined (a revelation)! Really enjoyed your posts during the readalong as well and now look forward to following up the novel with more Flaubert biographies and criticism…and A Sentimental Education and Bouvard et Pécuchet down the road. Cheers!

  5. >What a lovely combination of the raw and the refined (a revelation)!I must echo Richard here. I am not quite head-over-heals for Madame Bovary, but I didn't feel the coldness toward it that I had anticipated from its reputation as such a "pure" piece of literature. Great post!

  6. >Richard – I can only think that I was too young to truly appreciate MB and Sentimental Education when I first read them. In both cases I loved the story, but failed to comprehend Flaubert's craftsmanship and skill. Between Flaubert, and Joyce and Virginia Woolf, there is no one who uses the 26 letters of the alphabet to such effect.

  7. >Congrats on finishing the Davis translation. I'm still envious.I'm not sure of MB being the least accomplished. Recently I tried Salammbô and was unable to keep going with it (though maybe that wasn't an issue of lack of accomplishment – it was so oddly lush…). I really want to get to his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas and Bouvard et Pécuchet though. Onward!I was curious to read about Kenner's book. Like Josipovici, perhaps, I don't always warm to Joyce, but I'm open to persuasion.

  8. >You surprise me, Jen, as critically Salammbô is often cited as Flaubert's finest novel. I'm sure I will try it but others first.If you can read Kenner's book, you will want to read both Ulysses and possibly Dubliners. He is an enthusiastic reader before a critic, and the warm enthusiasm of his writing is infectious.

  9. >It's somehow endearing to me that Nabokov hates "the transparent tear [Larivière] sheds over the dying Emma." He's obviously spent so much time with the novel, and feels affection or frustration with such details; I really ought to track down that book of essays.I loved Flaubert's language throughout Madame Bovary, but will definitely stick with Joyce and Woolf for a philosophy of life to which I can relate. That said, I've so much enjoyed exploring both the form and content sides of this novel (and their intersection), with which the readalong has helped immensely. Thanks to you in particular for the critical insights from Kenner & others (and yourself, of course!).

  10. >Thanks, Emily. There is such varied insight into Flaubert and Madame Bovary that this shared reading is hugely enriched by the critical, and your own considerable, perspective. An example of where the internet can truly add to a personal reading.With you, I will stick with Joyce and Woolf for a philosophy I can inhabit. Flaubert is a first rate writer and thinker, but there is an emptiness there that is impossible to resolve.

  11. >This is particularly striking to me in this striking post:"… but also because she represents the repressed sensuality within us."I think of the changes in Charles once she dies. He descends into some of Emma's own sensuality as an attempt to recapture her, a heartbreaking series of what-if actions.Thank you so much for reading with us, Anthony, and lending your lovely words and insights.

  12. >"A part of us, I suspect, however deeply repressed, wants to live with the abandon of Emma Bovary."I think you're right, and that's why I sympathize with Emma so much this time, whereas when I first read MB at 18 or 19yo, I really thought I was better than all that, that I would never fall victim to that kind of ennui.

  13. Pingback: A Fresh Beginning « Time's Flow Stemmed

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