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.”