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.”

The Stoic Comedians by Hugh Kenner

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.

The Notion of Procreation was a Delectation

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 both 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, engend, 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.’

Best of Literary Criticism

Recently I posted this quote from Julian Barnes:

You do often feel when you read academic criticism, not that I do it much, or when you hear academics talking about their books, that they forget that theirs is a secondary activity. They forget that however important a critic is, a first-rate critic is always less important, and less interesting, than a second-rate writer. Their job is, firstly, to explain, but secondly to celebrate rather than diminish.

I’m mostly behind Barnes’s opinion but some literary criticism is first-rate writing. When I feel like reading criticism I want erudition, something cultured, digressive and preferably tendentious. This list comprises ten favourite books that stand proudly alongside first-rate fiction:

  1. Hugh Kenner – The Counterfeiters: An Historical Novel
  2. Maurice Blanchot – The Space of Literature
  3. Harold Bloom – The Western Canon
  4. Guy Davenport – The Geography of the Imagination
  5. Cynthia Ozick – Metaphor & Memory
  6. Denis Donoghue – The Practise of Reading
  7. William H. Gass – A Temple of Texts
  8. D. J. Enright – The Alluring Problem: an Essay on Irony
  9. Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation
  10. Vladimir Nabokov – Lectures on Literature
The list is in no particular order. It could have easily grown to twenty and included work of Cyril Connolly, William Empson, Joseph Brodsky or Viktor Shlovsky.