The TFT Review of Lydia Davis’s New Translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
What is the best way to review a translation?
Madame Bovary is already accepted into any definition of “the canon” as a formal tour de force, one of the greatest novels ever written, and the gateway to modern fiction.
I started by placing my dog-eared, yellowing French version next to the brilliant and rich new Lydia Davis rendition and began to read along, alternating sentences and moving down the page.
In the third paragraph, the new boy at school, Charles Bovary, is introduced to his classmates. He is described in Gustave Flaubert’s original as possessing “l’air raisonnable et fort embarrassé.“
Davis translates this phrase as “his manner sensible and very ill at ease.”
Ahhh…I like that, I thought. I like raisonnable as “sensible,” because it resonates with the French word, sensible, and thus simultaneously respects and captures the segue from one language to the next. And I also like fort embarrassé as “very ill at ease;” much better, more extended, as it were, than “embarrassed,” which is lacking subtlety.
In the next paragraph, my eyes alighted upon “attentif comme au sermon.” Davis translates these words, “as attentive as though to a sermon.” That, too, is an excellent decision, because it respects the glissade between attentif and attentive, instead of trying to conjure up something like “listening closely.”
Davis has said that she is not afraid to be faithful, to defer to the original. She is a fine and perfectionist enough writer in her own right to have developed an inherent stylishness. A few lines later, she translates “l’habitude” as “in the habit.”
One could argue that “l’habitude,” in French, has a connotation of longueur, being “stretched out” in a customary fashion, rather than repetition of the same thing.
Nevertheless, I like Davis’ option, because it resides at the level of schoolboy thinking.
You get my drift. At this rate, it could take weeks and weeks to read, let alone review, Madame Bovary as a translation; I am able to proceed in this laboriously subjective way because of my background as a practitioner of the craft.
Does this exegesis do the normal, intelligent reader any good?
If I had all the time in the world, I would still reassure you in this meticulous mode, ad infinitum, that Lydia Davis has forged a masterpiece out of a masterpiece. She has already demonstrated her bravery in successfully navigating the convoluted linguistic landscapes of Proust and Foucault and Blanchot and Leiris; this Madame Bovary is a veritable page-turner.
I knew it would be as soon as I read the lucid explanation in her Introduction regarding Flaubert’s virtuosic imperfect tense. Spoiler-alert! Davis warns readers wary of learning too much about the plot before starting the novel to skip her introductory analysis until after reading the story; I beg to differ. You will enjoy the gripping plot-line and derive even more pleasure from the translator’s insights beforehand.
Perhaps in high school or college you read one of the many Anglo and American translations of Madame Bovary already out there — by Paul de Man, or Eleanor Marx-Aveling, or the Alan Russell 1949 Penguin Classic, or ones by Mildred Murmur, Geoffrey Wall, Francis Steegmuller, Margaret Mauldon, or Lowell Bair.
No matter what the style — and they range from clunky to smooth, with many stops in between — the plot-points have become archetypal.
The volatile Emma Rouault, raised on a farm, becomes entrapped in a provincial-town marriage to Charles Bovary, a physician who loves her but not in the way she imagines she should be loved; a man who never seems to lose that early schoolboy awkwardness. The more they settle down, the more of a hemmed-in, hot-house flower Emma becomes. As their domestic lives grow closer, “an inner detachment formed, which loosed her ties” to Charles. It is not long before Emma meets young Leon Dupuis, a humble law clerk, who will become the first of her two lovers. Frustrated at waiting for Emma to succumb, he escapes to Paris, much like Chekhov’s three sisters longed for Moscow – as a mythical place where dreams are fulfilled. Framed in a romantic setting, but essentially on the rebound, Emma meets Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy and narcissistic landowner, and the novel settles into an exotic, contrapuntally adulterous suite – Emma’s emotions swinging wildly between the two men as Charles seems to know nothing of either.
One of Davis’ many gifts on display throughout the story is the way she is able to preserve and perpetuate Flaubert’s foreground and background shifts. As I read, glimmers flashed before my eyes of first encounters with the Gallimard paperback in college Sophomore French – that sense of Flaubert as a painterly author equally adept at detailed closeup and panoramic vista. Emma’s flushed-face fantasies gave way to meadows with crystalline brooks running through.
In French, the story leapt out at me like an hallucinatory Technicolor poem; in the lapidary English of Lydia Davis, I receive the same frisson of recognition — that the novel still lives. It has been observed, by Davis and others, that Flaubert was ruthless about not wanting to glorify or ennoble his essentially earthbound characters.
Or, at least, to be ironic and Flaubertian about it, he said as much.
And yet…and yet…whatever the ostensible sentiments of its author, the novel is the literary art form in which all we need to be able to do is care – ourselves – about the people therein, even as they insist upon being character-constructs.
It is the illusion of the novel that redeems it, especially during this cultural moment when it seems as if we have been reading about its “death” for a decade.
“She was not happy and had never been,” Emma reflects after another furtive, too-hasty encounter with Leon. “Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust?”
Dear Reader, you already know that “Emma Bovary” dies.
Thanks to Lydia Davis, the book remains: a great, companionlike, eternal gilded mirror of Flaubert’s world.
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. A New Translation by Lydia Davis. Viking Books, Penguin Group (USA). September 2010. 342 pp., $27.95
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