Lydia Davis's new translation of Madame Bovary / Reviews
by Tierry Coquelet
Lydia Davis’s new translation
of Madame Bovary
InMadame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert wrote in a highly controlled and economical prose style that was, in 1856, something quite new in European fiction. As he was drafting what would be his most famous novel, Flaubert toiled under the belief that a line of prose should have the rhythm, the sonority, and the unbreakability of a line of verse. The result, as critic Michael Dirda has quipped, is that “you can shakeMadame Bovaryand nothing will fall out.”
For a book so carefully constructed, it’s hard to think of a happier choice of translator than the eminently precise fiction writer Lydia Davis. Though she’s been acclaimed recently as a translator of Proust, Davis’s pairing with Flaubert seems even more apt. After all, Proust’s lush, expansive narration (lengthy, too – many translators of In Search of Lost Time have died before completion) has little affinity with Davis’s characteristic fiction: compressed, scrupulous short stories, some a mere sentence or two long, that often evince an ironical sensibility. A good match, then, for the exacting Flaubert, who drafted so many more pages than he published, and who saw irony even in his most serious aspirations and sentiments.
Lydia Davis is a virtuosic restoration artist, and her Madame Bovary has an astounding clarity. To say that her translation is excellent is not simply to say that she has performed well by such and such technical criteria that matter primarily to translators and literary critics. It is to say something more fundamental: that Davis has decisively reanimated this novel, which has been slowly obscured, over the last century and a half, by translators who were only good enough.
There have been at least nineteen translations of Madame Bovary into English; Davis’s new version makes twenty. Hers is a very close translation, the closest yet, and perhaps the closest possible. But though she cleaves so closely to the nineteenth century text, there’s no stuffiness to her prose. The same can’t be said even for the most popular translations of Madame Bovary: Gerard Hopkins’s from 1948, Alan Russell’s from 1950, Francis Steegmuller’s from 1957. More impressive still, Davis’s version has an immediate feel without taking recourse to odd anachronisms, for example phrases like “No way!” (Margaret Mauldon, 2004) and “the damage was done” (Geoffrey Wall, 1992).
In a move bolder than it may seem, Davis has retained practically all of the flaws and quirks of Flaubert’s prose. His little slips in calculation and plotting (chronological implausibility in Emma’s assignations, an odd-number amount counted out in even-number coinage, etc.) remain intact in Davis’s version, as do certain crucial grammatical idiosyncrasies: italicised phrases, comma splices, non-parallelism. These are quirks that many previous translators have seen fit to erase or ‘correct’–with the effect of stilting the cadence of Flaubert’s lines, and deadening his ironies.
Davis brings a deft and tasteful sensibility to the rendering of Flaubert’s images, a quality that’s essential in translating this particular work. Flaubert was famously obsessed with style. Of the nineteenth century prose writers, no one was more discriminating about the words he put on the page; no one’s details more carefully chosen, no one’s images so meticulously drawn. In an 1852 letter to Louise Colet, Flaubert even expressed a desire to write “a book about nothing, a book without external attachments, which holds itself up by the internal force of its own style, as the earth, unsupported, holds itself in mid-air…”
But a writer’s aspirations don’t necessarily reflect the book he ends up producing. Flaubert may have dreamt of “a book about nothing,” but Madame Bovary is not that book. In fact, it’s remarkable for its very something-ness — its absolute reliance on concrete detail, on a steady progression of plot, and on minute social observation of characters and environment. Though Flaubert considered “provincial ways” (the novel’s subtitle) as simply an occasion for the practice of his style, his finely tuned descriptions of clothing, food, and speech are not just local colour garnishing bigger themes, nor are they an exercise in ethnography – as was the case for many of Flaubert’s contemporaries. They are the very engine of the story, the source of its studied anti-romanticism. What previous translators have done to Madame Bovary is craft it in the image of what a nineteenth century novel ‘ought’ to sound like. But Flaubert’s novel didn’t sound like that; it didn’t sound like a typical novel then, and it doesn’t sound like it now. A translation like Davis’s helps us see that.
American short-story writer Lydia Davis spent three years translating Madame Bovary. Photograph: Theo Cote
I didn't like Madame Bovary when I first encountered the book as a teenager. The story of a suicide of a doctor's wife in rural 1840s Normandy seemed too banal for me. Like many others, I didn't really like Emma, who seemed neither intelligent nor charming. But the book has become one of the few works of fiction that I read again and again, decade by decade, and each time it seems different, as if Flaubert and his heroine were following me through life. It may help that my French family come from the part of Normandy in which Flaubert set his story, but I sense that I would love the book as much if I came from Patagonia.
Madame Bovary (Penguin Hardback Classics)
by Gustave Flaubert
I feel I've seen the expanse of white stocking between Emma's ankle-length boots and her long skirt that so excited Flaubert. Every moment of her terrifying death by arsenic poisoning might be occurring now, before my eyes. I've encountered many versions of the brilliantly rendered discussions about human existence that dot the novel, giving it its sharp, ironic edge. Someone whom I married told me that most women think of life as negatively as Emma did. Thirty years later I am still wondering whether this is true. When my French mother was 92, I found myself arguing about the book with her. She said that she had never met a woman as stupid as Emma, but I was convinced that Emma was far from stupid. She just had the wrong ideas about life and – in a modern way, for which I couldn't reproach her – felt entitled to them.
There is no Shakespeare in French literature, and Hugo and Balzac don't quite fit the bill. My mother was a Proustian, capable of reinterpreting a host of his observations for her own life. I do that, too, but Madame Bovary fills another gap. Every observation of Flaubert's has gone into French life with the force of a large meteorite. I like to look at the impact, in other novels, in films, even in photography. But I also know that I shall never really comprehend the full extent of the damage done to our illusions by Flaubert's great book.
"A good sentence in prose," declares Flaubert, "should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic and sonorous." But Flaubert writes in a variety of styles, some low, some high. He taught us to read novels for their style, and yet his own masterpiece deprives one of such comfort. It is absurd to insist, as Flaubert did, that Madame Bovary is not a work of realism. As his very un-Flaubertian contemporary Zola observed, the book is profoundly, shatteringly real.
Are we capable of being truthful? Do human beings ever really tell the truth about the things that really matter? "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," Flaubert exclaimed. He seems to say either that we should tell the truth but don't, or, worse, that we cannot: "... None of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs," he observes in what must be the book's most celebrated mot, "or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat our tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity."
This is the 20th English translation of Madame Bovary. Lydia Davis is an accomplished American short-story writer and translator of Proust. She she recently that she didn't much like the character of Emma, and spent three years on the book. (Flaubert took four and a half years to write the original.) Sometimes Davis's staid American idioms remind me of the genteel locutions of the literary folk in Tom Rachman's recent comic novel The Imperfectionists, set in a failed American newspaper in Europe. Something of provincial France – the sheer crudeness of much of the dialogue, its obsessive rehashing of vulgar cliche – has gone badly missing. Davis isn't alert enough to the sheer range of Flaubert's progressive bêtes noires.
It is just not plausible to suggest, as Davis does, that the pharmacist and would-be politician Homais, with his ugly children and republican Phrygian caps, is one of the more sympathetic characters. Homais writes a piece suggesting that Emma mistakenly dipped her hand in the arsenic jar while making a cake. Emma, of course, never baked a cake in her life, and this is a feeble lie contrived to save the pharmacist's skin. Not incorrectly, Flaubert believed that most of the public discourse of his time consisted of lies.
But I don't agree with the eminent Flaubertians (Julian Barnes among them) who find Davis's efforts clunky. Emma's passions extend to shopping as well as sex, and the connection is spelled out by Davis's spare prose. She has also caught for the first time in English the powerfully filmic aspect of Flaubert's narrative – the way in which he is able to cut without apparent effort between close-ups and wide shots. In a Greenwich Village cinema, I once encountered a half-ruined print of Jean Renoir's 1932 version. Emma was plumper than I had imagined, Charles even glummer. But you could see the characters struggle, always failing. Against the odds, Davis has performed a similar act of transposition, creating a Madame Bovary for our time.
Nick Fraser is editor of Storyville, the BBC's documentary strand