The acclaimed author and translator tells Kasia Boddy why she fell in love with Flaubert.
Lydia Davis in upstate New York
By Kasia Boddy
5:44PM GMT 05 Nov 2010
For the past 30 years, Lydia Davis has pursued two careers – as a fiction writer and as a translator of French literature. It is only recently, though, that her achievements in each have been fully acknowledged.
In 2003 her Proust translation, The Way by Swann’s, was published to great acclaim, while earlier this year James Wood described her 733-page Collected Stories as “one of the great, strange American literary contributions”. Colm Tóibín, in these pages, anointed her the “high priestess of the startling, telling detail”.
Now, having spent three years “immersed” and “absorbed” in the subtleties of Flaubert, Davis has written a new version of Madame Bovary. But it wasn’t, she tells me, a book she had always loved.
Reading the novel in her twenties, Davis was disappointed. “I think I must have been expecting something different, maybe a romantic love story with an uplifting ending, something along the lines of Jane Eyre.”
But the story of Emma Bovary offered no “reader, I married him” thrill. Flaubert’s 1856 novel begins with marriage and what follows is the archetypal tale of a desperate housewife. Davis quotes Henry James’s assessment: “Anything drearier, more sordid, more vulgar and desolate than the greater part of the subject matter of this romance it would be impossible to conceive.” James also thought it was a masterpiece.
Flaubert had set out to write a “book about nothing”, a book, in other words, the interest of which did not lie in its subject but in “the internal strength of its style”. Having initially read the novel in a poor translation, Davis couldn’t “see what was so remarkable about the style”.
Now, she says, she understands. “One passage after the next is superbly accomplished. Each individual aspect of the novel is admirable – Flaubert’s handling of transitions, of points of view, of description, its recurring humour, its lack of sentimentality, its ruthlessness, and, in the end, Flaubert’s compassion for his characters”.
From the very first page of the novel, in which the young Charles Bovary arrives at a new school wearing a strange cap “whose mute ugliness has depths of expression”, we know that this is going to be a book in which details count. Our first glimpse of his soon-to-be second wife, Emma, comes in chapter two and, this time, through his eyes. She’s sewing and “as she sewed, she kept pricking her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth to suck”. Next time he visits she’s sewing again and “one could see, on her bare shoulders, little drops of sweat”.
The reader, like Charles and Flaubert, can’t help but derive pleasure from these minute observations. They are sexy, fetishistic even, but at the same time suggest a certain detachment.
Emma is certainly as demanding as her creator. She believes that love can only flourish if the perfect man appears in the perfect setting. He should be elegantly dressed, perhaps in a “long-skirted black velvet coat, soft boots, a pointed hat, and ruffles at his wrist” and his beard, ideally, would smell of vanilla and lemon. The affair would take place in Switzerland, possibly, or at the seaside, or in a “boudoir with silk blinds, a good thick carpet, full pots of flowers, and a bed raised on a dais”.
These are simple sentences, but to compare them to the original is to realise how much care Davis has taken to capture exactly the colourless inflections of what she terms Flaubert’s “calculated style”. Each comma, each flurry of “staccato” rhythm, however awkward, is taken seriously. “I trusted that the tone and meaning would come through,” Davis says, “if I was very attentive to each sentence as it unfolded.”
While working on her translation, Davis read Flaubert’s letters to his lover and friend Louise Colet. “Every now and then he would tell Louise a little story about something he had recently experienced or heard, and it began to strike me that these were nicely formed, discrete tales that with some revision would make good individual stories,” she says. “Ten Stories from Flaubert”, which can be found in the latest issue of The Paris Review, are about noticing things to wonder about. Each one starts as Flaubert and ends as Davis.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis, is published by Penguin Classics at £20 T £18 0844 871 1515