Books

Madame Bovary, again

Of the spilling of ink on “Madame Bovary,” there shall be no end. From Jean-Paul Sartre’s 3,000-page, unfinished biography of Gustave Flaubert — the novel’s neurotic, hermetic author — to Mario Vargas Llosa’s love letter to Emma — the book’s lovelorn heroine — critics have struggled for the past 150 years to account for “Madame Bovary’s” mesmerizing hold on the literary imagination.

And nearly all of them have gotten off on the wrong foot.

Mention the name “Bovary,” and the term “realism” pops up like a weed in a freshly mown lawn.

Flaubert’s 1857 masterpiece has been hailed as the greatest French novel of the 19th century, and as the first modern novel — stripped of sentimentality, staring down the bleakness of our everyday existence with an unblinking honesty.

In “Madame Bovary,” so the story goes, Flaubert rescued the novel from its florid predecessors, and paved the way for today’s detached depictions of post-modern life: the stuff that serious fictions — and Emma’s doomed dreams — are made of.

What’s more, he did it in an inimitably precise literary style: the celebrated le mot juste (the exactly right word), over which he labored for nearly five years, pacing the floor in his white dressing gown, reciting sentences aloud until they echoed perfectly through his overtaxed brain:

“Not a single flabby phrase.”

This mythic view of the man and his work is hard to resist, and it apparently spurred Viking Press to persuade Lydia Davis to produce yet another English translation of “Madame Bovary,” making hers somewhere near the 20th of its kind.

Davis carries the credentials for the job. Highly praised for her quirky, minimalist short stories, she gained acclaim seven years ago for translating “Swann’s Way,” the opening volume in Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, “In Search of Lost Time,” the longest novel in history, cut short by Proust’s death in 1922 at just under 1.5 million words.

So why not translate the rest of Proust, giving us an up-to-date incarnation of this unwieldy piece de resistance, rather than another “Bovary,” when we already have so many to choose from?Because — Davis would have us believe — she has remained truer to the original than her forebears did, faithfully deferring to its sense and sensibility, its imagery and form.

A noble sentiment, no doubt.

But what it means in practice is that Davis frequently flattens Flaubert’s alliterative lyricism into a rough-hewn, Anglo-Saxon assonance.

Still, this hasn’t prevented some reviewers from swooning over her “Bovary.” According to the New York Times, Flaubert “would have to agree his masterwork has been given the English translation it deserves.”

Actually, that translation is lost. Undertaken in 1856-57 by Juliet Herbert, governess to Flaubert’s niece, it was “an English translation which fully satisfies me,” Flaubert declared.

No one knows how Herbert’s version might have read. But working side by side with Flaubert for two years, she undoubtedly would have adopted his own aesthetic outlook: “I aim at beauty above all else.”

And she undoubtedly would have understood that when he said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (I am Madame Bovary), he was pledging his allegiance to Emma’s right to dream, not to her gender, as some critics claim.

It is easy enough to recite the arc of Emma’s short, unhappy life — her education in a convent; her escape from its dreary discipline into the dreamy romance of novels; her marriage to Charles Bovary, a plodding country doctor; her suffocating life in the back-waters of Normandy; her adulteries; her deceptions; her thefts; her debts; her agonizing suicide by arsenic.

Davis’ translation hones much of its biting edge from the commonly held belief that Flaubert depicted Emma’s pathos in such detail because he detested her. But the truth is he shared her aspirations to live through literature; he simply had the resources to create romance from his rigorous prose. Emma, of course, was not so lucky.

“Everyone thinks I am in love with reality,” Flaubert said about “Madame Bovary,” “whereas actually, I detest it. It was in hatred of realism that I undertook this book.” “Madame Bovary” is thus the first anti-realist novel, explicitly taking its revenge on a world that smothers those who dare to live by their dreams.

So where does this leave today’s translator? Between a rock and a hard place, facing the myth of Flaubert’s hyper-realism on the one hand, and his vision of the transcendent beauty of art on the other.

At times, Davis hits the golden mean: “Love, [Emma] believed, must come suddenly, with great thunderclaps and bolts of lightning, — a hurricane from heaven that drops down on your whole life, overturns it, tears away your will like a leaf, and carries your whole heart with it into the abyss.”

At other times, she falls flat. Perhaps that stems from failing to discern the inherent instability in all literary language, including Flaubert’s ostensibly flawless French.In the end, Davis has added her faithful libations to the ever-widening pool of ink poured out on “Madame Bovary” — a reservoir that for English-speaking readers, at least,remains remarkably well spilt.

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