Flaubert, Imperfect

Madame Bovary

by Gustave Flaubert, translated from the French and with an introduction and notes by Lydia Davis
Viking, 342 pp., $27.95
The Granger Collection, New York
‘Gustave Flaubert dissecting Madame Bovary’; cartoon by Achille Lemot, 1869

In August this year, when The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis1 was published in the UK, London papers sent interviewers to the town of Hudson, New York, where Davis lives. In the two interviews I’ve read, the talk drifts between Davis’s stories and her translations of Proust’s Swann’s Way and, now, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—a novel that she candidly disparages. To Erica Wagner, the American-born novelist and literary editor of The Times, Davis described it as a “great book—so-called”:

I find what [Flaubert] does with the language really interesting; but I wouldn’t say that I warm to it as a book. I know a lot about his attitude too; he despised everybody in the book, and he despised their way of life and he had a horrible time writing it, because it wasn’t the kind of book he wanted to write. And I like a heroine who thinks and feels…well, I don’t find Emma Bovary admirable or likable—but Flaubert didn’t either.

Should love for the work in hand be a necessary qualification for translating it? Like surgery, translation requires judgment, precision, and experience; the surgeon’s personal affection for the patient is likely to be as much a liability as an asset, and Davis’s cool, detached, and linguistically exact English version of Madame Bovary recalls Achille Lemot’s famous 1869 cartoon of Flaubert himself, in hospital scrubs, dissecting Emma’s corpse. Magnifying glass in his right hand, with his left he holds aloft her bleeding heart impaled on his scalpel. Both the magnifier and the scalpel figure prominently among the instruments in Lydia Davis’s tool kit.

I should say at the outset that my own French is lousy: I dropped the language at the end of the English equivalent of tenth grade, and have made little progress in it since. But I’m addicted to Flaubert, at least to Madame Bovary, Sentimental Education, and Bouvard and Pécuchet. My first introduction to Madame Bovary was Alan Russell’s Penguin Classics translation (1950). Last summer, out of pleasure and obsession, not for work, I reread the novel in four more English translations, by Eleanor Marx (1892), Francis Steegmuller (1957), Geoffrey Wall (1992), and Margaret Mauldon (2004), frequently checking passages in the French text, as best I could, on a Kindle. (The Kindle was later given away, because this exercise in flicking back and forth between pages finally proved to me the vast technological superiority of the printed book over the electronic gadget.)

We readers of Madame Bovary in English know that we’ll never hear in our own ears the niceties of pitch, tone, inflection, and nuance in Flaubert’s infinitely supple narrative voice as we can hear them in, say, Jane Austen’s. We also know that no novelist has placed so much stress on these qualities as Flaubert, whose…

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