Flaubert's masterpiece - a landmark in European literature
For this novel of French bourgeois life in all its inglorious banality, Flaubert invented a paradoxically original and wholly modern style. His heroine, Emma Bovary, a bored provincial housewife, abandons her husband to pursue the libertine Rodolphe in a desperate love affair. A succès de scandale in its day, Madame Bovary remains a powerful and arousing novel.
Translated with an Introduction by Geoffrey Wall
New Preface by Michèle Roberts
The uncouth schoolboy; The Bovary household; A mother's ambitions; Studies with the cure; Training for medicine; Student life in Rouen; Failure and success; A practice in Normandy; The bailiff's widow; The first Madame Bovary.
We were in the prep-room when the Head came in, followed by a new boy in mufti and a beadle carrying a big desk. The sleepers aroused themselves, and we all stood up, putting on a startled look, as if we had been buried in our work.
The Head motioned to us to sit down.
'Monsieur Roger,' said he in a quiet tone to the prep master, I've brought you a new boy. He's going into the second. If his conduct and progress are satisfactory, he will be put up with the boys of his own age. '
The new boy had kept in the background, in the corner behind the door, almost out of sight. He was a country lad of about fifteen, and taller than any of us. His hair was clipped straight across the forehead, like a village choirboy's. He seemed a decent enough fellow, but horribly nervous. Although he was not broad across the shoulders, his green cloth jacket, with its black buttons, looked as if it pinched him under the arms and revealed, protruding well beyond the cuffs, a pair of raw, bony wrists, obviously not unaccustomed to exposure. His legs, encased in blue stockings, issued from a pair of drab-coloured breeches, very tightly braced. He had on a pair of thick, clumsy shoes, not particularly well cleaned and plentifully fortified with nails.
The master began to hear the boys at their work. The newcomer listened with all his ears, drinking it in as attentively as if he had been in church, not daring to cross his legs or to lean his elbows on the desk, and when two o'clock came and the bell rang for dismissal, the master had to call him back to earth and tell him to line up with the rest of us.
It was our custom, when we came in to class, to throw our caps on the floor, in order to have our hands free. As soon as ever we got inside the door, we 'buzzed' them under the form, against the wall, so as to kick up plenty of dust. That was supposed to be 'the thing.' Whether he failed to notice this manoeuvre or whether he was too shy to join in it, it is impossible to say, but when prayers were over he was still nursing his cap. That cap belonged to the composite order of headgear, and in it the heterogeneous characteristics of the busby, the Polish shapska, the bowler, the otterskin toque and the cotton nightcap were simultaneously represented. It was, in short, one of those pathetic objects whose mute unloveliness conveys the infinitely wistful expression we may sometimes note on the face of an idiot. Ovoid in form and stiffened with whalebone, it began with a sort of triple line of sausage-shaped rolls running all round its circumference; next, separated by a red band, came alternate patches of velvet and rabbit-skin; then a kind of bag or sack which culminated in a stiffened polygon elaborately embroidered, whence, at the end of a long, thin cord, hung a ball made out of gold wire, by way of a tassel. The cap was brand-new, and the peak of it all shiny.
'Stand up,' said the master.
He stood up, and down went his cap. The whole class began to laugh.
He bent down to recover it. One of the boys next to him jogged him with his elbow and knocked it down again. Again he stooped to pick it up.
'You may discard your helmet,' said the master, who had a pretty wit.
A shout of laughter from the rest of the class quite put the poor fellow out of countenance, and so flustered was he that he didn't know whether to keep it in his hand, put it on the floor or stick it on his head. He sat down and deposited it on his knees.
'Stand up,' said the master again, 'and tell me your name.'
In mumbling tones the new boy stammered out something quite unintelligible.
Again came the inarticulate mumble, drowned by the shouts of the class.
'Louder!' rapped out the master sharply. 'Speak up!'
Whereupon the boy, in desperation, opened his jaws as wide as they would go and, with the full force of his lungs, as though he were hailing somebody at a distance, fired off the word 'Charbovari.'
In an instant the class was in an uproar. The din grew louder and louder, a ceaseless crescendo crested with piercing yells--they shrieked, they howled, they stamped their feet, bellowing at the top of their voices: 'Charbovari! Charbovari!' Then, after a while, the storm began to subside. There would be sporadic outbreaks from time to time, smothered by a terrific effort, or perhaps a titter would fizz along a whole row, or a stifled explosion sputter out here and there, like a half-extinguished fuse.
However, beneath a hail of 'impositions,' order was gradually restored. The master--who had had it dictated, spelled out and read over to him--had at length succeeded in getting hold of the name of Charles Bovary, and forthwith he ordered the hapless wretch to go and sit on the dunce's stool, immediately below the seat of authority. He started to obey, stopped short and stood hesitating.
'What are you looking for?' said the master.
'My ca--' began the new boy timidly, casting an anxious glance around him.
An angry shout of 'Five hundred lines for the whole class' checked, like the Quos ego, a fresh outburst. 'Stop your noise, then, will you?' continued the master indignantly, mopping his brow with a handkerchief which he had produced from the interior of his cap.
“Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary translation=perfect. She somehow pulls off a respectful translation with the readability of a contemporary novel.” —@lenadunham
"[Flaubert's] masterwork has been given the English translation it deserves." —Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review
"Invigorating . . . [Davis] has a finer ear for the natural cadences of English, in narrative and dialogue, than any of her predecessors." —Jonathan Raban, The New York Review of Books
"Dazzling . . . translated to perfect pitch . . . [Davis has] left us the richer with this translation. . . . I'd certainly say it is necessary to have hers." —Jacki Lyden, NPR.org, Favorite Books of the Year
"One of the most important books of the year . . . Flaubert's strict, elegant, rhythmic sentences come alive in Davis's English." —James Wood, The New Yorker's Book Bench
"I liked having a chance to find more nuances in Madame Bovary in the new Lydia Davis translation and read it blissfully as though floating, as Flaubert puts it in a different context, 'in a river of milk.'" —Paul Theroux, The Guardian (London), Books of the Year
"Madame Bovary reads like it was written yesterday. . . . Emma, with her visions of a grander life and resplendent passions, is me . . . and you, too, no doubt. . . . If you haven't happened to read Madame Bovary until now, I suggest you curl up with this edition . . . and allow yourself to get lost in another time and place that yet bears a curious resemblance to our own." —Daphne Merkin, Elle
"Davis is the best fiction writer ever to translate the novel. . . . [Her] work shares the Flaubertian virtues of compression, irony and an extreme sense of control." —Julian Barnes, London Review of Books
"A brilliant new translation." —Lee Siegel, The New York Observer
"I'm grateful to Davis for luring me back to Madame Bovary and for giving us a version which strikes me as elegant and alive." —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air
"Flaubert's obsessive masterpiece finally gets the obsessive translation it deserves." —New York magazine
Q. You mentioned that you had examined Flaubert’s working drafts of Madame Bovary. As a novelist yourself, did you disagree with any of Flaubert’s final editorial decisions? Were you especially perplexed by any?I was usually too intent on discovering the history of certain passages, and often the answer to some puzzle-why was Charles stamping his foot against the wall of his room?-to stand back and make a judgment about whether or not Flaubert should have done what he did in a particular sentence. But his earlier drafts were almost always much longer, more descriptive, than his final versions-he would often cut whole pages-and although sometimes he left out some information that would have clarified the final passage, in general I would say his restraint, the fact that he kept the writing more economical and terse throughout the novel, gave it a greater emotional force.
Q. In a recent interview, you said that you didn’t find Emma “admirable or likeable.” Could you elaborate on this? Has your opinion of her changed since your translation published?As a reader of a novel, as you suspend your disbelief, you warm to a character or you don’t like-or you have mixed feelings, of course, just as you do about people in real life. Many readers of Madame Bovary do warm to Emma. My reaction to her, in the end, was mixed. It is hard not to feel some admiration and sympathy for a person so driven by desperation that she is brave enough to take her own life and who is thoughtful enough to examine her sensations as she is doing it. But of course she is not a real person, so I am at the same time reacting to Flaubert’s artistic skill in portraying her as she evolves through the course of the novel. As I translate, I generally have two reactions operating in tandem: the general reader’s reaction to the material of the novel, and at the same time a writer’s reaction to the problems posed by the text, the beauties of the text, and the satisfactions of the translation.
Q. What was the single most difficult sentence, or word, in the novel to translate?There are a number of words in French that are as useful to French sentence structure as they are difficult to translate, one of them being dont, meaning “of which,” “concerning which,” “about which,” etc. It would take me a page to explain how handy that word is in French for creating a graceful subordinate structure and how utterly graceless it is when translated literally into English. But as for sentences in Madame Bovary, one of the very hardest was one of the shortest: the sentence announcing Emma’s death: “Elle n’existait plus.” Literally, that would be: “She no longer existed.” But that is a tough one to write if you want it to have some emotional impact. In the end, I chose to translate it “She had ceased to exist”-which extended the original just a little. “She was no longer” would be another decent one, still within the parameters of a close translation. The temptation to step outside those parameters (which one occasionally has to do, of course) and to enhance the sentence, or to sentimentalize it or romanticize it-“she was gone”; “she had departed this life”-simply had to be avoided.
Q. You confided that it took some persuading before you accepted the invitation to translate Madame Bovary. Why did you hesitate? Do you have plans for another translation project in the future?When the suggestion was first made, I was still reeling from the enormous project of translating Proust’s Swann’s Way. I needed a long break. But when the suggestion came up again, I missed translating-the long, steady engagement with a superlative text, the opportunity both to solve a word puzzle and to write a good sentence in English-so I agreed to do it. I will probably not, however, take on another long translation project in the future, since I have a long project of my own under way.
Q. Is there a particular aspect of Flaubert’s style you had hoped to convey in your translation? Do you think you were successful?There are a couple of aspects of his style that I particularly admire, one being its economy and the other the beauty of the detail in his descriptions. By staying very close to the original text, especially to the order in which his sentences unfolded and to the material of the text itself-adding nothing and subtracting nothing-I think I did succeed in conveying both of these aspects to a large degree, though you always do lose something in a translation.
Q. Many readers will inevitably compare this translation with your lauded translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way. Could you briefly characterize the differences in translating Flaubert and Proust?In both cases, my attempt was to stay very close to the original text while writing English that was both natural and forceful. One difference was that in the case of the Proust, this was the first time I had worked so “deeply” on a text-I felt it deserved all the time I needed to take, and all the concentration on a single sentence or, often, a single word. One of the challenges in the Proust was to retain the elaborate constructions of the long sentences with their many subordinate clauses. But the extravagance and lyricism of his prose was a pleasure, and in his own way he is just as concise as Flaubert-there are many words, but no unnecessary ones. One of the main challenges in translating Flaubert was the opposite-to be as terse as he is, as in the example I gave above, of the announcement of Emma’s death, and make it work in English.
Q. Does this novel mean something different to French readers today than Anglo-American ones? Is there something cultural that is inevitably lost in translation?There will always be cultural associations that resonate for readers of the original text and are absent for readers of the translation, and a constant question for a translator is whether, and how, to attempt to reproduce or explain these associations. Some translators incorporate explanations “silently” in the text by adding an identification-for instance, “dance hall” in the reference “La Chaumière dance hall”; others substitute a more universal, and presumably more recognizable, reference for a more local one-for instance “Salome” in place of “Marianne dancing”; others retain the original text and supply explanations in footnotes. In the case of my translation, I retained the original text and supplied these explanations in the form of “blind” end notes-i.e. notes at the back of the book not signaled by any mark on the page of the novel. I have never liked the intrusion of scholarly apparatus in an edition of a novel that is not meant to be for the scholar so much as for the general reader. Some readers like this approach, while others would rather be alerted when there is a note at the back of the book.
Q. Flaubert famously declared that “a good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” His exacting style and attention to detail must have put enormous pressure on you as a translator. Did you keep such pronouncements in mind as you worked? Do you think Flaubert himself was always faithful to such pronouncements? Does he ever prove to be a mere mortal?I did not feel under greater pressure translating Flaubert than I did translating Proust or, years before, the novels and essays of Maurice Blanchot. Any really fine writer demands the same level of care from a translator. As for the “unchangeable” sentence-the task of the translator seems to involve just the opposite, an acceptance of the changeability of a sentence: first, there is the radical change of the sentence from French to English, then the testing of any number of possible alternatives in English until a satisfactory one is found. And if you look at the many previous translations of Madame Bovary, you will see how many different possibilities there are for every single sentence of the book-in the view of each translator, presumably, the best alternative. I do think that Flaubert’s many drafts show how carefully he worked to achieve the sentence that seemed uniquely right to him. And I don’t remember coming upon a sentence that seemed careless or clumsy, though I may be forgetting some. (There is general consensus, on the other hand, that entire novels of his were less compelling than Madame Bovary and certain stylistic approaches of his a mistake-but surely a conscientious choice on his part.)
Q. Among the many previous translations of the novel, was there one in particular you had hoped to surpass in accuracy and readability?My aim was simply to stay as close as possible to the original and at the same time to write an English version that would be fully alive. I admired many of the previous translations at many moments, and did not actively want to surpass any one in particular. In the case of the Proust, the situation was different, since there was really only one available previous translation, the C. K. Scott Moncrieff, and its style was quite different from, and unrepresentative of, the original-thus terribly misleading to the Anglo-American reader who wanted to experience Proust. I felt it was very important that it be replaced by a version closer to Proust.
Q. The New York Times review of your translation, which referred to Emma as ”a covetous, small-minded woman, incapable of love,” stirred up a lot of reaction online and in print. Were you surprised how passionate readers feel about Flaubert’s heroine?We are circling back to the second question, here. That description of Emma is not inaccurate, but it is incomplete, and, as I said, one can have sympathy even for a character who is not generally admirable. It is natural for readers to become emotionally involved in the story Flaubert is telling, and that is part of the pleasure; yet it is important to retain enough disbelief, at the same time, to enjoy what he is doing technically-in his sparklingly specific descriptions, his artful transitions, his balancing of thematic elements and motifs, his sly humor.
Student Review by Madeleine Stottor, Nonsuch High School for Girls.
In Flaubert’s crushing study of nineteenth century provincial life, the young Emma Rouault is seduced by the novels she reads into a stultifying marriage with Charles Bovary, seeking her very own fairytale ending. As this eludes her time and time again, she rejects the unconditional devotion of her husband and her daughter for adulterous love affairs. Relishing in her deceit, Emma is an emotional, unpredictable and sometimes violent character, whose flaws make her simultaneously realistic and fantastic. The reader's sympathy for the amoral and selfish heroine waxes and wanes as frequently as her attention and affection.
Flaubert’s writing is so focused and poised as to lend Emma’s downfall a sense of inevitability. Each word feels carefully chosen and considered and this precision allows Flaubert to convey the passage of years in a mere paragraph, the vagueness of Emma’s dreams in a single sentence. When the novel was written, Flaubert said that he wanted his world to be felt “almost physically” by his readers; his use of detail somehow accomplishes this feat, enmeshing the reader in Emma’s web of lies and delusion.
If you would like to comment on this review or join in the discussion of this book, then head over to the Reader's Forum to get involved.