Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

Central question: How do you translate the novel to begin all novels?

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

Rozalia Jovanovic
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“A good sentence in prose,” says Flaubert, “should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.” In service of this high standard, Flaubert spoke his sentences loudly and in different registers in his gueuloir (“screech room”), listening for the peculiar inflections of spoken language. While Lydia Davis admits in her introduction that it is “perhaps impossible” for a translation to meet Flaubert’s rigorous criteria, she is one of the most innovative prose stylists of our time, and thus an excellent match for Flaubert’s masterpiece.

Flaubert’s sentences are certainly sonorous in French (Emma “répétait qu’il fallait économizer, puisqu’ils n’étaient pas riches, ajoutant qu’elle était très contente… lui plaisait beaucoup…”), and the sentences in this translation reveal a similar attention to sound. When Emma tosses her bridal bouquet into the fire, “the little cardboard berries burst open, the binding wire twisted, the braid melted.” Proust noted Flaubert’s “grammatical singularities”: his new use of the past definite, the present participle, certain pronouns, and his “unconventional handling of the word ‘and.’” Davis is likewise known for her fresh syntax. Early in her career she picked apart Beckett’s sentences to understand why they worked, and she counts the music of Bach—which she studied in a high-school music theory class—among her influences. Like Flaubert, Davis has a penchant for the sound of language: “I don’t edit out things that I began by saying.”

These authors also share a concern for descriptions of mundane details that resist romanticization (for which Flaubert was called a “realist”). Flaubert gives no more weight to Emma’s journeys to her lover’s estate than to descriptions of everyday objects: “The bank was slippery; to keep from falling, she would cling to the clumps of faded wallflowers. Then she would strike out across the plowed fields, sinking down, stumbling, and catching her thin little boots.” In The End of the Story, Davis’s narrator recounts a spontaneous and desperate drive to her lover’s house in the middle of the night with equal dispassion: “Because of the lateness of the hour or the absurdity of what I was doing, my lack of dignity, the fact that I had had to change out of my nightgown and back into my clothes to do this…” The difference between ­Davis’s narrator and Flaubert’s is self-awareness. Emma is completely ingenuous, whereas Davis’s narrator is acutely self-conscious.

Partly because of his flattened style, Flaubert was criticized for not providing his reader with characters that guide the reader’s moral understanding. Emma Bovary is not judged by the narrator for her adulterous affairs. We are not directed to feel scornful toward her for her transgressions. In Flaubert’s defense, Charles Baudelaire wrote, “The logic of the work satisfies all the claims of morality, and it is for the reader to draw his conclusions from the conclusion.” Likewise, logic ­drives Davis’s prose. In “A ­Double Negative,” Davis writes: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.”

It is a boon to the modern reader to have a translator who is also a writer so attuned to the motivations of the author. We are in debt to Flaubert for his influence on much of the writing we have today; the extent of our debt has never been so clear.

—Rozalia Jovanovic

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