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'Bovary' Translation Does 'Le Mot Juste' Justice

How tickled Madame Bovary herself would be by the latest homage paid to her -- a feature in the September issue of Playboy magazine! For the "original desperate housewife," as she's been called, the knowledge that she's the object of the collective male gaze might have relieved some of the dismal boredom that characterized so much of Emma Bovary's provincial life. Of course, what the Playboy connoisseurs are surveying is not Madame Bovary's fine form, nor her much-commented-upon smooth bands of black hair or great dark eyes.

No, what's wresting attention away from the latest lineup of hydroponically enhanced models is an excerpt from Lydia Davis' new translation of Gustave Flaubert's masterpiece. "The most scandalous novel of all time!" hisses a headline on Playboy's cover. It's cheering -- isn't it? -- the way Playboy upholds the primacy of the erotic canon over the claims of postmodern challengers like Roxana Shirazi's salacious memoir, The Last Living Slut.

For a translator, even one as renowned as Lydia Davis, Flaubert, the great apostle of le mot juste -- using exactly the right word -- must surely be the Matterhorn of authors.  As Davis says in the introduction to her translation, Flaubert created Madame Bovary through a process of ruthless pruning: sometimes, he would report in letters to his mistress, a weeks' worth of hard labor would result in one meticulous page. "To be simple," wrote Flaubert, "is no small matter." Repetitions of words, sounds and even letters annoyed him, particularly so in this emotionally radical novel where so much depends on style alone.

For what's really scandalous about Madame Bovary -- besides the infidelity plot for which it was put on trial for obscenity when it was first serialized in 1856 -- is its absolute demolition of sentiment. Madame Bovary is the rather uneventful fictional biography of a shallow young woman. Her baby daughter doesn't interest her, her lovers are manipulative cads, and her husband, Charles, is the quintessential amiable boor. Flaubert writes that "Charles' conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and everyone's ideas walked along it in their ordinary clothes, without inspiring emotion, or laughter, or reverie." With a message and cast of characters this unsympathetic, Flaubert had to depend on his language to keep readers engaged and to elicit responses of ironic laughter, scorn, and, occasionally, pity.

Davis says Madame Bovary has been translated into English some 11 times, but despite the fact that Flaubert was Mr. Style, she maintains that many of those previous translators ignored his zest for linguistic precision and that's what she's trying to restore in this new edition. I'm not qualified to judge the accuracy of her translation, but I am grateful to Davis for luring me back to Madame Bovary and for giving us a version that strikes me as elegant and alive.

Two things overwhelm me about the novel on this rereading: The first is just how unrelenting Flaubert is in his contempt for sentimentality. Well over half a century before Hemingway gave us the signal cynical phrase of the 20th century -- "Isn't it pretty to think so?" -- Flaubert was carpet-bombing the maudlin and the mawkish. When Rodolphe, Madame Bovary's first lover, leaves her after their initial formal meeting he thinks to himself, "Poor little woman! That one's gasping for love like a carp for water on a kitchen table."

The other marvel about Madame Bovary is just how current it is in its assessment of the dangers that can result from blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. By dramatizing the effects of fantasy on a susceptible mind, Flaubert counters the laxity of our own age where reality TV reigns and it's considered unsophisticated to expect clear demarcations between autobiography and fiction.

Madame Bovary is literally destroyed by reading; over and over we hear about how she tries to model her life on the romantic novels she devours. Flaubert writes:

The great achievement of Flaubert's novel -- of his "clear as a marble" prose, presented to us anew in Davis' translation, is that at the same time we're scoffing at Emma Bovary's naivete, we're also feeling ourselves drawn deeply into her tragic story, susceptible to the same powerful pull of fiction that is her undoing.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.