“Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. My friend Amy, who blogs at New Century Reading, told me the writer at Nonsuch Books was doing an October reading of the new Lydia Davis translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. “I’ve always wanted to read that!” I exclaimed, as if this were justification enough to

1. Run out and buy the hardcover. (But I had a coupon! And I bought it from a local, independent bookstore!) (Hush, you.)
2. Put it at the front of my reading queue ahead of other books I’d committed to read for real-life book groups, like John Jodzio’s If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home, and Villette, the length and challenge of which I severely underestimated.

But, as my epitaph will one day likely read, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Or, “I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but I did it anyway.” And there were consequences. I didn’t finish Villette, which I enjoyed, in time for the book group, so was unable to discuss the significance of the ending. And I felt compelled to finish Madame Bovary, which I did not enjoy, and didn’t get to discuss online, either.

Don’t misunderstand me. When I say I didn’t enjoy it, I don’t mean it wasn’t great, which it was, or that I’m unhappy I read it, which I’m not. It’s one of the classics that is referred to so often that impressions of it form even without reading the referent. I’m glad to have read it myself, and formed my own opinion.

Before I read, I knew only that Madame Bovary was a wife unfaithful to her husband. I suspected he’d be really dull and I’d sympathize with her attempts to burst the bounds of a stifling marriage. I was surprised and impressed to find something much more complicated. In her introduction, translator Lydia Davis notes that, in writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert

set himself a formidable task–to take…grotesqueness as his subject, to write a novel about shallow, unsympathetic people in a dreary setting, some of whom make bad choices and come to a horrific end. ((xiii)

I found this a dead-on description of the book, though it’s hardly back-cover blurb worthy, is it? Instead, Flaubert wanted to tell a tale from life, with all the mundane details and without moralizing. This scandalized people of the time. He aimed to do it so the style of the book would make it readable and important even if the particulars were unpleasant.

Deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she would gaze out over the solitude of her life with desperate eyes, seeking some white sail in the mists of the far-off horizon. She did not know what this chance event would be, what wind would drive it to her, what shore it would carry her to, whether it was a longboat or a three-decked vessel, loaded with anguish or filled with happiness up to the portholes. But each morning, when she awoke, she hoped it would arrive that day, and she would listen to every sound, spring to her feet, feel surprised that it did not come; then, at sunset, always more sorrowful, she would wish the next day were already there. (53)

It’s the style that stands out. There are long, lovely passages, interrupted deliberately by short, brutish ones. There are characters who are their own worst enemies. There is even a fair amount of dark humor, though the rest is so tragic and pathetic that its leavening effect is negligible. As in Villette, which I read at the same time, the Jesuits came in for a lot of criticism.

I’ve not read other translations, so I can’t speak to the superiority of this one. I can attest, though, that it was eminently readable, and indeed impressed me with its style and eloquence, even as my spirits were damped by the bad behavior and sad circumstances of its characters. I was glad to be done with this novel, but still satisfied to have read a literary touchstone for myself to better understand references to it the next time (and there WILL be a next time) I come across them.

Looking back, I could have waited to get this from the library, and to read it when other books weren’t clamoring for my attention. So I say, as I’ve said before, no more haring off after online book challenges. I’ll keep to my own reading schedule. And make up my own arbitrary challenges.

Edited to add: I’ve continued to think about Mme. Bovary since I read the book, and am ever more glad for having finally read it. Further, I’ve done some related reading and writing since I wrote this.

Review of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Review of Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds
Julian Barnes review of Davis’ translation, “Writer’s Writer and Writer’s Writer’s Writer”
At Boston.com, “Lost in Translation,” an essay on the the “ooh, shiny, pretty!” aspect of new translations

One Response to ““Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis”

  1. hopeinbrazil Says:

    As you said, this book is mentioned often in literary circles, but I’ve never been eager to read it because of the subject manner. Thanks for your good review which encourages me to give it a try.