Customer Reviews: Madame Bovary
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on May 18, 2009
I first read Madame Bovary in Geoffrey Wall's translation for Penguin and throughout the book I felt as if something was off, this can't be the same novel acclaimed by many as the pinnacle of the written word as art. Then I picked up Francis Steegmuller's version and right from start the difference was palpable. Consider the following excerpt from when Emma's father tells Charles about the death of his own wife:

"I dropped down under a tree, I wept, I called to the good Lord, I ranted at him... I just wanted to be like those moles... jiggered, you know... I thought as how other folks, just that second, had their nice warm little wives in their arms...I was out of my mind very near, stopped eating, I did."

"I lay down under a tree and cried. I talked to God, told him all kinds of crazy things... I wished I were dead, like the maggoty moles... I thought of how other men were holding their wives in their arms at that very moment... I was almost out of my mind. I couldn't eat."

Wall published his version in 1992, so he should have known that many readers are bound to pick up that Yodaesque tone at the end which also pops up in many other places, it does. From what little I can glean from the French text, his translation actually appears structurally more faithful than Steegmuller's, at least judging by the number and spacing of punctuations. And yet somehow it comes out as the more stilted of the two.

Wall should have heeded Flaubert's eerily prescient advice to his future translators, given right around the third page: (in Steegmuller's version) "For while he had a fair knowledge of grammatical rules, his translations lacked elegance." Wall clearly ignored the hint when he transmuted this to "For, though he just knew about his rules, his style was rather lacking in elegance."

To be fair though, Wall's notes and introduction are often helpful, and some readers may want to consider getting the cheap Penguin paperback edition as a reference supplement to Steegmuller's or some other better translation.
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on March 25, 2006
Typically Penguin Classics does a great job with translating foriegn classics, but in the case of Madame Bovary, they do not. I read two chapters in this book and had to keep going back and re-reading sentences and had the most difficult time trying to figure out what was trying to be conveyed. Finally, I drove over to my local library and checked out the Bantam Classics version and I am extremely pleased that I did. It reads so much better and is actually entertaining. Get the book, but get Lowell Bair's translation.
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I read Madame Bovary twenty years ago and was thoroughly unimpressed. I passed it off as one of those "classics" that everyone reads, for some reason, but no one really enjoys. Then, in October I heard a review of Davis' newly published translation, and how she endeavored to keep to Flaubert's deliberate and precise style. I was fascinated. I had never considered that the reason I didn't like the novel, was due to the translation.

I read Davis' translation with a copy of a previous translation at hand, making comparisons. I was amazed at what a difference just a word could make, how it could change the whole feeling of the sentence. Thanks to Davis, I was able to immerse myself in Flaubert's painstaking, detailed writing and come away in awe of his ability to turn a phrase.

The plot of Madame Bovary is familiar to many: Emma is a spoiled, vain young woman who spends too much time with her head in novels and, as a result, expects--no demands!--that life, romance especially, be like it is in her books. After her marriage, she becomes depressed that there is no "grand passion", and this leads to restlessness and eventually to affairs. Her husband, Charles, is blind to Emma's dissatisfaction, flaws and infidelity; he worships her very belongings. Emma takes advantage of Charles' love-blindness in a variety of ways, including running up a debt so severe that it bankrupts him.

In the midst of all this drama, Flaubert has the reader stand back, just slightly emotionally detached. One can't feel fully compassionate for Charles, because Flaubert shows him as a buffoon and sometimes as an idiot. One can't sympathize with Emma, because Flaubert delights in holding her vices up to the light. He also interjects bits of every day life from the townspeople, as another way to keep the reader from being overly focused on the crises of the Bovarys, and he paints all the working class with a brush laden with boorishness, and the upper class as heavy handed snobs. It's hard not to feel superior to many of these characters, and I believe that was Flaubert's intention--to keep the reader from forming an attachment to any character and thereby keeping the book from being a "moral tale". There is no moral here, it simply is.

It's rare to say that a book with a disagreeable plot is fantastic, but if the writer is good enough no matter what the subject (think Nabokov and his Lolita), the reader will be swept away by the sheer force of the words. This is the case with Flaubert and Madame Bovary--thanks to Davis' excellent translation.

If you've ever tried to read it and failed, or wanted to read it and just haven't, now is the time. Other translators did an injustice to Flaubert. Lydia Davis has redeemed this masterpiece for the English language.
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on February 26, 2008
Madame Bovary is the greatest novel written by Gustave Flaubert. The 1855
masterpiece portrays in searing detail the tragic tale of a young girl whose dreams turned into nightmares; whose sandcastles are swept away by unfulfilled passion; whose young life is ended in a tragic death. Years before Tolstoy limned the adultress woman in his Anna Karenina we see the consequences which ensue when a middle class wife and mother breaks the seventh commandment.
The novel takes place near Rouen in the north of France. There are actually three Madame Bovarys in the story. Madame Bovary Sr. who is the mother of Charles Bovary dominates her weak son. Madame Bovary I is an ugly but wealthy woman who dies allowing Charles to wed the lovely Emma
Bovary who is the the famed woman of the book's title. Emma has grown up on a farm coddled by her widower father. She has immersed herself in romantic tales and spent time in a French convent. Emma dreams of castles in the air and a charming prince to take her to paradise. Today she would be a reader of Harlequin Romances. She is a virgin plum ripe for picking!
Charles Bovary ("bovine" meaning cow-like; also think "ovary for his scandolous wife Emma) is a dull, stupid and lethargic public health inspector. He is a good man but is a total dullard! Charles weds Emma after treating her father. At first all goes well as the couple set up house in a French provincial town where little exciting ever occurs. They have a daughter Berthe with whom Emma has little to do. She never grows up to becoming a mature woman.
Emma carries on two affairs in the novel with the law student Leon and the wealthy but callous womanizing aristocrat Rodolphe. She is sucked into a cesspool of overwhelming debt being addicted to clothing, jewelry and furniture. Emma's lovers forsake her as her disillusionment with men and life itelf takes over life. Madame Bovary ends her life by committing suicide. The account of her horrific, painful and grotesque death from her fatal injection of arsenic rat poison will never be forgotten by the
reader. Despite her many sins she deserves pity at such a sad end. Her husband dies a few years later and her daughter has to be farmed out to a relative.
What makes this novel of adultery, satirical views of provincial life, mockery of the relgious hypocrisy in the French countryside and lacerating portraits of such types as the village atheist Homais so great? In my opinion the reasons this is such a landmark work must include:
a. A picture of a woman seeking to break out of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie view of females as placid wives and mothers with no aspirations of their own. Throughout the novel there are images of birds seeking freedom from cages. Emma is a modern feminist in the nineteenth century society she finds impossible to escape. Emma is an iconoclastic rebel.
b. A satirical and cynical view of human hypocrisy drawn with skill in the pictures Flaubert draws of such figures as the village priest, scientist, merchants and moneylenders. Society is concerned with money and social status to the detriment of more spiritual and ethical values.
c. Flaubert introduces a new realism to the novel which will influence such naturalist as Emile Zola and others. The novel reads as if it was written today instead of over 150 years ago.
d. Flaubert's descriptions of the beauty of nature (and its indifference to human suffering and troubles) are beautifully etched. His use of language and the level of suspense he maintains throughout the work are excellent.
e. Flaubert is not afraid to describe female sexual longings. His sex scenes are tasteful to our eyes but viewed as prurient reading in his own day.
Penguin editons are always a joy to read with their critical apparatus and excellent introductions. Enjoy this great work of literature as soon as you can!
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on December 2, 2010
This new translation is an absolute masterpiece and a treasure. The prose is so profound, you will find yourself re-reading paragraphs and sentences over and over again to savor both the writing, and the thoughts expressed. It has been said that a "classic" is a book that withstands the "test of time." Curiously, besides meeting that definition, this book is also "timeless" as it could have been written yesterday as regards marriage, relationships, and human nature. In that regard, particularly for the baby boomers, with such a high divorce rate, it is a lesson for us all about when is "good enough, good enough," or, alternatively, the grass is not always greener on the other side.
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on September 16, 2010
There isn't a lot of argument: "Madame Bovary" is considered one of the great novels of all time. It's well worth your time. And since you're looking for an English translation, the important issue isn't "should I read Flaubert?" The issue is: "What translation?"

The first thing you need to know is that you should avoid the Eleanor Marx Aveling translation published by Dover and others (it's out-of-copyright, so it's popular with budget publishers). The Aveling translation is incredibly clumsy--so bad that I actually looked up the translator's biography to make sure she was a native English-speaker.

The translator of a newer edition, Francis Steegmuller, is an authority on Flaubert and an exceptionally sympathetic translator. While no translation will truly do justice to Flaubert's treatment of Norman dialects and his mastery of the French tongue, Mr. Steegmuller's work is sensational and preserves much of Flaubert's vibrant prose (I read excerpts in college, but am unwilling to take six months reading the original in my indifferent French). His translation is also highly readable, making this edition an easy choice--and worth the extra money over the other translations.
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on May 25, 1999
Flaubert would have appreciated the large group of American readers who seem to think it is only a book about adultery; he has duped them. You've fallen for it, people, focusing on titillation again in the grand American tradition. The book is a critique of middle-class consumption as a means of cultural formation, of which adultery is only one result. With your credit card debts, sport utility vehicles and blind allegiance to leaders (as long as the stock market is rising) you possess precisely the values Flaubert implicitly critiques throughout the novel. No one seems willing to discuss Homais and his half-baked status-seeking, either. The tired rituals of bourgeous love are played out nightly on American TV; Flaubert saw it in more subtle tones 150 years ago. A masterpiece.
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on August 2, 2007
This book was a challenge initially, with many peaks and valleys to overcome. During the first half of the novel, Flaubert's overt word-painting on every trivial object nearly made me put it down. I marched on because there was a weird thread that kept telling me he was gathering for a big push. The second half of the novel was the most incredible description of this woman's self-destructive behavior in literature. I kept thinking, "God, how far is she blindly willing to go." Francis Steegmuller's translation captures the vernaculars and mood of Flaubert's intent. I compared three separate translations at the bookstore and read passages side by side to gauge the use of straightforward language. Steegmuller floored the rest; having sublimity the others did not posses. The book is on my shelf with pride.
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on September 3, 2013
I've seen a bad review of this novel, with which I do not quibble, but one should note that it was given because the reader did not like the nature of the story (and possibly its ending). If you purchase this book though, with the idea that you are getting a feel-good story, a "David Copperfield" (which I love too), then you are in for a miserable experience. The story is by now so well-known that I don't think I'm giving away any spoilers. Perhaps some realize the basic substance of the story but do not expect the ending. In any case, the bad review should not detract one from purchasing this translation, in which Lydia Davis' prose is exquisite. The novel was ground-breaking in any number of ways, not the least of which is the well of human emotions that surge through one while reading it. The clunky translations of the past took away from the novel and the experience of all of the sadness, anger, disgust, contempt, pity and shame accentuated in this edition.
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on March 8, 2008
MADAME BOVARY is one of those books that I admire more than love. As fiction it is flawlessly written, and it's scathing viewpoint on French provincial society is delivered with style and aplomb. Flaubert's biting ironic take on the Romantic tradition has perhaps never been surpassed. You can rightly call MADAME BOVARY the great anti-romance of literature. The problem I have with it lies in it's failure to touch me on any emotional level. Neither Emma, nor any of the male characters in Yonville create empathy with me. Charles, who is the least repulsive male, is far more to be pitied than admired. I really couldn't understand or relate much to anyone in this novel.

Comparing Emma Bovary to that other eponymous lady, Anna Karenina, I found Tolstoy's cuckolding wife to be a much more sympathetic character. Part of that lies in the fact that Anna's husband is a less sympathetic character than Emma's, but the greater reason is that Anna thinks and feels in a wounded, yet logical fashion. She struggles to come to terms with her life's choices, whereas Emma seems more a willing victim of her own addictive personality. There isn't the depth to the characters in Flaubert's novel, and though I acknowledge it to be a masterpiece, it is more a cold, stylistic exercise in ironic realism, than a book that enlightens, exhilarates, or moves the reader.

That said, MADAME BOVARY is an essential book, and it certainly has influenced much literature that came after. Flaubert once famously remarked, "Emma Bovary, c'est moi". In her doomed search for beauty in an ugly world, she is an apt surrogate for the creative artist who lives to fashion the sublime from the dross.
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