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Davis Redeems this Masterpiece!
on March 16, 2011
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.