Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), the younger son of a provincial doctor, briefly studied law before devoting himself to writing, with limited success during his lifetime. After the publication of Madame Bovary in 1857, he was prosecuted for offending public morals.
Let's begin with Nabokov's "Lectures on Literature," where he introduces "Madame Bovary" as follows: "The book is concerned with adultery and contains situations and allusions that shocked the prudish philistine government of Napoleon III. Indeed, the novel was actually tried in a court of justice for obscenity. Just imagine that. As if the work of an artist could ever be obscene." Written over a five-year period, "Madame Bovary" was published serially in a magazine in 1856 where, despite editorial attempts to purge it of offensive material, it was cited for "offenses against morality and religion." Fortunately, Flaubert won his case and "Madame Bovary" remains to this day one of the masterpieces of French and world literature. Indeed, in Nabokov's view, the novel's influence is notable: "Without Flaubert, there would have been no Marcel Proust in France, no James Joyce in Ireland. Chekhov in Russia would not have been quite Chekhov." The story of Emma Bovary is well known and uncomplicated. Set in the provincial towns of Tostes and Yonville (it is subtitled "Patterns of Provincial Life"), with adulterous interludes in Rouen, "Madame Bovary" narrates the life of Charles Bovary and Emma Rouault. Charles, an "officier de sante"--a licensed medical practitioner without a medical degree--meets Emma while tending to her injured father. Charles is married at that time to the first Madame Bovary, also called Madame Dubuc, a widow and thin, ugly woman who dominates the mild-mannered Charles from the very beginning. "It was his wife [Madame Dubuc] who ruled: in front of company he had to say certain things and not others, he had to eat fish on Friday, dress the way she wanted, obey her when she ordered him to dun nonpaying patients.Read more ›
Was this review helpful to you?
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.
Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life by Gustave Flaubert; translated by Francis Steegmuller. Recommended. Surprisingly, Madame Bovary begins with a look at the painful childhood of the seemingly dull and plodding man who will become the title character's longsuffering husband, Charles Bovary. The novel commences with a mysterious "we"-the identity of the narrator who tells the story of Bovary's ignominious entry into school is not known-but then changes to third-person omniscient. Charles is a conscientious, yet average, student, whose school, career, lodgings, and even first wife are selected by his mother. His marriage to Emma Bovary, the daughter of an apparently prosperous farmer, is the first major decision he makes for himself about his life and borders on an act of rebellion. That this act of independence should have such tragic consequences only adds to their effect. Like many of her class, Emma is a romantic dreamer-but one who expects others to make those dreams into reality. Within a short time of her wedding, perhaps even on the day after, "the bride made not the slightest sign that could be taken to betray anything at all." For Charles Bovary, however, marriage to Emma-following as it does on the heels of his first marriage to a thin, complaining huissier's widow whose financial assets prove to be negligible-seems to be the culmination of happiness. "He was happy now, without a care in the world." Every moment spent with her, each of her gestures, "and many other things in which it had never occurred to him to look for pleasure-such now formed the steady current of his happiness.Read more ›
Was this review helpful to you?
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.