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Madame Bovary Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 23, 2010
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Seven years ago, the incomparable Lydia Davis brought us an award- winning, rapturously reviewed new translation of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way that was hailed as "clear and true to the music of the original" (Los Angeles Times) and "a work of creation in its own right" (Claire Messud, Newsday). Now she turns her gifts to the book that defined the novel as an art form.
When Emma Rouault marries dull, provincial doctor Charles Bovary, her dreams of an elegant and passionate life crumble. She escapes into sentimental novels but finds her fantasies dashed by the tedium of her days. Motherhood proves to be a burden; religion is only a brief distraction. She spends lavishly and embarks on a series of disappointing affairs. Soon heartbroken and crippled by debts, Emma takes drastic action with tragic consequences for her husband and daughter. When published in 1857, Madame Bovary was embraced by bourgeois women who claimed it spoke to the frustrations of their lives. Davis's landmark translation gives new life in English to Flaubert's masterwork.
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I don't think it's the translation that did it, although I did find the style to be rather stilted, something Davis's translation of Proust seems to share. There is a part of the book, forgive me for I have no direct quote, in which the auther is discribing Emma Bovary's daughter as illiterate, badly dressed, and neglected, and her father is trying to teach her to read from one his medical dictionaries. I understand that not everyone in literature is good, but this doesn't even make sense, as a mother much of my what would have been my selfishness for myself I now direct towards my own daughter. She has to wear such and such and attend such and such class/sports etc.
This book reminded me of Revolutionary Road in a way. Selfish people with no redeeming qualities are the centerpiece, all their humanity is wrapped up entirely in passion and lust. I didn't find much to enjoy and had to force myself to finish it.
"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.
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!