April's Book: Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Translated by Lydia Davis

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Madame Bovary, one of the most celebrated novels ever written, defined the novel as an art form when it was published in 1875. Lydia Davis’s landmark translation of Flaubert’s work breathes new life into it. When it was first published, Madame Bovary was embraced by bourgeois women who felt it illuminated the frustrations of their lives. It tells the story of Emma Rouault, whose dreams of a passionate life crumble when she marries a dull, provincial doctor Charles Bovary. She struggles to escape the tedium of her days as a wife and mother. She has a series of disappointing affairs and spends money getting into debt, with tragic consequences for her husband and daughter.


Lydia Davis

Comments [14]


I read Madame Bovary years ago in a college course: Adultery in Russian Literature. The thesis of the course, if I remember it correctly, was something like this: Novels need conflicts, adultery is one of the best sources of conflicts for literature, and women of that time and place had few novel worthy activities available to them - adultery was one such activity (though not sanctioned by society of course). I think that was the gist of it, though it's been years. Loved the book! Thank you for discussing it.

Apr. 18 2013 03:53 PM
Miriam from NYC

Je m'excuse - in my commentary I meant to ascribe a "contemptuous distance" to Flaubert in describing the Romantic (a movement he found ridiculous)
flounderings of Emma. I mistakenly said "contemptible." Sorry.

Apr. 16 2013 02:05 PM
Dan Parietti from New York City

Leo Tolstoy and Flaubert were contemporaries. Did they correspond about their wrting? I ask this because Tolstoy's "Annakarenina" and Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" seem to write about a similar circumstance: unfaiththful womne who are victims of the social mores of times in which they lived.

Apr. 16 2013 02:04 PM
Jon Ciner

seaking of Proust, isn't "Remembrance of Things Past" the better translation, since Proust is quoting (and translating) the Shakespeare sonnet?

Apr. 16 2013 01:58 PM
Miriam from NYC

"Madame Bovary" was a highly satirical commentary of the foolish excesses of Romanticism. Flaubert, from a highly contemptible distance, describes the flounderings of a would-be Romantic ( Emma), while the only true Romantic in the story (Charles) emerges as a pathetic figure. The book is a marvel of clinical objectivity with a scintillating tinge of satire.

Apr. 16 2013 01:56 PM
Karen Zebulon from Brooklyn

Louise Kaplan's award-winning book 'Female Perversions' talks in detail about Madame Bovary. Was her work influential in your writings.

Apr. 16 2013 01:53 PM
Carol from Park Slope

There's a lovely movie called, "Balzac and the Chinese Peasant Girl." It takes place in china during the cultural revolution. Two young men are sent to the country side for the revisionist crimes of their parents. They meet a young chinese peasant girl and teach her to read using Madame Bovery. The unintended consequences seem quite real. It's worth a watch. I loved it.

Apr. 16 2013 01:45 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Vladimir Nabokov on "Madame Bovary," from "Lectures on Literature":

"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."

Apr. 16 2013 01:32 PM

I understand the Flaubert wanted to write the perfect sentence and through art to show how awful the world was.
I think that Emma represents failed Romanticism and comes to that realization as she is dying.
Each of the characters seem to dramatically represent an aspect of society that Flaubert rejects.
Is there a character who represents a more positive position in society in the novel?

Apr. 16 2013 01:05 PM
Nick from Long Island

The book's obviously had an enormous legacy but I wonder if Ms. Davis thinks of it as a conflicted one? While Flaubert models a really interesting kind of realism where he he contrasts the provincial, mundane and petty elements of the plot with really meticulous and elegant prose, haven't latter writers working in this mode (Updike's Rabbit series or Conrad's Secret Agent for example) tried to temper their characterizations with more warmth and sympathy in contrast to Flaubert's coldness?

Also, thinking about how outsized of a character Homais is, I wondered how closely his pretentious and pompous speechifying mirrors the tone and content of Emma's dialog in the French? The fates of the two characters are clearly contrasted but it must be a much more subtle challenge for the translator to capture the contrast through the writing. Not speaking a word of French, I thought Ms. Davis's translation was really phenomenal.

Apr. 16 2013 11:29 AM
John P MacKenzie from Long Island City

i'm sure yours is the best translation of Madame Bovary.
Would you mind identifying the best translation of Les Miserables?
i admit this is off subject, but then, why does it come to my mind?
Thanks, if you have time.

Apr. 16 2013 11:11 AM
Jeffrey Zajac from Highland Park, New Jersey USA

In Steegmuller's tranlation, he makes the following point: "On the last page of the book Flaubert proclaims Homais' growing prosperity by saying, 'Il fait une clientele d'enfer' * * * (noting that 'enfer' ("hell") or its variant has been absent in various translations). Steegmuller translates (on the last page) this as the following: "The devil himself doesn't have a greater following than the pharmacist."

Davis translates this as: "He himself has an infernally good clientele."

I don't speak or read French, so cannot offer a sound opinion, but I think I prefer Steegmuller's use of "devil himself" over Davis' "infernally" to communicate Flaubert's comparison of the pharmacist Homais with the devil.

Apr. 16 2013 09:53 AM
jeff zajac from Highland Park, New Jersey, USA

wondering to what extent modern feminists have viewed this book. this one passage i find striking, where emma, just before giving birth, wishes for a son & not a daughter:

"A man, at least, is free; he can explore every passion, every land, overcome obstacles, taste the most distant pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted. Inert and pliant at the same time, she must struggle against both the softness of her flesh and subjection to the law. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat by a string, flutters with every breeze; there is always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back."

(Part II, Chapter 3, p. 77 of hardback edition).

Apr. 15 2013 08:57 PM
Erik from Brooklyn

Lydia Davis has published a series of stories inspired by Flaubert, as well as some essays about translating Bovary, which I haven't been able to locate. Does she have any plans to publish a short book gathering these pieces and any others about her experience translating Bovary? I'd read it with interest.

Apr. 15 2013 02:16 PM

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