A review of
by Gustave Flaubert
“A good sentence in prose,” says Flaubert, “should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.” In service of this high standard, Flaubert spoke his sentences loudly and in different registers in his gueuloir (“screech room”), listening for the peculiar inflections of spoken language. While Lydia Davis admits in her introduction that it is “perhaps impossible” for a translation to meet Flaubert’s rigorous criteria, she is one of the most innovative prose stylists of our time, and thus an excellent match for Flaubert’s masterpiece.
Flaubert’s sentences are certainly sonorous in French (Emma “répétait qu’il fallait économizer, puisqu’ils n’étaient pas riches, ajoutant qu’elle était très contente… lui plaisait beaucoup…”), and the sentences in this translation reveal a similar attention to sound. When Emma tosses her bridal bouquet into the fire, “the little cardboard berries burst open, the binding wire twisted, the braid melted.” Proust noted Flaubert’s “grammatical singularities”: his new use of the past definite, the present participle, certain pronouns, and his “unconventional handling of the word ‘and.’” Davis is likewise known for her fresh syntax. Early in her career she picked apart Beckett’s sentences to understand why they worked, and she counts the music of Bach—which she studied in a high-school music theory class—among her influences. Like Flaubert, Davis has a penchant for the sound of language: “I don’t edit out things that I began by saying.”
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