October 2010
A review of

Madame Bovary

by Gustave Flaubert

Central question: How do you translate the novel to begin all novels?
Titles of three of the ten stories the translator wrote—mainly in Flaubert’s own words—using material from his letters to his mistress Louise Colet: “The Execution,” “The Coachman and the Worm,” and “After You Left”; Number of previous English translations of Madame Bovary: at least nineteen (according to Davis); Plot summary: Dissatisfied, a country doctor’s wife goes to a fancy-dress party, dreams of a better life, has two affairs, buys things she can’t afford and goes deeply into debt, eats arsenic; Representative sentence: “They had to lift her head a little, and at that a stream of black liquid ran out of her mouth like vomit.”

“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.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Rozalia Jovanovic

Rozalia Jovanovic is a founding editor of Gigantic and the deputy editor of Flavorpill New York. Her essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Unsaid, BlackBook.com, and Guernica.

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