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review: translated fiction

Gustave Flaubert, auteur

I have read English translations of Madame Bovary four times now, and until this one, by Lydia Davis, I always appreciated Gustave Flaubert's novel with a somewhat removed feeling - stamped it as "great" and went on, not terribly moved. It is, after all, about a provincial French woman of the early 19th century who is beautiful, selfish and forever immature, a man's idea of a woman, you might say, and not that illuminating to actual women, notwithstanding its place in the pantheon (right there next to Anna Karenina, another man's idea of a woman).

The last translation I read was by Paul DeMan, the official Norton translation, a translation that reads like an academic exercise. But nestled in there, after DeMan's attempt, is an amusing observation about Flaubert by Jean-Paul Sartre, "His physicians dubbed him a nervous old woman and he felt vaguely flattered" , followed somewhat later by a question, "Why did it [the public]so value as an admirable character portrayal of a woman … what was at bottom only a poor disguised man?"

Sartre professes perplexity, but his insight is perhaps the key to why Davis's translation is fresh, dynamic and riveting: She is a woman pretending to be a man who is pretending to be a woman, thereby erasing all but the external markers of gender and getting right to the heart of Emma Bovary's complex and fascinating humanity. For all of us, male or female, Flaubert has a way of rendering physical experience that persistently short-circuits thought and judgment; no matter what Emma is thinking or intending, her progress is arrested by sights, sounds, fragrances and sensations that seduce and distract her. We end up not being able to condemn her because we cannot divorce ourselves from the empathy Flaubert has forged, first between Emma and himself, and then between Emma and us.

Madame Bovary is often called the first "realist" novel, but the realism is intensely subjective. It is not the socio-economic facts of French life in 19th-century Normandy that Flaubert is interested in, but the moment-by-moment passage of time as it exists in that setting. Flaubert could have chosen any character in any setting, but he chose someone who lived in the world he was most familiar with (he had heard of a local woman who had had several affairs, accumulated debts and committed suicide). In some sense, he chose a character whose life was not at all dramatic in a grander sense - no accomplishments, no influential friends, no trips even to Paris - and by giving her such an exquisite sensitivity to passing sensations, created a drama that fills the reader with anticipation and dread, demonstrating that suspense in a novel lies not in the question, "What happens next?" but in the question, "Can my character avoid what happens next?" The answer for Emma Bovary is "no." And yet she seems to have free will, thereby raising all sorts of philosophical, psychological and cultural issues.

In her informative introduction, Davis, a respected poet and short story writer whose 2004 translation of Swann's Way was widely praised, comes close to asserting that her version of Madame Bovary is truer to the Flaubert's original than those that have gone before; she has even left in careless errors that Flaubert himself made with regard to "pronoun reference and capitalization." She has also included a very informative set of notes for modern readers who might not understand what Corbeille was, or a "Trafalgar pudding." But I have to admit that I only found the notes after I turned the last page of the novel.

The great accomplishment of Davis's translation has nothing really to do with her meticulousness, and everything to do with the spirit and energy that drive the narrative. She has returned Emma Bovary to us as a young woman who has had a certain sort of old-fashioned convent education, and then feels out of place on her father's farm, who marries for the lack of a better offer and then is exposed to the very elegance that she knows is out there, just beyond her reach, who is, just at the wrong moment, seen from afar by a practised seducer. She is a woman who is sunk deep in her own sensibility, too unworldly to understand the deceptions hidden in the beauty she can't resist. Yes, this is a great translation of a great novel. Flaubert successfully entered a female consciousness because he was a preternaturally acute observer. If you have missed it before, you should not miss it this time.

Jane Smiley's most recent novel is Private Life. She is also the author of The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer, and A Good Horse.