I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
Timothy Schaffert is among the legions of authors who aren’t, I think, nearly as well-known as they should be. A native of Nebraska, he writes novels of great tenderness and intelligence, set in his home state. Three of these books comprise a sort of loose Midwestern trilogy; they’re unconnected, except when the occasional character from a previous book pops up for a cameo appearance, but we’re always in Nebraska, always in and around the “little nothing town of Bonnevilla (pop. 2,900).” (A fourth novel, Devils in the Sugar Shop, is set in Omaha.)
We’re in and around Bonnevilla but it seems to me that we could be almost anywhere, in any place far off the beaten track. Bonnevilla is so sketchily rendered that it’s easy to project the places you’ve known over it; it’s hard to imagine two landscapes less alike than rural Nebraska and coastal British Columbia, but the melancholy and the rhythms of Schaffert’s locale remind me oddly of the old mining town of Cumberland, an out-of-the-way place in the forests of Vancouver Island that’s always seemed to me to be filled with ghosts. Schaffert’s work is partly driven by the peculiar tension that arises between, on the one hand, the sharply rendered, messily three-dimensional characters that populate his novels, and on the other, the dreamlike landscape they move through.
Part of what appeals to me so deeply about this work, I think, is that Schaffert understands that small places, even small places in the deep heartland, are not innocent. (Small places, in my experience, are as dark and as fraught as any seething metropolis, and often much harder to get out of.) Schaffert’s dream landscapes are shot through with death. Violence rarely intrudes in the present, but it’s never very far back in the past. His work is beautiful and unsettling.
The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters: Schaffert’s debut. Lily and Mabel Rollow’s father committed suicide when they were children, and their mother abandoned them with a careless grandmother soon afterward. Now eighteen and twenty-one, they live in a junk shop far from anywhere, a gray house “in the middle of eighty acres of farm land long left fallow, a few miles from the little nothing town of Bonnevilla.” It was their grandmother’s, but she left them too.
The book opens with a touch of death. “In her secondhand shop,” the first chapter begins,
Mabel stretched out on the fainting sofa, feeling tipsy from the summer’s heat, not knowing, for a moment, if it was June, July, or August. She shook up a leaking snow globe, the white flakes settling in the laps of lovers on a gondola. Mabel had read in a book on antiques that the snow in snow globes was once made of sawed-up bone.
This is Edward Gorey territory—abandoned girl, fainting sofa, bone—and of the three books, this one comes closest to full-on gothic. The dead are never far away. Lily’s fragile and childish boyfriend, Jordan, once slit his wrist in a bathtub—not very deeply, and only a few minutes before his mother was due home—and likes to show off his scar. He drives a car that belonged to a murderer.
But Jordan’s only playing at being close to death; Mabel and Lily dwell in a much more sinister territory. They like to tell each other that, despite everything, they’ve turned out all right; but much of the book’s tension, particularly in the third act, is derived from the extent to which they haven’t.
The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God: The overwhelming sense is that we’ve stepped into the story just shortly after the good times ended. There were two couples once, close friends: Ozzie and Jenny, Tuesday and Hud. But now Jenny has died and Ozzie is adrift in her absence, Tuesday and Hud have divorced, and all of them are estranged from respective teenage children.
Tuesday and Hud’s son Gatling has run off to tour with The Daughters of God, a seedy Gospel punk band of growing renown. They do go after him, but this plot point feels slightly extraneous; what matters, in this case, are the people Gatling left behind, especially Gatling’s father.
Hud is a singer and pianist in a hotel lounge, a country western musician who plays his guitar at the market, an unhappily divorced father of two, and an unsettling inebriated school bus driver. “To get through the afternoons that wound into early evenings, driving a school bus along long country roads and driveways, Hud kept slightly drunk.” It’s only early September on the day the book opens, but half the children on his bus are dressed up in their Halloween costumes; his bus carries a pirate, a little nun with a newspaper hat, a boy in an Indian headdress. There are two small boys dressed up in suits, with grey makeup on their faces; they’re dressed, they tell Hud, as the murdered Schrock brothers.
On this particular long afternoon, as Hud ferries his charges down country roads, a local man named Robbie Schrock is scheduled for execution. The previous Halloween, he dropped rat-poisoned candy apples into his sons’ trick-or-treat bags. Nearly a year later, the town’s children have dressed in their costumes to celebrate the man’s impending death.
In an odd way, Hud doesn’t find Schrock’s crime inexplicable. His ex-wife Tuesday views him—not unreasonably—as a bit of a drunk, and has occasionally sought to keep him from their eight-year-old daughter. He thinks of how Robbie Schrock, “his babies taken away, probably in an ugly divorce, probably left with only an occasional weekend or an occasional holiday with his children, wanted the whole world to know what loss can really do to a person. Hud could sympathize.”
He would never hurt Nina, but he does fantasize sometimes about stealing her away, about driving and driving to some other quiet place, changing their names and slipping into a life that doesn’t involve Tuesday. He strikes me as a man coming to grips with the inadequacy of this often-disappointing life; he moves through his days as best he can and struggles to reconcile himself to the world’s shortcomings. The book is no less haunted than The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters is, but the ghosts are of a different nature.
Still, Tuesday is as fully realized and complex a character as Hud, and her actions are never inexplicable. The marriage is over but they haven’t entirely fallen out of love, or at least not consistently out of love, and in the delicately rendered quasi-affair between them Schaffert lays claim to a post-divorce landscape mapped out by John Updike. Hud and Tuesday’s ambivalence reminds me of nothing so much as the final scene of Updike’s short story “Here Come The Maples”, wherein Joan and Richard Maple reach the end of their marriage and, at the end of the divorce proceedings, find themselves somewhat at a loss in a courtroom:
Obsolete at their own ceremony, Joan and Richard stepped back from the bench in unison and stood side by side, uncertain of how to turn, until Richard at last remembered what to do; he kissed her.
The Coffins of Little Hope: This was the first of Schaffert’s books that I read. The word “exquisite” gets thrown around too easily when a book’s unflashy, carefully wrought, and beautifully written, but well, this one really is. The narrator is Essie Myles, the town’s obituary writer. She is in her eighties.
The town is faded now. Perhaps it always was, but here for the first time we’re presented with a place that might not be expected to exist indefinitely.
Essie has outlived her only child, but her grandchildren live in town and her family is close. Her two grandchildren are Doc, who publishes the local paper, and Ivy, who took off for Paris some years ago and left her daughter, Tiff, in Doc’s care. At the book’s opening Ivy has recently returned and is struggling to find her role in the family. A chronicle of fraught domesticity is played out against the backdrop of a peculiar publishing drama: in an effort to avoid leaked plot points and spoiled endings, the publisher of the outlandishly popular Miranda and Desiree books has decided to have the eleventh book in the series—The Coffins of Little Hope—printed in the most obscure small towns they can find. They’ve chosen Doc’s printing press. The work of producing the enormous print run is carried out in secret. Guards check the employees for smuggled pages when they leave at the end of the day.
It requires a leap of imagination, but then, so did the Harry Potter phenomenon. Before Harry Potter it was hard to imagine the spectacle of children and teenagers lining up at midnight to buy a book, but it happened.
The dying town is given new life when a woman named Daisy whom no one knows very well, an employee at the press and a resident of a falling-down farmhouse on the outskirts of town, claims that her eleven-year-old daughter Lenore has gone missing. The case attracts national attention, in the way that kidnapping cases very occasionally do. Doc’s local paper suddenly gains readers all over the country, as he writes story after story about the vanished girl. A strange collection of misfits and hangers-on begin to congregate in Daisy’s ramshackle farmhouse; Tiff dubs them the Lenorans. Daisy begins to give disjointed guest sermons before local congregations.
But as the weeks of the investigation drag on, the evidence of Lenore’s existence seems curiously slight. When she disappeared, she left nothing behind her. There are no sneakers on the doormat, no pictures on the wall, no blonde hair caught in a hairbrush. Only one photograph exists, a Polaroid so blurry that it could be almost any blonde-haired girl. She was born at home, her mother insists, and thus has no birth certificate. No one knew her. Is Lenore still alive? Was she ever?
The book is haunted by the question of whether the missing child ever actually existed. At last Essie visits Daisy on her farm, just as she visits everyone in town who’s recently lost someone. She’s here ostensibly to write Lenore’s obituary, but she doesn’t write down anything Daisy says. She sits, listening in silence, as Daisy talks.
Finally a tear rolled down [Daisy’s] cheek and over the pout of her lower lip. I was unmoved. Maybe I didn’t want to help her at all. Maybe I just wanted to hear a confession, and I wanted to be the one to tell the truth to others. … None of this was an effort toward closure. It seemed just another beginning in a story that was all beginnings. And that was probably why my little town couldn’t get enough of it. We were so tired of endings.
The novel is a beautifully rendered chronicle, as are all three of these books, of forgotten places and damaged lives.
Two very different literary adaptations somehow eluded Scott Rudin’s greedy clutches and landed in the lap of American Pie writer/director/producers Chris and Paul Weitz. Chris Weitz has begun filming as both writer and director of The Golden Compass (IMDb), the first installment of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (Tom Stoppard, who did the initial drafts of the script, also gets a writer credit). The film has grand expectations, as New Line Cinema has bestowed upon it its most generous budget since Lord of the Rings. The cast includes Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig (the blonde Bond), and Ian McShane, with newcomer Dakota Blue Richards playing the lead role. You may remember that Weitz angered fans of the book when he declared that the adaptation would avoid any mention of God and religion because, well, this is America, and in America, we don’t mix God and Nicole Kidman.The other Weitz brother, Paul, is hard at work on his adaptation of Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (IMDb). The first order of business, I imagine, is neutering the title to something like, “Another Totally Awful Night in Really Bad City”? Or maybe just “Suck City”? Just a hunch.(Update, Max adds: Reuters is now reporting that video games based on the His Dark Materials films are on the way.)
Despite all the changes in literary fashions over the past 150 years, Gustave Flaubert remains an essential influence on how novelists approach their work, and Madame Bovary remains the key book in his career. Given Flaubert’s obsession with style and craft, any translation of Madame Bovary into English requires not merely competence but a touch of full-on windmill-charging madness. Lydia Davis has this madness, tempered by a Flaubertian fastidiousness and dedication to language. The results are exhilarating: an English Bovary that is in forceful, energetic tension with the original French. Sentence by sentence, Davis takes up the same quixotic struggle between idealism and pragmatism that Flaubert has set at the core of his writing.
The sense of the quixotic was always strong in Flaubert. Don Quixote was one of his favorite books, and Madame Bovary consciously reaches for many of the effects that Cervantes achieved in a less methodical fashion.
One of the surprises in reading Don Quixote is discovering how, especially in its early chapters, the characters are more cartoonish than human. Don Quixote is a madman, a delusional fool. His devotion to his book-fed vision of knighthood exposes him to incessant mockery and attack, not only from other people but from the author. Sancho Panza, even more surprisingly, is less a voice of reason than a dull-witted clown. His proverbs aren’t presented as insights—they’re the lazy observations of someone who is down-to-earth mainly in the sense that he lacks imagination. For much of the first half of Don Quixote, we’re reading something that’s close to a vaudeville routine: Sancho plays the sluggish straight man to his master’s flamboyant, hyperactive idiocy.
Gradually, though, Cervantes begins to probe some of his characters’ larger possibilities. I think most of us go into Don Quixote expecting the story of a noble dreamer and a levelheaded realist, but Cervantes only allows us to find this story by first working our way through his constant ridicule. Eventually, and particularly in the second half of the novel, Cervantes adds more subtlety to the satire, and rescues his characters from their puppet-show crudeness. He isn’t always consistent about this, however, and Don Quixote is one of those books where the changeability of the writing invites us to make endless interpretations of what its author is trying to accomplish.
Flaubert first read Don Quixote in 1832, when he was eleven years old, and he had heard tales from the book when he was even younger. By the time Madame Bovary was published, in 1857, he had already been thinking about Cervantes for at least a quarter of a century. Moreover, he had created in Emma Bovary a character who would renew and deepen the meaning of Don Quixote for the future.
Emma embodies, in one person, the conflict between idealism and pragmatism that Cervantes divides between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The argument between the knight and the squire is Emma’s argument with herself: she touches both of their extremes at once, as well as many points in between those extremes. This is why so much of the novel takes place inside her head. Her marriage to Charles and her adulteries with Rodolphe and Léon matter less than her fluctuating attitudes towards the world.
It’s traditional for English-speaking readers to think of Emma mainly as a deluded romantic, but this is a serious distortion of her complexity. Fortunately, the new Davis translation allows us a fresh chance to consider the harsh, observant aspects of Emma’s personality. The various strains of her sentimentality are always doing battle with the various strains of her cynicism. When Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he didn’t just mean that Emma expressed his secret yearnings. He also meant that she expressed all the different temperatures of coldness and despair in his many degrees of pessimism.
Even before her marriage, as an inexperienced young woman who knows little of the world beyond her father’s farm and the convent where she was educated, Emma “considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel.” Throughout the novel, she can’t help comparing her abstract hopes against her keen eye for everything that is discouraging and ugly. Within ten pages of the start of her affair with the well-to-do landowner Rodolphe, she realizes that he has become depressingly sensible and brisk towards her. Devastated by his detachment, she again mourns the loss of all her dreams. She feels she has spent her illusions “in all those successive stages she had gone through, in her virginity, her marriage, and her love…like a traveler who leaves some part of his wealth at every inn along the road.”
Her feelings for Rodolphe revive, of course, but he leaves her at precisely the time he has promised to take her away with him forever. Later she goes to the opera, and convinces herself that nothing in the performance could possibly move her, since she now knows “how paltry were the passions exaggerated by art.” At this same opera she meets Léon, a young law student. They start an affair, but she soon cools towards him, and her bitterness becomes all-encompassing:
Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust?…Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure.
Emma’s cynicism and pessimism are critical to our understanding of her. Yet if they were all she had to offer us, Madame Bovary would be as narrow and harsh as some of Flaubert’s later novels. I admire Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pécuchet—it’s hard not to enjoy Flaubert’s exacting technical skills—but the melancholy resignation of those books feels a bit mechanical to me. All action is doomed to failure and absurdity, all emotion is ghostly and pale, and nothing matters very much, either to the characters or to us as readers. I have friends who love the later Flaubert precisely for his refusal to hide his conviction that everything tastes bitter and stale. Still, on most days I want more than this from a novelist. I want a fuller sense of our possibilities: the heightened alertness to everything and everyone around us that Tolstoy and Woolf and Shakespeare provide at their best.
Emma is full of this alertness, a heady combination of physical, emotional, and intellectual responsiveness that makes her unique in Flaubert’s writing. Though it’s common for critics to ignore her intelligence, she is by a wide margin the smartest and most perceptive of the novel’s main characters. The world gives Don Quixote a beating for his romanticism, but he is usually in the honorable position of standing up for his convictions against external circumstances—circumstances that he amusingly chooses to reinterpret to his advantage. Emma, in contrast, gives most of her beatings to herself. She faces the difficult task of finding something to believe in when she must constantly fight her own mixed feelings. She is far too fierce for the tame choices available to her, and far too wise to find fulfillment in the limits of her socially allotted slots as either a contented wife or a secret adulteress.
Often in the novel we join her at the window as she looks outside and struggles with the subtleties of her dissatisfaction. She wonders how to “express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind…” At times she works towards a tentative feminist critique, and ponders how much more freedom her hoped-for son might someday enjoy compared to her. She sees quite clearly that much of her sense of confinement comes from the restraints placed on her as a woman, “always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.” Soon the gap between what she actually thinks and what she can openly admit grows intolerable:
She was sometimes surprised at the shocking conjectures that entered her mind; and yet she had to keep smiling, hear herself say again and again that she was happy, pretend to be happy, let everyone believe it…
When Emma receives the letter in which Rodolphe admits he is abandoning her, she runs up to her room “as if an inferno were blazing behind her.” In a sense, she carries this inferno with her everywhere she goes, and moves through the book with an intensity that none of the other characters comes close to attaining.
Flaubert continually brings out her restless energy. Thinking about her marriage, she “would hold the tongs in the fire till they turned red.” She sits down on the grass at one point, and quickly starts “digging into it with little thrusts of the tip of her parasol.” Later, as she listens to someone during a stroll, she begins “stirring the wood chips on the ground with the heel of her boot.” She talks to Léon before she sleeps with him for the first time, and we find her “contemplating the bows on her slippers and making little movements in the satin, now and then, with her toes.” She overflows with so much dynamism that she can’t even pass through a church without dipping her finger in the holy water.
Her tragedy is that her vitality has been diverted into channels which can’t possibly satisfy her. Like Don Quixote, she has let the fantasies of second-rate writers imprison her dreams. In her case, she is infected not with the ideal of knighthood but with the ideal of a perfect mate, as found in the novels and stories she read as a girl. Since this ideal is absurdly distant from the more difficult rewards of any actual relationship, it guarantees that she will always be unhappy.
Her love affairs can momentarily appease her frustration, but in the end they always take her in a false direction, away from the more mysterious passions that drive her at a level neither she nor anyone else in the novel can quite understand. When she begins her relationship with Rodolphe, she experiences for an instant this obscure desire, which is less for a lover than for transformation and escape:
But catching sight of herself in the mirror, she was surprised by her face. Her eyes had never been so large, so dark, or so deep. Something subtle had spread through her body and was transfiguring her.
Ultimately, it’s this promise of transfiguration that Emma seeks. She wants to break away from the confines of her life and undergo a metamorphosis into something better than the petty existence that surrounds her. Yet the only way she has been taught that she can attain any kind of transcendence—through the love of a man—repeatedly ends by making her feel cheated and unfulfilled. It’s appropriate that, by the novel’s climax, when she decides to kill herself, her rage against men takes on a magnificent ferocity, the flipside of Hamlet’s rage against women when he attacks Ophelia:
She longed to strike out at all men, spit in their faces, crush every one of them; and she walked rapidly straight on, pale, trembling, enraged, searching the empty horizon with her tearful eyes, as though reveling in the hatred that was suffocating her.
Madame Bovary is about a world where people’s highest aspirations are turned against them—are cheapened into standardized, prepackaged dreams that others can pillage and control. We’ll never know how Emma’s ambitions might have developed if she hadn’t become addicted to the romantic fantasies she read at the convent. She understands that those fantasies have failed her, but the novel prepares an even crueler recognition for her—one that’s as current for us today as the rows of foreclosures and bankruptcies along our streets.
Behind the story of Emma’s marriage and affairs, Flaubert quietly builds a hidden theme: the manipulations of Homais and Lheureux. After their introduction at the start of Part Two, their presence grows bit by bit until they finally replace Emma altogether and lead us to one of the most coolly nightmarish endings in literature.
For much of the novel we barely notice them, and we wonder why Homais, that absurd apothecary obsessed with prestige, keeps returning to the story. His mind consists entirely of received ideas: prejudices that parrot the hand-me-down Enlightenment notions of his favorite newspapers. Since he has no outstanding personal qualities to prop up his megalomania, he spends all his time trying to manipulate others and invent a public reputation that defies the extent of his ineptitude.
Emma is intelligent enough and independent enough to fight back against her fantasies at least as often as she indulges them. Homais, on the other hand, revels in the fatuousness of his ideas. He needs all thought to be secondhand and simplistic, needs all beliefs to fit strict rules of banality, because only in a society of the borrowed and the rote can he flourish.
At first he seems harmless. So does Lheureux, the merchant who loans money to Emma so she can buy the little luxury items that accompany her adulteries. As the novel goes on, however, we find that Homais and Lheureux work their way forward by exploiting and damaging the people around them.
Lheureux’s method is more obvious, and more immediately effective. He draws Emma into taking higher loans than she can realistically repay, and he keeps extending her credit in what she finally sees is an effort to ruin her. By selling her the romantic clothes and props that she thinks will spike her affairs with greater potency, he ends up winning the right to take all of her family’s possessions. This, for Emma, is the final disillusionment, the one that tips her towards her suicide. She is forced to understand that not only have her dreams failed to satisfy her—they’ve been twisted, through her own foolishness, to lead her into financial ruin.
Homais, in turn, accidentally provides the arsenic that Emma uses to poison herself. He also fails to purge her of the poison in time to perhaps save her life. His incompetence here mirrors his earlier incompetence in the novel’s famous clubfoot episode, where a young man’s leg has to be amputated after an unnecessary operation. (Interestingly, in both situations, Homais is less negligent than Emma’s husband, a medical practitioner who should know better.)
Moreover, in addition to the pain that Homais inflicts unintentionally, he becomes steadily more aggressive in mistreating anyone he perceives as a nuisance or a rival. He has a habit of practicing medicine without a license, and has always feared that Emma’s husband, the hapless Charles, will expose his misconduct. Because of this, Homais has done his best to undermine Charles in constant small ways while pretending to be his friend. Then Emma dies, leaving Charles plagued with debts, and Homais completely abandons him as soon as it becomes clear that Charles no longer has the social standing to interfere with anyone’s ambitions.
This is when Homais largely takes over the narrative. He tries to cure a blind man with a salve, fails,and then keeps the failure from harming his reputation by attacking the man in a series of newspaper articles. The success of his articles emboldens him, and he decides that he is an expert on government affairs and major social issues. He starts to crave awards and honors, and uses his public position to discredit and drive out of town three doctors in a row. The novel’s stark final lines tell us that he is protected by the authorities and local opinion, and has just won the cross of the Legion of Honor.
His conquest is complete. He has replaced conscientious medical practice with irresponsible quackery, and has successfully made over reality in his own image. Public recognition is all, and the manipulation of appearances not only hides his banality but enshrines that banality as the mark of superior skill. In the light of his grotesque victory, we see more clearly the confused splendor of Emma’s struggles, which have at least the nobility of her outsized passion. People like Homais and Lheureux, Flaubert suggests, are the source of much of the fraudulence that ensnares Emma and the rest of us throughout our lives. With our enthusiastic cooperation, they build mazes of debased aspirations and desiccated dreams, traps in which we lose our sense of direction, wasting our strength as we search for a way out.
Lydia Davis, already a formidable translator and short story writer, has now presented us with an English Bovary that powerfully recreates the different elements of Flaubert’s style.
Flaubert is often as hard on Emma as Cervantes was on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Davis brings a tart, astringent tone to much of the writing. Some reviewers have complained about this, but it seems to me that Davis is usually just following Flaubert more closely than, say, the overly placid Francis Steegmuller version does. I love the Steegmuller version, and he deserves permanent recognition not only for his Bovary translation but for Flaubert in Egypt and his two-volume edition of Flaubert’s correspondence. Still, Davis provides a necessary corrective to Steegmuller, similar to the corrective she provided to Scott Moncrieff’s florid Proust.
It’s an essential virtue of this Bovary that Davis conveys the full force of Flaubert’s harshness. After all, the novel’s constant mockery of Emma is part of Flaubert’s overall plan, and I suspect it was Don Quixote’s scornful prose he had in mind when he wrote passages like these, ridiculing the way that Emma uses her mother’s death as an excuse for indulging in self-conscious displays of grief:
Elle se laissa donc glisser dans les méandres lamartiniens, écouta les harpes sur les lacs, tous les chants de cygnes mourants, toutes les chutes de feuilles, les vierges pures qui montent au ciel, et la voix de l’Éternel discourant dans les vallons. Elle s’en ennuya, n’en voulut point convenir, continua par habitude, ensuite par vanité, et fut enfin surprise de se sentir apaisée, et sans plus de tristesse au cœur que de rides sur son front.
With characteristic sharpness, Davis reproduces Flaubert’s air of fast-moving amusement at Emma’s stylized mourning:
And so she allowed herself to slip into Lamartinean meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to the song of every dying swan, to the falling of every leaf, to pure virgins rising to heaven, and to the voice of the Eternal speaking in the valleys. She became bored with this, did not want to admit it, continued out of habit, then out of vanity, and was at last surprised to find that she was at peace, and that there was no more sadness in her heart than there were wrinkles on her forehead.
“Lamartinean meanderings” captures the rhythmic elegance of “méandres lamartiniens” and is much more concise than Steegmuller’s typically relaxed “meander along Lamartinian paths.” It’s also a bit less flat-footed than the “Lamartine meanderings” in the old Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation. More crucially, the second sentence shows the skill with which Davis renders the bounce and pace of the novel’s French. Flaubert rushes through Emma’s psychological changes with the comic deftness of a sped-up film clip, and Davis keeps the speed without losing the sense.
On page after page, Davis succeeds in conveying Flaubert’s invigorating bravado whenever he’s treating Emma’s foibles with unrestrained contempt. Part of what Flaubert learned from Cervantes is that you could make merciless fun of your characters without destroying them. Both Emma and Don Quixote emerge from their authors’ derision battered yet triumphant, oddly purified and preserved by the very attacks that superficially seem to discredit them.
For the most part, Davis sticks tightly both to the meaning of Flaubert’s text and to its constant changes of tone. She is especially good at following the different rhythms of the original and making them work in English, a difficult task with Flaubert. He is a hard writer to imitate. He approaches each sentence as a separate problem, and painstakingly fits each of those problems into the larger problem of the paragraph, the episode, the novel as a whole. Stylistically, you never quite know what the next sentence is going to be like—long or short, stoic or humorous, rich with description or sparse with subtle pathos. A key source of Flaubert’s greatness is that he manages to contain such variety within a voice that is still distinctive and strong. Davis has done a wonderful job of catching both the main voice—the rigorous, lucid tone that dominates the novel—and the wide range of other styles that wrestle with this voice throughout the story. Flaubert’s French practically seethes with all the moods and emotions that it includes. You have the sense, crucial to the novel’s impact, that powerful feeling is being conducted under powerful control.
Davis recognizes this. She knows that Flaubert’s style depends not merely on his renowned chill but on the heat that is constantly threatening to melt through the ice—the passion that the style needs to save while purging the words of sentimentality or sensationalism. Flaubert is celebrated for his irony, but we wouldn’t care about his irony if he weren’t equally good at moments like the one when Emma first considers killing herself in the wake of Rodolphe’s rejection. Upstairs in her home, she leans against the window and looks down at the paving stones while she listens to the whirring of a nearby lathe:
Le rayon lumineux qui montait d’en bas directement tirait vers l’abîme le poids de son corps. Il lui semblait que le sol de la place oscillant s’élevait le long des murs, et que le plancher s’inclinait par le bout, à la manière d’un vaisseau qui tangue. Elle se tenait tout au bord, presque suspendue, entourée d’un grand espace. Le bleu du ciel l’envahissait, l’air circulait dans sa tête creuse, elle n’avait qu’à céder, qu’à se laisser prendre; et le ronflement du tour ne discontinuait pas, comme une voix furieuse qui l’appelait.
Without doing anything especially tricky or spectacular, Davis gives this passage its full measure of life, the force of Emma’s despair mingled with the lathe’s turning:
The ray of light that rose directly up to her from below was pulling the weight of her body down toward the abyss. It seemed to her that the ground in the village square was swaying back and forth and rising along the walls, and that the floor was tipping down at the end, like a vessel pitching. She was standing right at the edge, almost suspended, surrounded by a great empty space. The blue of the sky was coming into her, the air circulating inside her hollow skull, she had only to give in, to let herself be taken; and the whirring of the lathe never stopped, like a furious voice calling to her.
Flaubert presses his translators into a nearly impossible position. They must balance fidelity to his meticulously chosen words against the desire to communicate his awesome stylistic achievement—must sway, as his characters do, between the earthbound and the ideal. Lydia Davis, stronger than Emma Bovary, sustains this balance from start to finish. The time is always right for a Flaubert revival. Davis has now given us the best possible reason to start one.
A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
In July, a crowd gathered in the atrium outside of Garden St. Bookshop in New Orleans for an appearance by Dave Eggers. Four years after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and books and movies about Katrina started flooding the media, a new Katrina narrative may seem uncalled for, but this one is not. You may not expect a guy who had the audacity to write a memoir of his twenties and call it A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to be humble, but when he when he entered the room followed by a short, round-faced woman wearing a brown-swirled hijab and her husband, a handsome Syrian man, the humility Eggers exuded rang genuine.
Eggers, addressing a room of around two hundred people, introduced Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. In his new book, Zeitoun, Eggers chronicles the experience of Abdulrahman, a Syrian immigrant, and his family as they face not only the worst natural disaster in American history but a justice system in which Abdulrahman becomes stranded, rendered helpless and stripped of his identity “as a neighbor, as a countryman, as a human”.
Eggers, rather than reading, held a panel discussion with the couple. With the three of them sitting, Eggers realized, most people in the room would be unable to see them. So, for a good part of the time, the three of them stood. Eggers spoke for a moment before turning the talk over to Kathy, who addressed the room with warmth and confidence. One of the first things out of her mouth was a defense of Islam against “what you might see on TV. It’s a very peaceful religion.” Zeitoun (Zey-toon), as people call him because they can’t pronounce his first name, speaks English well, but Kathy did most of the talking as he stood with his hands clasped behind his back, casting his eyes between the floor, the listeners and his wife. As she spoke, Kathy and Zeitoun exchanged looks, and the love between them, the parents of five children, was visible.
Kathy is from Baton Rouge. She converted to Islam when she was nineteen and searching for a religion. “I wanted to be Catholic,” she joked, “but it takes too long.” Kathy said that by converting to Islam, “you’re not changing your beliefs, just your religion. Through Islam, I found God.” While Kathy’s journey led her to Islam, Zeitoun’s led him to New Orleans, and where the two met they built their life as a couple committed to their family and working hard to raise their children and run a business: Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor, LLC. In their community, they were loved for their generosity and respected for their honesty and reliability.
Like Eggers’ previous novel, What is the What, this third person narrative is an epic of survival and the challenges of the immigrant, illuminating the flaws of the American dream even as they are met with optimism and persistence. But Abdulrahman Zeitoun is not a stranger. He is a New Orleanian. His wife begs him to leave the city before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, but he insists on staying behind to help his neighbors, rescuing people trapped in their houses and feeding abandoned dogs. “This is my family, too,” he says. Zeitoun paddles his canoe around post-Katrina New Orleans, a world made new by flood, accompanied by memories of his childhood in Syria and invigorated by a sense of freedom and purpose. Zeitoun’s odyssey through his own city is paralleled by Kathy’s vigil over the family, not as Penelope in the family home but as a vagabond in a Honda Odyssey, roaming west in search of shelter while she waits for her husband to leave New Orleans.
“The dissonance woke him.” This is the last line of Part I, as Zeitoun wakes to the sound of floodwaters rushing past his house from Lake Pontchartrain. In this story, the word dissonance looms large. Zeitoun, although not an outsider, retains the innocence of an immigrant expecting something different from this country. His home becomes strange and the behavior of others sometimes confounds him. “Why had he said he would come if he did not plan to come?… He had promised help and he had not kept that promise.” Bewilderment gives way to shock when he is arrested a house he owns and, incredibly, locked in a cell that is more like a cage, surrounded by men with guns and treated as not only a stranger but as an enemy. In a place that he recognizes but that is no longer his home, he is stripped, literally, and then figuratively, of his pride and his rights.
Across the world in Istanbul, where I was living and teaching English when the storm hit New Orleans, my students expressed shock at the images they were seeing on television.” The dissonance woke them, too. They said to me “We can’t believe this is America.” In the atrium, I asked Zeitoun if his experience changed his perception of America. He replied that when he saw so many people left helpless by their government and when he sat in prison being treated worse than a criminal, not knowing why he was being held and denied contact with his family, “I said to myself, this is not America.”
Speaking to the crowd in the atrium, Kathy recounted the ordeal in the weeks after the storm when she could not find her husband or any information about him, not knowing whether he was dead or alive. She laughed and gestured with animated hands and face as she conveyed the frustration of explaining to his panicked family in Syria and Spain that she did not know where he was. “It was like I had lost someone else’s pet.” Billy Sothern, a Louisiana attorney and anti-death penalty advocate, briefly explained the series of legal breakdowns, before and after the storm, that held Zeitoun in prison for weeks without a hearing, without charges and with no way to contact his wife and children. “Even after we knew where he was,” Kathy said, “he didn’t know we were looking for him. He thought we had just forgotten about him.” At this comment, Zeitoun cast a sheepish glance at his wife then hung his head for a moment.
When outsiders write about New Orleans, we denizens often find ourselves cringing at things like “gumbo parties.” But New Orleans rendered by Eggers through Zeitoun’s eyes is the New Orleans we know. Zeitoun’s is not the view of an outsider. Through Zeitoun’s eyes, in scenes that alternate beauty and despair, Eggers portrays encounters and events that I recognize as the idiosyncrasies of my city–the kind of place where neighbors know each other, where a prostitute hitches a ride to work in a canoe in the middle of a flood, where people make a party on the roof in a city of apocalyptic destruction.
There was one disappointment, however. Towards the end, Eggers gives a one-paragraph history of the state prison in Angola in which, among thousands of facts and stories, he picks a few that offer a narrow and demonized picture of a complex subject. Why was it necessary to point out that one of the crops grown at Angola was cotton? It wasn’t. Such facts, presented in isolation, play on social stereotypes and racial sensitivities to unnecessarily inflame and prejudice a reader. As a person who has actually been inside the gates of Angola (as a guest), I wish that Eggers had looked more deeply into the subject before coloring it with such a wide stroke of ignominy.
Despite this misstep, this love story and adventure tale is a great read, rendered beautifully in simple prose with a pace that will keep you reading. Heartbreaking at times, the tale of Zeitoun leaves the reader with a hopeful view of a world in which people like the Zeitouns respond to its imperfections not with bitterness but with a desire and an effort to build a better one.