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.