Madame Bovary: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

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Overview

A major new translation of one of the most popular classics of all time, now in a gorgeous deluxe edition. Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent reader of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment and the consequences are devastating. Flaubert's erotically charged and ...

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Madame Bovary (Lydia Davis Translation)

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Overview

A major new translation of one of the most popular classics of all time, now in a gorgeous deluxe edition. Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent reader of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment and the consequences are devastating. Flaubert's erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi'.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary translation=perfect. She somehow pulls off a respectful translation with the readability of a contemporary novel.” —@lenadunham
 
"[Flaubert's] masterwork has been given the English translation it deserves." —Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

"Invigorating . . . [Davis] has a finer ear for the natural cadences of English, in narrative and dialogue, than any of her predecessors." —Jonathan Raban, The New York Review of Books

"Dazzling . . . translated to perfect pitch . . . [Davis has] left us the richer with this translation. . . . I'd certainly say it is necessary to have hers." —Jacki Lyden, NPR.org, Favorite Books of the Year

"One of the most important books of the year . . . Flaubert's strict, elegant, rhythmic sentences come alive in Davis's English." —James Wood, The New Yorker's Book Bench

"I liked having a chance to find more nuances in Madame Bovary in the new Lydia Davis translation and read it blissfully as though floating, as Flaubert puts it in a different context, 'in a river of milk.'" —Paul Theroux, The Guardian (London), Books of the Year

"Madame Bovary reads like it was written yesterday. . . . Emma, with her visions of a grander life and resplendent passions, is me . . . and you, too, no doubt. . . . If you haven't happened to read Madame Bovary until now, I suggest you curl up with this edition . . . and allow yourself to get lost in another time and place that yet bears a curious resemblance to our own." —Daphne Merkin, Elle

"Davis is the best fiction writer ever to translate the novel. . . . [Her] work shares the Flaubertian virtues of compression, irony and an extreme sense of control." —Julian Barnes, London Review of Books

"A brilliant new translation." —Lee Siegel, The New York Observer

"I'm grateful to Davis for luring me back to Madame Bovary and for giving us a version which strikes me as elegant and alive." —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air

"Flaubert's obsessive masterpiece finally gets the obsessive translation it deserves." —New York magazine

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143106494
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/4/2011
  • Series: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition Series
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 131,767
  • Product dimensions: 8.40 (w) x 5.62 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen in 1821. Aside from journeys to the Near East, Greece, Italy, and North Africa, and a stormy liaison with the poetess Louise Colet, his life was dedicated to the practice of his art. The success of Madame Bovary (1857) was ensured by government prosecution for "immorality"; Salammbô (1862) and The Sentimental Education (1869) received a cool public reception; not until the publication of Three Tales (1877) was his genius popularly acknowledged. His final bitterness and disillusion were vividly evidenced in the savagely satiric Bouvard and Pécuchet, left unfinished at his death in 1880. Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and several collections of short fiction. She is also the translator of numerous works from the French by, among others, Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Jean Jouve and Michel Leiris, and was recently named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. She received great acclaim for her translation of Proust's The Way by Swann's for Penguin Classics and her Collected Stories have just been published by Hamish Hamilton.

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Read an Excerpt

Part One

We were in study hall when the headmaster walked in, followed by a new boy not wearing a school uniform, and by a janitor carrying a large desk. Those who were sleeping awoke, and we all stood up as though interrupting our work.

The headmaster motioned us to sit down, then turned to the teacher and said softly, "Monsieur Roger, I'm placing this pupil in your care. He'll begin in the eighth grade, but if his work and conduct are good enough, he'll be promoted to where he ought to be at his age."

The newcomer hung back in the corner behind the door, so that we could hardly see him. He was a country boy of about fifteen, taller than any of us. He wore his hair cut straight across the forehead, like a cantor in a village church, and he had a gentle, bewildered look. Although his shoulders were not broad, his green jacket with black buttons was apparently too tight under the arms, and the slits of its cuffs revealed red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, sheathed in blue stockings, protruded from his yellowish trousers, which were pulled up tight by a pair of suspenders. He wore heavy, unpolished, hobnailed shoes.

We began to recite our lessons. He concentrated all his attention on them, as though listening to a sermon, not daring even to cross his legs or lean on his elbow, and when the bell rang at two o'clock the teacher had to tell him to line up with the rest of us.

When we entered a classroom we always tossed our caps on the floor, to free our hands; as soon as we crossed the threshold we would throw them under the bench so hard that they struck the wall and raised a cloud of dust; this was "the way it should be done."

But the new boy either failed to notice this maneuver or was too shy to perform it himself, for he was still holding his cap on his lap at the end of the prayer. It was a head-gear of composite nature, combining elements of the busby, the lancer cap, the round hat, the otter-skin cap and the cotton nightcap—one of those wretched things whose mute ugliness has great depths of expression, like an idiot's face. Egg-shaped and stiffened by whalebone, it began with three rounded bands, followed by alternating diamond-shaped patches of velvet and rabbit fur separated by a red stripe, and finally there was a kind of bag terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon covered with complicated braid. A network of gold wire was attached to the top of this polygon by a long, extremely thin cord, forming a kind of tassel. The cap was new; its visor was shiny.

"Stand up," said the teacher.

He stood up; his cap fell. The whole class began to laugh.

He bent down and picked it up. A boy beside him knocked it down again with his elbow; he picked it up once again.

"Will you please put your helmet away?" said the teacher, a witty man.

A loud burst of laughter from the other pupils threw the poor boy into such a state of confusion that he did not know whether to hold his cap in his hand, leave it on the floor or put it on his head. He sat down again and put it back on his lap.

"Stand up," said the teacher, "and tell me your name."

The new boy mumbled something unintelligible.

"Say it again!"

The same mumbled syllables came from his lips again, drowned out by the jeers of the class.

"Louder!" cried the teacher. "Louder!"

With desperate determination the new boy opened his enormous mouth and, as though calling someone, shouted this word at the top of his lungs: "Charbovari!"

This instantly touched off an uproar which rose in a crescendo of shrill exclamations, shrieks, barks, stamping of feet and repeated shouts of "Charbovari! Charbovari!" Then it subsided into isolated notes, but it was a long time before it died down completely; it kept coming back to life in fits and starts along a row of desks where a stifled laugh would occasionally explode like a half-spent firecracker.

A shower of penalties gradually restored order in the classroom, however, and the teacher, having managed to understand Charles Bovary's name after making him repeat it, spell it out and read it to him, immediately ordered the poor devil to sit on the dunce's seat at the foot of the rostrum. He began to walk over to it, then stopped short.

"What are you looking for?" asked the teacher.

"My ca—" the new boy said timidly, glancing around uneasily."

The whole class will copy five hundred lines!" Like Neptune's "Quos ego" in the Aeneid, this furious exclamation checked the outbreak of a new storm. "Keep quiet!" continued the teacher indignantly, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief he had taken from his toque. "As for you," he said to the new boy, "you will write out 'Ridiculus sum' twenty times in all tenses." He added, in a gentler tone, "Don't worry, you'll find your cap: it hasn't been stolen."

Everything became calm again. Heads bent over notebooks, and for the next two hours the new boy's conduct was exemplary, despite the spitballs, shot from the nib of a pen, that occasionally splattered against his face. He merely wiped himself with his hand each time this happened, then continued to sit motionless, with his eyes lowered.

That evening, in study hall, he took sleeveguards from his desk, put his things in order and carefully ruled his paper. We saw him working conscientiously, looking up all the words in the dictionary and taking great pains with everything he did. It was no doubt because of this display of effort that he was not placed in a lower grade, for, while he had a passable knowledge of grammatical rules, his style was without elegance. He had begun to study Latin with his village priest, since his parents, to save money, had postponed sending him off to school as long as possible.

His father, Monsieur Charles-Denis-Bartholomé Bovary, had once been an assistant surgeon in the army. Forced to leave the service in 1812 for corrupt practices with regard to conscription, he had taken advantage of his masculine charms to pick up a dowry of sixty thousand francs being offered to him in the person of a hosier's daughter who had fallen in love with his appearance. He was a handsome, boastful man who liked to rattle his spurs; his side whiskers joined his mustache, his fingers were always adorned with rings and he wore bright-colored clothes. He had the look of a pimp and the affable exuberance of a traveling salesman. He lived on his wife's money for the first two or three years of their marriage, eating well, getting up late, smoking big porcelain pipes, staying out every night to see a show and spending a great deal of time in cafés. His father-in-law died and left very little; indignant at this, he "went into the textile business" and lost some money, then he moved to the country, where he intended to "build up a going concern." But since he knew little more about farming than he did about calico, since he rode his horses instead of sending them off to work in the fields, drank his bottled cider instead of selling it, ate the finest poultry in his barnyard and greased his hunting shoes with the fat of his pigs, he soon realized that he would do well to give up all thought of business endeavor.

So for two hundred francs a year he rented a residence that was half farm and half gentleman's estate, on the border between Picardy and the Caux region of Normandy. Melancholy, consumed with regrets, cursing heaven, envious of everyone, he withdrew into seclusion at the age of forty-five, disgusted with mankind, he said, and resolved to live in peace.

His wife had been mad about him in the beginning; she had loved him with a boundless servility that made him even more indifferent to her. She had been vivacious, expansive and brimming over with affection in her youth, but as she grew older she became peevish, nagging and nervous, like sour wine turning to vinegar. She had suffered so much at first without complaining, watching him run after every village strumpet in sight and having him come home to her every night, satiated and stinking of alcohol, after carousing in a score of ill-famed establishments! Then her pride rebelled; she withdrew into herself, swallowing her rage with a mute stoicism which she maintained until her death. She was always busy with domestic and financial matters. She was constantly going to see lawyers or the judge, remembering when notes were due and obtaining renewals; and at home she spent all her time ironing, sewing, washing, supervising the workmen and settling the itemized bills they presented to her, while Monsieur, totally unconcerned with everything and continually sinking into a sullen drowsiness from which he roused himself only to make disagreeable remarks to her, sat smoking beside the fire and spitting into the ashes.

When she had a child it had to be placed in the care of a wet-nurse. The boy was pampered like a prince when he came back to live with them. His mother fed him on jam and candied fruit; his father let him run barefoot and even carried his philosophical pretensions to the point of saying that he might as well go naked, like a young animal. In opposition to his wife's maternal tendencies, he had a certain virile ideal of childhood, and he tried to form his son in accordance with it. He wanted him to be raised harshly, Spartan-style, in order to give him a sturdy constitution. He sent him to bed without a fire, taught him to take hearty swigs of rum and to jeer at religious processions. But, placid by nature, the child showed little response to his father's efforts. His mother kept him tied to her apron-strings; she cut out cardboard figures for him, told him stories and talked to him in endless monologues full of melancholy gaiety and wheedling chatter. In the isolation of her life she transferred all her shattered, abandoned ambitions to her child. She dreamed of high positions, she saw him already grown up, handsome and witty, making a successful career for himself in the Department of Civil Engineering or the magistracy. She taught him to read and even to sing two or three sentimental songs, using an old piano she had. But Monsieur Bovary, who cared little for culture, maintained that such things were "a waste of time." Would they ever have enough money to put him through the government schools, buy him a government position or set him up in business? Besides, "a man could always get ahead in life if he had enough nerve." Madame Bovary bit her lips and the boy continued to run wild in the village.

He tagged after the farmhands and drove the crows away by throwing clods of earth at them. He ate the blackberries growing along the ditches, kept watch over the turkeys with a long stick, pitched hay during harvest time, wandered through the woods, played hopscotch under the church porch on rainy days and, on important holidays, begged the sexton to let him toll the bells, so that he could hang his whole body on the thick rope and feel it lift him into the air when the bells were ringing in full peal.

Thus he grew like an oak. He acquired strong hands and a healthy complexion.

When he was twelve his mother succeeded in arranging for him to begin his education. The village priest agreed to give him lessons. But they were so short and irregular that they accomplished very little. The priest gave them in the sacristy, at odd moments, between a christening and a funeral, hurriedly, without even sitting down; or else he sent for his pupil after the Angelus, on evenings when he did not have to go out. They would go up to his bedroom and set to work while the gnats and moths flew around the candle. It was warm there; the boy would fall asleep and the old man, his hands folded over his stomach, would soon doze off and begin snoring with his mouth open. At other times, when the priest was on his way back to the village after giving the Eucharist to some sick person in the vicinity, he would catch sight of Charles frolicking in the fields, call him over, lecture him for several minutes and take advantage of the opportunity to make him conjugate a verb beneath a tree. They would be interrupted by rain, or some acquaintance passing by. He was always satisfied with his pupil, however, and even said that the "young man" had a good memory.

Charles's mother was determined that he should not stop there. Ashamed, or rather weary, his father gave in without further resistance. They waited another year, until the boy had made his First Communion.

Six more months went by; then, the following year, Charles was finally sent to the lycée in Rouen. His father took him there himself toward the end of October, during the Saint-Romain fair.

It would now be hard for any of us to remember very much about him. He was a boy of moderate temperament; he played during recess, worked in study hall, listened in class, slept well in the dormitory and ate heartily in the dining hall. His temporary guardian was a wholesale hardware dealer on the Rue Ganterie who called for him once a month, on a Sunday, after his shop was closed, and sent him off to take a walk along the waterfront to look at the boats, then brought him back to school at seven o'clock, before supper. Every Thursday evening he wrote a long letter to his mother, using red ink and three sealing wafers; then he would go over his history notebooks or read an old volume of Anacharsis that lay around in the study hall. During class outings he talked with the servant, a countryman like himself.

By working hard he always managed to keep himself somewhere near the middle of the class; once he even earned an honorable mention in natural history. But when he had finished the tenth grade his parents took him out of the lycée and put him in medical school, confident that he would be able to get his baccalaureate degree by his own efforts.

His mother rented a room for him in the house of a dyer with whom she was acquainted. It was on the fifth floor, overlooking the brook known as the Eau-de-Robec. She made arrangements for his board, got him a table and two chairs and sent home for an old cherrywood bed. She also bought a small cast-iron stove and a supply of firewood so that her poor boy could keep himself warm. Then she left at the end of the week, after urging him countless times to behave himself now that he was going to be on his own.

He was staggered by the list of courses he read on the bulletin board: anatomy, pathology, physiology, pharmacy, chemistry, botany, clinical practice and therapeutics, not to mention hygiene and materia medica; to him these were all words of unknown etymology, and they were like so many doors leading into sanctuaries full of solemn shadows.

The lectures were equally baffling; he listened attentively but understood nothing. He worked hard just the same. He took notes, went to all his classes and never missed a single visit to the hospital. He performed his daily tasks like a mill horse walking blindfolded in a circle, ignorant of what he is grinding.

To save him money, his mother sent him a veal roast by the stagecoach each week. He had some of it for lunch every day when he came in from the hospital, kicking the mud off his shoes as he ate. Then he would hurry off again, walking all over town to go to lectures, the amphitheater or another hospital, and finally walking home at the end of the day. In the evening, after the meager dinner his landlord served him, he climbed back up to his room and went to work again, his damp clothes steaming as he sat in front of the red-hot stove.

On clear summer evenings, at the hour when the warm streets are deserted and servant girls are playing battledore and shuttlecock in front of the houses, he would open his window and look out, leaning on his elbows. The brook, which makes this part of Rouen a kind of sordid little Venice, flowed past below him, yellow, violet or blue between its bridges and railings. Workmen, squatting on the bank, were washing their arms in the water. Draped over poles projecting from attics, skeins of cotton were drying in the open air. Opposite him, beyond the rooftops, the vast, pure sky stretched out, and the setting sun cast a reddish glow. How pleasant it must be out there, how cool in the beech grove! He opened his nostrils wide, trying to breathe in the good odors of the country, but they were too far away to reach him.

He became thinner and taller, and his face took on a kind of pained expression which made it almost interesting.

His natural irresponsibility eventually led him to break all his good resolutions. One day he missed a visit to the hospital, the next day a lecture; he liked this first taste of idleness and gradually abandoned his courses altogether.

He began going to taverns and developed a passion for dominoes. To spend every evening shut up in a dirty public room, clicking black-dotted pieces of sheep bone on a marble tabletop, seemed to him a precious exercise of his freedom, and it increased his self-esteem. It was like an initiation into the world, an admission into a realm of forbidden pleasures; and he felt an almost sensual delight each time he took hold of the doorknob to enter the tavern. Many things formerly pent up inside him now burst into the open; he learned verses by heart and sang them at parties, became an enthusiastic admirer of Béranger, learned how to make punch and finally came to know the pleasures of love.

Thanks to this preparatory work, he failed miserably when he took his examination to qualify as an officier de santé.* And his parents were expecting him to come home that very night to celebrate his success!

He set out on foot and stopped at the outskirts of his village. He sent for his mother and told her everything. She excused him, blaming his failure on the unfairness of the examiners, and reassured him a little by promising to smooth things over.

Monsieur Bovary did not learn the truth until five years later; it was an old story by then and he accepted it, especially since he could not admit the possibility that his own offspring might be stupid.

Charles set to work again and ceaselessly crammed for his examination, memorizing the answers to all the questions in advance. He passed with a fairly good grade. What a proud day for his mother! She gave a large dinner party.

Where should he go to practice his new profession? To Tostes. The town had only one elderly doctor. Madame Bovary had been awaiting his death for a long time, and the old man had not yet given up the ghost when Charles moved in across the road as his successor.

But it was not enough to have raised a son, sent him to medical school and discovered Tostes for him to practice in: he needed a wife. She found him one: a Dieppe bailiff's widow, forty-five years old, with a yearly income of twelve hundred francs.

Although she was ugly and thin as a rail, with pimples blossoming on her face like buds in springtime, Madame Dubuc had no shortage of suitors to choose from. Madame Bovary had to oust them all to achieve her purpose; her skill was particularly evident in the way she foiled the schemes of a butcher who had the backing of the clergy.

Charles had envisaged marriage as the beginning of a more pleasant life, feeling that he would be freer and able to dispose of his time and money as he saw fit. But it was his wife who ruled: in front of other people he had to say this and not say that, he had to eat fish every Friday, dress the way she wanted him to and follow her orders in dunning patients who had not paid their bills. She opened his letters, spied on him and listened through the thin wall when women came to his office.

She had to have her hot chocolate every morning, and endless other attentions. She was constantly complaining about her nerves, her chest, her dizzy spells or her fits of depression. The sound of footsteps was painful to her; when people stayed away from her she found her solitude unbearable; when they came to see her it was no doubt because they wanted to watch her die. When Charles came home at night her long, thin arms would emerge from beneath the covers and twine around his neck; after making him sit down on the edge of the bed, she would begin to tell him of her woes: he was neglecting her, he was in love with another woman! She should have listened when people warned her she'd be unhappy! And then she would end by asking him for some kind of tonic to make her feel better, and a little more love.

*A man authorized to practice medicine without an M.D. degree.—L.B.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

When Charles Bovary first meets his future wife Emma, she is resting in the parlor of her father’s farmhouse surrounded by bags of wheat and the incongruous images of oriental and mythological figures. This is not, we are invited to think, your typical farmer’s daughter. Here is a young woman whose imagination feeds on Turks and Olympian gods. Charles, on the other hand, responds to more common motives. Already married at this point in the novel, he has come to mend Emma’s father’s broken leg. Reflecting on his meeting with Emma a page later he attempts to explain away his aroused interest by attributing “his zeal to the gravity of the case, or perhaps to the profit he hoped to make from it” (p. 15). In fact, the narrator introduces this reflection as a hypothetical by prefacing it with “Had he thought of it.” Charles seems to lack even the imagination and curiosity to investigate his feelings of arousal. This brief scene with its suggestion of adultery and with the mismatched imaginative faculties of its two actors foreshadows the disastrous union the two will soon make.

Charles’s thoughts of profit also introduce a central theme in the novel: the entanglement of love and money. Money is inscribed in most of the marriages in the novel. When Charles’s first wife dies and her legacy is discovered to be a fraction of what was promised, the Bovary parents are outraged. Later Emma’s father accepts Charles as a suitor because, inter alia, he “would probably not haggle too much over the dowry” (p. 21). Flaubert even hints at this relationship in his choice of name. Bovary with its echo of “bovine” suggests that Emma, or any marriageable woman, is akin to a dairy cow to be traded and bartered with. Readers should remember that Madame Bovary was written in the mid-nineteenth century when marriage was more of an economic contract than a relationship based on love or emotional compatibility. The tension between the claims of conventional marriage and amorous love has been exploited by poets and novelists since the Middle Ages but it was the Romantic movement in the early nineteenth century that first challenged conventional assumptions for a wide reading public. Emma, demonstrably part of that reading public, spends most of her life rebelling against societal expectations and searching for an enduring passionate relationship. These designs, alas, end in disappointment when her lovers show as much petty concern with money and status as any of the ordinary townsfolk. The most poignant twining of love and money is the fact that Emma is quite literally killed by broken promissory notes: those promises of a new life in Italy betrayed by Rodolphe, and those lines of credit she is unable to repay the evil merchant Lhereux. Both betrayals of trust converge at the novel’s end leaving Emma seemingly without any hope.

Emma’s refusal to accept the conventions of marriage is part and parcel of her rebellion against the oppressively dull world of the petit bourgeois. As Emma confides in the young law student Leon, “I detest common heroes and moderate feelings, the sort that exist in real life” (p. 73). And no one better epitomizes that dull middle class and its obsessions with money and social status than the pharmacist Homais. Despite interfering with and bungling several medical procedures, despite being directly responsible for the wrongful sentencing of a poor vagabond, and despite being implicated in Emma’s suicide, at the novel’s end Homais receives the vaunted cross of the Legion of Honor. The irony of Homais’s success is not lost on Emma who goes in search of people more worthy of the mantle of heroism. Her first lover Rodolphe seems at first to walk out of the pages of a Sir Walter Scott novel when he says to Emma “In fact there are two moralities . . . the conventional one, the one devised by men. . . . But the other one, the eternal one, is all around and above us, like the landscape that surrounds us and the blue sky that gives us light” (p. 126). Rodolphe, who proves to be a cad, simply employs poetic language in the service of seduction. Later in the novel, after her affair with Rodolphe fades, a more jaded and withered Emma begins to see the false seductions of art and life. At the opera, seeing an adaption of Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, “She now knew the pettiness of the passions which art exaggerated” (p. 197). Both art and life, she realizes, are inadequate in their own ways.

Unfortunately, she encounters her old flame Leon and quickly forgets the hard-won lessons about the dangers of mixing art and life. Their affair ends similarly in disappointment. In fact, most human endeavors in the novel end in monotonous tedium. Lassitude, a word borrowed from the French, is repeated numerous times in the novel; even Charles utters the word once. No sooner is Emma married than she becomes “thoroughly disillusioned” with marriage (p. 34), and Charles’s passionate love for her falls into a predictable pattern, “like a dessert course foreseen in advance, after the monotony of dinner” (p. 37). The repetitiousness of life gnaws at even the promising young law student Leon who declaims “How bored I am!” (p. 83). Shortly after their first passionate embrace, Emma and Rodolphe behave “like a married couple calmly tending a domestic flame” (p. 149). Rodolphe, no less vain or shallow than most other characters, nonetheless is associated with the novel’s most profound meditation on the nature of love and desire: “the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion” (p. 167). The novel suggests that all human relationships, all of life’s most arousing moments eventually end in unbearable tedium.

Tedium hardly makes for interesting reading. But this was the challenge Flaubert, encouraged by his friend Louis Bouilhet, explicitly presented to himself. Instead of drawing upon the exotic material of myth or ancient history, Flaubert chose the very prosaic story of adultery set in an ordinary provincial village. The novel’s success would rest not on its subject matter but on its formal beauty, its style. Flaubert enhances the theme of tedium in a number of ways, including in the coupling of scenes. For example, the seduction of Emma by Leon against the backdrop of the church and its prattling cleric parallels the earlier seduction by Rodolphe against the inane speeches of the officials at the agricultural fair. At the end of part II Emma is read her last rites; at the end of part III she is pronounced dead. Flaubert’s choice of verb tense also calls attention to the theme of repetitiousness. As Lydia Davis notes in her introduction, Flaubert often employs the imparfait, or imperfect tense, which describes a repeated rather than a completed action. Finally, the novel’s recurring imagery highlights the enervating monotony of its characters’ lives. No more affecting or haunting image is that of the vessel subjected to the repetitively rocking forces beyond its control. The carriage ride that whirs around in circles as Emma and Leon consummate their relationship; the image of “an empty cask carried out to sea and rolling about in the waves,” (p. 161) to which Charles compares himself in a state of psychological duress; the image of the “vessel pitching” (p. 180), used to describe a reeling Emma after seeing Rodolphe’s farewell letter; the Bovary house, emptied by Lhereux’s creditors; the three caskets, each containing another empty vessel-these are but a few of the images which help tie the formal components of the novel together. The effect on the reader is not one of lassitude but of wonder and aesthetic pleasure.

ABOUT GUSTAVE FLAUBERT

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was born in Rouen, France, the younger son of a provincial doctor. At age eighteen he was sent to study law in Paris but was afflicted with a mysterious nervous ailment and retired after only three years to live with his widowed mother. Supported by a private income, he devoted himself to his writing. The success of Madame Bovary, his first novel, was ensured when it was deemed immoral by the French government. Flaubert went on to write Salammbô, Sentimental Education, and Three Tales, and his fame and reputation grew steadily after his death with the publication of his unfinished comic masterpiece Bouvard and Pécuchet and the many remarkable volumes of his correspondence.

ABOUT LYDIA DAVIS

Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections, the most recent of which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. Her stories were recently brought together in one volume, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, which was selected as a best book of 2009 by The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. In 2003 she was awarded the French-American Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. She won the prize again in 2011 for her translation of Madame Bovary. Her other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship and a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for her fiction and her translations. She lives near Albany, New York.

A CONVERSATION WITH LYDIA DAVIS

Q. You mentioned that you had examined Flaubert’s working drafts of Madame Bovary. As a novelist yourself, did you disagree with any of Flaubert’s final editorial decisions? Were you especially perplexed by any?

I was usually too intent on discovering the history of certain passages, and often the answer to some puzzle-why was Charles stamping his foot against the wall of his room?-to stand back and make a judgment about whether or not Flaubert should have done what he did in a particular sentence. But his earlier drafts were almost always much longer, more descriptive, than his final versions-he would often cut whole pages-and although sometimes he left out some information that would have clarified the final passage, in general I would say his restraint, the fact that he kept the writing more economical and terse throughout the novel, gave it a greater emotional force.

Q. In a recent interview, you said that you didn’t find Emma “admirable or likeable.” Could you elaborate on this? Has your opinion of her changed since your translation published?

As a reader of a novel, as you suspend your disbelief, you warm to a character or you don’t like-or you have mixed feelings, of course, just as you do about people in real life. Many readers of Madame Bovary do warm to Emma. My reaction to her, in the end, was mixed. It is hard not to feel some admiration and sympathy for a person so driven by desperation that she is brave enough to take her own life and who is thoughtful enough to examine her sensations as she is doing it. But of course she is not a real person, so I am at the same time reacting to Flaubert’s artistic skill in portraying her as she evolves through the course of the novel. As I translate, I generally have two reactions operating in tandem: the general reader’s reaction to the material of the novel, and at the same time a writer’s reaction to the problems posed by the text, the beauties of the text, and the satisfactions of the translation.

Q. What was the single most difficult sentence, or word, in the novel to translate?

There are a number of words in French that are as useful to French sentence structure as they are difficult to translate, one of them being dont, meaning “of which,” “concerning which,” “about which,” etc. It would take me a page to explain how handy that word is in French for creating a graceful subordinate structure and how utterly graceless it is when translated literally into English. But as for sentences in Madame Bovary, one of the very hardest was one of the shortest: the sentence announcing Emma’s death: “Elle n’existait plus.” Literally, that would be: “She no longer existed.” But that is a tough one to write if you want it to have some emotional impact. In the end, I chose to translate it “She had ceased to exist”-which extended the original just a little. “She was no longer” would be another decent one, still within the parameters of a close translation. The temptation to step outside those parameters (which one occasionally has to do, of course) and to enhance the sentence, or to sentimentalize it or romanticize it-“she was gone”; “she had departed this life”-simply had to be avoided.

Q. You confided that it took some persuading before you accepted the invitation to translate Madame Bovary. Why did you hesitate? Do you have plans for another translation project in the future?

When the suggestion was first made, I was still reeling from the enormous project of translating Proust’s Swann’s Way. I needed a long break. But when the suggestion came up again, I missed translating-the long, steady engagement with a superlative text, the opportunity both to solve a word puzzle and to write a good sentence in English-so I agreed to do it. I will probably not, however, take on another long translation project in the future, since I have a long project of my own under way.

Q. Is there a particular aspect of Flaubert’s style you had hoped to convey in your translation? Do you think you were successful?

There are a couple of aspects of his style that I particularly admire, one being its economy and the other the beauty of the detail in his descriptions. By staying very close to the original text, especially to the order in which his sentences unfolded and to the material of the text itself-adding nothing and subtracting nothing-I think I did succeed in conveying both of these aspects to a large degree, though you always do lose something in a translation.

Q. Many readers will inevitably compare this translation with your lauded translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way. Could you briefly characterize the differences in translating Flaubert and Proust?

In both cases, my attempt was to stay very close to the original text while writing English that was both natural and forceful. One difference was that in the case of the Proust, this was the first time I had worked so “deeply” on a text-I felt it deserved all the time I needed to take, and all the concentration on a single sentence or, often, a single word. One of the challenges in the Proust was to retain the elaborate constructions of the long sentences with their many subordinate clauses. But the extravagance and lyricism of his prose was a pleasure, and in his own way he is just as concise as Flaubert-there are many words, but no unnecessary ones. One of the main challenges in translating Flaubert was the opposite-to be as terse as he is, as in the example I gave above, of the announcement of Emma’s death, and make it work in English.

Q. Does this novel mean something different to French readers today than Anglo-American ones? Is there something cultural that is inevitably lost in translation?

There will always be cultural associations that resonate for readers of the original text and are absent for readers of the translation, and a constant question for a translator is whether, and how, to attempt to reproduce or explain these associations. Some translators incorporate explanations “silently” in the text by adding an identification-for instance, “dance hall” in the reference “La Chaumière dance hall”; others substitute a more universal, and presumably more recognizable, reference for a more local one-for instance “Salome” in place of “Marianne dancing”; others retain the original text and supply explanations in footnotes. In the case of my translation, I retained the original text and supplied these explanations in the form of “blind” end notes-i.e. notes at the back of the book not signaled by any mark on the page of the novel. I have never liked the intrusion of scholarly apparatus in an edition of a novel that is not meant to be for the scholar so much as for the general reader. Some readers like this approach, while others would rather be alerted when there is a note at the back of the book.

Q. Flaubert famously declared that “a good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” His exacting style and attention to detail must have put enormous pressure on you as a translator. Did you keep such pronouncements in mind as you worked? Do you think Flaubert himself was always faithful to such pronouncements? Does he ever prove to be a mere mortal?

I did not feel under greater pressure translating Flaubert than I did translating Proust or, years before, the novels and essays of Maurice Blanchot. Any really fine writer demands the same level of care from a translator. As for the “unchangeable” sentence-the task of the translator seems to involve just the opposite, an acceptance of the changeability of a sentence: first, there is the radical change of the sentence from French to English, then the testing of any number of possible alternatives in English until a satisfactory one is found. And if you look at the many previous translations of Madame Bovary, you will see how many different possibilities there are for every single sentence of the book-in the view of each translator, presumably, the best alternative. I do think that Flaubert’s many drafts show how carefully he worked to achieve the sentence that seemed uniquely right to him. And I don’t remember coming upon a sentence that seemed careless or clumsy, though I may be forgetting some. (There is general consensus, on the other hand, that entire novels of his were less compelling than Madame Bovary and certain stylistic approaches of his a mistake-but surely a conscientious choice on his part.)

Q. Among the many previous translations of the novel, was there one in particular you had hoped to surpass in accuracy and readability?

My aim was simply to stay as close as possible to the original and at the same time to write an English version that would be fully alive. I admired many of the previous translations at many moments, and did not actively want to surpass any one in particular. In the case of the Proust, the situation was different, since there was really only one available previous translation, the C. K. Scott Moncrieff, and its style was quite different from, and unrepresentative of, the original-thus terribly misleading to the Anglo-American reader who wanted to experience Proust. I felt it was very important that it be replaced by a version closer to Proust.

Q. The New York Times review of your translation, which referred to Emma as ”a covetous, small-minded woman, incapable of love,” stirred up a lot of reaction online and in print. Were you surprised how passionate readers feel about Flaubert’s heroine?

We are circling back to the second question, here. That description of Emma is not inaccurate, but it is incomplete, and, as I said, one can have sympathy even for a character who is not generally admirable. It is natural for readers to become emotionally involved in the story Flaubert is telling, and that is part of the pleasure; yet it is important to retain enough disbelief, at the same time, to enjoy what he is doing technically-in his sparklingly specific descriptions, his artful transitions, his balancing of thematic elements and motifs, his sly humor.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Reading fiction can be a dangerous thing. Discuss these dangers as exemplified in Madame Bovary.
  • Women occupy a large presence in the novel. How is their limited social status examined by Flaubert? Do they possess any power to forge their own destinies?
  • Some features of Flaubert’s style have been explored in the translator’s introduction and above. Discuss these features and others-imagery, diction, metaphor, etc.-which you noticed in your reading. How do they provide aesthetic enjoyment?
  • One of the most famous set pieces in the novel is the seduction scene during the agriculture fair (part II, chapter 8). Discuss the reasons for its success, especially the author’s use of dialogue.
  • Perhaps the most famous line in the entire novel occurs when the narrator likens human speech to a “cracked kettle” (p. 167). The inadequacies of language is another theme that runs throughout the novel. How does this contribute to the work as a whole?
  • Charles Bovary is certainly guilty of being a bore and a dupe but does he elicit your sympathy? Is he less worthy of satire than other characters in the novel?
  • Emma is certainly guilty of capriciousness, avarice, and licentiousness. Is she, in these faults, any different from the other characters in the novel? Does she rise to the level of tragic heroine?
  • Part of the Western literary tradition has portrayed capriciousness, avarice, and licentiousness as stereotypically feminine faults. Does Flaubert challenge these stereotypes in any way in his portrayal of Emma?
  • Emma has been whimsically referred to as the ”original desperate housewife.” A gulf of time and social change separates Emma’s world and twenty-first-century America but are their similarities in Emma’s fate and the fate of contemporary married women?
  • Among other things, the novel is a brilliant satire of French middle-class mores. Homais is a favorite target of the author’s. Who else does Flaubert target?
  • The curé and the pharmacist debate the value of religion repeatedly. Emma is twice tempted by the calls for a life of religious devotion. Religion, specifically Catholicism, figures largely in the novel but how is it shown to be an inadequate guide for living?
  • Is Emma’s tragic demise the result of her circumstances, her own failures, or something else?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 77 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 3, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Don't bother with other translations...

    I have read "Madame Bovary" in the original more than once, and have read two other translations of the text. Lydia Davis's is by far the best. She makes available to the reader of English what Flaubert's intent--not just his words. Wonderful and eye-opening!

    "Madame Bovary" is a true world classic and deserves every reader's attention.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2012

    Read this on college

    Read this book years ago and quite frankly detested the book. I almost gave up but i persevered and the ending was most satisfying in that it was over.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 8, 2011

    Anon

    Do not download!! Book is incomplete.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 29, 2013

    Phenomenal Translation

    I was reading a free (or nearly free) public domain version of this classic novel on my Nook but got tired of the stilted and awkward translation. I eventually switched to the Lydia Davis translation and am very glad I did. This translation really makes the novel come alive for readers in English. Flaubert was a groundbreaking novelist whose work still resonates today - this translation makes that clear.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 4, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Make sure you get either the Geoffrey Wall translation or the la

    Make sure you get either the Geoffrey Wall translation or the latest, Lydia Davis'. I don't see why Barnes & Noble makes it so difficult to find different versions of the same book. I added them as recommendations so you should be able to click on the image to the left to find the better translations.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2008

    Loved on a 2nd Chance

    I read this my sophomore year and hated it, but I read it again my junior year and was surprisingly impressed. Flaubert paints an excellent portrait of a woman spiraling out of control on her own terms, in a sense, empowering women. Emma Bovary is her own decision maker and suffers her own consequences for it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2013

    Hey faith

    Can you write about jb having sex and blojobs and stuff with brooklyn?please?:)

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2013

    Hi fath

    Can u write one about having sex

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2012

    Not the full book

    This is just a sample of the novel and not the full book--was not advertised as sample only.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 19, 2012

    A strong woman before they were allowed to be strong

    I read this in high school and again I love reading tales of strong women although her tale is not wholesome it allowed her an unhear of freedom most were not allowed to experience.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2012

    Boring

    You'd think a bpok about adultery would be more interesting. This book is like 30% adultery and drama, 70% boring descriptions of rural life and long drawn out conversations that have nothing to do with anything. I'm literally counting down the pages until i'm done with this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2012

    better than the awakening

    good read worth your time

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 1, 2011

    highly recommended

    arrived on time and in great condition

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 25, 2011

    Do not buy

    An unreadable translation

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2002

    Bovary rules

    I simply can't believe me eyes when I read some of the other reviews. One reader gives Flaubert's masterpiece one star, and then recommends a Nabokov novel, stating that this book is "utterly unrelated" to Madame Bovary. Nabokov once called Bovary "the unsurpassed star of French literature". Since we're quotating here, let me give you one of Oscar Wilde: "There are no such things as moral or immoral books, books are well written, or not well written". This, dear readers, is the whole point. If one says the story of Emma's lovelife is quite dull, I can fully agree on that..but again, this is the whole point! In his correspondance, Flaubert made clear he played with the idea of writing a book about 'nothing', a book that would only survive thanks to the suberb style. Bovary stands as a giant because of the style in which it's written. Furthermore, another reason why this book is my favourite of all times, is that the writer draws no conclusions. Homeros didn't draw conclusions, Goethe didn't, Flaubert didn't, even the Bible didn't.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2002

    Overrated

    Madame Bovary is a 'classic' despite what I believe. I chose to read it mainly because of the initial controversy it held -- intruiging for the time, but quite dull and somewhat commonplace now. This book is full of details (and not witty ones like Dickins' novels). I wrote a paper on it, and while i wrote, i began to like the book and Emma more. Simply reading it killed me I had to force myself through, but in analyzing it I found myself in Emma as others have said -- 'c'est moi!' Really, it was nothing I couldn't have gotton through by analyzing my own being though....

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2000

    A Suggestion for readers!

    For the readers who have enjoyed this book, I urge you to read the Awakening by Kate Chopin. It is like this book, also leaving you glued to it, yet the ending is kind sad.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2000

    Not quite boring, not quite interesting

    Flaubert manages to take an interesting plot with interesting characters and make it not so interesting. He gives the story a great conflict, whether Emma should have an affair or not, but he doesn't tell the reader which would be better for her. He disects Emma's emotions so much that they lose their expressiveness.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2000

    terrible

    I must say it was boring! I had to force myself to read through it all.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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