Philip Hensher finds Flaubert’s scorn for his characters relieved by hilarity
Astonishingly, this is the 20th time Madame Bovary has been translated into English. I say ‘astonishing’ because, as everyone knows, great novels in foreign languages tend to get done once, if at all. Most of Theodore Fontane has never been translated, or Jean-Paul, or Stifter; only in the last few years have the antique H. T. Lowe-Porter translations of Thomas Mann been superseded, and if you want to read most of Balzac’s immense work you will have to resort to 19th-century collected editions. Couldn’t one of those translators or publishers have turned their attention instead to Balzac’s Louis Lambert, a novel Flaubert himself loved?
The attraction of Madame Bovary, of course, is its reputation as the pinnacle of the scrupulous French style. The stories that Flaubert propagated to his correspondents of the immense, almost abstract, labour of his composition are undoubtedly true: the manuscript (which may be inspected online) shows how agonising was Flaubert’s wrestle with prose and language. As he famously said in the novel, human speech is a cracked pot on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, all the time hoping to move the stars to pity. His translators, in trying to put the exquisite refinements of Madame Bovary into English, are labouring with an author who saw no reason why prose should not have the perfection and correctness of poetry — ‘unchangeable, rhythmic and sonorous’.
Not all of Flaubert’s refinements are, it must be said, compatible with what most people regard as good writing. Previous translators have tidied up his punctuation, and in particular the frequent moments when, by omitting an ‘and’, he commits the crime of the ‘splice comma’. It is rather a shock when Lydia Davis exactly preserves his punctuation — ‘all the evidence rose before her at once, her heart leaped.’ Though undoubtedly scrupulous in most respects, Flaubert has very little interest in the rigorous application of point of view which Dickens, for one, was so good at, and sometimes damages the effects of a scene by drifting between characters when a single viewpoint would have been more incisive — as in the scenes of Leon’s wooing at the beginning of the Part II.
Nevertheless, the mastery of irony remains supreme. The famous scenes in which a character’s inner life is at once expressed and ridiculed by external events are the moments when the modern novel is born — Rodolphe wooing Emma at the agricultural fair, his worn-out sentiments counterpointed by cries of ‘Manure!’ from the floor; or the beautiful scene of Emma’s farewell to Leon, where the hearts are beating fast and the conversation is ludicrously banal:
‘It’s going to rain,’ said Emma.
‘I have a coat,’ he answered.
Roland Barthes said he was reduced, as a reader, to a kind of ecstasy by contemplating certain over-specific sentences in Flaubert. Certainly Bouvard et Pécuchet, Flaubert’s last novel and, with Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer and Moby-Dick, the strangest fiction produced by the 19th century, is overwhelmingly full of awed contemplation of the stuff of the world:
In the compost ditch, he piled branches, blood, entrails, feathers … he used Belgian liqueur, Swiss fertilizer, lye, pickled herrings, wrack and rags . . .
Madame Bovary is not as extreme as that, but its irony rests on a massively detailed sense of how the world piles up against the soul’s ambitions. Rodolphe is utterly condemned by the contents of the biscuit tin in which he keeps souvenirs of old mistresses — ‘some bouquets, a garter, a black mask, pins, and hair — hair! — brown, blond.’ Lheureux’s tawdry temptation comes down to his cheap exotic wares:
Three Algerian scarves, several packets of English needles, a pair of straw slippers, and, lastly, four eggcups made of coconut shell with openwork carving, done by convicts.
Notoriously, this mad level of specificity sometimes spills over into objects which are almost impossible to visualise — the accounts of the bizarre hat Charles Bovary wears to school at the beginning, or the multiple layers of Emma’s extraordinary wedding cake. The world is too much for a sensitive awareness, and only those who deal in it routinely — the pig farmers, Lheureux and that splendid monster, Homais, pharmacist and amateur journalist — triumph.
Madame Bovary comprehensively despises every one of its characters, allowing the reader’s attitude to rise only to the level of pathos. What rescues it is something which happily coexists with the refinement of the treatment — an earthy, even vulgar hilarity. Flaubert could always be a very funny writer — a surprisingly undervalued aspect of the Trois Contes. The moment in Bouvard et Pécuchet where the two protagonists visit an agricultural nobleman — ‘ “Here,” said the count, “I plant kohlrabi.Kohlrabi is the basis of my quadrennial cultivation’’ ’ — is a surprisingly modern joke, like Homais’ appalling journalism.
In Madame Bovary, the unforgettable scene in which Leon and Emma copulate in the back of a cab to the driver’s bafflement has an unexpected broadness:
He could not understand what mania for locomotion was compelling these individuals to refuse to stop. He would sometimes try, and he would immediately hear exclamations of rage behind him.
The servants and Emma’s father are warmly, comically sketched, and Emma’s romantic dreams are often retold in ways which might remind an English reader of E. F. Benson’s Lucia — thinking of names for her daughter, ‘she quite liked Galsuinde’. It’s a much heartier novel in spirit than I’d remembered, rather like its heroine, who despite all her daydreaming had a soul which ‘always retain[ed] something of the hardness of [her]father’s hands.’
Lydia Davis is a first-rate American novelist and writer of short fictions, whose Collected Stories I strongly recommended earlier this year. For the most part, she gains a great deal by her scrupulous attention to Flaubert’s exact effects, reproducing, as I said, his sometimes peculiar punctuation. She sticks to one of Flaubert’s most characteristic modes, effusively praised by Proust, using the imperfect tense to represent wearily repeated actions — ‘would’ or ‘used to’ being the English equivalent.
The result is accurate, nervy and sometimes challenging to read, as indeed Flaubert should be. I didn’t notice any errors, although I think, when she reports Homais’s windows as containing ‘two foetuses, like bundles of white punk, decay[ing] more and more in their cloudy alcohol’ she may have missed a joke. ‘Foetus’ is indeed the word Flaubert uses, but his Dictionnaire des Idées Recues, a compilation of bourgeois clichés and misapprehensions, informs us that a foetus generally just means ‘any anatomical part preserved in spirits’.
English readers may be taken aback by the occasional blunt Americanism, not of the period: ‘We were in Study Hall’ for ‘nous étions à l’étude’ in the novel’s opening words, or perhaps more culpably Emma saying to Charles: ‘You’re out of your mind’ for ‘mais tu as perdu la tête’.
Perhaps Davis is not very much at home in the vivid speech of the working classes. When Charles bleeds one of Rodolphe’s peasants, he says:
Guette! On jurerait une petite fontaine qui coule! Comme j’ai le sang rouge! Ce doit être bon signe, n’est-ce pas?
Davis’s version quite misses the rustic flavour:
hat! It’s like a little spring coming up! What red blood I have! A good sign, isn’t it?
When Flaubert refers to Charles’s ‘ventre’, too, I think an earthier word than ‘abdomen’ is probably called for.
Madame Bovary is an extraordinary technical feat; but it is also marks the moment when it becomes possible to speak of a novel as an extraordinary technical feat. Of course David Copperfield and Les Illusions Perdues and The Sorrows of Young Werther are also feats of expertise, but it would seem somehow unfitting to describe them as such.
However much time you spend with this great novel, it remains as cold as ice, and the outbreaks of humanity strangely incidental. Flaubert was not as interested in felt life, to use an old- fashioned critical term, as he was in the music of sentences, which he said, during the composition of this novel, he could hear pages ahead, before he knew what words he was going to write.
All novel readers are, at heart, either perfectible Flaubertians or confused and messy Dickensians. Every novelist who has followed Flaubert has come, as he did, to a dead end, however strange and interesting the journey.