I’m envious of the women in my book group who are native French speakers and able to read Gustave Flaubert’s classic in its original language. I read the 2010 English translation by noted American short story writer and essayist Lydia Davis, one of the 19 produced since the book’s 1856 publication. Her intent, she has said, was “to do what I think hasn’t been done, which is to create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the French.” Here is a Julian Barnes essay comparing notable translations, including Davis’s, across the generations. If you want to read Madame Bovary, I suggest at least skimming Barnes’s essay to find a translation suited to your reading preferences.
The novel is a period piece, set in a particular, rather dreary locale, and not all periods and settings wear as well in terms of interest over 160 years. When Madame Bovary was published, the government said the novel was a danger to morality and religion and put Flaubert and his publisher on trial, though they were acquitted. However, in general, “provincial French woman has affairs with doltish men” is no longer a riveting or scandalous storyline, and “spends more than she should” is the modern way of life. Likewise, the beliefs and foibles Flaubert pokes fun at (conventional and bourgeois views, including religion, chief among them) are of varying relevance today. In an Introduction Davis quotes Nabokov’s view that, in Madame Bovary, “the ironic and the pathetic are beautifully intertwined,” and it is those sly revelations about society and how people move in it, rather than plot, that give the modern reader the greatest satisfaction.
Reader tastes have changed not just with regard to content, but regarding style, too, and a book about that same period written today would be very different from Flaubert’s approach. One consequence of what now seems a rather disordered style is that Madame’s character never quite came into focus for me. She is motivated by the ill-considered whims of a moment, a pliant object for the men around her, and rarely self-actuated until of course the end. It turns out, as Barnes notes in his essay, that translator Davis doesn’t actually much like her, or the book. Interesting.
As an exemplar of realist fiction, Madame Bovary was a path breaking book. Unlike most novels that came before, it didn’t romanticize (in the literary sense) or try to draw moral lessons—the lessons were clear from the book’s events and their consequences. Flaubert’s intention was to make the novel not just not “romantic,” but anti-romantic, in that Madame’s susceptibility to and pursuit of romanticism and shallow gratification are what cause her downfall. Occasionally, thought, the authorial voice does make a judgment in the nature of a delicious truism, for example: (about the lovers) “She was as weary of him as he was tired of her. Emma was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.”
Translator Davis in an introduction says this novel’s “radical nature is paradoxically difficult for us to see: its approach is familiar to us for the very reason that Madame Bovary permanently changed the way novels were written thereafter.”