My cat Emma was not named after Emma Bovary. A friend teased me by calling her Madame Bovary. Her cats were rock stars: Mick, Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Lennon, Elvis, and Stevie-called-Wonder. Even the girls got boys’ names.
Most of my cats had the quaint, old-fashioned names of dead relatives, but Emma was from my favorite book, Austen’s Emma. Like Emma, she “was handsome, clever,” and managerial, “with a comfortable home and a happy disposition.” She had a big clique of cats.
I would never have named her Madame Bovary.
Although I love most adulteresses in literature–Anna Karenina, the wicked Madame Merle, the unspeakable Charlotte in The Golden Bowl, Lara in Doctor Zhivago, Edna Pontellier, and Tina Balser–I never admired the novel Madame Bovary.
I have read the Alan Russell translation three times, and the language has seemed monotonous. I know that Flaubert was supposed to be a great stylist, sometimes wrote only one sentence a day, and that he struggled with radical realism. I concluded that it didn’t translate well.
I finally read the novel in the very smooth Lydia Davis translation, and for the first time appreciated the beautiful language. The odd thing is that I tried to read this a few years ago, and couldn’t. I gave the book away. This time I had intended to read the 2004 Margaret Mauldon translation (Oxford), but was unable to find it on our bookshelf. So I ended up buying the Davis translation twice. Why Madame Bovary appeals to me now when I couldn’t appreciate it a few years ago is a conundrum.
Though not as silly as Emma Bovary, many of us, I realize, were very silly as young women. Bored Emma has it in mind that she can live at the height of passion all the time. I vaguely remember friends talking about their marriages and “waiting for their lives to begin.” There were, needless to say, a few divorces. For the first time I was able to empathize slightly with the silly Emma. She had no one to talk to, and there was no divorce.
Emma loves to read novels, and has a disappointed, romantic view of love. Bored by her husband, Charles, a doctor in a tiny town, and inspired by the suggestion of Homais, the busybody pharmacist, who reads an article on curing clubfoot, she encourages Charles to perform a risky operation on a young man with a clubfoot, which ends in amputation. This results in more disillusion for Emma. Why couldn’t her husband succeed? She cannot achieve fame alone. She cannot think about her husband. (Frankly, he is lucky to keep his practice.) Then she has two affairs, one with Rodolphe Boulanger, a landowner, and another with a young clerk, Leon. And those, of course, cannot be lived at the height of passion, either.
Although I tried in a desultory way to compare translations, I was much too caught up in the story to do much of that. And it is difficult to judge the translation without knowing French. Fortunately, in Davis’s introduction, she explains at length the history of Flaubert’s development of the realistic novel, his reasons for choosing different tenses of the verb, in particular the imperfect tense, and his fascination with writing a “supposedly lofty conversation between two sensitive, poetic individual that is, in fact, wholly made up of clichéd ideas.”
In 2010 Julian Barnes wrote an excellent essay in The London Review of Books on Lydia Davis’s translation, and, if I recall correctly, he compared several translations. He knows French, and of course wrote the novel Flaubert’s Parrot.
I do not see dramatic differences between Davis’s and Russell’s translations. Here is a quick look at two translations of a passage that describes Emma’s ecstasy after she embarks on her affair with Rodolphe. First, the Davis translation:
Then she recalled the heroines of the books she had read, and this lyrical throng of adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. She herself was in some way becoming an actual part of these imaginings and was fulfilling th long daydream of her youth, by seeing herself as this type of amorous woman she had so much envied. Besides, Emma was experiencing the satisfaction of revenge. Hand’s she suffered enough? But now she was triumphing, and love, so long contained, was springing forth whole, with joyful effervescence. She savored it without remorse,without uneasiness, without distress.”
Now a few lines from the Russell translation:
She remembered the heroines of the books she had read, and that lyrical legion of adulteresses began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. She was becoming a part of her own imaginings, finding the long dream of her youth come true as she surveyed herself in that amorous role she had so coveted….”
Davis is lyrical; Russell is slightly less wordy. Both work.
So, again, I go back to the character. Why is Emma so foolish? She knows nothing, despite her education from the nuns. She listens to everything businessmen tell her, acts on it, and gets into terrible trouble. First Homais advises the operation (which is botched), then Monsieru Lhereux tempts her into debt with pretty scarves and other unneccesary fripperies, she gets power of attorney from her husband, and it ends in bankruptcy.
How can she know so little? She is not stupid, just selfish. It is fascinating to see how far she’ll go. She lives in denial. And though we simply cannot like her, we come to understand her.
One of the greatest scenes in literature is certainly her suicide. I’ll always remember how she stuffs the powdery arsenic into her mouth. Then the long, drawn-out death, when the doctors confer and eat, poor Charles and the maid mourn, and Emma, occasionally talking to them between pain, is almost Roman: a bit of Petronius with less control.
And, oddly, the funeral scene reminded me of the funeral scene at the beginning of Doctor Zhivago, though the influence would be the other way around. I wonder if I’m comparing because Doctor Zhivago was also translated in a new translation in 2010.
I very much enjoyed Madame Bovary this time, and think it is probably safe to read it in either the Davis or the Russell translation, if you are ready for Madame Bovary.