Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Gustave Flaubert’ category

I’ve recently come across three excellent articles, all about matters close to my own heart. I’ll mention the first one today and get to the two others either tomorrow or Monday.

The first is Julian Barnes’ Writer’s Writer and Writer’s Writer’s Writer from last week’s London Review of Books. This is not only a thorough and excellent review of Lydia Davis’ much-celebrated and much-discussed new translation of Madame Bovary, it is also a careful discussion of what literary translation is all about and what kind of choices translators must make.

With careful and good-natured severity (the best kind), he explains many of Davis’ choices and compares them to other, previous English versions of Madame Bovary. These comparisons are wonderful for a details enthusiast like me, as each reveals how the various translators interpreted or compromised the original.

I haven’t read Madame Bovary in translation, and I didn’t really plan to until reading this article, but as a translator I am now extremely interested in the choices that its previous translators have made. One choice that Davis made came as a surprise to me – she wanted to mirror Flaubert’s grammar and sentence structure as much as possible. This is a curious choice. Often a French sentence is a little turned around compared to an English sentence, not in terms of subject/verb or the big important parts of the sentence, but in terms of the little clauses and the commas. This is part of the musicality of French, and something that English doesn’t necessarily have.

As Barnes suggests, and I would agree, to keep Flaubert’s grammar in English is a risky decision. It keeps the translation accurate in one sense, but opens up a separate claim to inaccuracy. If a sentence reads awkwardly once it has been transformed into another language, this is a deep betrayal of a writer like Flaubert whose prose is anything but awkward. Which obviously makes Flaubert a most difficult writer to translate.

Barnes’ final critique of Davis is that she isn’t a great fan of Madame Bovary and he wonders whether it is possible to create a truly masterful translation when you are “out of sympathy” with the work. This is an excellent question. I would tend to say no. If you cannot find the beauty of the work in the whole, and not just on a sentence per sentence basis, I suspect your readers won’t either. But Barnes is ultimately fair with Davis, however, calling her translation “more than acceptable.”

For those of you who have read Davis’ translation, or any others, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.


Of the essays I’ve read so far in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, the one on Madame Bovary was the most complex. Not only did I learn a lot about the novel, but I also got to peek in a window at Nabokov’s study style and passion for writing, translating and reading. His in-depth knowledge of the text reminds me that he believed we could never really read a text but only re-read it. It’s clear he knew the book practically by heart and had spent hours and hours analyzing scenes and conversations, diagramming character relationships and significant details. There are a few books I have read again and again, ones I believe I have nearly memorized, but Nabokov’s intimate knowledge of Madame Bovary made me want to go back to those books and look at them all over again, because surely there is more to see.


I also suspect he had a special appreciation for Flaubert because of Flaubert’s boldness in taking on an extremely taboo subject:


Indeed, the novel was actually tried in a court of justice for obscenity. Just imagine that. As if the work of an artist could ever be obscene. I am glad to say that Flaubert won his case. That was exactly a hundred years ago. In our days, our times…But let me keep to my subject.


Not that Nabokov would know anything about morality-based criticisms of a novel, oh no.


For this particular lecture, Nabokov doesn’t only focus on the actual text of Madame Bovary but he brings in a discussion of Flaubert’s letters to his then lover, Louise Colet, written while Flaubert was holed away in Normandy writing the novel. That added input adds a whole new dimension to understanding Flaubert’s intent. We often wonder whether great writers do things on purpose in their books, or if critics see things or find connections/allusions/hidden meanings the writer created by accident or maybe wasn’t fully aware of. The excerpts of these letters show that Flaubert knew exactly what he was doing at all times. And also that he worked very hard to construct his novel in a particular way according to a set of particular intentions.


Nabokov taught Madame Bovary to his students at Wellesley and Cornell using a translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling (the daughter of Karl Marx) which is available at Gutenberg. I don’t know how many other translations were around at the same time, but Nabokov has nothing but angry criticism for “the translators”. He went so far as to re-translate huge sections for his classes and made lists of mistranslated words.


One of his more interesting criticisms is when he says that the translator incorrectly translates Flaubert’s use of the French imparfait (the imperfect form of the past tense), a device which allows Flaubert to express the notion of uninterrupted time, things a person “used to do”, and any ruptures in that flow (all intentional constructs in his writing).



In Tostes Emma walks out with her whippet: “She would begin (not “began”) by looking around her to see if nothing had changed since the last she had been there. She would find (not “found”) again in the same places the foxgloves and wallflowers, the beds of nettles growing round the big stones, and the patches of lichen along the three windows, whose shutters, always closed, were rotting away on their rusty iron bars. Her thoughts, aimless at first, would wander (not “wandered”) at random…”


 According to Nabokov, Flaubert used the imparfait to fill the entire book with a sense of suspended animation, giving weight to Emma’s feeling of dreary monotony. That a translator would so casually overlook this aesthetic decision must have driven Nabokov insane.


Something Nabokov and I do not agree on is whether Charles knew about Emma’s infidelities. I mentioned this in my last post and after reading Nabokov’s essay I had to go back to the text to make sure I didn’t misunderstand something. But some time after Emma dies, Charles runs into Rodolphe (Emma’s first lover) in town and the two men go and drink a cider together. They’re talking but both men are looking at the other, just thinking of Emma. Suddenly Charles looks right at him and says, Je ne vous en veux pas, which means, I don’t hate you, or I don’t blame you. Flaubert, of course, turns the moment inside out by quickly switching to Rodolphe’s perspective and painting Charles in an awful, pathetic light – the same way Rodolphe treated him when he was secretly meeting with Emma.


I’m toying with the idea of picking up Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, another I read in college but have nearly forgotten by now. It might be worth it after learning so much about Flaubert’s writing technique from Nabokov.


Otherwise, I’ve got to read Longinus this week. And I started Richard Ford’s Wildfire, which is quite short and I think I’ll finish up this afternoon. I am relatively unfamiliar with Ford’s writing style except for one or two of his short stories. In this novel, he’s using the first person and writes these kind of serpentine sentences with lots of commas and movement to them. I like the technique and how it informs my understanding of the narrator. But more on that later!





I sat down with Aristotle’s Poetics last night and had a good laugh when I got to his section on the best kind of tragic plots. Aristotle points out that in order for the audience to experience pity and fear (his criteria for excellence) the hero or heroine must not be of outstanding moral character, nor depraved. Both these extremes would be too difficult for the audience to identify with. We’re left with the ordinary individual. The kind of person who experiences just enough undeserved suffering for us to pity them but who creates just enough of the same kind of mischief we might feel inclined to dabble in ourselves to make us nervous about our own life.


The reason I laughed is because I just finished Madame Bovary. And I think Aristotle would have taken Flaubert out and bought him champagne. Both Emma and Charles (and Rodolphe and Leon, for that matter) are so perfectly mediocre. Just earnest enough for us to sympathize with but just selfish, just cowardly enough for us to want to keep a weary distance.


I first read Madame Bovary in college. I remember enjoying it. I remember feeling sorry for Emma. I remember disliking lunky Charles and thinking it was so unfair she couldn’t just run off with the men she loved. To put it bluntly, I think I kind of missed the entire point.


Reading the novel again was fun. I still feel sorry for Emma, for her silly selfishness and desperate scheming, but I think Flaubert did something much more than write a scandalous account of adultery and feminine ruin. He characterized the maudlin yearnings of a mediocre bourgeoisie while criticizing the superficial sentimentality of mass culture. Two very scathing social assessments, both still relevant to a contemporary discussion.


It’s hard to decide who is the more pathetic of the two – Charles or Emma. Charles seems unbelievably clueless for a long time, which is far less interesting, until just after Emma kills herself when there is an affecting scene between Charles and Rodolphe (Emma’s first lover) and it becomes quite apparent that he knew all along. I looked at Charles differently after that and it made me reconsider why Flaubert begins and ends the book with Charles.


Madame Bovary isn’t really a tragedy (Aristotle would have figured this one out much more quickly than I did) – it’s a satire. Charles is an anti-hero, Emma a false heroine. It’s sad when she dies but not unexpected – and Charles mourns her, but it seems fairly dismal to mourn the woman who never really loved you. Like Revolutionary Road (a modern meditation on a similar theme) the real tragedy befalls Berthe – their daughter. Unloved, unwanted, and uncared for, she ends up an impoverished worker at a cotton mill.


I deliberately avoided reading the Nabokov essay until I’d written up my thoughts but I’m eager to get started and see what he has to say. There are also several film versions of Madame Bovary but two I am particularly interested in finding – a 1949 Minnelli with Jennifer Jones playing Emma and the most recent, from 1991 with the lovely Isabelle Huppert and an apparently outstanding performance by Jean-Francois Balmer as Charles.