No Way, Madame Bovary

The first thing to say about Madame Bovary is that it's a terrific story. Other comparably great and famous novels aren't, but it is. Everyone should read it. Everyone would read it, given a free taste. The plot fairly belts along from the first page. Young Charles Bovary clumps into school to be laughed at by the other kids for his awkwardness. In no time he is a medical student, and then a doctor. The beautiful Emma Rouault is his second wife. He wins the right to her hand after setting her father's broken leg. It's a simple job but it gets him a reputation for competence. Fatally, he believes this too. Stuck with him in the depths of nowhere, Emma gradually realizes that she has married a chump. Longing for excitement and a classier way of life, she falls for a charming poseur called Leon. Their incipient affair is a standoff. But with an upmarket louse called Rodolphe she finds sexual fulfillment and plans a future. Sharing no such plans, Rodolphe dumps her. She collapses. Nursed back to health by the unsuspecting Charles, she hooks up again with Leon. This time it really happens. But the extravagance of her double life, financed by money stolen from Charles, gets her into ruinous debt. The loan shark closes in, Leon backs out, and Emma has only one way to go. On a shelf in the pharmacist's shop nearby is a bottle of … but I won't say how it comes out, because some of you might not yet have read the book.

Some purists would say you can't. They would say that Flaubert's prose style is the essence of his art, and too near perfection to survive being translated. But we have to ask ourselves what we mean by the word "style." Undoubtedly there is a rhythm and a cadence to Flaubert's prose that only a fluent reader of French can appreciate, although the fluent reader of French had better be French. We are always better judges of tone in our first language than in a second or third. To turn things around for a moment, late-nineteenth-century French critics were under the impression that Edgar Allan Poe was not only a spellbinding tale-teller but also a great master of English prose; and in the twentieth century it was widely assumed in the French literary world that the leading stylist of the English literary world was Charles Morgan, a dim bulb now long extinguished. If we are learning a foreign language, we tend to admire writers in it who are easy to read. One of the early bonuses attached to learning Russian, for example, is that all the standard European fairy tales were rewritten from the ground up by great writers. So within a few weeks you are reading Tolstoy, whose name is on the title page of The Three Bears. It isn't all that long a step to reading Anna Karenina, because Tolstoy's sentences are never very tricky, however high the level of exposition. The temptation is to call Tolstoy a stylist. But in Russian, Turgenev was the stylist. Turgenev was the one who cared about repeating a word too soon. Tolstoy hardly cared at all.

It can safely be assumed that Flaubert's prose makes music. More important, however, is that it would be impressive even if it didn't. This is where the second, and richer, meaning of the word "style" comes in. You need only rudimentary French to spot that Flaubert never wastes a word. Every word is to the point, especially in the descriptive passages. In his landscapes trees are sometimes just trees and leaves leaves; but when it matters, he can give everything a specific name. Within four walls he gives every object a pinpoint particularity. If he is looking at things through Emma's eyes, he adds his analytical power to her naive hunger. Emma's wishes may have been blurred by her addiction to sentimental novels, but her creator, never sentimental for a second, keeps her perceptions sharp. Early in the story there is a ball at a grand house—an episode that awakes in Emma a dangerous taste for the high life. In a few paragraphs, using Emma's vision as a camera, Flaubert captures the sumptuous glamour with a photographic scope that makes us think of those lavish get-togethers in War and Peace, in Proust, or in The Leopard. Dickens could lay out a scene like that too, but he would spend thousands of words on it.

Minting his every phrase afresh, Flaubert avoided clichés like poison. "Avoid like poison" is a cliché, and one that Flaubert would either not have used if he had been composing in English or have flagged with italics to show that he knew it came ready-made. Martin Amis's War Against Cliché is nothing beside that of Flaubert, who waged his with nuclear weapons. (He died waging it: his last book, Bouvard et Pecuchet, was about no other subject.) Any translator must be unusually alert to what is alive or dead about his own use of language or else he will do an injury to Flaubert's style far more serious than merely failing to reproduce its pulse and lilt. When Flaubert seems to be saying that Charles's off-putting first wife is long in the tooth, the translator had better be careful about calling her long in the tooth, which in English means "old": Flaubert is just saying that her teeth are long. Unfortunately, evidence continues to accumulate that we are now past the time when more than a few jobbing writers knew how to keep an eye on their own prose. In the second-to-last stage of our language's decay it was enough to write correctly in order to gain a reputation for writing well. Now we are in the last stage, when almost nobody knows what it means to write correctly. Among ordinary pens for hire it is no longer common to write without solecisms; even those who can are likely to bolt phrases together with no real attention to their derivation; and in too many cases the language is utterly emptied of the history that brought it into being. This is a very depleted gene pool in which to go fishing for a translator of any foreign writer at all, let alone Flaubert. One can only salute the boldness of a publishing house still willing to give it a try. It might be wise, however, not to let the salute progress far above the shoulder until we have made sure that what we are acknowledging is a real contribution.

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