Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary captures for the first time in English the powerfully filmic aspect of Flaubert’s narrative

Nick Fraser 

Lydia Davis American short-story writer Lydia Davis spent three years translating Madame Bovary. Photograph: Theo Cote

There is no Shakespeare in French literature, and Hugo and Balzac don’t quite fit the bill. My mother was a Proustian, capable of reinterpreting a host of his observations for her own life. I do that, too, but Madame Bovary fills another gap. Every observation of Flaubert’s has gone into French life with the force of a large meteorite. I like to look at the impact, in other novels, in films, even in photography. But I also know that I shall never really comprehend the full extent of the damage done to our illusions by Flaubert’s great book.

"A good sentence in prose," declares Flaubert, "should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic and sonorous." But Flaubert writes in a variety of styles, some low, some high. He taught us to read novels for their style, and yet his own masterpiece deprives one of such comfort. It is absurd to insist, as Flaubert did, that Madame Bovary is not a work of realism. As his very un-Flaubertian contemporary Zola observed, the book is profoundly, shatteringly real.

Are we capable of being truthful? Do human beings ever really tell the truth about the things that really matter? "Madame Bovary, c’est moi," Flaubert exclaimed. He seems to say either that we should tell the truth but don’t, or, worse, that we cannot: "… None of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs," he observes in what must be the book’s most celebrated mot, "or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat our tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity."

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