Lydia Davis Translation, Madame Bovary, Book Cover, 2010

I totally cried.

Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was beautiful, clear, and her ability to perfectly translate the tone of the work is astounding. For a taste of what she can do, The Paris Review published a handful of Davis’ short stories that were modeled on Flaubert, and you can read them here.

Because this is a well known story that has permeated literary culture, I already knew what was going to happen.  And honestly, I decided to read this version because I like Lydia Davis’ writing; if she specifically hadn’t translated Flaubert, I may never have read this book. I mean, everyone knows the story anyway: A stupid but good looking woman marries without love, and then seeks passion elsewhere, and tragedy ensues. I was so prepared to hate the heroine in this book, so ready to be dismayed by another old story about a woman torn by the choice between two men, so anxious to feel the sting of a character built from the sexist archetype of beauty without brains.

Yet when I was actually reading this book I was really surprised by how much I liked Emma, how I recognized in her the anxieties and fits of naivete I have seen in myself and other people I know. And she wasn’t so dumb, really. She was callous, selfish, brutally unkind at times, and a wretched mother and careless wife. But somehow I felt for her, y’know? It seemed like the little fictional village in Normandy that Flaubert sets this drama in was built up of insidious illusions and untruths, that there were lies in the newspapers, and that the shop keepers and notaries were disingenuous at best. In that light, Emma isn’t a sexist archetype, just a player in a larger game. Her ideas about passion and love and being head over heels and having cosmically and improbably hot monkey sex are still ideas that circulate in the cultural landscape of right now. The lurid romance novels and poems that turn Emma on to impossible love are old time versions of pop songs and rom coms. We’re still looking for that spark, that special person that breathes fire and incinerates the desire for everything but love.

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