Flaubert tells us what she does, but not what she thinks, or even how she looks. He makes us imagine her beauty. The female students tend to be the most critical of her. All of this is true.
So how will we engage emotionally? Because we do, people are still reading this book a hundred and sixty-one years after its publication. One woman told me that her grandmother was reading it with her; they held their own book group, every week, to discuss it. A woman in the class stared at him. Flaubert wants to challenge us. More surprisingly, for a novelist, he blames her downfall on novels. When she was at convent school, Emma was spiritually inclined; she considered a religious vocation.
Emma learned that she could escape from the real world into fiction. She learned about midnight trysts, stolen brides, passion and glamour. She learned that romantic love was a crack-cocaine high, tingling, ardent, and never-ending. Her mother was dead.
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She believed it; it became her ideal; it ruined her life. Disruption is an extreme sport for Flaubert. But does he despise her? Because Flaubert also loves Emma. But when she meets the handsome, aristocratic Rodolphe she sees another chance at passion. Tremulous, hopeful, vulnerable, she falls in love. Reckless, ecstatic, she meets him in her garden at night. She runs across the fields at dawn and arrives in his room breathless, and smelling like a spring morning.
She becomes the engine of the narrative: vital, inventive, unstoppable, careening toward her end. Once she has spoiler alert taken poison, Flaubert slows the action and abandons ambivalence. It becomes impossible to judge Emma, because now we are at one with her, inside her mind and body. Emma struggles; she is calm. She screams and begs. She is given the last rites, she says goodbye to her family.
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.
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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.
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Dickens could lay out a scene like that too, but he would spend thousands of words on it. 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.
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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.
It may only look like one. Perhaps to mark the fact that one of the supreme achievements of French literature is being once again done into English, Oxford's physically handsome new translation of Madame Bovary , by Margaret Mauldon, bears on its cover James Tissot's Young Woman in a Boat , dating from Tissot, after quitting France the next year, spent the rest of his life being claimed by the English as one of their painters, so the invocation of his name can be counted as a nice cross-Channel touch. But Madame Bovary was first published in Considering that women's fashions scarcely stayed frozen in those thirteen years, a pedant might wish that a French painter of a slightly earlier period could have been called in; but the young lady certainly has a sensual mouth, which can be said to fit.
Already, though, it is hard to suppress a suspicion that in the matter of historical fidelity things are out of kilter, and the suspicion intensifies once the book is opened.
Professor Malcolm Bowie, who wrote the informative introduction, makes much ado in his back-of-the-jacket blurb about Flaubert's precision, which the professor assures us is matched by Mauldon's brand-new and meticulously accurate translation of the actual work. Any reader wishing to believe this is advised to start on page one. He had better not open the book accidentally at page , on which we find Emma's lover Rodolphe justifying to himself his decision to ditch her. Rodolphe is supposed to be a creep, but surely he never spoke the French equivalent of late-twentieth-century American slang: "And anyway there's all those problems, all that expense, as well.
Oh, no! No way! It would have been too stupid. The awful possibility arises that Mauldon has never paid much attention to English idioms like that. Instead she thinks "No way! We can take it for granted that she knows the French language of Flaubert's era inside out. But she has a crucially weaker knowledge of how the English language of her own era has been corrupted.
You might say that English has always advanced through corruption, but "No way! What he wrote was "No, no, by Heaven no! This is not to say that such glaring anachronisms are frequent in Mauldon's translation. On page 23, when Charles Bovary is seeking Emma Rouault's hand, Emma's father thinks of him as "a bit of a loser," where Russell has "rather a wisp of a man"—which, as well as being less of a jazzy putdown from the late twentieth century, happens to be more accurate: a gringalet , according to my French-English dictionary, is a "little undersized fellow.
What she isn't safe from is the question of whether her translation is really an improvement on Russell's. Why try to improve on it if all she can offer is a prose that sounds—purportedly sounds—less dated? Isn't a dated prose style what we want? All the rest of it sounds dated in the right way—that is, closer to Flaubert in time. It must also be said, alas, that most of it is closer to Flaubert in possessing a sense of style.
Mauldon might say that accuracy precluded an easy stylistic flow, but if she said that, she would have to prove herself accurate. Despite the heavy endorsement from Professor Bowie, her accuracy is not always beyond cavil. The caviling starts early in Part One, Chapter One, where we get this sentence about Charles's parents: "His wife had been wild about him at first; she had treated him with an amorous servility that had turned him against her all the more. Russell has the wife "lavishing on him a thousand servilities. And as so often happens with translators, a deadly knack of weakening points by being untrue to the text is accompanied by an even deadlier knack of missing them altogether by being true to it.
Later in the opening chapter during which Charles grows to manhood in only a few pages of hurtling compression there is a quick summary of his dissipations at medical school, culminating in a clause in which he "learned how to make punch, and, at long last, discovered love. Flaubert is talking about sex. Russell does better by juicing the text: young Charles "took lessons in making punch, and finally in making love. Russell missed it too, but he may have deliberately dodged it, having spotted the pornographic element in those multiple dartings.
They are a forecast of that astonishing single-paragraph set piece in Part Two, Chapter Nine, when we can tell what Rodolphe has just done to Emma because the whole landscape has an orgasm. Ever the keen student, Mauldon is well aware that with Flaubert, the man who invented the style indirect libre although he himself never used the term , any description of anything can relate to the interior lives of the characters in the scene. She is aware of it, but all too often she doesn't spot the way it works. Even with the direct style, in which emotions are stated up front, she can miss a lot, especially when it depends on an apparently minor point of grammar and syntax.
There is a telling example at the end of Part One, Chapter Five, when Charles, after a night in bed with his beautiful wife, goes riding off to work, "his heart full of the night's bliss. Sensibly and more sensitively, Russell goes with the numbers: "the joys of the night. She did this, she did that; her husband remembers as he rides. In Part One, Chapter Seven, Emma finally admits to herself that her marriage is boring her to metaphorical death.
In her downhill phase she will use the house of God as a trysting place for adultery. If we count as a poem any length of writing that can't be quoted from except out of context, then Madame Bovary is a poem. We might monkey with its language, but we mustn't monkey with its internal consistency. Strangely enough, on the face of it, an amateur literary stylist is less likely to do that than a professional scholar.
But really it is not so strange. From before World War I until well after World War II, in the long heyday of the gentleman translators, the leading practitioners were not always supported by a cheering squad from the academy, but they could write a confident prose of their own, however daunting the foreign model. Among them they had most of the big languages covered, and almost all of them were casually at home with French—which, in an era when Greek and Latin still dominated the syllabus, was more commonly acquired on vacation than in the schoolroom.
Scott Moncrieff's Proust eventually needed upgrading as to accuracy, but Terence Kilmartin, who wrote an elegant prose himself when moonlighting from his job as literary editor of the Observer , was properly respectful of the standard Scott Moncrieff had set in matching Proust's flow; and in the final stages D. Enright, another part-timer, was properly respectful of Kilmartin. There is not likely to be a further advance on the Proust that Kilmartin and Enright gave us, although there will probably be no shortage of boondoggles like the recent group effort by which various translators took on a section each, thus inadvertently proving that a single voice was the only thing holding the original together.
The amateurs had voices of their own with which to pay respect to the foreign voices they loved. In the decade after World War II the well-connected bunch of translators who were grouped around Roger Senhouse, a Francophile who raised dilettantism to the level of a profession, did a collective job of translating Colette that will brook no superseding, mainly because the job was composed of individual spare-time efforts, each answering to a passion. Even more wonderful than her books about Cheri, Colette's masterpiece, Julie de Carneilhan , will never need translating again; the job was done for keeps by the prodigiously gifted Patrick Leigh Fermor while he was cooling down from his wartime adventures.
In the same fruitful few years of recovery from the physical battle against barbarism, the petite nineteenth-century French novels that buttressed the achievement of Madame Bovary and sometimes even preceded it—Constant's Adolphe , Maupassant's Bel-Ami , Daudet's Sappho— were translated by people who saw fidelity to them as a delightful but temporary duty, not as part of a long slog to corner a market. Most of those translations showed up in the prettily handy postwar series from Hamish Hamilton called the Novel Library. Now long defunct as a commercial proposition, the series is catnip for collectors in secondhand bookshops all over the planet.