The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Monday, January 24, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Nous étions à l'Étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d'un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d'un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre.  Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva comme surpris dans son travail.

We were in the prep.-room when the Head came in, followed by a new boy in 'mufti' and a beadle carrying a big desk.  The sleepers aroused themselves, and we all stood up, putting on a startled look, as if we had been buried in our work.

Translations very rarely approximate 100% of the material found in the original.  Above I quote the original French opening to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, followed by J. Lewis May's 1950 English translation which appears in the Easton Press edition of this classic.  I provide this comparison sample because if I am to review this work, it would be best to understand that the reading of this book, more than most any work, will be affected greatly by the language in which it is read.

In this representative passage, May tries to Anglicize Flaubert's prose.  Gone is the French Proviseur; a very English Head replaces him.  Instead of the slang expression "en bourgeois," in May's translation we find this "mufti," which name might carry some meaning for the mid-20th century readers familiar with provincial English attire, but which has little in common with what the young Charles Bovary wore in mid-19th century Normandy.  Even more perplexing is the replacement of the garçon de classe with an English beadle; the two offices are not quite the same and semantic meaning is lost in the translation.

Yet to be fair to May, translating Madame Bovary had to be an almost-Sisyphean task, as Flaubert's French is full of Norman expressions which tax the understanding of most native French reader.  Although I had read this novel in the earlier Penguin translation back in 1993 and 1994 for two separate classes, this is the first time that I had attempted reading it in French (and incidentally, the first time reading May's translation).  What I discovered is that Flaubert simply is an author who must be read in the original for the full impact of his story to be felt.

Take for instance the novel's subtitle, "mœurs de province."  If the translator even bothers to provide it (it does not appear here in the Easton Press edition), it is often rendered in several ways:  Provincial Manners, Provincial Morals, and so forth.  Each contains elements of mœurs, yet there is a secondary level of meaning that is missing.  If I were having to translate this passage, I would take another unsatisfactory tact; I would substitute the even older Latin mores, as it connotes not just manners, not just mere morals, but it contains a hint of a system of life that reflects best Flaubert's story.

Emma Bovary is undoubtedly the star of this tragic tale, yet one of the reasons why this story appeals to readers over 150 years after its initial publication is how well-drawn the secondary characters are drawn.  Too often readers overlook the first few chapters, perhaps due to their impatience for the story to get to Emma and her disastrous attempts to make reality conform to her idealized views on learning, passion, and love.  Flaubert paints and exquisite picture of rural 19th century Norman life.  He carefully chooses, as he famously said, le mot juste, to describe as perfectly as possible the background, the villagers, and their accoutrements.  This made for very difficult reading in the original French, as the words are so specialized (and many of them are provincialisms that are no longer in currency in French today) that my reading comprehension suffered.  However, I caught just enough to notice just how precise Flaubert's prose was and how this preciseness was altered significantly in May's attempts to Anglicize it in order for English readers to get some idea of what Flaubert attempted.  To some degree, May succeeds in creating a lively atmosphere.  Too bad it was not that which Flaubert depicts in his novel.

Some readers have commented that in his depictions of the bumbling oaf Charles, his sometimes-waspish mother, the headstrong and foolish Emma (not to mention the rake Rodolphe, the hesitant student Léon, the pompous and callous chemist Homais, or the conniving and ruthless businessman and lender Lheureux) that Flaubert has pretty much given the dual one-finger salute to romance.  There is much to that.  One only has to look at the comic scene of Emma's first adulterous liaison with Rodolphe while the local agricultural fair is proceeding to see the cruel juxtaposition of Emma's passionate aping of Romantic breathings of love with the awarding of prizes for those farmers who had raised certain livestock.  It is a cold, black humor that pervades that crucial chapter; the mirror of disillusionment has been shined at the reader's eyes.

This continues in other scenes, such as Emma's constant sneaking out to Rodolphe and his caustic comment to her that she ought to best watch herself lest she wants to have the gossips wagging about her.  We are privy not just to seeing how Emma's ruin is achieved, but we see as well just how petty and churlish the whole lot is.  Romanticism might be portrayed as being a fool's pipe dream, but the world of Lheureux and Homais serves to remind readers that the mundane world is a bitter, dull place infested with sharks that walk on two legs.

What makes Madame Bovary so compelling to read is that Flaubert never beats the reader across the head with the points raised above.  Rather, the reader is left to decipher these elements within scenes that show almost the whole gamut of human emotion and relationships, minus the key one of faithful love.  This little element, so conspicuous in its absence, perhaps may lead some readers to question the utility of this banal tale of dreams and delusional aspirations within the context of a harsh, dreary provincial life where the villagers live under the yoke of tradition and materialist avarice.  Avarice perhaps is the glue to this tale.  It certainly underlies much of the actions such as Emma's desire to rise even further above her former station, Charles' desire to become a famous physician, Homais' lusting after the Legion of Honor, and of course Lheureux's aggrandizing behavior toward Emma and (presumably) other Yonville villagers.  It is such a petty vice, which perhaps makes it all the more appalling to read about in the context of witnessing the ruining of a family.

Despite its ultimate bleakness, Madame Bovary is an appealing story because of how "alive" the text feels.  Flaubert might not take Dickens' approach toward creating comic characters to serve as guides into the seedy urban 19th century London life, yet his provincial characters are dynamic because of the care in which he takes to make them seem true to life then.  That we can relate so easily to several of these characters today serves as a testimony to how deeply Flaubert plumbs the depth of human motivations and desires.  The end result is a majestically told story which goes beyond the "morals" of the characters and reaches the underlying mores.  Truly a classic achievement.

Note:  Not only was this book read to complete the prose part of my reviewing of three books in French, but it was also reviewed with the intent to complement this review/discussion.


Daniel said...

Cool post. I'm always fascinated by the difficulty/problems of translations. I'd love to be able to read Borges, for example, in the original Spanish and see the difference.
By the way, how many languages do you speak? Your posts are simultaneously impressing me with range of languages you read in, and depressing me that I can't do the same.

José said...

Hi Larry, what makes you say that "en bourgeois" is a slang expression ?

Larry said...

I said that more to express the idea that the phrase does not bear its usual association with bourgeois custom. The edition I read had this note beside the phrase:

C'est-à-dire en habit de ville et non en uniforme de collège.

So it's referring in a negative way to a villager's attire and not that which would be worn in a school, especially one that would service the well-to-do. Since "bourgeois" is associated with the middle class today, the term's meaning seems to be a departure from regular usage.


I only speak two languages, English and Spanish. But I can read six: those two, plus Portuguese, Latin, Italian, and French. Perhaps I should count German as well, but I need more help with a dictionary than I ever bother using with the other languages listed.

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