All I really have to say about our plans to read Madame Bovary in October is this: IT’S NOT LORD JIM.
Let me say it again: IT’S NOT LORD JIM. I mean, aren’t those just the four most beautiful words in the English language?
Madame Bovary was an optional extra-credit assignment in our AP English class, so I wasn’t actually doing anything wrong when I didn’t finish it. I did try, though, and in my mind this novel will always be associated with a particular hard pink couch in the living room of a rental condo in Sun Valley, Idaho where I had a nanny job during Christmas break of 1993. My only real free time to read during that trip was when the family’s two year-old napped in the afternoons – afternoons that usually turned into nap time for me too. I mean, give me a break – we were also assigned to finish Crime and Punishment that Christmas, and I think I was also reading A Tale of Two Cities for the Academic Decathlon team I was on, plus I had just finished nine college applications – in the days before the Common Ap – in a marathon session right before I left on the trip – and was skiing with two kids all day, every day. Is it any wonder that Flaubert didn’t have what it took to keep me awake?
I also have strong memories of this novel from when I read it in grad school – not memories of the novel itself but of my desperate attempt to find it in a translation that I found readable. By that time, of course, I was a more sophisticated reader than I was in high school, and sophisticated readers know that when they don’t like nineteenth-century French novels, they don’t need to blame the books themselves or their professors or God or that bastard of a nineteeth century or (heaven forbid) themselves; sophisticated readers know that the person to blame in this situation is the translator of the novel.
I must have sampled nine or ten translations of Madame Bovary that year. We had a great used bookstore in Fayetteville, and I was able to find at least half a dozen editions of this novel there. I also picked up a couple at Barnes and Noble and may have sent for one or two from Amazon. For a couple of weeks in the fall of 2000 the horrible inadequacy of all known translations of Madame Bovary was my personal obsession. I was never satisfied with any of the ones I found, but I made a grudging truce with the Norton Critical edition translated by Paul de Man, whose translation I found more palatable than the others. This book presented a different problem, though, in that for some reason I don’t understand, the cover design made Madame Bovary look like a Roswell alien:
…and I could never really spend time with this novel without picturing Madame Bovary squinting into the harsh Earth sunlight and intoning, “Take me to your leader.” (a recent Amazon search reveals that the people at Norton have since replaced the cover design of this edition and replaced the Paul de Man translation with Margaret Cohen’s, so the young people of today will not have to suffer the hardships that we endured in my youth. But the youth of today have different hardships – like when the auto-correct feature on one’s iPhone replaces some perfectly innocuous text message with something like “I want to take your penis for a test drive.” According to various amusing things that I see on the internet, things like this apparently happen all the time.)
So yeah – this is what I have to say about Madame Bovary: I didn’t like it much in high school, but I blamed a two year-old and college applications and a pink couch, and I didn’t like it much in grad school either, but I blamed the translator. This time, I’m going with the recent 2010 Lydia Davis translation and am optimistic that someone has finally found a way to translate this novel into English in some kind of readable manner. And if I don’t like it this time I’ll blame – I don’t know – the lack of bipartisan collaboration in Congress, maybe?
Oh, and also – she has affairs and dies of arsenic poisoning.
Finally, when I ran a Google search to find the cover images of this novel, one of the very first hits was this nice picture of Hannibal Lecter, looking more or less like I looked when I was reading the last 50 pages of Lord Jim:
I don’t know why this picture popped up in a search for “Madame Bovary Norton Critical Editions Cover Image” (probably for the same reason that anyone who googles “madame bovary alien penis” will, from now on, be directed to Postcards from Purgatory), but, hey, I’ll take it. Maybe there’s a psycho-killer cannibal in this novel that I’m just forgetting. I can hope, right?
It fascinates me that the translation can make such a difference in the overall feel/readability of a book. Obviously it makes sense, though I’d like to believe that there’s only one way to interpret any given piece of literature. I guess the best thing to do would be to read Madame Bovary in the original French. But I’m not doing that.
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