She lives on credit and lusts after entertainment, whether emotional or commercial. She derives her pleasure solely from seeing her reflection in the gleam of a man’s eye or in the sheen of a new silk dress. Like a L’Oréal target customer, she is “worth it.” Whatever luxury the world contains should be hers because she is beautiful and of superior sentimentality.
I am not talking about a modern American woman, but about Emma Bovary, born 1857, with no end in sight to her reign of senseless craving and mediocrity.
Why even bother to write about that common hussy? Because here she is loose again in bookstores, made up like a flapper on a sickening pink cover. A new translation is out, and critics are raving. (How many of them speak French, I shudder to ask.)
Madame Bovary: A New Translation by Lydia Davis sounds exactly like what it is—a book written in 21st-century America. Hollywood period movies can be dated by the hairstyles; here the turn of phrase is a dead giveaway. There is “give me a hug” in place of “embrace me,” “deep in her soul” instead of “at the bottom of her soul,” and “waiting for something to happen” rather than “waiting for an event.” Little things, little things, though some would say that even a comma is big when it comes to translation and that a translator should be a slave to the original as the Slav Nabokov was to Pushkin, as the poet Baudelaire was to Poe—“servilely attached to the letter” at the risk of producing baroque and even painful results.
There is no pain for the reader in Madame Bovary: A New Translation by Lydia Davis—just smooth, easy, up-to-date, democratic Americanness. It’s a choice, but it’s a shame, because it doesn’t do justice to Flaubert’s style, and however one may dislike what he chose to write about, Flaubert knew how to write.
Emma Bovary the woman is morally quite ugly, but Madame Bovary the book is technically rather beautiful: the deft machinery of the action’s development, the shifting points of view, the treatment of time and space; masterful, swift, seamless. And extremely visual. If Flaubert can be said to have invented anything, it is the cinema. His scenes read like detailed shot lists, progressing from Wide Shot to Medium Close Up to Close Up and punctuated by jump cuts and well-chosen cutaways.
The book is peopled more by caricatures than by characters, but artistically and formally, yes, it is an achievement. But Madame Bovary—“masterpiece of realism,” by Gustave Flaubert, the “inventor of objectivity” as Lydia Davis and so many before her present it—not quite.
Flaubert’s plan was to hide, but his fat form is visible behind every sentence, dripping contempt over the whole of humanity: townspeople and country folk, aristocrats and bourgeoisie, priests and atheists, those with ambition and those without it. One size fits all, and when contempt doesn’t quite cut it, irony will do nicely. If common sense says dans le doute abstiens toi (when in doubt, don’t), Flaubert says dans le doute ironise (when in doubt, use irony).
Each sentence seems to declare that life, which is everything outside of love and art, is wholly inadequate to a sensitive soul’s needs. Sounds like romanticism to me.
“Flaubert is holding up a mirror to the middle- and lower-middle-class world of his day,” Davis informs us in the introduction. Sure, but when the mirror is as dirty as the thing it reflects, what can you possibly see? Dirty and tear-stained, for there must be pathos! Flaubert wanted them to cry. He wanted to write about contemptible people and wanted the public to be moved by it. Did he not notice that people tend to see their own tears as holy water, sanctifying the object for which they were shed? He wanted to take a common subject and make it poetic. Why? Just to show that it can be done? In his elevation of style above all else, Flaubert underestimated art’s power. For it may be that fiction doesn’t so much foreshadow as influence what is to come, that Madame Bovary as the prototypical 21st-century consumer is not “strikingly prescient” but unfortunately influential. Emma Bovary is a common hussy, yes, but she is also a heroine. Placed on a novel’s pedestal, people will look up to see her.
Returning from an escapade with her lover, Emma is confronted by creditors. Frantic for money, she runs to the notary (who disgusts her) and the tax collector (who refuses her). Then she remembers her first lover Rodolphe and turns on the waterworks. She gets him to profess his eternal love before springing on him that she needs three thousand francs. He refuses. She crams arsenic in her mouth. And all through this we hear how beautiful she is when distraught—even more beautiful than before because she’s more passionate! Lust for money and the frantic thrashings of a trapped animal. Beautiful.
A shortsighted pleasure-seeker slowly heading to her own destruction; a silly, shallow liar wreaking havoc around her, for if she’s going down, she’s taking everyone with her. Beautiful, beautiful. Such an alluring example that it is now emulated not only by bored housewives but by entire nations.
We are asked to spend hours in Emma Bovary’s stultifying company on the subway, in bed, turning the pages to get to the end. She is pretty, so we do it. And everyone is in love with her…Charles and Rodolphe and Leon…Mario Vargas Llosa, Vladimir Nabokov, Julian Barnes, and Philippe Sollers. When they write about her, the page is still moist from their drool. She’s vulgar, they admit, but so vivacious. The shallowness is part of her appeal, right along with the senseless craving and the promise of violence. It combines to give a good imitation of a richer life, of greater sensitivity. But Emma doesn’t feel more, she just wants more, though whatever you give her will never be enough and you will always get blamed for her petty dissatisfaction.
Bref, she’s the bottomless hole, the typical bitch. So why do men like her so much? Beats me!
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