I’d better confess up front: I have always disliked Madame Bovary. I read it in English in high school, in French in college, and both times I was repelled by what I saw as Gustave Flaubert’s (1821–80) contempt for his characters. I couldn’t warm up to a novel that so mercilessly depicted its heroine—and almost everyone around her—as shallow, ignorant, selfish and greedy. Flaubert’s famous declaration, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” must be an example of his celebrated irony, I thought; his cold, clinical narration demonstrated not a shred of empathy.
Granted, someone whose favorite author was Charles Dickens was not necessarily the best audience for his considerably less sentimental French contemporaries. But I adored Stendhal and Balzac, also read in college, whose sardonicism was tempered by affection for at least some of their characters. Flaubert, I concluded after my second try, was one of those savage artists, like Stanley Kubrick, that I just didn’t get.
Over the years, however, I realized that, although a masterpiece doesn’t change, people do, and you can grow to appreciate works of art that once seemed antipathetic. Kubrick has become one of my favorite filmmakers, for example, and when Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary came my way, I thought I might find myself savoring Flaubert’s ruthless detachment as I had come to enjoy the black humor of Dr. Strangelove.
Well, kind of. Davis, herself an acclaimed short-story writer as well as a distinguished translator, does a brilliant job of capturing Flaubert’s diamond-hard style. I don’t remember which earlier English version I read, but I do remember that it seemed antiquated as well as unpleasant. Davis’ English prose has precisely the qualities she notes that Flaubert was striving for in French; it is “clear and direct, economical and precise.” This translation reminds you what an aggressively modern writer Flaubert is: suspicious of all received wisdom, infuriated by any value system—Catholicism, rationalism—that willfully ignores the world as it really is. Sentences I had missed before now jumped out at me: “A man, at least, is free…but a woman is continually thwarted.” I still didn’t believe Flaubert much liked silly, sensual Emma Bovary, but I could see that he thoroughly understood the society that produced her.
Did I like Madame Bovary better this time around? Not really, but I admired it much more. Flaubert’s courageous refusal to pander to our need for sad stories to be softened by reassuring morals, or at least tragic grandeur, ages very well indeed. He won’t lie, and he makes it very difficult for us to lie to ourselves. I’d still rather be reading Bleak House, but I get it.