Favorite Books 2010 asks NPR personalities to talk about one book from this year that they loved. Jacki Lyden is a frequent substitute program host.
Lydia Davis' dazzling translation of Flaubert's classic, Madame Bovary, may mean that at last Emma Bovary gets a happy marriage: she is translated to perfect pitch by a woman who is dedicated to Emma’s passion for expression. We can hear her breathing in this novel, hear her rent her dress as she tries to flee her debts and the bottomless Rodolphe, hear her trapped in the dreadful choices she has made as she seizes that fatal powder at the apothecary's. Emma Bovary may have been a prisoner of lust and temptations.
I don’t know Lydia Davis and haven’t interviewed her, but in doing some reading about her decisions to make this translation, I learned that she wrestled a bit with the idea that "each generation deserves a new translation of Madame Bovary." Davis has previously received the National Book Award for her translation of Proust's Swann’s Way. Sometimes, she said, writing in the Paris Review, a translation grows stale, or florid, or in some other way detached.
At any rate, to her thinking, Madame Bovary is a novel rich enough to admit for many translations. I'd certainly say it is necessary to have hers.
In notes to the introduction, Davis tells us that Flaubert had the task of making generally sordid people interesting, and did this through his imagination and art. "The version he cut out was more lyrical than the one he let stand," she says, speaking of earlier drafts. But I loved the sense, sensation and minute detail of this novel, often called one of the first realist works of literature. I think it is, in fact, an essential classic.
Davis is not merely substituting richer, more poetic phrases for paler predecessors. She makes us feel Flaubert thinking. In her notes she quotes that Flaubert wanted "grand turns of phrase, broad, full periods rolling along like rivers, a multiplicity of metaphors, great bursts of style." Indeed, she writes that he was infuriated when Zola said there was "more to the book than style."
You will be lost in Emma's acquisitions of silks and love notes and promissory notes, Charles' oblivious complicity, Homais' hypocritical betrayal. Just to walk inside these lives, knowing that we can leave them where Emma could not, is quite a thrill. And clearly, Lydia Davis has had a ball in the company of these poor wretches. She's left us the richer with this translation.