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TERRY GROSS, host:

There's a new translation of "Madame Bovary," the classic novel by perhaps the most exacting French writer of the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert. This translation is by Lydia Davis, a novelist, short story writer and winner of the 2003 French-American Foundation prize for her translation of Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way."

Here's what our book critic Maureen Corrigan has to say about Davis's new translation of "Madame Bovary."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: How tickled Madame Bovary herself would be by the latest homage paid to her: a feature in the September issue of Playboy Magazine. For the original desperate housewife, as she's been called, the knowledge that she's the object of the collective male gaze might have relieved some of the dismal boredom that characterized so much of Emma Bovary's provincial life. Of course, what the Playboy connoisseurs are surveying is not Madame Bovary's fine form, nor her much-commented-upon smooth bands of black hair or great dark eyes.

No, what's wresting attention away from the latest lineup of hydroponically enhanced models is an excerpt from Lydia Davis's new translation of Gustave Flaubert's masterpiece. The most scandalous novel of all time - hisses a headline on Playboy's cover. It's cheering, isn't it, the way Playboy upholds the primacy of the erotic canon over the claims of postmodern challengers like say, a sticky, icky groupie memoir like "The Last Living Slut?"

For a translator, even one as renowned as Lydia Davis, Flaubert, the great apostle of le mot juste, must surely be the Matterhorn of authors.�As Davis says in the introduction to her translation, Flaubert created "Madame Bovary" through a process of ruthless pruning. Sometimes, he reported in letters to his mistress, a week's hard labor would result in one meticulous page. To be simple, wrote Flaubert, is no small matter. Repetitions of words, sounds and even letters annoyed him, particularly so in this emotionally radical novel where so much depends on style alone.

For what's really scandalous about "Madame Bovary" - besides the infidelity plot for which it was put on trial for obscenity when it was first serialized in 1856 - is its absolute demolition of sentiment.

"Madame Bovary" is the rather uneventful fictional biography of a shallow young woman. Her baby daughter doesn't interest her, her lovers are manipulative cads, and her husband, Charles, is the quintessential amiable boor. Flaubert writes that Charles' conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and everyone's ideas walked along it in their ordinary clothes, without inspiring emotion, or laughter, or reverie. With a message and cast of characters this unsympathetic, Flaubert had to depend on his language to keep readers engaged and to elicit the responses he desired: ironic laughter, scorn, and occasionally, pity.

Davis says "Madame Bovary" has been translated into English some 11 times, but despite the fact that Flaubert was Mr. Style, she maintains that many of those previous translators ignored his zest for linguistic precision and that's what she's trying to restore in this new edition. I'm not qualified to judge the accuracy of her translation, but I am grateful to Davis for luring me back to "Madame Bovary" and for giving us a version which strikes me as elegant and alive.

Two things overwhelm me about the novel on this rereading: The first is just how unrelenting Flaubert is in his contempt for sentimentality. Well over half a century before Hemingway, in "A Farewell to Arms," gave us the signal cynical phrase of the 20th century - isn't it pretty to think so - Flaubert was carpet-bombing the maudlin and the mawkish. When Madame Bovary's first lover leaves her after their initial formal meeting, he thinks to himself: poor little woman. That one's gasping for love like a carp for water on a kitchen table.

The other marvel about "Madame Bovary" is just how current it is in its assessment of the dangers that can result from blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. By dramatizing the effects of fantasy on a susceptible mind, Flaubert counters the laxity of our own age where reality TV reigns and it's considered unsophisticated to expect clear demarcations between autobiography and fiction.

Madame Bovary is literally destroyed by reading. Over and over we hear about how she tries to model her life on the romantic novels she devours. Flaubert writes:

Before her marriage, she had believed that what she was experiencing was love. But since the happiness that should have resulted from that love had not come, she thought she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out just what was meant in life, by the words bliss, passion, and intoxication, which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

The great achievement of Flaubert's novel, of his clear as a marble prose, presented to us anew in Davis's translation, is that at the same time we're scoffing at Emma Bovary's naivete, we're also feeling ourselves drawn deeply into her story, susceptible to the same powerful pull of fiction that is her undoing.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Lydia Davis's new translation of "Madame Bovary." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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