The last book I read in 100 words: Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

by Stephen Tall on April 12, 2011

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

If you own a Kindle, chances are you’ve downloaded some of the free books. Chances are this is one of them. It’s always hard to judge critically a translation: if you like it, is that all credit to the author; if you dislike it, do you blame the translator?

Parts of it I loved. For example, the dry wit, or the wonderful exclamatory prose — such as the priest delivering extreme unction ‘First upon the eyes, that had so coveted all worldly pomp; then upon the nostrils, that had been greedy of the warm breeze and amorous odours; then upon the mouth, that had uttered lies, that had curled with pride’.

Parts of it dragged, though. And I understand that’s the point: that this is Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, with society laid bare in its mundanity as well as its mendacity.

The characters are of course unappealing. And again I understand that’s the point: that Flaubert is denouncing Emma and Charles Bovary et al for their pride-filled, deluded, bourgeois pretensions.

But it’s hard to whole-heartedly enjoy a book so intent on detailing the downfall of hopelessly irredeemable characters.

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2 comments

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by Stephen Tall on April 12, 2011 at 8:55 am. Reply #

Yeah, but… isn’t ‘hopelessly irredeemable’ a bit overstated? Surely part of the point of Emma is that she may be silly/hopelessly Romantic/immoral (delete as applicable), but at least she has aspirations beyond the ambient bourgeois mediocrity; and Charles is a decent enough cove… I think Flaubert intends our reaction to Emma should be nuanced (which doesn’t of course mean he succeeds). For a novel which really presents irredeemable characters, try Flaubert’s _Sentimental Education_ (in my opinion his best work and, indeed, the greatest novel in French) – despite their irredeemability, it packs a huge emotional punch in the last fifteen or so pages. Of course, given Flaubert’s obsession with style, the quality of the translation is crucial (and some would argue that he’s almost literally untranslatable); see http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n22/julian-barnes/writers-writer-and-writers-writers-writer, if you have time, for an admirably erudite discussion of that…

Oh dear. Rather more than 100 words 🙂

by Steve Goddard on April 12, 2011 at 3:17 pm. Reply #

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