Monday, November 08, 2010

Finishing Madame Bovary: A Bad End, but a Good Ending

[Aside: I suppose I could call this a "spoiler note"--but I suspect that anybody who actually reads this bit will already know what becomes of her.]

Anyway--we've finished our readaloud of Madame Bovary, and here's something I hadn't noticed before: it comes to a good ending.  No, not her, silly--I mean the novel.  That is--have you ever noticed how many novels really don't  end well?  For good and sufficient reason, I think; novels end but life does not, and a novelistic ending on an imitation of life is more than likely to sound forced or artificial.   Often they are artificial in the sense that the author knows he has a page limit, or that it's time for a payday.   More often than they would admit, I suspect, authors simply get bored with their characters and hustle them off stage out of exasperation (a milder form, perhaps, of the common affliction among biographers: yoked to their subjects, they grow to hate them).

But that's perhaps one of the odd or distinctive points about Bovary--Flaubert really cares about his heroine* and even, in a perhaps surprising way, respects her.  He won't let her go until we get the story in all its dimensions.  I suspect that the defining characteristic of Bovary the novel is Flaubert's remorselessness--Flaubert's heroic insistence on looking his subject straight in the eye and telling her story with more truth than either she or he would really want to bear.  And so he won't let her go until her story is well and truly done.

A word about translation: yes,  we were prompted by news of the new Lydia Davis translation, but no, that wasn't the one we read.  We spent most of our time with the Margaret Mauldon rendering from Oxford World Classics, with asides at an older version by Paul de Man and semi-frequent peeks at the original French.  Nothing personal against Davis; just that we had the others around the house and felt no strong urge to spring an extra $11.    Wholly ignorant of Davis, I can't say we made the "right" choice, but we certainly made a good one: Mauldon's language flows easily and plausibly with no hint at the  kind of artificiality that you sometimes get in inferior translations.  At any point of comparison with de Man and the French, she seemed to win out.  Flaubert's French is, of course, insidiously slippery and the best of translators is going to admit (defensively?) that there's nothing like the original.  In the short range, though, while I can hardly declare Oxford a winner, it certainly does do its job.  The brief but elegant intro by  Malcome Bowie is a pleasure in its own right;  the notes, by Mark Overstall are less helpful but you can't really call them a detriment.
^I first wrote "heroin."  Michael Gilleland, correcting, comments: "le mot juste."  Maybe it would be better just to call her a "protagonist."

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