Thursday, October 14, 2010

Madame Bovary - First, the memories

I've read Madame Bovary before, 30 years ago in a comparative lit class in college. I remember quite a lot about about that semester--I took my first journalism class; I fulfilled my math requirement and consequently threw my statistics notebook into the  trash as I left the classroom after completing the statistics final; I got an A plus on my paper comparing Hamlet and Faust despite my T.A.'s conviction that contrasting the men was the only logical approach; my mother had her first heart attack the week before spring break and my dad was hospitalized along with her since he was at that time incapacitated with back pain. And I spent what free time I had over that spring break plowing through Hard Times, which I hated, for my history class, only to be told in the next class that time was short, and we wouldn't have to read Dickens after all. Etc.

But Madame Bovary--I'm afraid it's not a book that's stayed with me through the years. Adultry, debt, poison, mainly it's the poison that I remember since L.'s mother's Shetland sheepdog puppy ate rat poison not long after I read this--Sunny survived, incredibly enough--so I had mental reinforcement for that portion of the book, along with little sidebar memories of a carriage ride, the fact that it was reading that led Emma astray, as well as a bit of a class lecture on shifting points of view--did Flaubert start a sentence alone with Emma playing the piano and then pull out far enough to bring in the entire listening village, or is that from some other book? I honestly don't remember.

So I'm very happy Frances arranged a group read to celebrate the new Lydia Davis translation and am very curious to see if any other memories come back to me over the course of reading the book a second time.

Edited to add:

I've found the paragraph about Emma playing the piano!

In the Davis translation:

She would draw, sometimes; and Charles found it most entertaining to stand there and watch her bending over her pad, half closing her eyes to see her work better, or forming pellets of bread crumbs on her thumb. As for the piano, the faster her fingers raced, the more he marveled. She would strike the keys with assurance and run down the entire keyboard from top to bottom without stopping. When it was thus assaulted by her, the old instrument, with its buzzing strings, could be heard as far as the edge of the village if the window was open, and often the bailiff's clerk, who was passing on the main road, bareheaded and in slippers, would stop to listen, holding his piece of paper in his hand.

And from the Francis Steegmuller translation, which I orginally read:

She drew occasionally; and Charles enjoyed nothing more than standing beside her watching her bent over her sketchbook, half shutting his eyes the better to see her work, or rolling her bread-crumb erasers between his thumb and finger. As for the piano, the faster her fingers flew the more he marveled. She played with dash, swooping up and down the keyboard without a break. The strings of the old instrument jangled as she pounded, and when the window was open it could be heard to the end of the village. The huissier's clerk often stopped to listen as he passed on the road--bareheaded, shuffling along in slippers, holding in his hand the notice he was about to post.

Who's reading the original? Why don't the translators agree on who is closing their eyes, who is rolling the bread crumbs on their fingers?


  1. Anonymous4:28 PM

    Those quote show so well that there is a difference between the translations.

    I don't remember much about my first time reading Madame Bovary (the fact that it was way too hot outside while I tried to read might have contributed). I remember the poison, like you, and the utter dislike I felt towards Emma in the end. I'm curious what my reaction will be like this time.

    On a side note, I'm so glad I found your blog through this readalong.

    On another side note, the parents of my boyfriend have a shetland dog who's name is Sunny. That's not relevant at all, but it struck me in your post.

  2. The sentence in the original is:

    Elle dessinait quelquefois; et c'était pour Charles un grand amusement que de rester là, tout debout, à la regarder penchée sur son carton, clignant des yeux, afin de mieux voir son ouvrage, ou arrondissant, sur son pouce, des boulettes de mie de pain.

    Personally I think Davis is right, although the language itself is genuinely unclear. It's definitely Emma who is bent over her sketchbook, because of the gendered "penchée," but either person could be the one squinting their eyes ("des yeux," where "des" means essentially "the") or rolling the breadcrumbs ("arrondissant, sur son pouce..." - "son" can mean "his," "her," or "its.") But to me it makes more sense that Emma would be the one squinting to see her work better, as people do when drawing - which would also imply that she's the breadcrumb-roller.

    I found that a lot of Flaubert's language was vague as far as who exactly was being referred to, actually - part of that whole shifting points of view thing, I suppose.

  3. Iris, I'm always fascinated by the fact that people with the same breed of dog tend to use the same names! I'm a fan of your blog, although I've been admiring it quietly instead of engaging with you as I should have.

    And Emily, thanks for providing the French. I too think it makes more sense for Emma to narrow her eyes and roll the bread crumbs. It undercuts just how entertained Charles is to watch her if he's also playing with crumbs the way a bored person might.

  4. I have also been surprised to see how little of Madame Bovary I remembered. Maybe the themes did not resonate with a younger me in the same way they do with an older me.

    Also agreeing with you and Emily and Lydia Davis in that parts are unclear. Confusing in greater measure because the precision of the language seems to suggest to the reader (or this reader) that the same precision will be delivered as to viewpoint. But then again, Flaubert distances his own contempt for the middle class with that precise language too. Never voicing explicit criticism. Much to think about.

  5. Nice post.
    As a translator I enjoy seeing the different ways in which other translators interpret a text.

    Although my French is far from perfect, it does seem to me that the original is unclear, but the former example makes better sense than the latter.

  6. I've never read Madame Bovary, and I wish I could join you in this readalong! Sounds like a lot of fun.

  7. I love reading about book memories, although the poisoned dog one doesn't sound pleasant even though he was okay.
    I'm reading along as well, but for the first time. For some reason I was surprised that she was so talented, as if that would make someone immune to dissatisfaction or depression.

  8. I also recalled the semester I read (most of) Madame Bovary. Organic chemisrty and physics at the same time - what was I thinking?? It's not surprising I remembered very little of the novel. Must say I'm enjoying it much more this time...

  9. Echoing your comment above, I'm not surprised that my first experience with this novel wasn't a successful one either. Certainly an argument for aiming for the right book at the right time!

  10. SFP, it's been really surprising to me, a first-time reader of Madame Bovary, to see how many previous readers of the novel have had neutral or negative reactions to the work in the past. I'll be interested in hearing whether you end up enjoying the novel more this time around and why or why not. Cheers!

  11. Anonymous1:14 PM

    I looked it up in an old Dutch translation and here it is Charles who squints his eyes and rolls the breadcrumbs.

    But if the breadcrumbs are indeed used as an eraser, I think it makes much more sense for Emma to squint and roll.


A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...