Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Madame Bovary

Lydia Davis has made a tender and seamless and new-seeming translation of that much-translated chestnut, Madame Bovary, which generally in the past has come out in English sounding cold and harsh. This new version has been such a pleasure to read that I gave a copy to my daughter for her recent birthday.

In the brief scene quoted below, Emma has hoisted herself up the social ladder high enough to be attending her first ball. The ease and polish she observes among the people habitually at home in society fill her with admiration and envy. And Flaubert (with Davis's help) could be describing the essentials about the cool-people-who-know-they-are-cool in an American high school of the 21st century just as accurately as those he is literally describing here – in their French ballroom of the 1850s –

A few of the men (perhaps fifteen) between the ages of twenty-five and forty, scattered among the dancers or chatting in doorways, were distinguished from the rest of the crowd by a family resemblance, despite their differences in age, dress, or feature. Their coats, better cut, were made of suppler cloth, and their hair, brought forward in curls at their temples, glazed by finer pomades. They had the complexion of wealth, that white skin which is set off by the pallor of porcelain, the shimmer of satin, the finish of handsome furniture, and which is maintained in its health by a prudent regimen of exquisite foods. Their necks turned comfortably in low cravats; their long side-whiskers rested upon downturned collars; they wiped their lips on handkerchiefs embroidered with large monograms and redolent of a pleasing scent. Those who were beginning to age had a youthful look, while a touch of maturity overlay the faces of the younger. In their indifferent gazes floated the tranquility of passions daily gratified; and beneath their gentle manners was visible that particular brutality imparted by domination in rather easy things, in which one's strength is exerted and one's vanity tickled, the handling of thoroughbred horses and the company of fallen women.

In addition to the Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis has just published her own Collected Stories, gathering up several small volumes issued over the past couple of decades. They are odd and great, no two alike. I was a fan of her fiction before taking any notice of the translations, and nobody better deserves the sudden surge of attention she has been receiving.

Back in 1991 Claude Chabrol adapted Madame Bovary for the big screen, with the help of the phenomenal French actress Isabelle Huppert. And I will indulge myself by closing with a few images from their version of the ball, a sliver of which was quoted above.