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On Lydia Davis, Doing Flaubert Some Justice

I used to read faster than I do now. The decreasing velocity of my own literacy has become a bit of a pain, though, particularly when it comes to novels. I’ll admit I have preferred short stories, essays and poems because, when it comes to blocks of printed words, I know I’m impatient. I have always had the sense that I can get through a single poem or story in the discrete packets of reading time I seem to be granted. But I have to plod through novels, and often get mired. I keep restarting Proust and Dostoevsky, but I never finish. I read in pieces, in fragments and fractures.
Well, that might not be true exactly. I do read some big old novels, and do manage to finish after a stretch, but I no longer feel impelled to rush them, or to close things off. I don’t even appear to care if I finish a chapter or not at a sitting. I remember hating The Ambassadors because Henry James just kept taking way too long to make anything happen: middle-aged Lambert Strether hung excruciatingly in hiatus, suspended for page upon page at an apex of reflexive dithering. I like it better now, at least I think I do, but this shift is an effect of my own decreasing speed, that I’m much happier to take the reading experience sentence by sentence, and to try to enjoy the gradual unfolding of a declarative arc, the drift and cadence of James’s or whomever’s prose. I like to let words feel their way toward a period, to find their legs on a page.
Maybe this narrative viscosity offers a provisional antidote to the whelming blur of electronic media, their inherent speed. Fat novels slow you down. The fleetingness of screening text might be offset by the thickening materiality of words on a page, by verbal style. The stylist sine qua non for Henry James, his “novelist’s novelist,” was Gustave Flaubert, who also lamented, in his own era, an acceleration of reading to the detriment of the chewy experience – the degusting – of language. In a letter to Mme. Roger des Genettes dated May 27, 1878, he voices this exact complaint, this pretension:
Je crois que personne n’aime plus l’Art, l’Art en soi. Où sont-ils ceux qui trouvent du plaisir à déguster une belle phrase?” (I believe that no one loves art any more, art in itself. Where are those who find pleasure in savoring a beautiful sentence?) (Cited in the Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia 15).
He articulates not an abhorrence of the empirical or the technical, but a kind of delicious exactitude, famously encapsulated in the phrase attributed to him as “le mot juste,” the precise word. I’m no expert, no Flaubert scholar, but I can’t locate this exact phrase anywhere in Flaubert, though his insistence on directness and exactitude in writing – and on savouring that exactness in reading – permeates his letters. He wanted, as he put it, a style “as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science” (this from a letter to Louise Colet dated April 24, 1852, during the composition of Madame Bovary). Flaubert was a notoriously slow writer, and he makes a slow reader of me: sentence by sentence, word by word.
Reading Lydia Davis’s recent translation of Madame Bovary, I come across a famous passage at the end of the fifth chapter when Emma, a newlywed second wife for Charles Bovary, begins faintly to realize her romantic mistakenness:
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.
Avant qu’elle se mariât, elle avait cru avoir de l’amour; mais le bonheur qui aurait dû résulter de cet amour n’étant pas venu, il fallait qu’elle se fût trompée, songeait-elle. Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l’on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion et d’ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres.
By way of comparison, here is an earlier (1886) translation – now offered freely and electronically worldwide through Project Gutenberg – by Eleanor Marx Aveling, the English daughter of Karl Marx:
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.
Although contextually and historically more proximate to Flaubert (and also including unfortunate racial language of the time, for example), Marx Aveling’s version also misses a crucial resonance in this passage. That is, it’s here – for me, as an amateur rather than a trained reader of Flaubert – that the terms mot and juste actually appear, ghosted into his sentences. (I can’t be the first to notice this: I’m just ignorant of the reams of commentary on Flaubert.) Davis translates au justeas “just what,” I think, rather than as “exactly,” so we can still hear Flaubert’s mantra echoed in her English. Ironically, the passage surveys Emma Bovary’s infelicities, her poor calibre as a reader, unable to decode key words, or to know precisely what, if anything, they signify. Notice how Davis puts in scare-quotes the italicized romantic vocabulary Emma finds in her reading, in “books.” The passage, as translation, wants to slow us down, to invite its readers to consider how terms are invested with significance, and who does that investing. It puts at issue verbal seeming, the liminal apparition of words, as mere style: their ghostings. Davis, effectively translating here a moment when Flaubert indicates the vacuous untranslatability of words in books, their inherent paucity of meaning, produces – with concisely cadenced prose – an allegory of reading, a paradox that opens up from the demand for exacting language coupled with the refusal of all words, with their porosities and their unsettled and multiple definitions, ever to meet that demand. Her fine tuning of her own language to source text ends up exposing – I’ll say it again – its infelicities, which is what I think makes language interesting as language: its inherent dissimilarity from itself. That’s what meaning consists in, what it is (the strikeout’s intentional). Davis’s confident brilliance as a translator opens up the polysemous substance that Flaubert wants to hone and foreclose, even as the embedded ironies of his prose play against its definitive periodicity. Acknowledging this fracture at the level of the sentence, of the word, is a way of doing justice not only to Flaubert, as his translator, but to language as such, to languages.
Books and Such
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. 1856. Trans. Lydia
Davis. New York: Viking, 2010. Print.
Porter, Laurence M., ed. Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia.
Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 2001. Print.