Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A great book about nothing

A century and a half after its controversial debut, "Madame Bovary" still wields influence and inspires interpretation.

A new English translation of Gustave Flaubert's

Madame Bovary

was recently published.


one may ask. After all, many fine translations of this iconic work already exist. But Lydia Davis is a highly respected writer and translator, and new perspectives on masterworks are always welcome. This latest version demonstrates again that the book remains relevant, an exemplar of its time and ours.

Madame Bovary, the novel, burst onto the literary scene in 1857 and created a scandal - much as Madame Bovary, the character, broke out of her marital prison to the scandalized horror of her provincial neighbors. What is it about this book that continues to speak to us, and inspire new interpretations, after a century and a half?

Though composed of melodramatic elements - beautiful, bored wife of a country doctor flees into the arms of men who cannot love her the way she longs to be loved, and ultimately dies an agonizing death by arsenic poisoning - it is an anti-melodrama. Emma Bovary has none of the allegorical aura of a Don Quixote, but this confused, novel-addled dreamer has been raised on quixotic visions of a life she can never attain.

The plot is not the only reason contemporary readers relate to her sad tale. The story is told in language that often achieves the power of poetry while avoiding sentimentality.

The book can be viewed as a condemnation of romance novels' tragic power over the (supposedly) fragile female psyche. Ironically, Flaubert himself was as dazzled in his youth by such literature as Emma is; at his friends' urging, he wrote the tale to exorcise his own melodramatic tendencies.

Even while mocking his unheroic heroine's yearnings, he felt sympathy for her ("Madame Bovary, c'est moi"). Her (and Flaubert's) bourgeois, capitalist world leaves little room for the dreamer, however misguided, and offers only vulgarized values. Indeed, among the major themes of the novel is money; it is debt that sends Emma on her desperate quest for help and finally destroys her as surely as her failures in love.

In his voluminous correspondence, Flaubert made it clear that he had trouble with the subject matter. Like a pianist "trying to play with lead weights on his fingers," he struggled with every sentence. Forever seeking "le mot juste" ("the absolutely right word"), he took almost five years to finish the novel.

But when he finally did, mon Dieu, what controversy it created! Because of what was seen as the novel's "glorification of adultery," connection of sex with religion, and mocking of middle-class values, the author was hauled into court on charges of obscenity and offenses to public morality.

Flaubert's savvy lawyer spoke in outraged tones at the trial, arguing that the book was an "incitement to virtue by the horror of vice." He noted that earlier revered French authors, as well as Shakespeare and Goethe, had penned similarly risqué and ironic passages.

Flaubert and the book were acquitted, and both went on to wield great influence over later writers. In a recent interview, a very different writer, Philip Roth, acknowledged Flaubert's profound influence on his latest work. Hemingway called Flaubert "the one we believed in, loved without criticism." Flaubert invented narrative strategies that have become staples of modern realist fiction and created a world that still matters to us.

Believing ultimately that a work could be sustained by style alone and that the subject didn't matter, Flaubert longed to write what he called "un livre sur rien" - "a book about nothing" - and this long before Seinfeld! The goal was artistic perfection and scientific precision: He felt the artist's highest aspiration was to be "like God in the universe: everywhere present and nowhere visible."

Not every reader is an aspiring writer or critic, however, and it would be a mistake to attribute Flaubert's relevance mainly to our awareness of his stylistic skill. We are more likely drawn into Emma's world by the richness of character, plot, and language. That world is vividly meaningful even in translation, as the new Davis version reveals.

Writing a book about nothing, of course, remained an impossible goal: Madame Bovary is clearly about something. But if Flaubert did not achieve perfect style and pure objectivity, he did write one of the great novels of modern Western literature. So as his birthday, which is on Sunday, draws near, let's wish old Gustave "Joyeux anniversaire!" and celebrate his timeless creation of a woman who aspired to better things but misjudged herself and her world. The novel she inhabits still resonates powerfully with readers, as well as with writers who strive to be Flaubertian - or is that another impossible dream?