The newest book by Lydia Davis happens to be Madame Bovary, which happens to have first been written by Gustave Flaubert, but still, since Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert has been thought about and written about at what one might call considerable length, and since Flaubert himself found saying things that had already been said, on purpose or accidentally, so anathema that he had to italicize most any commonplace—Lydia Davis has distinguished herself from most of her Bovary translating predecessors by maintaining the italics—and even wrote a satiric Dictionary of Received Ideas . . . because of all that, instead of talking about that book by Flaubert that has been discussed at considerable length, let us talk about a book that has been discussed merely quite a bit, which is the translation of Madame Bovary by Lydia Davis, which, translation status notwithstanding, is really best read and considered as another book by Lydia Davis, who, it just so happens, shares with Flaubert a quixotic obsession with the mot juste.
Davis's literary production includes several short-story collections (that term, "short story," is not the right one, but there is no right term for her often but not always extremely short bursts of prose, which are often but not always philosophical and often but not always funny and often but not always inexorable in their way), a novel, and very well-regarded translations of work by Marcel Proust, Michel Leiris, and Maurice Blanchot. Dominant among the aesthetic tropes she deploys in her fiction—and this feels at times like a premonition of her translations—is that of defamiliarization. Consider the horror story she makes of a cooked grain in her recent story "The Cornmeal" (reproduced here in full):
This morning, the bowl of hot cooked cornmeal, set under a transparent plate and left there, has covered the underside of the plate with droplets of condensation: it is taking action in its own little way.
Or of a hand, in "Hand" (also reproduced here in full):
Beyond the hand holding this book that I'm reading, I see another hand lying idle and slightly out of focus—my extra hand.
She makes a dramatic climax out of, simply, a possessive adjective. And by choosing the perfect companion adjectives ("idle" and "extra") she, in a one-sentence story, has made that ordinary hand doing its ordinary book-holding work reveal itself to be both alien (extraordinary, extraterrestrial, "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" etc.) and ever so slightly ("Idle hands are the devil's workshop") menacing and dreamy.
Aging parents and indifferent babies and minor meals form the special space-time that the words of Davis move through, and so, between reading stories about cornmeal and book holding, one could mistakenly call her a domestic writer. And one could similarly make the mistake of labeling Madame Bovary a domestic novel (though such a mistake is not often made, despite its often being made about the work of Davis, a point worth letting unsettle us), concerned as it is with the banal movements and minor betrayals and predatory interest rates and notes in baskets of apricots that make up the bourgeois world of the Bovarys. But "domestic" is not quite the right word, unless the word can be sculpted, through a kind of repetition with variation—think of the varied meaning even of "hand," in each of its three appearances in that one-sentence story—into its proper purpose here. Of Davis's work, one can only turn to another Davis short for what seems like just the right description:
What's the Word?
"When I first met you
I didn't think you would turn out to be so
. . . strange."
In part 2, chapter 2, of Madame Bovary, before Emma has had an affair, she says to Léon, who later becomes one of her lovers, "What I really adore are stories that can be read all in one go, and that frighten you. I detest common heroes and moderate feelings, the sort that exist in real life." Léon goes on to say that Yonville, where they find themselves living, has so little to offer. She answers, "Like Tostes, I suppose . . . that's why I always belonged to a lending library." It's touching to recall that Madame Bovary, generally considered to be the foundational work of realism, is a book about someone who takes books too seriously, who thinks of them as real.
In at least one small way, the character of Lydia Davis, writer, is, well, she's a bit of an Emma Bovary. She takes the written word very, very, very seriously. Emma reads a series of genres—religious, romantic, and so on—and takes them for the way life really is, or at least really ought to be. "She had read Paul and Virginia, and she had dreamed of the little bamboo house, the Negro Domingo, the dog Faithful. . . . Instead of following the Mass, she would gaze in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges, and she loved the sick ewe, the Sacred Heart pierced with sharp arrows, or poor Jesus falling, as he walked, under his cross. . . . When she went to confession, she would invent little sins in order to stay there longer, on her knees in the darkness, her hands together, her face at the grille beneath the whisperings of the priest." Bovary is similarly devout to the other written words she comes across, with the important exception of promissory notes and bills.
Davis's devotion to the word is, of course, more wry and awry, but it still often feels that life follows the word as often as the reverse—"Like a tropical storm, / I, too, may one day become 'better organized'"—and that the precise words for an experience will be pursued, even when they don't quite exist. In Madame Bovary, we see Davis reading and also, yes, rewriting the seminal work of realism, and taking Flaubert's novel for a text where the preservation of the original word merits all possible intellectual attention. One could say this of all translations, but with Davis one finds the zealous devotion that, were it exaggerated just a bit, would have prevented her from getting past the problems of translating a single sentence.
As engrossing as her stories are the notes Davis has written about translation decisions she made while working on Swann's Way, her most significant such project preceding Madame Bovary. We see her exquisite and slightly mad devotion in, for example, her explanation, ten paragraphs in length, of why, in the end, despite its numerable charms, the English word "flensed"—a "lovely word," one that refers to the tidy butchering (separating the blubber from the meat) of a whale—is not used in translating a particular passage of Proust ending in dépecer, a word that, in French, when applied to an animal, refers to the cutting up of that animal into pieces. (I should confess here that my own knowledge of French does not extend far beyond kenning the lyrics of a few pop songs; I'm trusting in Davis and academic dictionaries for the French-language observations made in this essay.)
Davis, we learn from her telling, translates the passage that compares the frozen Seine to an "immense baleine échouée, sans défense, et qu'on allait dépecer," as "a beached whale, immense, defenseless and about to be cut up." The rhyme of the original French—immense, défense—Davis maintains with "immense, defenseless," but then the further available near rhyme in English—"flensed"—for the butchering at the end has to be forsaken for its excessively limericky feel and distracting obscurity. "So I abandoned 'flense,' though it continued to haunt me as being an unusable perfect solution." In rendering another passage of Proust, Davis narrates how she chose between translating the French aurore into the English "dawn" and "aurora." Neither quite fits ("aurora," though more accurate, "will not be very expressive; it has not accumulated the same emotional and metaphorical associations as 'dawn'"), but she ends up going with "aurora" not just for reasons of ideal verisimilitude but also for the delicate estrangement provided by the less familiar word; for, she says, its novelty, its surprise. The lack of a mot juste in that case exceeds its status as a problem; it becomes its own little pearl.
Like Proust, Davis teaches us the failings of our perceptions; we see this both in her de-familiarizing of her own hand and in her detailing of how a word can bring up almost the same, but not quite the same, set of associations as its counterpart in another language. What distinguishes Davis is that she makes something of these mismatches; the flaws become, as they say of expensive clothing, essential to the character of the garment. Davis mines mismatches both in the particulars of translation and in the more general problem of feelings not finding their words. Mismatches illuminate, under Davis's hand, maybe even more often than they obscure. This frictive play animates one of her more famous stories, "Grammar Questions," which begins:
Now, during the time he is dying, can I say, "This is where he lives"?
If someone asks me, "Where does he live?" should I answer, "Well, right now he is not living, he is dying"?
The logical plumb line continues to sink, so that midway through the short:
I don't know if there is a "he," even though people will say "He is dead." But it does seem correct to say "He is dead." This may be the last time he will still be "he" in the present tense. Or it will not be the last time, because I will also say, "He is lying in his coffin." I will not say, and no one will say, "It is lying in the coffin," or "It is lying in its coffin."
I would say, "And so on," but that would not be quite right, because although the emotional mechanics advance, in general, as you might imagine they do, it is in the specific where Davis surprises and overturns. And as so often is the case with the logic we think we are following at the beginning of a Davis story, or even sentence, we have the sense that the problem being solved isn't quite the one that we had thought, by the sounds of it, was the one being worked on. It's not that the cornmeal ought instead to have been put away.
In any translation of Madame Bovary, but in this one by Lydia Davis especially, the climactic passage is the most famous one, the passage that describes the romantic fatigue of Emma's first and more cynical lover, Rodolphe—the one with whom Flaubert said he most identified—at Emma's passionate and clichéd praisings of him. "He had heard these things said to him so often that for him there was nothing original about them. Emma was like all other mistresses." But then the narrator intrudes with judgment, rare in the book. Davis, for Flaubert, writes:
He could not perceive—this man of such broad experience—the difference in feelings that might underlie similarities of expression. Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness; one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed mediocre affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.
The passage explicitly deals with canned speech and has the surprisingly tender and optimistic argument that there might be more than the tinny container suggests. It seems at once a capitulation—we're not going to find the mot juste—and a faith: There's something that merits the search for the mot juste.
What choices has Davis made here? In the original French, we find the post-semicolon part of the second sentence above as:
comme si la plénitude de l'âme ne débordait pas quelquefois par les métaphores les plus vides, puisque personne, jamais, ne peut donner l'exact mesure de ses besoins, ni de ses conceptions ni de ses douleurs, et que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.
Several fluent French speakers have confirmed for me that this passage, in the original French, is expressly lyrical, with the pang of an extra jamais between the already doubly negative puisque personne ("nobody") and ne peut donner, and with the parallelism of ni de ses conceptions, ni de ses douleurs, and with the sentence ending with a subjunctive longing directed at, well, the stars. The prose is almost purple, especially compared with other parts of the novel, and the purpleness is tempered mostly with the banal: dancing bears and a cracked kettle. It almost perfectly seems to answer the wonderful platitude that once was fresh and original: that poetry should not mean but be.
Davis's translation then surprises with its quietness, with its elegance. The s sounds buoy us along ("such . . . feelings . . . similarities . . . expression . . . licentious . . . lips . . . speeches . . . as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow . . . since none of us can ever express . . . our sorrows"), but the music is somewhat muted. Which seems very right. Davis also chooses to end on "pity" rather than on "stars." And then that tenderizing verb, attendrir—which Flaubert used (banally!) in his own hyperexclaimed love letters to Louise Colet ("Oh! Tu es bonne, dévouée! Et fusses-tu née laide, ton âme rayonne dans tes yeux et te rend charmante, d'un charme qui touche et attendrit"), and which, marvelously, also is used in the context of cooking ("to tenderize" meat!)—has little space to maneuver in English and has to masquerade in the more capacious "move," whose ambiguity is probably what made a necessity of "pity," which proves a nice way to end the passage, since we ourselves as readers are moved to pity, both by Flaubert's problem of trying to find a noncanned way to talk about the fullness of the human soul that might be expressed even in canned speech and by the plight of Davis, who, in order to be true to the even-more-impossible-than-usual-to-translate-faithfully passage, has to similarly make her way through expressions received and not, and a language that needs to find something lyrical through use of its clunkier words.
And the words are haunted, at that, by previous translations into English. "Cracked kettle," for example, is the known and famous phrase here, seen in most of the previous translations into English. It is, for English readers, the phrase, and for it to change would be almost as discomforting as adjusting to the various changes to what Gregor Samsa wakes up as (cockroach? dung beetle?) after a night of uneasy dreams. In French we have chaudron, which, like the English word "kettle" as well, once meant something that we would today term, perhaps, "largish general-use pot." Maybe "cauldron." In modern English, though, "kettle" almost invariably invokes an image of a teakettle, which ruins the visual of the passage. So why hold on to "kettle"? "Cauldron" calls to mind witches, so that doesn't work. But maybe "tin pot"? Maybe "cracked kettle" remains because it is already the phrase in the famous passage as we know it, and anything else would clang wrong in the minds of too many readers? Or maybe because written speech, too, can work best here if it reminds us of the ways in which it is like, well, a cracked kettle on which rhythms are beaten, while we long to make music that would move the stars? To pity?
At the end of her notes on her Proust translation decisions, after a five-point and fifteen-paragraph analysis of the translation possibilities of a tricky sentence involving, among other things, what was earlier translated as "antiphonal barking," Davis writes:
It takes much longer to write out the debates that go on over these translation problems than it does to think them through to oneself, but then, one's thoughts are more repetitive than this writing: often I can't accept the fact that there isn't a way to solve all the parts of a problem successfully, so I go over them again and again.
Which is to say, the house remains haunted; the text manages to glitter, almost spookily, with the lexical possibilities that now aren't.
Flaubert said, of his writing of Madame Bovary, that he was rewriting Don Quixote, and certainly Don Quixote and Madame Bovary are both books about readers, about arguably very foolish readers who take their reading as gospel. As with Don Quixote, Emma Bovary's intimates suffer her passions and misperceptions. She cuckolds her husband, spends down his money, and neglects her daughter, although the one who bears Emma's follies most terminally is, of course, Emma herself. One thinks of Dostoyevsky's famous and somewhat mysterious pronouncement that Don Quixote was not only his favorite book but also the saddest book there ever was. Which means what? The cruel fates distributed by these dreamers are not the saddest aspects of these books; sadder is that these figures, with their desperate faith in their reading, are necessarily fools. Dostoyevsky's well-known comparison of Quixote to Jesus Christ is likely telling: What is sad is that the world doesn't conform to what the holy fool believes it to be. Neither Quixote nor Emma is Christ, to be sure, but still: Is there anything quite as touching—perhaps attendrir would be the better verb—as the end of Don Quixote, when he renounces his life of devotion to chivalry? He turns his back on his faith, but it's too late; the reader has already been stealthily converted. Emma's worldview may not compel, but neither does her world, and so it seems compelling at least that she will not accept it, regardless of the cost—the bills become the one text she fails to put faith in—of her denial.
It has recently been noted that many people don't like Emma Bovary. Why? It can't simply be because she is foolish (cf. Quixote) or even at times unintentionally cruel (again cf. Quixote), so one does wonder just wherein the difference lies. Is it in the realm she rules? Is it in, whatever it has come to mean, the domestic?
By the novel's end, Charles seems even more quixotic than his wife; nowhere in the book does he move me (and arguably the stars) to pity so much as when, at the end of the book—and it is distressing that the book goes on for another twenty pages after Emma's death—his fantasy about who Emma was is wrecked by discovering her letters to Rodolphe. After that, Charles, who had managed while grieving the Emma he imagined her to be, proves unable to survive grieving his fantasy of her. He can no longer work, he wastes the remaining money, he dies, and his daughter has to live out the end of her days working in a cotton mill. Still, it seems wrong—according to the most venerable of the holy fools—to hate the sinner. And almost no one hates Charles. Which brings us back to the question of just what kind of meaning for "domestic" would have to emerge for us to really understand what it is that Davis, with her wild dedication, is doing, in this or any book. It is something foolish, and venerable, and undone.
Rivka Galchen is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances (FSG, 2008).