What We’re Reading: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

I discovered the writing of Lydia Davis during my freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College, when a friend loaned me a copy of her first short story collection, Break it Down, and said, “You have to read this. You’ll love it.” Davis immediately became one of my favorite writers; I consumed her subsequent collections and her one novel, The End of the Story, with the wondrous intensity of an acolyte, wrote imitative stories in my fiction workshop, and joyfully stood in line to have my copy of Samuel Johnson is Indignant signed after her reading at the 92nd Street Y.

Since that time, Davis has received a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius award”), was named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government, and was awarded the 2003 French-American Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Swann’s Way. Basically, Lydia Davis is one of the smartest people in the world (along with Anne Carson). I loved Davis’ translation of Swann’s Way (and wish she translated all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time), so I was excited to re-read Gustave Flaubert’s first novel told through Davis’s clear, faithfully discerning voice.

Madame Bovary is a beautiful novel, and is considered by many to be the first masterpiece of realist fiction. When it was first published in 1857, Emma Bovary was thought to be so lifelike that several women claimed to be the model for the character, and the French government deemed the book immoral (solidifying its popularity). Each character balances nobility and ridiculousness such that the reader cannot help but identify with attributes of each, and the details of the tragic conclusion will hang with you for days.

Whether or not you’ve read Madame Bovary in the past, Davis’s translation is reportedly the most faithful rendering of Flaubert’s book (unless you can read it in French, which I, sadly, cannot). As the characters in the novel discover, a translation can never be exactly true, and sometimes beauty is the next best thing. As Flaubert writes, “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.”

Want to win a copy of Madame Bovary? Just leave a comment here or on our Facebook page and one lucky person will win.

–Sarah Rose Nordgren, Publicity Assistant

22 Comments On This Post:

November 29, 2010
9:30 am
Jim Carmin says...

I love Lydia Davis’s translation of Proust, so Bovary should be great. Thanks.

November 29, 2010
9:31 am
Trish Rucker says...

I love Madame Bovary and only have my highlighted copy from my college years!

November 29, 2010
9:32 am
Suzanne says...

I would love to win a copy of this translation – I have heard many good things about it.
My classics book group will be reading Madame Bovary in March and it would be great to have my own copy!

November 29, 2010
9:37 am
Emily (aka Bookeater) says...

I would love to win a copy of this new edition! I have one sitting on my TBR bookshelf from a thrift store.

November 29, 2010
10:05 am
Abby says...

Lydia Davis is a gem, one of the best writers at work today. Her collected stories is a must-read, too.

I would LOVE to win a copy of her Flaubert translation. I would take it as a good omen. Of what, I don’t know… but of something (hmmm… I’m beginning to sound like one of her cracked characters).

November 29, 2010
10:16 am
Lauren says...

Looking forward to this new translation!

November 29, 2010
10:36 am
Deborah says...

Ms. Nordgren speaks elegantly of and to our stars.

November 29, 2010
12:36 pm
Brent Winter says...

I just read Lydia Davis’s translations of Proust in the Paris Review and loved them. Her story “Break It Down” hit me like an anvil the first time I read it–a real revelation; I didn’t know you could write like that until I read the story, and then it seemed not only possible but necessary that a story like that should exist. I haven’t read Madame Bovary yet, which I always felt as a lack until I read this blog post and learned that Davis’s translation had just come out. I was unknowingly waiting for the right translation to come along!

November 29, 2010
1:16 pm
jonathan evison says...

. . . we’re doing a group reading of bovary over at the fiction files, for anyone interested . . . here’s the thread:


November 29, 2010
1:47 pm
Doni Molony says...

Please put my name in the hat. I would love to own a copy of Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary. I’m feeling lucky. 🙂 DM

November 29, 2010
4:02 pm
Linda Johnson says...

I would love for my number to come up to get this book. Thanks in advance.

November 29, 2010
5:50 pm
Cassie says...

i do. 🙂

November 29, 2010
5:51 pm
Chelly says...

Would love to win a copy of this book. Cheers!

November 29, 2010
5:51 pm
Jen says...

Oh, I’ve heard this is perhaps the best translation of “Bovary” yet released! I’d love to get my hands and eyeballs on a copy! Thank you for the opportunity.

November 29, 2010
5:55 pm
Mirtes Oliveira says...

As a student of translation (Potuguese – English – French), and a literature lover, it would be really great to have a copy of this translation.

November 29, 2010
6:10 pm
Kevin says...

I wish more fiction writers translated foreign works; seems to make for a dynamic and interesting exchange of ideas. Guess you need to be capable, though, and passionate: it takes time. I’m definitely interested in a potential copy, though, thanks for the opportunity.

November 29, 2010
6:30 pm
Teresa says...

I’ve been reading about this translation, and I am thoroughly intrigued in being able to reread ‘Madame Bovary’ and experience it in a new light. How wonderful!

November 29, 2010
7:38 pm
Melissa says...

I’ve been dying to read this translation!

November 29, 2010
8:29 pm
David Correa says...

Very excited about this new translation!

November 29, 2010
9:29 pm
Lynne says...

Now that I am of an age to truly appreciate Emma Bovary, I’m hoping to read this translated version.

November 29, 2010
9:59 pm
M says...

I’d love to read it.

December 2, 2010
1:07 pm
Slow Reader says...

I have my heart set on this translation of Bovary, as well as the new translation of Doctor Zhivago by Pevear & Volokhonsky — planning to use my Hanukkah gelt to buy both …
(though I confess I cannot imagine spending that much time together with my spouse as Pevear & V seem to do — first Tolstoy, now Pasternak)
I read the introduction of the Davis translation of Bovary (yes, that was me in Flyleaf Books), which prompted me to hunt down and buy a used (very old and very cheap) volume of Flaubert’s letters during the time he was writing Bovary …

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