Thursday, March 10, 2011

Having Sex With Madame Bovary

Before the financial ruin, before the shame, before the suffering, before the world's slowest suicide, there was the sex.  And it was good -- at least in the hands of Gustave Flaubert and Lydia Davis, the most recent translator of Madame Bovary.  Flaubert's novel, published in 1856 and dragged through the courts a year later, has long titillated readers with its ripe, non-explicit sex (e.g. "the joys of the night").  But now Davis helps make Flaubert even frothier for a new generation of readers.

More on the carnal delights of "the second-greatest novel of all time" in a minute...

This was my second trip through the novel.  The first, about fifteen years ago, was the competent but less sparkly Paul de Man translation in the Norton Critical Edition.  In a brief essay at Salon, Davis somewhat uncharitably sniffs that the de Man--itself a revision of the 1888 translation by Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor Marx Aveling--is the worst among the eleven translations she's read.  Perhaps it is; I only have my two versions for comparison, but in my opinion, Davis punches de Man to a TKO before the first bell has rung.  She proves, once and for all, that the work of a translator does matter.  It's not just swapping words between languages, it's investing that exchange with style and meaning.

The thing I remember most about my initial Norton Critical encounter with Emma Bovary was that she did a lot of walking.  I know Flaubert had an obsession with shoes, but come on.  Emma is on a perpetual treadmill throughout the book--that is, when she's not stretched out on her two deathbeds (the first, a false one, comes after her lover dumps her via a note hidden at the bottom of a basket of apricots and she is stricken with what she thinks is a grave illness).

But yeah, it's true, there are pages and pages of walking.  Emma hoofs it all around town, dragging the hem of her adulterous dresses through the muddy streets of Yonville, along the streambanks, across the wheat fields.  Walking, walking, walking.

You'd think she'd eventually wise up and get a bicycle or a pair of rollerblades.  In fairness, she does start using public transportation in the second half of the novel, catching the Hirondelle, a coach which takes her to day-long liaisons with her second lover (or third lover, if you want to count her husband Charles as her first lover [and we should count him because, never forget, Emma committed adultery with Charles before she married him]).  So....Emma's sore legs--that's what my head retains fifteen years after reading the de Man translation.

Flaubert: "The entire value of my book, if it has any, will consist of my having known how to walk straight ahead on a hair, balanced above the two abysses of lyricism and vulgarity (which I want to fuse in a narrative analysis.) When I think of what it can be, I am dazzled."

But it's not Emma's Lusty Pedestrian Afternoons that I take away from the new version.  It's the striking way Davis makes Flaubert's words fairly pop off the page.  Miniature fireworks.  Springs tight as mousetraps.  Sizzling sausages in a hot pan.

It's like we're reading a whole new book.  And in a way, we are.

Which is not to take anything away from Flaubert himself.  As he wrote in a letter to Louise Colet in 1852, he struggled long and hard over this book, walking a fine line between lyricism and vulgarity.  The result does indeed dazzle us.  That's never more evident than in the many sex scenes in the novel, starting with a sun-dappeled embrace in the forest, human limbs tangling like fallen tree limbs.

In sharp contrast to her mechanical sex with husband Charles, Emma's first extramarital humping is practically Edenic in setting and temperament.  By this time in their marriage, Flaubert writes, "Charles’s conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and everyone's ideas walked along it in their ordinary clothes, without inspiring emotion, or laughter, or reverie."  And Emma?  She was "thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel."  The married couple has sex "at set a dessert course foreseen in advance, after the monotony of dinner."

Then Emma meets that cad, Rodolphe, and the heavy panting begins.

Eventually, they go for a stroll in the forest (more walking!), Emma wrestles with moral torment, Rodolphe puts the moves on her, and...

The material of her riding habit caught on his velvet coat. She tipped back her head, her white throat swelled with a sigh; and weakened, bathed in tears, hiding her face, with a long tremor she gave herself up to him.

The evening shadows were coming down; the horizontal sun, passing between the branches, dazzled her eyes. Here and there, all around her, patches of light shimmered in the leaves or on the ground, as if hummingbirds in flight had scattered their feathers there. Silence was everywhere; something mild seemed to be coming forth from the trees; she could feel her heart beginning to beat again, and her blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk. Then, from far away beyond the woods, on the other hills, she heard a vague, prolonged cry, a voice that lingered, and she listened to it in silence as it lost itself like a kind of music in the last vibrations of her tingling nerves. Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending with his penknife one of the bridles, which had broken.

Hummingbird feathers.  Rivers of milk.  Cigars.  Holy orgasm, Batman!  You can see why Playboy famously ran this excerpt in last September's issue (for the benefit of those who enjoy the magazine "for the articles").  Flaubert (with an assist from Davis) so vibrantly conjures the details of this scene, I can practically taste the forest-floor detritus caught in Emma's open, panting mouth.

Erica Jong: "Perhaps we identify with Emma because we too feel an emptiness at the center of things -- an emptiness we try to fill with books, with fantasies, with sex, with things. Her yearning is nothing more or less than the human condition in the modern world. Her search for ecstasy is ours."

Later, a more brazen Emma takes another lover, Leon, who lives in the city (he had been her first adulterous love but the affair was unconsummated before he left town).  She convinces Charles to let her go to the Big City under the pretext of taking piano lessons.  Charles, ever the blind cuckold, says something like, "Have fun and bring back a polka!"  Instead of tickling the ivories, however, Emma is tickling something else on someone else.
She would undress roughly, tearing the thin string of her corset, which would whistle around her hips like a slithering snake. She would stand on the tips of her bare toes to see one more time that the door was locked, then drop all her clothes in a single motion;—and, pale, speechless, solemn, she would collapse against his chest with a long shudder.
I don't know about you, but a whistling corset that slithers like a snake is some of the sexiest symbolism I've ever read.

A. S. Byatt: "There is no greater study of boredom than Madame Bovary - which is nevertheless never boring, but always both terrifying and simultaneously gleeful over its own accuracy."

Not all of the sexiest passages in Flaubert's novel involve human fornication.  Here, for example, we see how the city, with its tumescent promise, presents itself to Emma as she rides in the carriage on her way to meet her afternoon delight ("sky-rockets in flight!").  The urban sprawl becomes, in essence, a separate lover who initiates foreplay, getting Emma sexually agitated before she even hooks up with Leon.

Then, in a single glance, the city would appear. Descending in an amphitheater, and drowned in mist, it broadened out untidily beyond the bridges. Then the open country rose again in a monotonous sweep, until in the distance it touched the uncertain lower edge of the pale sky. Seen thus from above, the entire landscape had the stillness of a painting; the ships at anchor were piled together in one corner; the river curved round the foot of the green hills; and the islands, oblong in shape, resembled great black fish that had come to a stop on the water. The factory chimneys expelled immense brown plumes that flew off at the tips. One could hear the rumbling of the foundries along with the clear chimes of the churches that rose through the fog. The leafless trees along the boulevards were like thickets of violet among the houses, and the roofs, all gleaming with rain, sparkled unequally, according to the heights of the neighborhoods. Now and then a gust of wind would carry the clouds off toward the Sainte-Catherine hill, like aerial waves breaking in silence against a cliff. For her, something dizzying emanated from those closely crowded lives, and her heart would swell hugely with it, as if all of the hundred twenty thousand souls throbbing down there had transmitted to her, at the same moment, the vapor of the passions she supposed they harbored. Her love would grow larger in the presence of this vastness and fill with tumult at the indistinct hum that ascended from below. She would pour this love back out, onto the squares, the promenades, the streets, and in her eyes, the old Norman city would spread before her like some immense capital, some Babylon she was entering.
And then, not too many pages later, Flaubert provides this lusty description of the hotel bedroom where Emma and Leon tryst the afternoons away.

The bed was a large mahogany one in the form of a gondola. The curtains of red Levantine silk, which descended from the ceiling, were looped back too low near the flaring headboard;—and nothing in the world was as lovely as her brown hair and white skin standing out against that crimson, when, in a gesture of modesty, she would bring her two bare arms together, hiding her face in her hands. The warm room, with its subdued carpet, its playful ornaments, and its tranquil light, seemed perfectly suited to the intimacies of passion. The arrow-tipped rods of the canopy, the brass curtain hooks, and the great knobs on the andirons would gleam suddenly if the sun came in. On the mantelpiece, between the candelabras, were two of those large pink shells in which you can hear the sound of the sea when you put them to your ear.

The penal "arrow-tipped rods," the andiron knobs, the pink shells, the O of the hooks--all sexually loaded words which Flaubert chose carefully, precisely, profoundly.  This is the kind of bedazzled language that's ripe for late-night-cable soft-core porn.  Perhaps a movie called When Gustave Met Lydia.


  1. "Instead of tickling the ivories, however, Emma is tickling something else on someone else."

    Love it!

  2. Hello,

    I very much liked this review but from your description it sounds like Davis has practically rewritten the book. I haven't read this sizzling new translation so perhaps I shouldn't venture an opinion but it sounds a little het up.

    I kind of liked Flaubert's cold detachment or was that just the anal translations of old? Did he really write write "whistle around her hips like a slithering snake"? Good lord, ...sure she's not colourizing classics?