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.”
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–Sarah Rose Nordgren, Publicity Assistant