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Madame Bovary: The Exquisite Corpse

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Emma Bovary is a cored apple: hollow, hollowing, browning and sweet. Her namesake novel, Madame Bovary (newly translated by Lydia Davis) is nothing if not a warning of how modernity turns out if we're not careful -- a symmetrical yet unbeautiful mess. It's a biography in the form of a novel -- a portrait of one of the most ruthless characters ever created. She is both victim and victimizer. She impales herself on the spire of boredom, on commercialism, too; she pounds the poison of debt. She turns shopping into a 19th century form of cutting. And then she commits a final and unsacred act of self-murder. Emma Bovary stumbles forward with biblical inevitability. She unravels. And in the end, with some satisfaction, she gets what she deserves.

If I'm being a bit hard on her, I have my reasons. When I first read Madame Bovary in college (that maroon Penguin paperback I marked up with blue ballpoint pen), I was mesmerized by the heroine's catastrophically flawed character and by the author's flawlessness. I was interested in how his sentences and paragraphs unfolded naturally into scenes and chapters, how his parts made a perfect whole, and so on. Flaubert's simple mention of the color blue startled and delighted. He measured and stacked domestic indiscretions on Emma's chest until they crushed her. I was startled by his genius, yes, but devastated by what he did to Charles.

As you follow Emma from town and country, as you accompany her on her slow walk to her self-stoning, you can't help but grow more and more nervous for how things will end. You can't help wanting to warn Emma, to draw her down another path, but, of course, you can't. So, in the end, you anticipate Emma's fate, but never, never the fate of Charles. With Charles, we aren't allowed to see it coming. The tragedy of Charles is one compounded by surprise.

As I've been reading this new Davis translation of Madame Bovary, all of these feelings have come rushing back to me. Davis, an accomplished translator, is also a visceral, physical writer of fiction. So, naturally, I had hope that she might be willing to work with Charles. I had hope she might feel the same as I and try and save him -- if not save him, at least soften the blow of his death. But I am sad to report that Lydia Davis has saved no one and softened nothing. Davis, translating Flaubert, writes, "His head was leaning back against the wall, his eyes were closed, his mouth was open, and he was holding in his hands a long lock of black hair."

I have several copies of Madame Bovary at home. One of my favorites is a beautiful edition translated by J. Lewis May and illustrated by Pierre Brissaud for the The Limited Editions Club of New York. My copy is signed by the artist and is number 442 of 1,500 copies. It is a copy that, saved from the vagaries of life, may last 500 hundred years or more. I plan to pass it on to my sons when the time is right -- when I think they can take its terrible news.

I have always known that I am not an Emma Bovary-type. I could never be so reckless in love and life, so brutally frank with myself, so tremendously self-confident that when my life was no longer worth living I could end myself. I am not Emma, but instead, I'm afraid, Charles. So when I read the last chapter of Madame Bovary, I am reading news of my own death. While I admire its symmetrical telling, I'm nonetheless ravished by the result. I never get to the end of the novel without hoping things will turn out differently. Lydia Davis' translation, which I read as an eBook on my Kindle, is no exception.

I've often imagined rewriting the last chapter of Madame Bovary. In my version, you would not come upon Charles slumped over dead of a broken heart. Instead, you'd be left with his beautiful Berthe sitting on her father's lap hearing a good book. Charles would not only live, but he would triumph! Emma would be the only death allowed. Emma would remain that apple cored: hollow, hollowing, browning and sweet. Everyone else would be saved.