Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

Review published on July 12, 2013.Reviewed by Stephen Joyce

How quickly the boundaries fly back! When Madame Bovary was published in 1857, the French government put Flaubert on trial for immorality for telling the story of a married woman having an affair – one shudders to think what they would have made of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yet something has been lost, too, for few modern works of fiction can approach the lyrical cadences and lucid clarity of Flaubert’s masterpiece. Perhaps we have been pushing at the wrong boundary; after 150 years of literary effort, it seems a paltry return to have sacrificed le mot juste just to shove open the BDSM bedroom door.

Adam Thorpe’s new translation of Madame Bovary is thus a welcome delight. An English poet and author born in Paris, Thorpe is perfectly placed to translate the novel’s famous style, which he does in sentences reminiscent of the early Henry James but laden with irony and sensuousness. Even those who have read the novel before will be delighted to experience the freshness Thorpe brings to the text, its pungent life, its cool irony, its beauty. Above all, it is a terrific read, so modern as to feel contemporary without losing its original character.

In Madame Bovary, Flaubert flouts literary convention, his cold eye pitiless to pieties. When Emma Bovary gives herself over to adultery, rather than becoming slatternish and coarse as custom demanded, “she was never so beautiful as she was at that time… her lustfulness, her sorrows, the experience of pleasure and her still youthful illusions, had developed her by degrees, just as dung, rain, wind and sun bring out flowers.”

And even while shocking his contemporaries by suggesting adultery could make you sexy, Flaubert was still sneaking in his famous irony (which of her four experiences corresponds to dung in the simile?). In lieu of a narrator drawing moral conclusions for the reader, there is just an insistently mocking tone underlying the precise descriptions.

This tone extends to everything. In the provincial world of the novel, great and noble ideas are degraded by being believed in. Monsieur Homais, the pharmacist, proclaims the ideals of science, progress and reason with such pride that one wishes we’d never left the Dark Ages. Medicine, in the hands of Charles Bovary, is little more than cut and hope with a patina of science. Our heroine, so enamoured with romance and pale moons and midnight assignations, nevertheless turns these ideals into tawdry meetings in a back-alley hotel.

Thus, although the plot revolves around Emma Bovary’s unhappiness with her staid marriage and the affairs she begins in order to live the romantic life she has always dreamed of, the key is the world Flaubert creates. Although the novel mocks Emma’s delusions, we come to sympathise with her desire to escape the narrowness of provincial life, its absence of stimulation, its hackneyed language.

The irony is that this desire is nevertheless channelled through conventional routes, into the second-hand fantasies of cheap romance novels. “Like a shipwrecked sailor, she swept a despairing gaze over the solitude of her life, searching afar for any white canvas on the foggy horizon.” Even escape, it seems, is a well-worn cliché and Emma Bovary’s lies and deceptions steadily begin to catch up with her, leading her to ruin, not as a just punishment but because that’s how it would happen for a woman like her in a place like this.

If you haven’t read it, lay your hands on a copy of Thorpe’s translation and switch your phone off for the evening. Madame Bovary is the novel of the year, in any year.


An extract from Blink of an Eye, by Cath Staincliffe


An extract from The Long Shadow, by Mark Mills

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