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Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert's first novel "Madame Bovary" was published on April 12, 1857.  It was about a bored housewife who has multiple affairs to stave off the emptiness of her life.  The beautiful Emma Bovary is married to Charles Bovary, a provincial doctor.  Together they lead an ordinary life in a small French village, but she harbors fantasies of an elegant and passionate existence.  She reads romantic novels which only increase her dissatisfaction with her own life.  She spends all their  money on expensive clothes and furnishings for their house and runs up huge debts with the all the shopkeepers in town.   Motherhood brings her no happiness.  She embarks on two love affairs and suffers no guilt. The novel caught the attention of the authorities and Flaubert was charged with corrupting public morals.  He was acquitted and the publicity from the trial made the book a bestseller.

"Madame Bovary" is thought to be the first masterpiece of realistic fiction.  Flaubert attempted to tell the story objectively, without romanticizing or moralizing.  This style was the reason for the outcry on the part of the authorities who deemed the book immoral.  It was so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for Emma Bovary. Flaubert took five long years to write the book and was fastidious about each word.  He wanted to find a style "as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science."

Here is the famous (and shocking at the time) cab ride that Emma and her lover take:

"From his seat the coachman now and again glanced at a tavern with a despairing eye.  He could not understand what mania for locomotion was compelling these individuals to refuse to stop.  He would sometimes try, and he would immediately hear exclamations of rage behind him.  Then he would lash his two sweating nags all the harder, but with no regard for bumps, catching a wheel on one side or the other, not caring, demoralized, and almost weeping from thirst, fatigue, and gloom.

And at the harbor, among the drays and great barrels, and in the streets, at the corners by the guard stones, the townspeople would stare wide-eyed in amazement at this thing so unheard of in the provinces, a carriage with drawn blinds that kept appearing and reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and tossed about like a ship at sea.

Once, at midday, out in the countryside, when the sun was beating down most fiercely against the old silver-plated lamps, a bare hand passed under the little blinds of yellow canvas and threw out some torn scraps of paper, which scattered in the wind and alighted, at a distance, like white butterflies, on a field of red clover all in bloom.

Then, toward six o'clock, the carriage stopped in a lane in the Beauvoisine district, and a woman stepped down from it and walked away, her veil lowered, without turning her head."


This edition of "Madame Bovary" (pictured above) has the most recent translation by Lydia Davis.  And isn't the cover beautiful!  It has been hailed as the best translation of this great classic.  Reviewers have written that it honors the nuances and particulars of a style that exists in the original French version and gives new life in English to Flaubert's masterpiece.  If you want to reread this great book, this edition would be an excellent choice.  After reading the passage above and realizing how important each word was for Flaubert,  I cannot wait to read this new translation and savor the beautiful language.

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