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Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (1857), translated by Lydia Davis (2010)

We are, of course, on paper, thrilled that the scary-smart, MacArthur-certified, uber-cool Lydia Davis has translated the novel that made modern literature possible. What do we do with the fact that her version sounds so stilted? I read this alongside my fusty old Lowell Bair. There are certainly moments where I prefer Davis to Bair, but there are more where I prefer Bair to Davis, usually because Davis’s syntax is more convoluted or because she uses more exotic diction, likely with the intention of keeping her vocabulary closer to its nearest French cognates. (I’m not willing to make the effort to dish up a bunch of examples here, unless my faithful readers demand them.) Also, this is minor, but Davis’s pages and pages of notes are weird.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this novel for a long time. Insofar as it represents the ascendancy of style over substance, I loathe it. Insofar as it demonstrates that human relationships fundamentally consist of nothing but the collision of one’s own self-delusions with those of another, I find it irresistibly perfect. I can’t think of another book I hate so much and admire so completely. (I can, oddly, think of plenty that I love but don’t particularly admire.)

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