I can’t resist this. If you’ve read more than one of these blogs, you’ll know that I often mention Flaubert. Well, I recently read Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale. It’s a fascinating read about adulterous goings-on (or maybe not) in Victorian England. I was reading it on my Kindle and seemed to be getting to the end but was a bit puzzled to see that the percentage showed that I was barely half way through it. (I wish they had a way of doing pages instead.) Anyway, the reason for this was that the second half of the book is a reproduction of the famous translation of Madame Bovary by Eleanor Aveling-Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl. The reason for including it was that Emma Bovary was also an adulterous Victorian wife. But then, so was Eleanor.
Anyway, I read a few passages of the text and the translation’s not great. This is no surprise because it’s very, very difficult to convey the complexity of Flaubert’s style. In fact, Eleanor herself wrote: ‘Certainly no critic can be more painfully aware than I am of the weaknesses, the failures, the shortcomings of my work’. But a passage very near the beginning reminded me of just how much more you get out of the text than the story. There’s all sorts of stuff going on.
When the book starts, for example, the narrator is a classmate of Charles Bovary. ‘We were in class, studying,’ writes Flaubert, ‘when the headmaster came in, followed by a “new fellow”’. That’s the opening sentence, the ‘new fellow’ is Bovary, so right away, there’s a challenge for the reader. The narrator’s also a character in the story. He then goes into minute detail of what Charles looked like, what he did, how his father and mother met, what their marriage was like, and yet, after a few pages of this, he writes ‘It would be impossible now for any of us to remember anything about him’.
What? After all that detail? And with a few hundred pages more to come about the intimacies of Emma’s life, with all her adventures, thoughts, dreams and shattered illusions? And all this from one of the boys in Charles’s class?
Clearly, Flaubert was a rubbish writer. He obviously hadn’t been to any creative writing classes and learned about narrative arcs, head-hopping and all those other essentials you need to understand in order to write. And yet he’d taken five years to write the book, walking up and down his ‘shoutery’ in the garden reading the words out loud to get the rhythms exactly right, and spending days agonising over punctuation and searching for ‘le mot juste’. He’s the guy who, later in the book, writes ‘human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars’ which, when you read it aloud in the original French, is itself like a piece of music.
No, he obviously knew what he was doing, so why did he make such obvious ‘mistakes’? He’s supposed to be a stylist par excellence so where does that linguistic clumsiness come from? Well, the passage near the beginning I mentioned helps to show what was going on. But this blog’s already long enough, so I’ll put that in another one..