“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, September 30, 2004


Let others analyse the debates. LI is much too fearful to watch them – or listen on the radio. One reaches a point of saturation with the maunderings of Bush. Lately, Kerry has been on a roll. We hope that he continues to press the attack in this debate. But we are afraid of the timing – it is late to have to press the attack. The time for that was, properly, during and after the convention…

Well, no bitching, now. We cross our fingers.

And on to … Madame Bovary.

There is nothing better than reviewing the translation of an old classic. First, it allows the translator to discretely reveal his or her own incredible erudition. Second, one can pick at the text – curiously, few reviewers of novels really seem to care about close reading the things. Close reading your average novel, admittedly, is like trying to find a plot in the clothes going around in a drier. It isn’t worth it. But when it is worth it, it is worth it all the way – or so we have found. We are never happier than with a good or great novel to review, and an angle – a way of reading it that we want to bring out in the review.

The Atlantic this month offers Clive James on a new translation of Madame B. We have a few points to pick with him.

One of those points is about cliché.

“Minting his every phrase afresh, Flaubert avoided clichés like poison. "Avoid like poison" is a cliché, and one that Flaubert would either not have used if he had been composing in English or have flagged with italics to show that he knew it came ready-made.”

This is of course exactly wrong. Flaubert’s love/hatred of bêtise would never stoop to italicizing a cliché – indeed, that would be doubling the howler. James has obviously forgotten that the clichés in Flaubert come, so often, in conversation, or in the reproduction of somebody else’s writing. To italicize, here, would ruin the whole texture of the thing. Cliches are very much like in jokes – to hear them as clichés requires that you have educated your hearing in a certain way. This has now become a little flattened -- any tv writer worth his subscription to teen People can create a "like" hobbled debutante for cheap giggles. But Flaubert, like Swift, felt cliches the way other people feel a toothache, or some other shooting body pain that somehow has to be compulsively played with -- they are both hilarious and deadly – a p.o.v. not unsimilar to Bloy’s. Leon Bloy, you will recall (no you won’t – as I pointed out above, vigorously exercising one’s erudition in some subject or other is one of the joys of reviewing the translations of the classics. Hey, James goes on about the texture of Turgenev’s prose in Russian, so I have an excuse) thought of clichés as encoding a deadly, satanic wisdom by which the bourgeoisie was drawing down upon its head the divine condemnation it so richly deserved. Flaubert had a more resigned, secular view of the bourgeoisie – he just thought of them as ending civilization and inaugurating a thousand year Reich of banality, or something like that.

This is why Flaubert’s richest use of the cliché is just in contexts in which he does not, grossly, underline it. The italics would ruin the whole thing. Funny that James doesn’t see that.

Then there is the matter of translation. James, I think justly, court-martials certain choices of the newest translator, Margaret Mauldon. Here he pops off, rather deliciously, with some needed pendantic intervention, as the AA people put it:

“Professor Malcolm Bowie, who wrote the informative introduction, makes much ado in his back-of-the-jacket blurb about Flaubert's precision, which the professor assures us is matched by Mauldon's brand-new and meticulously accurate translation of the actual work. Any reader wishing to believe this is advised to start on page one. He had better not open the book accidentally at page 178, on which we find Emma's lover Rodolphe justifying to himself his decision to ditch her. Rodolphe is supposed to be a creep, but surely he never spoke the French equivalent of late-twentieth-century American slang: "And anyway there's all those problems, all that expense, as well. Oh, no! No way! It would have been too stupid."

Just to be certain that Rodolphe never spoke like a Hollywood agent, we can take a look at the same line in the original: "Et, d'ailleurs, les embarras, la dépense ... Ah! non, non, mille fois non! Cela eût été trop bête!" The perfectly ordinary, time-tested English idiom "No, no, a thousand times no!" would have fitted exactly.”

So far, he has Mauldon in a corner and she is going down under the assault of the furious fisticuffs, or something like that. But then James refers to the previous Oxford translation, from the fifties. And here, we think, he isn’t using his ear:

“In Alan Russell's translation of Madame Bovary, first published by Penguin in 1950, there is no "No way!" Probably the phrase did not yet exist, but almost certainly Russell would not have used it even if it had. What he wrote was "No, no, by Heaven no!" Not quite as good as "a thousand times no!" perhaps, but certainly better than "No way!": better because more neutral, in the sense of being less tied to the present time.”

To my ear, that “heaven’s no” is just so fake British toff-ish. Is Rodolphe an equivalent of a fake British toff? No, we imagine him to be much more in the vein of a provincial Musset – without the poetic genius. Often, Musset himself seems to forget the poetic genius, using it as an excuse for being a leach, letch and toady. No, the “heavens” comes, faintly but distinctly, from a whole other realm – it is something that a much more naïve, much more egocentric and less self-reflective man would say. Something, in short, that we can imagine in Trollope, but not in Flaubert. Not, we hasten to say, in this context, with this character – surely the cieux! exclamation is in Flaubert somewhere, perhaps in Salambo.

There. We’ve forgotten the debates. We’ve almost forgotten the current bêtise. But not quite.

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