The word is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out melodies for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will move the stars.
—Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
When I’m bombastic I have my reasons.
—Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)
Dave Brubeck, who died at 91 on December 5, once said he liked to play “dangerously” close to “where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t created before.” The news of his death has altered my plan for a column on Gustave Flaubert’s birthday, which is today, December 12. What Brubeck was “dangerously” trying to accomplish on the piano, and his defense of being “bombastic,” seems not incompatible with Flaubert’s remark about the cracked kettle of the word, except that Brubeck wanted to do more than move the stars; he wanted to make them shout. As Gary Giddins suggests in his 2004 collection Weather Bird, Brubeck “elicits a bellowing roar rarely heard at concerts any more. In a time of rampant jazz politesse, the bursts of applause when a solo peaks and elated cries when it finishes are intoxicating.”
Flaubert is primarily known for Madame Bovary (1856), a landmark of world literature. Brubeck is known for a landmark album, Time Out (1959), and for helping, in the words of the New York Times obituary, “make jazz popular.” While I enjoyed watching Brubeck perform long ago, I was never a fan. Flaubert and his translator Francis Steegmuller, on the other hand, sealed my fate. For better or worse, published and unpublished, I’ve been walking the writer’s walk ever since.
In Flaubert’s Study
The first and only time I saw the Brubeck Quartet in concert, I was a high school junior covering the event for my entertainment column in the student newspaper (some things never change). Three years after seeing Brubeck, I received an unexpected Christmas gift from my parents: a copy of Madame Bovary in Steegmuller’s just-published translation, along with the Vintage paperback of Flaubert and Madame Bovary, his book about the writing of the novel. This puzzling gift was probably my writer mother’s doing, her favorite characters in literature being Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. I had no special interest in Flaubert, had never read a word. I was busy being a college sophomore, keeping up with my classes, and working on my first novel, which at that point was going nowhere. The part of Steegmuller’s book that changed my life was in the appendix, which included Flaubert’s detailed plot outline for Madame Bovary. As an 18-year-old constitutionally opposed to the idea of planning anything, I found myself responding to Flaubert’s outline as if the author had invited me into his study, allowing me access to his intimate thoughts, each chapter a paragraph of primed impressions, key words, fragments, and ideas separated by dashes. Being already “half in love” with easeful dashes, I sat down at the keyboard of my trusty Olympia (a high-school graduation present) and executed with bombastic Brubeckian intensity a ten-page outline for my novel in the same form. Until then, all I had in the way of a plan were some notes scribbled during an ROTC lecture. The outline was my Open Sesame. The following spring I finished the novel and by July it had been accepted for publication. Without going into the admitted defects of the finished product, I have no doubt that its publication would not have been possible without my reading of Steegmuller and Flaubert.
The Ideal of Empathy
My approach to most of the subjects of this column over the past nine years has been to put myself in the writer’s or director’s or artist’s or performer’s place, doing my best to comprehend and appreciate what they’re trying to achieve. Baudelaire’s uncannily prescient response to Madame Bovary, which is included in Flaubert and Madame Bovary, still represents, for me, an ideal of enlightened empathy. At a time (1856-57) when the book was being prosecuted in the courts for obscenity (just as his own Fleurs du mal would be), Baudelaire became Flaubert’s alter ego, divining his true, deepest intentions: “We shall stretch a nervous, picturesque, subtle, exact style over a banal canvas. We shall pour huge feelings into the most trivial adventure. Solemn, decisive words will escape from inane mouths.” Baudelaire also perceived how the extent of Flaubert’s impersonation of his heroine and the depth of his devotion to her fantasies of a superior world “would suffice to make her interesting.” In response, Flaubert said, “You entered the arcana of the work as if our brains were mated. You’ve felt it and understood it thoroughly.”
Building the Hat
Flaubert’s outline and Baudelaire’s critique opened the palace gates of Madame Bovary for me. The notion that something subtly subversive was hidden inside a novel subtitled Provincial Ways gave me an incentive to read with an eye to instances of what Baudelaire was talking about. In fact, that “nervous, picturesque, subtle, exact style” is not merely present early in the opening chapter, it’s in your face, you can’t miss it. After a relatively conventional description of Charles Bovary entering the study-hall, a new student “in the last year of the lower school,” Flaubert creates a hat that would delight Dr. Seuss, who alone might be qualified to draw a “headgear of a composite order, containing elements of an ordinary hat, a hussar’s busby, a lancer’s cap, a sealskin cap, and a night cap.”
These hats within hats lead to a cadenza of the sort that makes young writers swoon, in which the hat was “one of those wretched things whose mute hideousness suggests unplumbed depths, like an idiot’s face.” The italics are intended to communicate the impact those 15 words had on a college sophomore who had only begun to comprehend the potential of the almighty simile. Meanwhile Flaubert is still constructing his magnificent hat: “three convex strips” are “followed by alternating lozenges of velvet and rabbit’s fur, separated by a red band; then came a kind of bag, terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon intricately decorated with braid. From this hung a long, excessively thin cord ending in a kind of tassel of gold netting.” The passage ends with a concise, snappy “The cap was new; its peak was shiny.”
The translation I quoted, the one that amazed and delighted my sophomore self, is Steegmuller’s. In the acclaimed 2010 translation by Lydia Davis, the bravura line emerges as “one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile.”
Davis is actually closer to the original French (“une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d’ex-pression comme le visage d’un imbécile”), and so is the first English translation, by Eleanor Marx-Aveling: “one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile’s face.”
Steegmuller’s departure from the original makes all the difference. Neither of the other versions puts the charge into the act of reading that his did. The rhetorical “indeed”/”in fine” interferes with the momentum of the description, as if Flaubert has appeared on the stage of his narrative to perform an introductory flourish. It’s true that Steegmuller imposes a hackneyed phrase when he makes the depths “unplumbed,” but even so, his is the more effective translation; the idea is not to stop to analyse or even pretend to analyse; it’s to strike the dominant note, sound it, ring it, or, to quote Brubeck, play it “dangerously” close to risking a mistake.
For all his devotion to “le mot juste,” Flaubert accomplishes another bravura, risk-taking coup in his description of Emma’s rush to death upon being rebuffed and humiliated by both her former lovers: “It suddenly seemed to her that fiery particles were bursting in the air, like bullets exploding as they fell, and spinning and spinning and finally melting in the snow among the tree branches.” Once she perceives the “abyss” of “her plight,” she knows what has to be done, and “with a heroic resolve that made her almost happy,” she runs “down the river path” on her way “to the pharmacy,” where she makes the pharmacist’s assistant give her the key to the cupboard in which the poisons are kept. Here Steegmuller once again adds something to the original. The translations by Davis and Marx-Aveling have Emma thrusting her hand into the blue jar, removing it full of white powder, which “she began to eat.” In Steegmuller she “seized the blue jar, tore out the cork, plunged in her hand, withdrew it full of white powder, and ate greedily.”
As before, Steegmuller stresses momentum and intensity over faithfulness to the original, which lacks the word “greedily” that so effectively catches the sense of Emma’s crazed urgency and once again makes Steegmuller’s reading the most powerful.
Life Imitates Art
Eleanor Marx-Aveling, by the way, was Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Jenny Julia Eleanor “Tussy” Marx (1855-1898), who became her father’s secretary when she was 16, accompanying him to socialist conferences around the world, nursing him in his last illness, and publishing his unfinished manuscripts and the English language version of Das Kapital. An executive with the Social Democratic Federation, she supported various strikes, including the London Dock strike; she also organized the Gasworker’s Union and the International Socialist Congress in Paris, not to mention becoming an actress. Among other roles, she played Nora in a staged reading of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. After finding out that her partner, Edward Aveling, had secretly married a young actress, Eleanor chose to end her life in the manner Flaubert devised for Emma. She sent a maid to the chemist for padiorium and prussic acid, which she swallowed after writing two suicide notes. She was 43; Emma, according to most surmises, was not yet 30.
“When I described Mme Bovary’s poisoning,” Flaubert wrote long after the book was published, “the taste of arsenic in my mouth was so strong … that I vomited my dinner.”
With all the attention I’ve given to translations of Flaubert, I’m trusting the footnote in Frederick Brown’s 2006 biography for “vomited.” Brown is quoting from volume 3 of the Pléiade edition of the Correspondance. I wonder what Steegmuller would have come up with (no pun intended). I’ve been consulting the Gutenberg edition of Madame Bovary and some other online sources to check the various translations (or interpretations) of the original French. The “cracked kettle” fragment at the top is based on comparing different versions with Flaubert’s own by someone with nothing more than two years of college French, a love of Balzac, and a lifetime of subtitled French movies to go on.
The latest attempt to bring Madame Bovary to the screen is set to begin filming in Europe this spring, with Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) in the title role. The Steegmuller translation was most recently available in a Vintage Classics paperback. The epigraph from Brubeck is from the liner notes of the 1993 box set Time Signatures — A Career Retrospective.