In a sense, the pairing seems unlikely: one of our most experimental modern writers setting out to rescue the foundational text of classic realism. Davis’s fiction, after all, resists just about every convention that was perfected in Bovary: characters built up, patiently, out of coolly observed external details; an immaculately swelling plot made up of neat little scenes. (“I am simply not interested ... in creating narrative scenes between characters,” Davis once told an interviewer.) And yet reading her version of Flaubert also reminds us how untraditional tradition can be. Some of Madame Bovary’s strongest scenes are its most formally innovative—many of them, in fact, would serve as excellent premises for Lydia Davis stories: e.g., the county fair, at which a lover’s pickup lines are interrupted constantly by the announcement of agricultural awards, or the tryst inside a closed carriage, in which sex is implied mainly by the matter-of-fact description of the vehicle’s route. For Davis, the relationship between fiction and translation is often symbiotic. Being immersed in the long sentences of Proust, for instance, led her to experiment with a form that eventually became one of her signatures: the extremely brief story, often as short as a single sentence. (Here, for instance, is the entire story “Information From the North Concerning the Ice”: “Each seal uses many blowholes, and each blowhole is used by many seals.”) Davis says it’s impossible to predict how her intensive Flaubert communion will manifest itself in her writing, but already it’s yielded a project that spans the art-life border with characteristic quirkiness. In the Paris Review, Davis recently published a series of vignettes called “Ten Stories from Flaubert”—anecdotes she discovered in his letters and decided to isolate, translate, and shape into little Davis-like stories.
Davis lives with her husband, the abstract painter Alan Cote, in an old brick schoolhouse in upstate New York. (Art-life again: Madame Bovary begins in a schoolhouse, with young Charles and his ridiculous hat.) Down the street there’s a cemetery with headstones from Flaubert’s era. Across the road is a cow pasture. Davis likes to stand at her upstairs window and watch the five black cows who live there, trying to memorize their schedules and behaviors and occasionally even writing stories about them.
In her office, Davis shows me her Flaubert stash. Before long we’re knee-deep in Bovary, reading sentences from various translations aloud to each other. She points to a page whose margins are thick with pencil marks. “This is a passage where I really got indignant,” she says. (Indignant seems to be about as worked up as she gets.) “Those pluses are all things [the translator] added.” There are pluses next to the words dawdled, sauntered slowly, for their meeting, pirouetting, and thronging—places where the translator tried to jazz things up, or to help the reader out with exposition.
Then Davis points to a passage at the end of the book, in which Charles Bovary sits in his garden and—in spite of all that’s happened—pines for his lost, unfaithful wife. It’s a moving scene: Nature is in full glory (“jasmine scented the air, cantharides beetles droned busily round the flowering lilies”), but Charles just sits there, lost in some fantasy of the past, “sobbing like an adolescent.” Davis shakes her head. For one thing, Charles isn’t sobbing in the original—he’s suffocating. But her real complaint is with those beetles. Flaubert never made them busy. “Now, you see, I think that’s completely unnecessary,” she says. “To insert ‘busily,’ which is a personification—something Flaubert was very careful to avoid. It may seem a small thing, but to me that’s a big thing. Because it’s so easy not to put it in. I think maybe it’s a reflexive thing that she wasn’t even aware of.” Which would, of course, make the crime even worse—an example of the kind of automatic thinking and language that Flaubert detested.
Davis has been translating French texts—everything from workaday biographies to the theorist Maurice Blanchot—for around 40 years. Madame Bovary, she tells me, will probably be her last one. She’s tired of the deadlines; her old red French dictionary is basically disintegrating from overuse; and she wants more time for her own writing. But quitting might be impossible. Somewhere in the middle of comparing translations, she stops and smiles through another moment of indignation. “I love doing this,” she says.