Le mot juste

Grace Clover & James Soderholm

JS: One aspect of Flaubert's description of Madame Bovary's husband, Charles, has stayed with me.  

Charles’s conversation was commonplace as a street pavement, and everyone’s ideas trooped through it in their everyday garb, without exciting emotion, laughter, or thought. He had never had the curiosity, he said, while he lived at Rouen, to go to the theatre to see the actors from Paris. He could neither swim, nor fence, nor shoot, and one day he could not explain some term of horsemanship to her that she had come across in a novel.  

That is, Charles' language is the direct opposite of Flaubert's ideal of "le mot juste" -- the ideal of Absolute Style that renders people and the visible world in the most

precise and beautiful language possible. How wonderful, horrible, and paradoxical that Flaubert had to write about people like Charles and his pedestrian conversation using the most exquisite French diction and phrases he could imagine. It must have been like trying to make a souffle from wet cement. And then the translator has to try to render "le mot juste" in another language. The idea of future translations of his laboriously-sculpted French must have given the author fits of despair. But I wonder, at times, not about what is necessarily lost in translation, but also if anything at all is gained, especially if the translator has a genius of her own. As a budding linguist, you must have wondered about this question. 

GC: I must admit from the outset that whilst I have a good understanding of German, my French is rather poor, so I have not attempted my own translation of this novel. However, if I were to, I would imagine that the difficulty lies in imitating Flaubert’s intricate relationship with language, rather than in the translation itself. It seems curious to me that Flaubert employs ‘le mot juste’ frequently with the voice of the narrator but does not give us a single character who is able to express themselves with such exactitude. I propose that Flaubert uses his character’s speech to render them either ridiculous, or self-indulgent and vain. For example, Charles’ puritanical knowledge and use of grammatical structures shows him to be unintelligent and uninteresting, and his strict control of inadequate language mirrors the strict control of the conservative country society he represents. On the other hand, Emma’s aspirations for romantic language is also implicitly criticised by Flaubert, as she tries to escape the socio-linguistic identity of the world she lives in. I concur with Tony Tanner who suggests that ‘the more Emma tries to express her felling, passions, and desires… the more she is doomed to encounter the emptiness of her metaphors’. Emma’s ‘high flown language’ is the opposite to Charles’ but still in stark antithesis to ‘le mot juste’ as it lacks meaning and control.

Stern says that ‘Flaubert is unable to present a single character which is wholly loveable and who isn’t tainted from vanity, silliness or lack of dignity’. Why do you think that Flaubert restrains from giving us a character avec le mot juste, when he is clearly able to demonstrate it himself?

JS: Two things immediately come to mind. Flaubert loathed provincial French people (and pretty much everyone else, too) and he wished to observe the rule of realism by which one gives people the idiom and dialect natural both to their idiocy and class. Flaubert poured his pure contempt into the pharmacist, Homais, who is a walking and ceaselessly talking encyclopaedia of clichés (Flaubert hated clichés so much he compiled Dictionnaire des idées reçues—one of the funniest books ever written, to my mind). I think it must have been one long high-wire act for Flaubert, bellowing out those perfect sentences in his study, often twelve hours a day, sketching the ‘Patterns of Provincial Life’ (the novel’s subtitle) that were, for the author, among the most insufferable boring, pedestrian, and platitudinous patterns imaginable. And every one of them had to become the pattern of his exquisite art. 

We are not far off the perilous magic we examined in our last dialogue on Nabokov’s Lolita. She was une petite Madame Bovary, for Nabokov, and he laboured mightily—and lovingly—to turn her petulant American vulgarity into a work of art. Do the characters fail so the artist can succeed? What an odd game. And yet, rather mysteriously, Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary c’est moi.” I have been ruminating over that remark for twice as long as you’ve been alive. And yet I am still mystified. I do have a few conjectures I’d like to offer, but first I’d like to know what you think.

GC:  Do the characters fail so that the artist can succeed? This is truly a very important question, and one I would answer with the following line from Madame Bovary.

‘Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.’

This is one of the most quoted lines from the novel and one which has stuck most with me. It seems to me that although our human linguistic ability merely a ‘cracked kettle’ on which to ‘tap crude rhythms’ Flaubert comes as close as anyone to ‘melting the stars’ with this line. But more importantly to our current discussion, this line of beautiful exactitude and imagery stands in stark antithesis to Homais’ clichés. Therefore, I would say, yes, the characters fail so that the art can succeed.

Equally, a study of the progression of the realist novel to me is proof of Flaubert’s success. Both Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina’ and Fontane’s Effi Briest’ are testament to his success, as they mirror and expand on his realist style and his themes of the adultery novel; we even have records that Tolstoy was reading ‘Madame Bovary’ as he wrote ‘Anna Karenina’.

However, I am less certain of the meaning of ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Obviously, this ambiguous comment presents us with the difficulty that he could have meant either the novel, or any one of the three Madame Bovarys. Naturally, Emma Bovary is the third Madame Bovary we meet in the novel, after Charles’ mother and first wife. Does he mean he has the same desires for adventure and passion Emma has? Or does his implicit criticism of Emma’s clichéd romance tell us this cannot be the case?

JS: The novelist John Gardner once told me that he found it odd and disturbing that so many modern novelists create characters that they themselves don’t care about and he wondered how readers would be moved to care about Emma, for example, when it was clear that Flaubert mostly depicts her as a petit-bourgeois farm-girl with delusions of Parisian grandeur and romantic adventures. Emma is no artist. Charles is a plodder and a charlatan physician. Homais represents the evil of banality (to flip Arendt’s Eichmann around). And yet clearly Tolstoy feels neither contempt nor indifference towards his characters. We grow to love Anna Karenina despite her foibles, perhaps even because of them. When Flaubert’s enigmatically says, “Madame Bovary c’est moi,” then, we are naturally surprised because the two seem to have absolutely nothing in common.

Here is my speculation, which I think is fairly close to what you are suggesting. Flaubert’s novel is full of failed artists, Emma being chief among them. But her fluttering romantic heart—no matter how nourished by her reading of romantic novels in the convent—is struggling to take the tawdriness and mediocrity of her life and turn them into something more beautiful. Emma has an artist’s sensibility, but not an artist’s drive, skill, and imagination. She tries to doll up her house and have exotic affairs with available men, but these are shoddy and sordid materials to work with. Flaubert is also in the business of transmutation, but he takes the lead of bourgeois life and turns it into the finely-spun gold of le mot juste. Emma’s life is beating out of rhythms for bears to dance to, while Flaubert takes those same rhythms and transmutes them into French sentences that melt the stars. In other words, Flaubert secretly sympathizes with his wayward heroine because at least she knows her world is miserably provincial and tries to transmute it in her own helpless, grasping way. His realism insists that she fail. But his love of Absolute Style insists that he succeeds in turning Emma into Madame Bovary, a work of literary art.

GC: Bernard Paris writes on very similar lines to you, stating that ‘“The primary object of Flaubert’s satire is Emma’s romanticism, which is shown to be foolish, derivative, and destructive. Many critics feel that Flaubert sympathizes with Emma’s frustrations, which are blamed on the meanness of bourgeois society, and I think that they are not entirely wrong in sensing that it is not only Emma but also Flaubert who is a thwarted romantic.”’ I find it plausible that Flaubert, so offended by his friends’ criticism of the romanticism in his earlier work, satirises the pretence of romance and presents it as unfulfilling. Ironically, Flaubert’s satire illuminates his own search for romance in the beauty of his words. Thus, he surely doesn’t full fill his own rule that ‘“Nowhere in [his] book must the author express his emotions or his opinions”.

I am interested in what you say about how Flaubert’s realism insists that Emma fails. At what point do you think her tragic demise is inevitable? And what is the very nature of her hamartia? Could it be the misfortune to be conceived to such a provincial society? It is undeniable that an actress and seductress of her type would not be driven to suicide in many other societies. Or is it the power of the romantic novels she reads in her convent?

JS: If you work backward from any suicide, in life or in literature, it’s going to be long journey. Of suicide, Camus observes, “An act like this is a great masterpiece and planned in the long silences of the human heart.” Yes, and in this case, that masterpiece is also Madame Bovary, if not Anna Karenina.

Eleanor Marx had been commissioned in 1885 to translate Gustave Flaubert’s novel into English. Julian Barnes presents a few parallels between her life and Emma’s in a spoof exam paper invented for his book Flaubert’s Parrot:

E1 led a life of sexual irregularity….
E2 led a life of sexual irregularity….
E1 committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid.
E2 committed suicide by swallowing arsenic.
E1 was Eleanor Marx.
E2 was Emma Bovary.
The first English translation of Madame Bovary to be published was by Eleanor Marx.

It all gets complicated if we consider how far Emma was to Eleanor as the convent novels were to Emma: a life-altering, shaping force, a provocation for life to imitate art, as Oscar Wilde would have it. But Barnes is spoofing these parallels and analogies precisely to underscore their interpretive opportunism and intellectual shallowness. For the truth is that the great majority of people do not commit suicide, in life or in literature, no matter how tiresome, painful, or horrible their lives have become. I think Emma’s suicide began the moment she realised that she disliked being stuck on a farm. Step by miserable step Flaubert leads her—and us—to her ramming arsenic down her throat 300 pages later. Is that tragic fall evitable? Yes, in art. No, in life. Novels have plotted structure (or should) but life is, as Flaubert pointed out, “essentially shabby.” Which brings us back to the importance of le mot juste, the painstaking creation of sentences that depict sordid, shabby creatures who will die but which themselves, as artistic contrivances, will live forever and melt the stars along the way. What more could we ask for?