How Madame Bovary became a Bunny Girl (at the age of 154)

A new English translation of the novel that scandalised 19th-century France has inspired October's 'Playmate of the Month' spread – and reignited debate about Flaubert's creation. John Lichfield reports

Shock horror: bored doctor's wife becomes a Bunny Girl at the age of 154.

Playboy magazine's literary "Playmate of the Month" is Madame Bovary, the naughty doctor's wife from a small town in Normandy who first outraged – and delighted – French readers in 1856. As one of its occasional excursions into literary erotica, the September edition of the American version of Playboy includes a chapter from a new English translation of Gustave Flaubert's classic novel.

A blurb on the front of the magazine, next to a picture of a young Englishwoman wearing a bowler hat, bow-tie and not much else, claims that Madame Bovary is "the most scandalous novel" ever published. Even Playboy's founder, Hugh Hefner, 84, has belatedly turned literary critic. He has posted a Tweet in which he declares that Madame Bovary is "a great read".

Playboy's sudden interest in one of the great works of 19th-century French – and world – literature has caused some merriment in France. Gala magazine wrote: "Emma Bovary strips off in Playboy. Sexy poses in Yonville-l'Abbaye! The election of Miss Bikini, live from Rouen! Erotic tittle-tattle of the guest of the ball at the Chateau de la Vaubyessard!"

Mais, non. Pas du tout. This is not a rewriting of Madame Bovary for shallow 21st-century minds whose erotic threshold has been turbo-boosted by the internet, cheap Swedish (and French) movies and, er, Playboy. It is a very careful translation – supposedly the most accurate English translation – of Flaubert's own rigorously crafted prose.

The Playboy extract comes from a new English language version of Madame Bovary, which will be published by Penguin Classics this month. The most French of French writers has been transmuted into the language of Shakespeare by the acclaimed American novelist and translator of Proust, Lydia Davis.

France's leading Flaubert scholar is Professor Yvan Leclerc, head of the Centre Flaubert at the University of Rouen. "Personally, I am amused, and delighted, that Madame Bovary should appear in Playboy," he told The Independent yesterday. "As far as I am concerned, the more people that read Flaubert the better. However, I was a little startled to see that Playboy, no doubt for commercial reasons, advertises Madame Bovary on its cover as the 'most scandalous novel of all time' More scandalous than the Marquis de Sade? Or a thousand works of extreme modern erotica? Hardly."

Madame Bovary tells the tragic story – or, some critics insist, the blackly comic tale – of the frustrated ambitions, sexual escapades, devotion to shopping and eventual suicide of the wife of an incompetent provincial doctor in Normandy. It is claimed by many critics, including Professor Leclerc, as the "first modern novel" because of Flaubert's perfectionist obsession with style and his suppression of almost all sympathy for his characters.

A poll of contemporary writers in 2007 declared Madame Bovary to be the second-greatest novel ever written, just behind Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The book contains several adulterous love scenes. They are beautifully described, highly charged with erotic emotion but do not contain explicit accounts of sexual acts. The novel was nonetheless prosecuted by the French state after its serialisation in 1856 for "outraging public and religious morals". Flaubert won.

The victory encouraged writers in France and several other countries, but not Britain to write about romantic and sexual relations with greater artistic freedom. It took another century, and the "acquittal" of Penguin Books at the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial in 1960, for the same freedom to be accepted in Britain. Professor Leclerc said: "No one today would regard Madame Bovary as scandalous but the book was revolutionary and changed the novel forever. Flaubert broke with the conventions of the 19th-century novel in several ways, partly through new approaches to style but also because he distanced himself, and his readers, from all emotional sympathy for his characters. That, plus the liberating effects of the state's defeat at the trial, helped to lay the foundations for the modern novel."

New readers, or even old readers who failed to make much sense of Madame Bovary in French or in previous English translations, can now try again. Lydia Davis says that she has tried to stick closer to the meaning of Flaubert than any previous translation while recreating the rhythm and fluency of his prose. There are at least 15 previous versions in English.

"I've found the ones that are written with some flair and some life to them are not all that close to the original," Ms Davis told a recent interviewer. "The ones that are more faithful may be kind of clunky. So what I'm trying to do is what I think hasn't been done, which is to create a well-written translation that's also very close, very faithful to the French."

Does she succeed? Here is a brief extract, taken from Part Two, Chapter Nine, the chapter published in Playboy. Emma has just been seduced while out riding with her first lover, Rodolph Boulanger, a rich and feckless local landowner.

"The evening shadows were coming down; the horizontal sun, passing between the branches, dazzled her eyes. Here and there, all around her, patches of light shimmered in the leaves or on the ground, as if hummingbirds in flight had scattered their feathers there.

"Silence was everywhere; something mild seemed to be coming forth from the trees; she could feel her heart, which was beginning to beat again, and her blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk. Then, from far away beyond the woods, on the other hills, she heard a vague, prolonged cry, a voice that lingered, and she listened to it in silence as it lost itself like a kind of music in the last vibrations of her tingling nerves."

That is as "scandalous" as Flaubert gets. Playboy justifies its use of the word by including an artist's impression of a naked Emma flying through the air on a saddle. The magazine accompanies the drawing with a quotation pulled out from the text, which becomes more suggestive (possibly) than Flaubert intended. "With her face tilted down a little, she abandoned herself to the cadence of the motion that rocked her in the saddle."

The magazine also gives Emma Bovary a would-be Mills & Boon build-up. The introductory blurb reads: "She is one of literature's most celebrated sinners. But first she was tempted. In this new translation, Emma's transformation from bored provincial wife to enthusiastic adulterer reminds us what a scandal it can be to be human."

In the "Book Bench" blog of the high-brow American magazine, The New Yorker, Macy Halford, complained about this "packaging". She said that Playboy had almost persuaded her that Madame Bovary was cheap erotica, until she began to read the extract from the book. "Soon, quite soon," she wrote. "I was struck delirious by the force of Flaubert's writing, and the precision (the perfection) of Davis's translation."

Strangely, perhaps, one person who rejects the almost universal critical acclaim for Flaubert is his new translator, Lydia Davis. "I didn't actually like Madame Bovary," she said. "I find what he does with the language really interesting; but I wouldn't say that I warm to it as a book. He despised everybody in the book, and he despised their way of life. I like a heroine who thinks and feels... well, I don't find Emma Bovary admirable or likable, but Flaubert didn't either."

Professor Leclerc suggests, politely, that Ms Davis is missing the point. Or missing two points. First, it was heroic of Flaubert, in the context of women's rights in 1850s France, to make his central character a woman who refuses to accept her conventional social and moral role. "As a feminist writer, I would have thought that she would have seen the importance of that," he said.

Second, Professor Leclerc said, the emotional distance (not to say chilliness) with which Flaubert views all his characters is what made the book so revolutionary at the time and so powerful today. Or to quote Hugh Hefner, creator of the bunny empire, "A great read".

Erotic extracts

*"It was something like an initiation into the social world, a taste of forbidden fruit. And as he put his hand on the door knob to go in, he experienced an almost voluptuous pleasure. And thus many things which had been repressed within him began to expand and blossom forth. He learnt by heart some popular songs, with which he would greet his boon companions, went mad over Beranger, acquired the secret of making punch, and at length became acquainted with the mysteries of Love."

*"Did not love require, even as tropical plants, a duly prepared soil, a particular temperature? Sighs breathed beneath the moonlight, prolonged embraces, tears falling upon hands kissed in a last farewell, all the fevers of the flesh, all the languors of tender love, could not then be found apart from the balconies of noble chateaux, where time fleets by unheeded, or from boudoirs with silken hangings and luxurious carpets, from flower-stands filled with richest blooms, a bed raised upon a dais, the glitter of precious stones and the shoulder-knots of liveried flunkeys."

*"They looked at each other, and their thoughts, mingling in the same anguish of mind, clung closely to one another like two throbbing bosoms.... She turned away, her chin down and her brow well forward. The light shone on it as on a piece of marble, down to the curve of the eyebrows. But none could have told what Emma was looking at on the horizon, or what thoughts she was harbouring deep down within her."

Oxford University Press Translation

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