Les sexy rendezvous in Yonville-l’Abbaye! Erotic encounters at the ball at the Chateau de la Vaubyessard! Sexual escapades in the Hotel de Boulogne! Emma Bovary, the raven- ringleted farmer’s daughter from Normandy was an honorary Bunny in Playboy’s August, 2010 issue, in honor of the release of a new English language translation of Gustave Flaubert’s scandalous novel. Mais, non. Pas du tout, this is not a rewriting of Madame Bovary for shallow internet minds, but supposedly the most accurate English translation of Flaubert’s own rigorously crafted prose. Published by Penguin Classics, the edition is transmuted into English by the American novelist and translator of Proust, Lydia Davis.
A blurb on the Playboy cover proclaims Madame Bovary to be “the most scandalous novel ever published”! I don’t know about that, it seems less a salacious tale of a lusty farmgirl’s sexual escapades than that of the corrosiveness of human sadness. The fictional biography of a young bride’s boredom, frustrated ambitions, sentimental-novel escapism, romantic escapades and shopping addiction, is one I can really “wrap my head around”, susceptible to the same powerful pull of fiction that is Emma’s undoing. Like they say: C’est moi., c’est toi, c’est nous.
Oft hailed as the “first modern novel” because of Flaubert’s obsession with style and his absolute demolition of sentiment, Madame Bovary contains beautifully described, erotically charged love scenes, which are by no means explicit. The novel was (unsuccessfully) prosecuted by the French state after its serialization in 1856 for “outraging public and religious morals”, but Madame Bovary is hardly scandalous by today’s standards. Playboy’s 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.”
Here is an excerpt taken from the chapter published in Playboy. Emma has just been seduced while out horseback riding with her first lover and would-be Prince Charming, the ebony-haired Rodolph Boulanger, a rich and diabolically rakish local landowner:
“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. It’s pretty tame stuff for Playboy fodder, but I laughed out loud at the suggestiveness of passages like the following (which Playboy justifies by including an artist’s impression of a naked Emma flying through the air on a saddle, becoming undoubtably more suggestive 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.”