Le mot juste

Vladimir Nabokov’s mention (in his partial-autobiography Speak, Memory) of the French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel Madame Bovary (1857) as “unsurpassed”, led me to read it and see whether his use of the superlative was justified.

It was. Having read the book for the first time I can see Flaubert may have had more than a minor influence on Nabokov’s writing style and subject matter.

Take for example, the scene in which the druggist. Homais, chastises his simpleton of a servant, Justin, after discovering him in possession of a volume of pornography, but then softens his attitude, adding:

“It is not that I entirely disapprove of the work. Its author was a doctor! There are certain scientific points in it that it is not ill in a man should know, and I would even venture to say that a man must know.”

This, and Flaubert’s portrayal of Emma, his female protagonist, as a woman with carnal desires is illuminating, especially when you learn that Flaubert, no stranger to brothels, suffered from venereal disease for most of his life.

As well as pursuing women, Flaubert believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding “le mot juste” (“the right word”).

According to Amazon, there are 117, 120 of them, and the average reader will spend 7 hours and 48 minutes reading Madame Bovary at 250 WPM (words per minute).

Time well spent!

5 thoughts on “Le mot juste

  1. OMG, Steve, I wish I had known of your interest in reading Flaubert. I would have *immediately* had you throw away the Penguin edition and instead find the Lydia Davis translation from 8–10 years ago.

    Flaubert would agonize for days, just to find “la mot juste” and Davis’s translation is every bit the 21st-century equivalent. I commend it to *anyone* contemplating Bovary.

    Davis herself is an accomplished micro-fiction writer, sort of the opposite of Flaubert, but she uses the same skill in composing her inch-high stories as her novel length is ones.

    She was chosen by Christopher Pendergast as the one to translate the first volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“In Search of Lost Time,” known for too long as “Rememberence of Things Past”). Pendergast collected seven noted Proustians and had each translate a volume of the work. Davis’s clearly shines as the best among them. Unfortunately, it sets the stage for the rest, particularly James Grieve’s À l’ombre de jeunes filles en fleur, “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” which starts paying off all the tension built up in the first book.

    People think Proust is long sentences, boring, unreadable. Guilty on the first, but not if the latter two. You’ll find that the story never stops, not for one minute, even as he does deep dives into memory. I can’t say enough about it, except please give Lydia a chance!


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