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A stiff translation but no sunflowers in sight

JACK DUNLEAVY is impressed by the presentation and artwork of a new edition the French classic, yet finds that the text itself becomes secondary.

Since 2004, London based publishing company Four Corners Books have been collaborating with contemporary artists to produce a series of ‘Four Corners Familiars’, new, artistic and innovative editions of classic novels. Though the pairing of contemporary design and 19th century fiction sounds problematic (as in Penguin’s grotesque range of ‘Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions’), Four Corners Books are consistently attractive, both on the cover and inside the book.

Like previous publications, the latest addition to the range, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which is reissued with art by Marc-Camille Chaimowicz, brings up a number of questions about the relationship between image, text and the form of a book. The question this new edition asks isn’t so much whether Madame Bovary deserves a new edition as, frankly, the book could be printed on toilet paper and it would still be a masterpiece, but whether the pairing of Flaubert’s work with that of a contemporary artist can in anyway enhance the reading experience.

The book’s presentation puts image and text on the same level, it is formatted like an art book rather than a novel; large, heavy and with glossy pages, and nearly half of the books 526 pages are devoted to Chaimowicz’ illustrations, the text taking up the right-hand pages of the book and the images the left. If the book is flicked through from the front, all that can be seen is text accompanied by fleeting images, but from the back this impression is reversed; by emphasising both sides of the book equally the reader is encouraged to view Chaimowicz’ illustrations as if they were additional paragraphs, rather than superficial compliments to the writing.

Chaimowicz’ choice of illustrations shows an intimate understanding of the novel. He avoids the clichéd, sunflower-y view of the French countryside which is so prevalent in the English imagination but so absent in Madame Bovary. Even when the landscape does sneak into view it is often with overcast skies and flat colours, and Chaimowicz devotes more attention to Emma Bovary’s craving for consumer goods; lace corsets, leather and pharmaceuticals are illustrated repeatedly, emphasising Flaubert’s exposure of the sensuality inherent in the symbols of social order in 19th century France.

Though the book is attractive to look at and abundantly illustrated, the emphasis is so heavily on the art that the writing seems only to be of secondary interest. One of the issues is the choice of translation. Madame Bovary has been translated into English around twenty times, and the intricate nature of Flaubert’s style means that these translations differ quite widely.

In an article in The Guardian about his 2011 translation, Adam Thorpe described the book as ‘the verbal equivalent of the Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 wristwatch, with 36 complications and a 1,000-year calendar’. The decision then, on the part of Four Corners Books, to go with Eleanor Marx-Aveling’s 1888 translation, the oldest in English and one of the stiffest, is excusable as an attempt to keep with the period feel, but potentially dooms the book to a life sitting on the shelf gathering dust. The book is also presented without an introduction or afterword, only Chaimowicz’ pictures are there to guide the reader through the text.

If this edition is compared to the 2010 Penguin Classics edition, translated by Lydia Davis, which comes with an introduction, list of further reading, a chronology of Flaubert’s life, and 30 pages of explanatory notes at the back of the book, the limitations of the Four Corners edition in regard to readability is quite clear. This is a shame as previous Four Corners titles such as Vanity Fair were successful precisely because they managed to Victorian prose out of the dense mud of most ‘classic’ editions, presenting instead in clean type with bold illustrations.

Nevertheless, Chaimowicz’ artwork means this book is an original take on publishing Flaubert, and even if the pictures don’t revolutionise the reading experience, they’re certainly more than simple illustrations of the action. At £20.00 the book is also decent value for money – if only because it feels like other publishers would have charged a lot more – and Flaubert’s literary genius means any edition of Madame Bovary is a good one, even if it’s only meant to be looked at rather than read.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, with Art by Marc-Camille Chaimowicz, translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Four Corners Books, 2013, £20

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