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Julian Barnes writes:
The perfect translator must be a writer able to subsume him or herself into the greater writer’s text and identity. Writer-translators with their own style and worldview might become fretful at the necessary self-abnegation; on the other hand, disguising oneself as another writer is an act of the imagination, and perhaps easier for the better writer. So if Rick Moody tells us that Lydia Davis is ‘the best prose stylist in America’, and Jonathan Franzen that ‘few writers now working make the words on the page matter more,’ does this make her better or worse equipped to render the best prose stylist of 19th-century France into 21st-century American English? Davis’s stories, typically from two or three lines to two or three pages, are decidedly unFlaubertian in scope and extent; they vary from the wry episode and rapt reverie to the slightly cute aperçu; and if there is French influence around it is from a later date (thus Davis’s ‘The Race of the Patient Motorcyclists’ seems to owe a debt to Jarry).† Her own life is clearly the basis for some of the stories, whereas Flaubert’s aesthetic was famously based on self-exclusion. On the other hand, Davis’s work shares the Flaubertian virtues of compression, irony and an extreme sense of control. And if Flaubert in his monasticism and exemplary pertinacity is a writer’s writer, Davis was described to me recently by an American novelist as a ‘writer’s writer’s writer’. That her translation of Madame Bovary was deemed worthy of serialisation by Playboy magazine – which puffed it as ‘the most scandalous novel of all time’ on the cover – is a noisier irony of which Flaubert might well have approved. The publicity sheet for the US edition calls Emma ‘the original desperate housewife’, which, cheesy though it sounds, isn’t far off the mark. Madame Bovary is many things – a perfect piece of fictional machinery, the pinnacle of realism, the slaughterer of Romanticism, a complex study of failure – but it is also the first great shopping and fucking novel.