Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Translation

Madame Bovary’s Afterlife: Lily Bart

“The House of Mirth” published in 1905 by Edith Wharton is a character driven novel that effectively results in a resuscitation of Flaubert’s dead heroine, Madame Bovary. This time, she comes in the form of the extravagant Lily Bart. Ms. Bovary is brought back to life by translation. Fluent in French, Edith Wharton’s francophilia delivers the pre-conceived warning to American young beauties about the French curse of debt induced suicide. Revitalizing the dead society culture of American high society of her time, Edith Wharton’s love of France and all things French (including Flaubert’s aristocratic critique of bourgeois fallacies) enables the esteemed realistic creature, Madame Bovary, to enter into a hyperrealistic duplication in the form of Lily Bart. Rarely is a copy more compelling than the original, but for many book lovers, this is the case when asked about their preference between Bovary and Bart. Why is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary trumped by her rebirth in the form of Lily Bart? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Lily’s translation is closer in time and space to the contemporary capital of the 20th century, New York City.

Provocatively, Walter Benjamin poses the question, “Is a translation meant for readers who do not understand the original?” Certainly, the linguistic elitism implied by that question, serves to suggest that we need to and should understand “the original.” Under this aegis, Edith Wharton likewise preserves her authorial claim to originality. Perhaps not having enough of a literate audience to compare the continental canon, she was able to shock and stun her own bourgeois readership of their own frightening entanglement in capitalism. Furthermore, Benjamin claims that translations cannot transmit what is essential about literary works. Therefore, translation is merely a testament to the translatability of the original. In medical terms, we might consider what is translatable to be the “viral,” contagious spread of disease. We are overcome with a work by virtue of our need to share it.

Thus, the afterlife of Madame Bovary spreads the disease of debt and its crippling effects once again in an updated American version. It proves that there may be nothing more stunning than to witness the fall of the most beautiful, effortless, weightless, and superficial members of elite society even though Lily Bart is proven to have more wit and more gumption than Madame Bovary could ever manage. Therefore, she is prepped for a more hungry audience. They liked what they saw, and the virus had taken hold. Each era has the potential to reframe the translatable figure of Madame Bovary as long as her archetype remains fixed, and as long as we continue to fear the threshold of death that looms at the edge of a fall in status. But is that kind of decadence exactly what Edith Wharton had in mind? And why do mostly high-society writers(Edith Wharton was a kin of the elite) latch onto this particular translatable text? Why is it somehow satisfying to kill off a member of their own in fiction?

Let’s recall the novel’s “non-essential” (non-literary) information:

Lily Bart is a beautiful high society lady living with her wealthy aunt in New York City. She earns a stipend from her aunt for her expenses that accrue as she mingles among wealthy social circles by adorning parties with her exceptional beauty and grace. Her lifestyle could only respectably end in marriage. Lily Bart, however, defies this “natural” trajectory by gambling her money away at bridge and eluding her suitors. When she becomes financially entangled with married suitor who seeks to adopt her as his mistress, she realizes she must repay him to quell rumors that will inevitably spread. When her aunt learns of her niece Lily Bart’s defamatory endeavors, unbeknownst to Lily Bart, she adjusts her will to restrict Lily Bart’s inheritance and award the bulk of her wealth to Lily’s previously less-admired cousin. As far as her aunt is concerned, Lily Bart has wasted her beauty and upbringing on frivolous, selfish pursuits. Ultimately, what Lily inherits is just enough to cover the cost of her debts. Lily Bart’s downfall results in her confiding to various suitors of her situation. One of them offers her a loan to cover her debt to the original suitor and restore her reputation in a plan that involves an eventual marriage and return to her customary status. However, by this time, she  is working to earn her living as a hat maker for which she has no skill and she is living in a boarding house. By the time she finally receives her inheritance, she realizes its full amount is almost entirely accounted for. Unable to revoke her lifestyle of excess and materialism, or to give up her independence, or to see the virtues of her less materialistic friends, she overdoses while thinking of her hopeless circumstances.

Lily Bart is a direct translation of the character Madame Bovary into a different nation and culture, which offers Edith Wharton the opportunity to provide a critique of American society. Let us recall that Madame Bovary was absorbed in a quest of freedom as a natural exponent of true love. Along the way, her savings succumbed to her dreams as she lavishly adorned the romantic setting where she met her lover to the point of suicide-inducing debt. Lily Bart, however, appears to despise the concept of marriage and dreams instead of remaining free to carouse the tightly-knit circles of society with equal dress and esteem as if she were attached to a partner, but without the trappings of closure and limitation that marriage might impose on her power to allure. Unable to find a suitable partner, she prefers to gamble and dream of the virtues of financial independence.

Edith Wharton’s francophile approach to writing results in an uncanny doppelgänger effect when one reads “Madame Bovary” and “The House of Mirth” in sequence. Edith Wharton’s admiration for French culture is vividly transparent in the near duplication of themes and motivations. Just as Flaubert wished to critique the romantic delusions of the French bourgeois class, Edith Wharton directs her critique at her own materialistic, inbred society of New York where all of the members of the elite merely wish to escape to the superior “culture” of Europe.

What is brilliant about Edith Wharton’s translation of Madame Bovary into a new work is that it reflects her simultaneous desire to adopt French culture as a corrective to her own. Edith Wharton was fluent in French and she died in France at the age of 75. With “The House of Mirth,” she infuses a French classic text into the American imagination because of her profound belief in the superiority of Europe and its aristocratic class to her own. Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” represents not only a heroine’s escape from her troubles, but a writer’s escape from her own environment, by embracing another culture.

The relationship between Madame Bovary and Lily Bart is not about female empowerment, but rather a dissolution into the borderless confines of identity captured by the figure of the flaneur. Lily lands at the cusp of such a wandering phenomena by traversing high and low culture, maneuvering in and out of Europe and America, while also floating in the in between space of decisive suicide and accidental death. This indeterminable half-life, can no longer can be reigned in by patriarchy. Lily Bart instead leads towards an atrophy of self in which the only vague sense of certainty befalls her upon her death. Unlike Bovary’s lust for a transcendence from her strict realism in the form of eternal love, Lily Bart chooses not to choose, and falters over her identity as a relinquishment of willpower. She settles with powerless ease into the systemic demise that awaits her. Lily Bart, trumped by capitalism, represents a more clearly etched indecision that Madame Bovary inspired and transmitted. Eloquently prim in their lack of resistance to the capitalism that rules supreme in these representations, Flaubert and Wharton alike simply give in to the notion that women, left to their own devices, are no match for the death-seeking downward spiral of debt that is induced by a capitalist society. Thus, Benjamin continues to hold the key, by claiming that Paris was the “capital” of the 19th century, proving the most hallucinatory generator of phantasmic images of ghosts, untimely deaths of beautiful women, and the machinery of the resulting continuation of such an epidemic. Cast aside and forgotten, in the story of Lily Bart, the dance of excess carries on long after her death. Lily Bart ushers in the new era of an American translation of such liberal freedoms.

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Book Review: L.C. by Susan Daitch

L.C. by Susan Daitch (Dalkey Archive, 1986)

L.C. is a remarkable depiction of the French Revolution from the ground up, through the diary of L.C. I can’t believe this is a first novel.

I’m struck by the title, which reminds me of the way that women once had to obscure their gender by tactics such as reducing their name into initials. It immediately makes me think of the author H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). And just who is the woman behind the initials? Lucienne Crozier, both the heroine and the puppet of a uniquely framed novel. Women, Daitch seems to suggest, are the potent shadow force of history that takes shape into a visible presence throughout the course of this novel through the telescoped narratives of three women: Lucienne Crozier, her independent, bourgeois diary translator Willa Rehnfield, and a politically radical counter-translator who is Rehnfield’s assistant and literary executor named Jane Amme. Lovers of history get to enter into the endless hall of mirrors that bibliophilia represents in this book. The book makes us ask questions. Who is this L.C. and who is the woman translating her diary? Why did this text mean so much to these women? What is at stake in this particular representation of the diary? How is history to be represented? Who has the final word? How do our personal experiences shape our impressions of others? What is the use of history, anyway?

The book begins with an introduction to the diary of Lucienne Crozier, written from 1847-1848 by its translator, Dr. Willa Rehnfield written in 1968.
The physical matter of the book itself is pined over by the scholar with a fetishistic fascination. She reminds us that it was a time when the revolution stirred the social order into a turbulent whirlwind, which gives the diary its significance. Rehnfield avoids defining the political stance of Lucienne Crozier who lived at a time when publications placed Marxism alongside feuilletons, making them “strange bedfellows.” She seeks to debunk the myth of the joy of revolution and its social disruption. Rehnfield presents Lucienne Crozier as a woman who is trapped in history in spite of her private observations as if written by a “penless journalist.” Rehnfield explicitly reminds the reader that “the voice of the translator, therefore, is destined to appear in the literal and metaphorical margins of the text,” a statement which defines the framed questioning of the book as a whole. The novel includes a brief note written by Rehnfield that acknowledges the strange help of the man who lent and then later retracted the diary from her possession, suggesting it had been smuggled away from someone as part of an antiques trade.

The bulk of the novel presents the diary of Lucienne Crozier who intelligently describes the cultural milieu of Paris as a world of art, poverty, political intrigue, and terrorism. She was a member of the middle class whose wealth was diminishing until she is married off to Charles Crozier whose family was interested in a small piece of land she owns where rail might be built. Charles travels the world doing business, while Lucienne stays home in Paris living a life of relative freedom, since she doesn’t have to work. In reality, she wants a divorce and relative independence from her husband, in spite of the fact that he is mostly disinterested in her affairs, whether they are deceptive or not. She becomes an art model for Eugene Delacroix who one day strips her of her clothing and paints her in Morrocan costume. This painting is traced throughout the story, and eventually recovered in the contemporary moment of 1968. Lucienne is one degree from Chopin, George Sand, Baudelaire and other recognizable proper names of the era through her artist connections. Yet, Lucienne has a smug attitude towards the arts: “My disinterest might border on the heretical, but I’m not impressed by mirrors of nature, still less by artificial drama: landscape after seascape, bowls of plums after plates of pears, nude after nude.” Her dead-pan attitude forms a unique kind of pre-modern skepticism and she more or less represents Paris as a wasteland. Her comrades represent an array of conflicting political points of view including artist anti-feminist apologists for the nobility (Delacroix), members of the Marxist “Opposition” (Jean de la Tour), the fashionable and politically oblivious feminine perspective (her friend Fabienne), the feminine working class who in spite of shifting paradigms has no say in the Marxist discourse (her maid, Mathilde). She also argues about politics with her brother Eugene. Much more than art, Crozier is passionate about politics making comments such as, “It’s not a secret system. Only citizens who own property can register to vote…” and the mere thought of granting the vote to bourgeois women seems extraneous to the men. Through her relationship with Jean de la Tour, Lucienne Crozier starts going to secret meetings at 14 Juilliet and her comments provide a unique critique regarding the blindness of the radicals to the political potential of the female population.This part of the diary seems to suggest that the role of women in times of revolution always brings out the conservative underbelly of exclusively male leadership regarding gender. Lucienne Crozier survives the chaos of the actual revolution with people flooding the streets and a woman dying in her arms. After the revolution, Crozier describes declares: “The city behaves like a human body, unable to rid itself of disease.” Friends of hers are murdered and women are told to stay at home at night. Bodies float down the river. She and Jean de la Tour go underground together and eventually leave for Algiers as other members of their underground political organization are murdered.

In the Epilogue to the diary, another voice appears. This is the voice of Jane Amme, the former assistant to the work of Dr. Willa Rehnfield and the literary executor of her work. She begins to debunk the myths that she feels Rehnfield has constructed about Lucienne Crozier. Namely, Rehnfield doesn’t describe in any great detail how she came into possession of the diary. While Rehnfield questions the document’s confidentiality in the form of a personal diary…to what extent does this glimpse into an unedited, personal interior representation of the confusion and messiness of all of the different perspectives that make up a historical narrative deserve to be wrested out of its relative anonymity into the public sphere? But, Amme suggests that the high-profiled status of the diary actually suggests that it is not merely a private discourse surrounding the revolution, but a document written with the full intention of being discovered in its own right as an embodied depiction of that history. She begins to scrutinize Rehnfield’s perspective on history as a scrupulous collector of anecdotal material whose favors those female individuals who pre-date movements and climb social ladders. Amme goes on to suggest that Rehnfield herself was locked in a state of apolitical contemplation in her work. Amme states, “Lucienne would not have approved of her.”

Amme discovers a portion of the diary that had not been included with the larger work that had been prepared for publication. This portion was the part of Lucienne Crozier’s diary that describes her voyage to North Africa. In Rehnfield’s translation, Crozier is reduced to immobility as a woman and she eventually dies there in North Africa. Amme, however, discovers the portion of the original transcript that corresponds to this part of the diary among Rehnfield’s papers and decides to re-translate the work from her much different perspective from that of Rehnfield to allow the reader to determine for themselves how translation distorts a text. Amme, it turns out was an organizer of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement who had helped organize the bombing of the house of an important public figure, thereby murdering them. She, like Lucienne Crozier, had to go underground to escape the FBI’s questioning. She worked as Rehnfield’s assistant precisely because of Rehnfield’s impersonal approach in not asking for references. In Amme’s re-translation, which ends the book, a uniquely different perspective of Lucienne Crozier surfaces. She is an active political agent in North Africa, dressing in drag to gain mobility and acting as a spy of sorts. In the end, Amme decides to provocatively destroys the original that she used for translation. This leaves us with the ethical question of how history is scripted and who has the final word. Comments such as: “To all this Willa Rhnfield would have said, no voyeur is truly inert” direct the reader to enter into the discourse of historic representations and its many implications. The result of the novel is a strange impression of Lucienne Crozier whose role in the French Revolution is never quite clear because it always mediated.

Daitch’s subtle manipulation of supposed objectivity, through the lens of different individuated consciousnesses tears away at any sense of gendered female essentialism, and heightens the sense of intention and instrumentality in each depiction of the translated text. Daitch engages with a project of fictional historic recovery that raises all of the compelling questions of representation that go along with it. Who is speaking? Why are they speaking? What do we learn from history if nothing more than a reflection of our own hopes and desires for the future? The collaborative mosaic that comprises history is parsed into a telescopic presentation in which Daitch is able to attach minute differences in vocabulary and narration to different translations. The excitement of historic change is captured in a vague sense of a generational revolution that transpired from the 1950s to the 1970s in the United States academia, suggested by the difference between Rehnfield and Amme.

Lastly, I commend Susan Daitch for exhibiting a sophisticated feminine addition to the theme in contemporary fiction of literary executorship most notably explored in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Anyone who has read that book knows that its depiction of women lacks substance. Clearly, the mimetic filters and shifts of Nabokov’s work hearken back to Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I couldn’t help but wonder, does Daitch choose the initials L.C. to somehow insert herself into this novelistic trajectory of influence?