The Sound of Wanton Secrets

Soon after "Madame Bovary" was published in 1857, Gustave Flaubert began work on an English translation. He was assisted by his niece's governess, who also shared the author's bed on occasion.

Flaubert's version would have been the one to put on audio cassette, given his obsession with rhythm and precision. But according to Herbert Lottman's excellent biography, "Flaubert" (Little, Brown, 1989), that translation has never been found.

Instead, the recording companies used one published in 1886 by Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling. (It is no longer copyrighted, hence its attraction.)

It is astonishing that this first English translation of "Madame Bovary" came out so long after the novel's publication. Even in Flaubert's day the book's realistic detail and the detachment of its narrator were recognized as monumental steps in the craft of the novel.

That detachment, incidentally, was one reason Flaubert was charged by the French government with "transgressing against morality and religion" when "Madame Bovary" first ran in magazine installments.

The state censors were outraged that the author drew no moral lessons from Emma Bovary's adulteries, and they felt certain passages ridiculed religion.

The judge concluded that "Madame Bovary" was a serious work and declared Flaubert not guilty.

It had been so long since I read "Madame Bovary" that I had forgotten much of it when I sampled the recorded versions. Or maybe listening to it was such a different experience that certain scenes seemed totally new to me.

Take the description of the agricultural fair. Lottman says Flaubert worked on it endlessly in order to blend the doings in the background with what was going on in the foreground--"a gentleman warming up a lady," as Flaubert put it in a letter to a friend.

As the aristocrat Rodolphe lures Emma Bovary into adultery, the awarding of medals for agricultural projects drones on incongruously in the background.

I do not remember appreciating the brilliance of that scene when I read the book. But I found it riveting on tape.

It must be a special challenge to read this complicated scene for cassette without confusing listeners, but the British actress Davina Porter accomplishes it magnificently for Recorded Books.

Porter's entire reading of "Madame Bovary" is a performance against which all others must be measured. Throughout her reading, which lasts 13 hours, I wanted to replay sentences again and again just to hear her pronounce certain words.

And Porter wickedly reinforces Flaubert's intent when she speaks for the fatuous Monsieur Homais, the character Flaubert created as a send-up of the French bourgeoisie.

The Davina Porter reading is available from Recorded Books (800-638-1304) for a monthly rental of $11.50 or outright purchase for $65.95. I mention the latter price because this is such a beautiful reading it is worth owning.

Audio Book Contractors also offers a good reading of "Madame Bovary" by Flo Gibson at the purchase price of $39.95. (202-363-3429).

Walter Zimmerman reads "Madame Bovary" for Books on Tape (800-626-3333). The monthly rental is $18.50; purchase price $72.

Although I prefer hearing a woman read this book, I did like Zimmerman's reading of my favorite scene, the one in which Emma and Charles attend a ball at the estate of the Marquis d'Andervilliers. It is here that we get a hint of the fantasies that will lead Emma into her wanton secret life.

Sitting at the marquis' table, Emma notices an old man eating all by himself at the other end, "letting drops of gravy drip from his mouth."

He is, she learns, the marquis' father-in-law, an old duke who was once the lover of Queen Marie Antoinette.

Flaubert wrote: "He had lived a life of noisy debauch, full of duels, bets, elopements; he had squandered his fortune and frightened all his family. A servant behind his chair named aloud to him in his ear the dishes that he pointed to stammering; and constantly Emma's eyes turned involuntarily to this old man with pendulous lips, as to something extraordinary. He had lived at Court and slept in the bed of queens!"

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