No one is more particular about language than the French, so that they named Lydia Davis a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters means a lot. Davis, an American, has demonstrated her skill in rendering 19th-century French into contemporary English over the course of a long career; her recent translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way earned special acclaim. In addition, Davis is an accomplished fiction writer, and her profound understanding of the genre informs every detail of her new version of Gustave Flaubert’s MADAME BOVARY (Viking, $27.95). And there are many wonderful details. Flaubert’s novel of romance and adultery “is now viewed as the first masterpiece of realist fiction,” Davis says, and in it Flaubert captures not just the emotional nuances of his characters’ ennui and passion, but itemizes the everyday objects they use, the fabrics of the clothes they wear, and the conveyances they ride in. Davis’s unobtrusive endnotes supply cultural and historical details, by which today’s readers can see how acutely Flaubert captured his own time, and how much his social satire is still relevant in today’s consumer culture.
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