To a talk by Adam Thorpe, titled My nights with Emma B, in which the impressive Mr Thorpe, whose manner I found both stimulating and refreshingly self-effacing, reported back on his three years spent in the throes of translator-sickness, that peculiar ailment that has one hooked up, at times almost against one’s will, to some other writer’s creative process. During that time the translator must enter and inhabit the work more thoroughly than any other reader, if they are to produce work that is both reflective of the original, as well as contextually informed and sensitive to the needs of the present. After a stirring introduction by my friend Alexis Nuselovici, who threw down the challenge that “untranslatability was the stuff that Madame Bovary was made of,” Mr Thorpe kept me thoroughly engaged for an hour, something of a miracle considering how difficult it has been to concentrate on anything for more than ten minutes at a time over the past year. He stressed the key aspects of a successful translation: accuracy (i.e. matching the source text), style and music. I particularly liked his emphasis on the notion of rhythm, while at the same time explaining that rhythm is “the most appallingly difficult aspect of translation.” Thorpe is primarily a poet, and he understands better than most that rhythm is the single most essential feature of the creative process, something which Flaubert knew very well.
As for the Death of the Author – or his Absence, Thorpe was unforgiving towards the notion that Flaubert, as a novelist, was in any way “absent from the work.” “Nonsense,” he said. “I could smell him in every word. The text is saturated with him. He was a bluff, gruff companion.”
I am reminded of something, dimly, and reach for my copy of WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, where we learn of Flaubert’s “fear of the false which . . . sometimes kept him confined to his couch for weeks or even months on end in the dread that he would never be able to write another word without compromising himself in the most grievous of ways . . . He was convinced that everything he had written hitherto consisted solely in a string of the most abysmal errors and lies, the consequences of which were immeasurable.” He believed that the relentless spread of stupidity in the world had invaded his own head, and the resulting sensation was one of sinking into sand. According to Sebald’s friend Janine Dakyns (from whom the idea emerges), sand possessed enormous significance in all of Flaubert’s work. “Sand conquered all. Time and again, Janine said, vast dust clouds drifted through Flaubert’s dreams by day and by night, raised over the arid plains of the African continent and moving north across the Mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula till sooner or later they settled like ash from a fire on the Tuileries gallery, a suburb of Rouen, or a country town in Normandy, penetrating into the tiniest crevices. In a grain of sand in the hem of Emma Bovary’s winter gown . . . Flaubert saw the whole of the Sahara.” The Blakean synecdoche of this image sets the heart racing. It gives a glimmer of the kind of inclusive, detailed understanding of the universe that so fascinated and appalled Flaubert.