Voodoo Doughnut, Madame Bovary, and other weird coincidences ….

voodoo-dollIt all started with my Uncle’s trip to Portland.  While he was gone, Portland seemed to suddenly appear everywhere.  I’d pick up a magazine and there it was.  I’d watch a show and someone would bring it up….I was enjoying the Doodlers Anonymous blog and saw a post about a guy, Mike Rohde, who did a sketchbook travelogue of his trip to, of all places, Portland. He mentions a lot of food stops….Voodoo Doughnut, Thai food, and food trucks stood out ….

Then my Uncle called.  I asked about his trip, ready to tell him about the travelogue, when he starts telling me about Voodoo Doughnut….I said “that’s weird….I just heard about them”….then he says “Wow. That’s weird ’cause my friend Julie just said the same thing.”  I guess when he told Julie about his doughnut stop, SHE had a recent encounter with the name…had never heard of it either and then someone in her band brought it up and then my uncle….all within the same time period…Maybe that’s the voodoo of Voodoo Doughnut….Anyway…my uncle goes on to mention the Thai food and food trucks…It’s as if he’d read the same blog post I had….But I guess these are just the hot spots of Portland. But it is strange that the only thing I really know of journeys to Portland is Voodoo Doughnut…all signs point to Voodoo….hummmm…..

Also…episodes of Portlandia just returned…will Voodoo make an appearance?

In an (as of yet) unrelated story, I had another little coincidence happen. It all started when I posted a review of the book Amsterdam by Ian McEwan and someone highly recommended I read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  It was already on a list on my desk of books to get to next because it has popped up in various places in the last month or two….I had seen the author’s name here and there…but I’d never really pursued him, so to speak …


I started reading it during the Christmas holidays, which I was reluctant to do because I knew I couldn’t finish it before the start of the year when I’d have to dive into my reading goals…first up being Madame Bovary.

Now for those of you familiar with Barnes, you probably already know he wrote a book called Flaubert’s Parrot and that he’s a big Francophile and if you google Barnes and Bovary you get a lot of things he’s written about Madame Bovary and Flaubert.

But I knew nothing of this. If I did, I’m sure this wouldn’t be such a coincidence….

All I knew at the time was this:  I started reading The Sense of an Ending…it starts with some boys in a school with a headmaster and there is a new kid….It’s in 1st person….Then I put it aside and read several pages of Madame Bovary….it starts with some boys in a school with a headmaster and a new kid….It’s in 3rd person. They’re different time periods etc too but somehow I started getting the two stories confused… The more I read the less these two novels are similar (both great so far) ..but the openings reminded me of each other, not only in those details but somewhat in tone or rhythm….So I did some googling and quickly discovered a strong connection between Barnes and Flaubert….eerie.  What are the chances both books, at random, would end up on my nightstand? I almost selected Anna Karenina instead of Madame Bovary….I would have then missed out on this weirdness.

Also, coincidentally, I was just starting to research which translation of Madame Bovary I should read.  This is always the first bit of business for me, when reading a book in translation. There is nothing worse than reading a translation that “stands out as a translation”…too modern or too much in the voice of the region it was translated. So in my research on the connective tissue between Barnes and Flaubert, I hit upon a review by Julian Barnes of the Penguin Classic translation of Madame Bovary translated by Lydia Davis. He gets into detailing the publishing history and translations of Madame Bovary.  If you want to read the review in its entirety click here….I warn, this is a very very thorough discussion of translations …..if you just want the bottom line then here goes:

There have been roughly 20 translations…According to Barnes, which one is best is up to you…depends on what you want from the translation…he seems to say pick from either Lydia Davis, Francis Steegmuller, or Geoffrey Wall depending on how close you want it to be to the original French in sentence structure etc ….someone else, commenting on Barnes, recommends Lydia Davis and Margaret Mauldon (Oxford World’s Classics) as the only two who get it right. Something to do with one of the chapters and some mistake that’s been handed down through translations…This stuff gets very microscopic.

Michael Johnson at The American Spectator praises Lydia Davis’s translation as coming closest to Flaubert’s style and being most accurate.  He quotes Davis as saying of Steegmuller that his failings are “regular restructuring of sentences and judicious omissions and additions …” And of another popular translator, Gerard Hopkins, she says he “added material in almost every sentence.”  Johnson’s article convinced me I should read Lydia Davis…and return to her again when I dive into In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (which coincidentally happened to be on my to read list this year).

Why all the translations and fuss?  WHY are there so many translations of one book? There’s a great article that offers an answer to this by Adam Thorpe at The Guardian.  He really explains the challenges of translating.  By the end I was convinced I should read his translation, published by Vintage, but only available by purchasing used copies.  I could go further down the rabbit hole and see what others have to say of Thorpe and other translators but at this point my head is spinning.

Of course I really need to just read the damn book…I only own an Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation –Marx’s daughter and the first published translation– and one by J. Lewis May and another by William Walton….because I already have the other editions and would have to buy Lydia Davis’s translation (and seeing as how I’m not totally convinced it is the be all, end all..but still…it is highly praised) then I guess I’ll work with the Marx-Aveling translation.

I think I’m ready to really get into the novel now. If anything has hooked my interest in reading it, it is this summation by Barnes:

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.”  

I’m all in.

As I mentioned, I’ve read a portion of the first Chapter.  I’ve skipped all introductions. (I appreciate the bold print at the start of the Penguin Classic addition that warns new readers that the Introduction and Preface “make details of the plot explicit.”)  As a precaution, I generally wait to read introductions after I’ve read the book anyway because so many of them tend to tell the whole story.  The discussions of translations gave away some plot points but not too much. I did read the brief foreword by Jacques De Lacretelle in my 1950 Heritage Press edition whereby he discusses the tenants of a “great” novel….Madame Bovary, of course, meets his check list.  I can’t say his definition meets my own but I digress and I would love to get into it but we’ll save that for another day. Other than that, I will read and discuss any prefaces, introductions, and critical essays/reviews after I’ve read the book.

If there is a connection between Madame Bovary and Voodoo Doughnut it has yet to materialize. Thoughts?


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