A new English translation of the novel that scandalised 19th- century France has inspired October's 'Playmate of the Month' spread - and reignited debate about Flaubert's creation. John Lichfield reports
Shock horror: bored doctor's wife becomes a Bunny Girl at the age of 154. Playboy magazine's literary "Playmate of the Month" is Madame Bovary, the naughty doctor's wife from a small town in Normandy who first outraged - and delighted - French readers in 1856. As one of its occasional excursions into literary erotica, the September edition of the American version of Playboy includes a chapter from a new English translation of Gustave Flaubert's classic novel.
A blurb on the front of the magazine, next to a picture of a young Englishwoman wearing a bowler hat, bow-tie and not much else, claims that Madame Bovary is "the most scandalous novel" ever published. Even Playboy's founder, Hugh Hefner, 84, has belatedly turned literary critic. He has posted a Tweet in which he declares that Madame Bovary is "a great read".
Playboy's sudden interest in one of the great works of 19th- century French - and world - literature has caused some merriment in France. Gala magazine wrote: "Emma Bovary strips off in Playboy. Sexy poses in Yonville-l'Abbaye! The election of Miss Bikini, live from Rouen! Erotic tittle-tattle of the guest of the ball at the Chateau de la Vaubyessard!"
Mais, non. Pas du tout. This is not a rewriting of Madame Bovary for shallow 21st-century minds whose erotic threshold has been turbo- boosted by the internet, cheap Swedish (and French) movies and, er, Playboy. It is a very careful translation - supposedly the most accurate English translation - of Flaubert's own rigorously crafted prose.
The Playboy extract comes from a new English language version of Madame Bovary, which will be published by Penguin Classics this month. The most French of French writers has been transmuted into the language of Shakespeare by the acclaimed American novelist and translator of Proust, Lydia Davis.
France's leading Flaubert scholar is Professor Yvan Leclerc, head of the Centre Flaubert at the University of Rouen. "Personally, I am amused, and delighted, that Madame Bovary should appear in Playboy," he told The Independent yesterday. "As far as I am concerned, the more people that read Flaubert the better. However, I was a little startled to see that Playboy, no doubt for commercial reasons, advertises Madame Bovary on its cover as the 'most scandalous novel of all time' More scandalous than the Marquis de Sade? Or a thousand works of extreme modern erotica? Hardly."
Madame Bovary tells the tragic story - or, some critics insist, the blackly comic tale - of the frustrated ambitions, sexual escapades, devotion to shopping and eventual suicide of the wife of an incompetent provincial doctor in Normandy. It is claimed by many critics, including Professor Leclerc, as the "first modern novel" because of Flaubert's perfectionist obsession with style and his suppression of almost all sympathy for his characters.
A poll of contemporary writers in 2007 declared Madame Bovary to be the second-greatest novel ever written, just behind Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The book contains several adulterous love scenes. They are beautifully described, highly charged with erotic emotion but do not contain explicit accounts of sexual acts. The novel was nonetheless prosecuted by the French state after its serialisation in 1856 for "outraging public and religious morals". Flaubert won.
The victory encouraged writers in France and several other countries, but not Britain to write about romantic and sexual relations with greater artistic freedom. It took another century, and the "acquittal" of Penguin Books at the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial in 1960, for the same freedom to be accepted in Britain. Professor Leclerc said: "No one today would regard Madame Bovary as scandalous but the book was revolutionary and changed the novel forever. …