Friday, September 25, 2015

From the beginning of Sentimental Education to about four pages in - or why Ford Madox Ford says I have to read the novel 14 times

The first line, and paragraph, of Sentimental Education announces a date, time, and the names of a dock and a ship, with “clouds of smoke pouring from its funnel,” a detail that fills me with dismay, but I will have to hold that thought.

The next paragraph, also a single line, introduces the central artistic device of the novel, the accretion of details separated by semi-colons:

People came hurrying in, out of breath; barrels, ropes and baskets of washing lay about in everybody’s way; the sailors ignored all inquiries; people bumped into one another; the pile of baggage between the two paddle-wheels grew higher and higher…

No hint of whose point of view is represented or why these details are chosen in place of all of the other possibilities.  The next line (and also paragraph) does something new:

At last the boat moved off; and the two banks, lined with warehouses, yards, and factories, slipped past like two wide ribbons being unwound.

The novel’s first metaphor!  And a good one.  When Flaubert wants to be, he is a master of figurative language.  How frustrating that, if I understand his method of composition, he spent so much time excising metaphorical language from his fiction.  He wrote ‘em then killed ‘em.  Aside from ordinary uses of language, there is not a hint of metaphor for another two pages (a “curtain” of “pale poplars” on the shore).

And this from pages that have almost nothing but sensory detail, as when Flaubert writes that “it was the custom in those days to put on one’s oldest clothes for travelling,” and then describes the clothes of the passengers:

Here and there a coffee-stained calico shirt showed under a knitted waistcoat, gilt tie-pins pierced tattered cravats, and trouser-straps were fastened to list slippers.  [More clothes]  The deck was littered with nutshells, cigar stubs, pear skins, and the remains of sausage-meat which had been brought along wrapped in paper.  [More people, more clothes] To get back to his seat, Frédéric pushed open the gate leading to the first-class section of the boat, disturbing a couple of sportsmen with their dogs.

It was like a vision:

At this point, amidst all of this random and perhaps arbitrary detail, callow Frédéric sees and instantly falls for Madame Arnoux and the novel gels.  What is the book about?  This:

She was wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat, with pink ribbons which fluttered behind her in the wind.  Her black hair [a sentence about her hair, another about her dress].  She was busy with a piece of embroidery; and her straight nose, her chin, her whole figure was silhouetted clearly against  the background of the blue sky.

Is this not just one more arbitrary list of plain details or even just nouns (“her chin”)?  Everything I skipped is more of the same, except that among the details I have chosen to include, there are some that I know have particular artistic significance, that are going to be repeated at key moments all through the novel.  To my knowledge the coffee-stains and pear skins are merely incidental detail, atmosphere, so I can set them aside, while the ribbons and dogs I am going to need.  Remember that the ribbons first appeared in the metaphor in the third sentence.  I think these are the first dogs.  These motifs are going to be used by Flaubert to create a hidden pattern of correspondences behind the surface of the novel.  My next post, which may not appear for a couple of days, is going to be nothing but ribbons and dogs.

My little howl of frustration in the first sentence of the post come from realizing at that moment that the smoke from the ship’s funnel is the beginning of – the smoke theme? no, how absurd – the feather theme that I completely missed.  The link is one of those outstanding but rare metaphors that appears 368 pages later – “the smoke of a railway engine stretched out in a horizontal line, like a gigantic ostrich feather whose tip kept blowing away.”  The ostrich feather theme is a sub-theme of the feather theme.

All of this is completely invisible except by chance the first time through the novel.  Ford Madox Ford claimed, in a quotation – not even that, a paraphrase, for which I have never seen a real source, so it is likely nonsense – that one has to read Sentimental Education fourteen times to really get it.  I am not even close.


  1. I don't think I'm going to get to fourteen.

  2. Dear Amateur,

    I had seen the Sentimental Education in your Currently Reading list for some time and was steaming with impatience!
    You're spot on, as usual.
    I regret that my reading had been a bit too streched, taking maybe two weeks to finish it, preventing me from discerning the kind of themes you have spotted. The one thing that stroke me most, however, was this :
    "No hint of whose point of view is represented or why these details are chosen in place of all of the other possibilities."
    I have even wrote a little piece about that, modestly dubbing Flaubert the master of indirect discourse along the way, because he is so indirect you don't even know who's talking, or about whom. (You can acces it through the link under my name tag (in french, sorry).)
    Anyway, please continue to write about it!

  3. But what is the feather theme for? It's all very well having feathers appearing as metaphors and images at significant points in the book, but what do they do? What effect do they have on the reader? Do they make some kind of overarchng theme? The only possible feather-theme I can think of in The Sentimental Education, as someone who didn't notice it or didn't remember it from when I read it, is "Particularly nasty weather, sir" or "Here we sits like birds in the wilderness" and neither is a Grand Transformative Stroke of Genius.

  4. (Sorry, the link appears to be broken (as is my english) for an unknown reason. The good one is :
    Please copy/paste if you're interested.)

  5. Reading too much of Saramago's seductive prose has made addicted to commas and dots too much; sometimes I try to cut them out, I've been trying to teach myself to go back to semicolons; so I have to say I really like that excerpt. I'm still trying to understand what's psychologically/aestehtically different between a comma, a dot and a semicolon, but I sense there is one.

  6. Umm, where else in Flaubert we can find a mixture of smoke and feathered things?

    "A blue smoke rose in Félicité's room. She
    opened her nostrils and inhaled it with a mystic sensuousness;
    then she closed her lids. Her lips smiled. The beats of her heart
    grew fainter and fainter, and vaguer, like a fountain giving out,
    like an echo dying away;--and when she exhaled her last breath,
    she thought she saw in the half-opened heavens a gigantic parrot
    hovering above her head."

    As to what those themes may mean in the context of Sentimental Education, I'll wait to see our gracious host interpretation before venturing my hare-brained elucubrations.

    1. I've always been sceotical about hidden themes since I read Oliver St John Gogarty's remarks on Joyceans discussing the underlying motifs of Ulysses. True, Gogarty was embittered by being more famous as a fictional character than a real person, but he argued persuasively that if Joyce really was inserting almost-hidden references to a secret theme with little relevance to the book's central subject it diminshed the book. I wonder if that is the case with A Sentimental Education.
      As for Un cœur simple, I forgive Flaubert everything for that little tale.

  7. Roger, yes, that tale is a really astonishing masterwork, achieved with the simplest of means. Compare it, for example, with Kipling’s The Bridge Builders (from a collection AR(T) just finished reading), another masterpiece, but one that required of Kipling to throw in the kitchen sink, the gods of India, modern engineering, etc. in order to get there.

    As for the Education's themes, I think that Flaubert was playing with contrasts like lightness and heaviness. But he executed his plan so perfectly that it disappeared from view. From his letters:
    Pourquoi ce livre-là [l'Éducation sentimentale] n'a-t-il pas eu le succès que j'en attendais? Esthétiquement parlant, il y manque la fausseté de la perspective. À force d'avoir bien combiné le plan, le plan disparaît. Il n'y a pas progression d'effet. Le lecteur, à la fin du livre, garde l'impression qu'il avait dès le début. Toute oeuvre d'art doit avoir un point, un sommet, faire la pyramide, ou bien la lumière doit frapper sur un point de la boule. Or rien de tout cela dans la vie. Mais l'art n'est pas la réalité.

    Il y a en moi, littérairement parlant, deux bonshommes distincts : un qui est épris de gueulades, de lyrisme, de grands vols d’aigle, de toutes les sonorités de la phrase et des sommets de l’idée ; un autre qui fouille et creuse le vrai tant qu’il peut, qui aime à accuser le petit fait aussi puissamment que le grand, qui voudrait vous faire sentir presque matériellement les choses qu’il reproduit ; celui-là aime à rire et se plaît dans les animalités de l’homme. L’Éducation sentimentale a été, à mon insu, un effort de fusion entre ces deux tendances de mon esprit (il eût été plus facile de faire de l’humain dans un livre et du lyrisme dans un autre). J’ai échoué.
    Flaubert's reply to Sainte-Beuve about Salammbo, dated December of 1862 is a dazzling show of erudition, craft and genius; a couple of examples can show what kind effects Flaubert worked into his novels:

    Il n’y a point dans mon livre une description isolée, gratuite ; toutes servent à mes personnages et ont une influence lointaine ou immédiate sur l’action.

    Notez d’ailleurs que l’âme de cette histoire est Moloch, le Feu, la Foudre. Ici le Dieu lui-même, sous une de ses formes, agit : il dompte Salammbô. Le tonnerre était donc bien à sa place : c’est la voix de Moloch resté en dehors. Vous avouerez de plus que je vous ai épargné la description classique de l’orage. Et puis mon pauvre orage ne tient pas en tout trois lignes, et à des endroits différents ! L’incendie qui suit m’a été inspiré par un épisode de l’histoire de Massinissa, par un autre de l’histoire d’Agathocle et par un passage d’Hirtius – tous les trois dans des circonstances analogues.

    Je crois avoir fait quelque chose qui ressemble à Carthage. Mais là n’est pas la question. Je me moque de l’archéologie ! Si la couleur n’est pas une, si les détails détonnent, si les moeurs ne dérivent pas de la religion et les faits des passions, si les caractères ne sont pas suivis, si les costumes ne sont pas appropriés aux usages et les architectures au climat, s’il n’y a pas, en un mot, harmonie, je suis dans le faux. Sinon, non.

    Sorry for the long reply, but with Flaubert it's better to be careful, as he wrote to MADAME HORTENSE CORNU on March of 1870: Tout cela est pour vous dire, chère Madame, que le public se trompe en nous attribuant des intentions que nous n'avons pas.

  8. I first thought it was a shame that I had to break up my writing for a couple of days, but look at these helpful responses. I’m glad I had to wait.

    tcheni – I was tempted to write more about point of view, the subtle shifts Flaubert makes, which is another substantial part of the art Sentimental Education - meaning the technique has been copied to death. “L’auteur Flaubert est une panoptique” – yes!

    Roger, yes to everything you said, to some degree. Flaubert is threatening to destroy the novel as a repository of meaning. I am going to begin a defense tomorrow, but the short answer to a question like “what do the feathers mean?” is nothing outside of the novel. They act as elaborately made patterns , arabesques.

    Whatever meaning they take on exists entirely within the novel – so feathers and ribbons might turn out to mean something to a character – but the meaning is entirely constructed by the artist.

    Writers who follow this path are often radical literalists. “The feather represents” – “No, it is just a feather!” And then what does it do? It creates a beautiful artistic pattern.

    A Flaubertist would argue that the mistake of the Joyce scholars is not looking for patterns of imagery (and with Joyce, language) but interpreting them, of insisting on their meaning, like wondering what green “means” in an abstract painting. Flaubert is making a move towards abstraction. The novel as a form might be badly suited for abstraction. Flaubert’s commitment to the novel itself has become a puzzle to me. One of the odd ways he is like George Eliot.

    The end of the quotation Cleanthess includes ,the first one, shows Flaubert casting similar doubts on his own idea. Maybe, Flaubert writes, the “human” novel and the abstract novel “du lyrisme” should be kept separate. Very interesting.

    Miguel, yes, more semicolons! I also sense a difference. Baldick happily keeps most of Flaubert’s semicolons, but for some reason not all of them.

  9. "Flaubert is threatening to destroy the novel as a repository of meaning."

    Yes, I think that that is probably what I dislike about A Sentimental Education and Madame Bovary. As Karl Popper almost said, the novel "is about something, and that something is, somehow, reality." I like novels and "the novel" because they're imperfect art-forms. Reality keeps creeping in and Flaubert's realism is an actually an attempt to control reality and keep it out. We are never illuded by Frédéric or Emma, whereas with.Félicité - because she doesn't have their or Flaubert's pretensions and illusions - Flaubert and the reader can accept her as she is, even if what she is is an agreed and shared illusion. If we meet someone who reminds us of Félicité that person becomes more interesting. If we meet someone who reminds us of Frédéric or Emma they are diminished. Perhaps because we are like Frédéric and Emma, too, if only as avid readers of novels who think novels have something to do with reality.
    The abstract novel “du lyrisme” is an impossibility - we can admire Flaubert for trying to do it and think he was completely mistaken to try to do it. It's an exercise as heroic and futile as Don Quixote's exploits - and - now I think of it - does Quixote lie somewhere behind Bouvard and Pécuchet? After all, Quixote and B&P are the ideal reader from some views.

  10. I asked the Ford Madox Ford society about the 14 times question- here is the answer they just sent me "Hi there,
    Yes, he did say it (or something like it)! It appears in Thus to Revisit, on page 159. It is not exactly that you could not be an educated person, but rather 'no writer can afford to let Flaubert's defects outweigh his immensity of genius - until he himself shall have read Education Sentimentale fourteen times, and marked the particular pattern of that carpet.'

  11. Confirmation! Thanks, mel! I am happy to see that Ford meant just what I thought he meant.

    Now, how many readers want to spend their time inspecting the pattern in a carpet? Good question. Roger, your reply has so many good, sharp lines.

    I am going to get into the "reality" question, with some help, but I doubt I will come up with something better than "an attempt to control reality and keep it out."

    I will note that Flaubert's greatest direct disciples - Zola and Maupassant - both moved far away from the novel du lyrisme, whatever else they learned from Flaubert. Zola gave it an honest try.

    "does Quixote lie somewhere behind Bouvard and Pécuchet?" - that is my impression.

    1. If I understand the meaning of "novel du lyrisme," then it would seem that we should also talk about Nabokov as a descendant of Flaubert. The complex patterns, the deliberately artificial "reality," etc. I'd try to cobble together a more insightful comment but I am still jet-lagged. But all of this talk of patterns that mean nothing beyond the pages of the novel made me think instantly of VN, especially the long passage in The Luzhin Defense where the father--the writer--realizes the he can invent an imagistic/symbolic framework for a story before he has any whiff of an idea about character, plot, etc. The framework, even the intricate details, can exist separately from the "story."

  12. Yes, a descendant via Proust. It's Nabokov who taught me to read Flaubert like this. Well, Nabokov and Flaubert who taught me etc.

    All of these writers of course think that the meaningless patterns they create are in fact deeply meaningful. They are like painters or composers.

  13. As l'idiote de la famille himself said: There's not a single isolated or wasted description inside my book: all of them set my characters up, and they always have either a remote or direct influence over the plot.

    1. I'm sure he thought that was a true statement. As a sometime novelist myself, I can say that such patterns always--and I mean always--feel important (both aesthetically and structurally) when I'm building them into narratives, though I'd be lying if I said that they were consciously connected to characters or plot when I was first discovering myself installing the patterns. "This feels right," is more the way of it. Post hoc, every writer claims that every word is vital.

  14. This is a real puzzle. Some writers make these kinds of patterns unconsciously. Some, like Dickens, seem to be able to take any random combination of elements and generate elaborate patterns with little effort. Not Flaubert's kind of effort.

    Zola, in books like The Belly of Paris, reverses the equation. Not a single character or plot element is wasted - they all set up his descriptions.

  15. I must confess that I find it difficult to see a novel, any novel, as an abstraction - a pattern that has no meaning outside itself. But this is merely a comment on my limitations as a reader. I am trying hard, and as of yet not quite succeeding, to see this novel as an abstraction.

  16. All art aspires to the condition of music, right? Every Paterian knows that.

    The trick with the novel (I mean the form) is that the novel-like shell with all of its usual decorations (characters, story) exists alongside the patterning. It is simultaneously abstract and not. Pure language and also something else. This is true of all novels, not just Flaubert. (The French theorists are creeping in again).

  17. As Todorov wrote (Les catégories du récit littéraire): "Generally speaking, literary works have two aspects: the plot and the telling [histoire and discours] (...) The same plot can be reported to us via other means; in a movie, for example. (...) Chklovski declared that the plot of a tale [l'histoire] is not an artistic element but just pre-literary source material; only the way it is told [discours] can be considered an aesthetic construction."

    1. There are also plenty of good novels where the plot, the events, don't matter at all, and the book is all in the telling. Even in books where the author values the plot, I don't care about it. I almost never notice how a novel ends, in terms of action. The magic is all in the spell being cast, the form of the narrative, etc. Who cares how many rabbits actually come out of the hat, or what the rabbits do then?

    2. Of course if you stink at plot you may want to substitute something else.

      I am not so sure about your last point. I am a rabbit-counter. Also, some of those magicians train their rabbits to pick pockets and palm jewelry and so on. I am just saying, keep an eye on them once they're out of the hat.

    3. I am tempted to say that all novelists stink at plot, and that additional effort put into plottiness yields diminishing returns. There's an inverse proportion, that is. I'm not sure how strongly I feel this, but I can't recall ever being moved by a novel's plot. Though I am one of those readers who can't remember how novels end five minutes after finishing the book. That just doesn't matter to me. I think. But I'll think about those rabbits.

    4. I just don't understand how you guessed the plot of my new YA non-fiction novel about an evil magician and his band of bunny-thieves. It's form the point of view of the hat. Who is a teenager. And an orphan.

      Anyway, I did not realize you are far more a plot extremist than I am. I remember lots of endings, and like 'em, and think lots of writers are good with plot, or at least better than lots of others.

      If I don't change my mind, I will write about Amy Hempel tomorrow. She hates endings. Her solution is to omit them.

    5. Yeah, you wouldn't guess it from my one published novel. But I was pushed by agents into making it a plot-boiler thriller. It originally opened with a long long description of the Elba river, from it's source in the Czech mountains, and it's lazy course across Germany to the North Sea. Beautiful stuff, no action at all. There were long scenes of drunken punning in the middle, and comic set pieces with singing. And then people killed each other, because you have to get them off stage somehow.

      I am not sure how strongly I feel any of this antiplottiness; I'm still jet lagged and punchy; it's like 2 AM Paris time and I'm feeling it in every nerve.

    6. I thought about mentioning that! The Astrologer has a good plot.

      Maybe you can put that other stuff in the Deluxe Edition.

    7. Amateur Reader (Tom),

      And be sure to keep an eye on that hat, also.

    8. The hat will be an entirely unreliable narrator.

    9. I would expect nothing less.

    10. This is a fascinating little diversion from “L’Education Sentimentale”. Usually, though not always, I get bored by plot-driven novels – i.e. novels where the principal reason for turning the page is to find out “what happens next”. The author, at the very least, has to make us care about “what happens next”, and to achieve this, the author needs to focus on a few matters beyond the plot.
      I look forward to the hat-narrated novel.

    11. Yes, the proliferation of incident can be as boring as its absence.

  18. I hope to get to The Egoist this year, a strange, eminently Victorian example of the two planes existing at once. It is a non-French contemporary example. No idea how Meredith came up with the idea.

    Is Todorov readable? He has some ideas I find promising.

  19. I have no ideological objection to plot, but the novels that I remember most fondly seem to be plotless or picaresque. The exception is Harry Stephen Keeler, who took plotting to obsessive, lunatic extremes. If you're going to use a plot, do all you can with it.

  20. That is the appeal of some of the great comic book writers, too, their crazy inventiveness in keeping their ludicrous mechanism moving forward.