Wednesday, September 23, 2015

he resolved to lead a selfish life - Sentimental Education has characters and a story

A shallow young man falls in love with a married woman he has barely met – he is in a heightened and susceptible emotional state at the time.  The chance meeting and strange reaction influence or even determine almost everything he does for the next decade of his life.

Or more accurately everything he does not do, since Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is the great nineteenth century novel of missing the main event.  More events almost happen than happen, if that makes sense.  Or they happen elsewhere, with our hero – is that ever the wrong word – Frédéric Moreau just missing them.

Flaubert does not quite have nothing at all happen, but he comes as close as he dares.  Frédéric repeatedly almost begins a sexual affair, with the woman he meets on the first page or with someone else, or almost marries, or almost finds himself involved in some kind of revolutionary activity (the novel hinges around 1848).  He is involved in a duel which turns into a farce, so it is too much to say he fights in a duel.  He is present at the 1848 sacking of the Tuileries Palace, a great scene, although as a witness more than a participant.

The Tuileries scene is so memorable that I remembered the novel as having far more scenes of political violence than it really does.

People slipped in the mud on clothes, shakos, and weapons; Frédéric felt something soft under his foot; it was the hand of a sergeant in a grey overcoat who was lying face down in the gutter.  The wine-merchants’ shops were open, and every now and then somebody would go in to smoke a pipe or drink a glass of beer, before returning to the fight.  A stray dog started howling.  This raised a laugh.  (Part 3, Ch. 1)

So much of what Flaubert is doing in Sentimental Education, his radical aesthetic method, is visible in this passage, but I want to save that for the next few days.  Keep an eye on that dog.

The dubious, amoral Frédéric is in a predecessor of Proust’s Marcel in that his behavior and thoughts, if that is the right word, always make him seem several years younger than he really is.  The novel is full of jokes at his expense.  “And in a sudden burst of animal health, he resolved to lead a selfish life” (Pt. 2, Ch. 1).  The joke is that a quarter of the way into the novel I had yet to see him live any other way.  Pure self-delusion.  Or see this one, when Frédéric realizes that he has a chance of an affair with a wealthy woman: “Greedy, in all probability, for power and action, and married to a mediocrity who she had served devotedly, she wanted a man of strong personality to guide her” (Pt. 3, Ch. 3).  Fifty pages from the end of the novel, I can be certain that if she is interested in Frédéric it is cannot possibly be for his strong personality.

What Proust’s protagonist has that Flaubert’s lacks is an aesthetic sensibility.  And people call Sentimental Education “autobiographical”!  For the next few days, nothing but aesthetics.  Nothing but style.  Frédéric will reappear only to be mocked.

I read Robert Baldick’s translation in the same Penguin Classics edition I read twenty-five years ago.  

14 comments:

  1. Though I haven't read this novel since university, I can recall, from the varying reactions of classmates, thinking of Sentimental Education as a wondrous instrument for measuring the sense of irony.

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  2. Yes, I saw your bit of memoir at St. Orberose. This novel separate the true Romantics from the rest of us.

    It is not the place I would go to look for Truth, although I plan to write something where I claim that it is.

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  3. I can't help thinking how daring it was for Flaubert to set this story - or, rather, non-story - of things not quite happening to Frédéric against so turbulent a historic background, as one would have thought the background events are likely to prove far more interesting than the foreground non-events. I honestly can't figure out how Flaubert gets away with it.

    I wouldn't dismiss the possibility of there being an autobiographical element. Flaubert may well have given Frédéric all his own negative qualities, while suppressing the positive ones. I think GF was being entirely serious when he had said of the protagonist of his previous novel - "Madame Bovary, c'est moi".

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    1. There's a very interesting essay by Edmund Wilson somewhere, which argues that the way to read A Sentimental education is to ignore Frédéric and pay attention what's happening in the background. He made such a good case for it that I tried desperately to follow his advice before giving up..

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    2. Wilson in his Marxist phase. I did not focus on the same background that he recommends.

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  4. Of course there's an autobiographical element! If people said the novel had an autobiographical element I wouldn't laugh at them so maliciously. I laugh harder, I admit, at anyone who says Jane Eyre is autobiographical.

    Flaubert was half-serious about saying he was Emma Bovary.

    Daring, absolutely, and one of the big clues to Flaubert's concept. From the point of view of art, the subject does not matter. The non-events are interesting - more interesting - no, worse, more true - because of the act of the artist.

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  5. Declan Kiberd in Inventing Ireland, Modern Irish literature devotes a chapter to the role of the dandy in Irish literature. He calls A Sentimental Education as the ultimate dandy novel. I find the dual scene just so hilarious. I see three "sentimental educations" occurring in the novel, that of the central character, that of France with the failed revolutions and that of the reader. It took me a few readings to see this. In French argot a "sentimental education" refers to an older woman, imagine Colette at forty, initiating a young man into sexual experience. The ending of the novel is very profound if seen as. Study of the last days of the European dandy. Maybe the dandy lived on but this period seems his near peak.

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  6. I like the idea, but have doubts about the sentimental education of France. How does the allegory work? Is the older woman Louis Napoleon?

    And the reader? I am shocked. I am a married man.

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  7. This novel irritated to me to no end. I realize it is quite famous, and a huge reference point for authors who followed him in the Realist style. Still, it was like watching paint dry. "nothing at all happen(s), but he comes as close as he dares" to be sure. I cared so much about Emma. I cared so little about Frederic. Perhaps that is most of the point?

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  8. Eh, Realism, that's a con game. And I will argue with your metaphor by suggesting that the paint is long dry.

    To what extent do you care about the apples in a Cézanne still life?

    Having said that, try "A Simple Heart," definitely, where Flaubert shows that he can simulate sympathy when he wants. Few will have trouble caring about poor Felicité.

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    1. Okay, A Simple Heart.

      I was really irritated by Sentimental Education, which probably speaks more about me than Flaubert.

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    2. Well, it maybe speaks to your taste for avant garde fiction. No one is obligated to enjoy anti-novels, dissonance, or abstract painting.

      The problem with Sentimental Education is that it is disguised as something less out-there. It is actually pretty far out-there!

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  9. Oh dear. Another disguised book. Like Jane Eyre and the genre of mystery...

    I'm the simple girl who says, "Yep, I liked it," or "Nope, I didn't."

    It's a wonder to me that you blog with me at all. :)

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  10. Yes, I basically have no interest in whether or not anyone likes a book. Including myself.

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