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.