Thursday, September 24, 2015

They chatted about the subject under discussion - Sentimental Education's boring triumph - actually I'll write about the triumph later

Flaubert hammered Sentimental Education until it was flat, even flatter than Madame Bovary.  A line that epitomizes the flatness: “They chatted about the subject under discussion” (Pt. 1, Ch. 5).  I can think of a number of later writers working in Flaubert’s tradition who would not have allowed such a line in their books except as some kind of grotesque joke.

If you are thinking of blaming the translator, Robert Baldick: “Ils causèrent de ce que l’on disait.”

Received criticism praises Flaubert for his beauty – I hated Emma Bovary, I hated spending time with these horrible people, but of course the writing is beautiful – and I will argue later that Flaubert creates works of great beauty, but the beauty is only occasionally at the level of the sentence.  The search for le mot juste is a destructive process.  Flaubert builds up a scene, fills it with adjectives and metaphor, and then strips them out before I or anyone else gets to see them, pounding the prose back to flatness.

In fairness, I will note that Sentimental Education is aesthetically more radical than Madame Bovary, more unforgiving.

When Eça de Queirós wrote his version of Sentimental Education’s relatively vivid horse race scene he made every sentence interesting, packing everything in the novel into one magnificent long chapter.  Zola worked in the same way; so did Proust.  Flaubert is the father of this kind of maximalism but oddly also of minimalism.

I am on the same page as “They chatted etc.”:

The party stopped beside a fisherman, who was cleaning some eels in a tank for live fish.  Mademoiselle Marthe wanted to see them.  He emptied his box on to the grass; and the little girl went down on her knees to catch them, laughing with pleasure and screaming with fright.  They were all lost.  Arnoux paid for them.

(If you were thinking of blaming the translator: “Toutes furent perdues.  Arnoux les paya.”  Baldick does have his troubles.  “A good many began singing.  Spirits rose.  Glasses were brought out and filled” (Pt. 1, Ch. 1), which in French is “Beaucoup chantaient.  On était gai.  Il se versait des petits verres.”  I guess “Many sang” sounded too primitive or ugly, although the next sentence makes up for it.  It was at this point – on page two – that I began spot-checking the French.  Oh come on, I thought, having forgotten how this book works, Flaubert did not write “Spirits rose”!  But he did, or close enough.  I do not know why Baldick did not want the glasses to be little.

The flat descriptive prose is accompanied by conversations, about politics, business, art, or nothing, that are even less interesting:

There were not many quadrilles, and the dancers, judging by the listless way in which they dragged their feet, looked as if they were performing a duty.  Frédéric heard snatches of conversation such as these:

“Were  you at the last charity ball at the Hotel Lambert, Mademoiselle?”

“No, Monsieur.”

“It’s going to be terribly hot soon.”

“Yes, absolutely stifling.”

“Whom is this polka by?”

“I really don’t know, Madame.”  (Pt. 2, Ch. 2)

“What to do when the novel triumphs by boring you?” asks Miguel at St. Orberose.  Admittedly this particular passage is really rubbing it in.  Miguel suggests focusing on the good bits – metaphors, imagery, satirical jabs – some of which are extraordinary.  I’ll do some of that tomorrow.  Then I’ll work a little on the other way to read Sentimental Education, even though it is a bit beyond me cognitively.  I am never actually bored by Sentimental Education.  It always gives me something to do.


  1. Madame Bovary really does have some stupendous writing (I am thinking, for example, of those scenes from Part II where the natural world seems to join in Emma's romantic highs and echo her emotional lows), but I never made it far enough into Sentimental Education to appreciate this flatness you speak of. I look forward to your take on this novel's aesthetic radicalism to remind me of what I might be/must be missing.

  2. I'd say the flatness begins in the first sentence, but you do need the cumulative effect to really see it. And perhaps you need at least one of the paradoxical "boring" show off scenes, like the tour of the ceramics factory. Zola would fill the scene with original images and metaphor. Flaubert gives a tour of a ceramics factory. Poor Frédéric is bored out of his mind. But Frédéric is not Zola; he has no aesthetic sense. So when the point of view is his, well, I see what he sees.

    Frédéric's "honeymoon" might be the best example. A great, perverse sequence.

    1. I saw the flatness all right--I just didn't read enough (or closely enough) to appreciate it! Your answer here gives me hope that you'll deliver an inspirational kick in the pants with your next post, though.

    2. I mean I'm not really going to write anything I didn't write about Madame Bovary. I am embracing repetition.

  3. I read this book last year and I agree, it was just meh. Far too long, undeveloped characters, flat writing. A huge disappointment after Madame Bovary. I also read Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant which was far superior.

  4. “They chatted about the subject under discussion”

    I really do think that's wonderful. It's Flaubert's way of saying "What they chatted about is utterly unimportant because it is utterly boring". That may not make the characters interesting, but it certainly makes the narrator interesting. It is often said that Flaubert absents himself from his writing. Quite the contrary, I think - Flaubert is present in every single line. And, for me at least, it is Flaubert's persona that carries one through the novel - it is Flaubert's view of life that is of interest, not Frédéric's.

  5. "Meh"! Oh no, we do not agree. Sentimental Education is an extraordinary work of art. An achievement of a high level of difficulty. Advanced conceptual art.

    Himadri - wonderful, sure, why not. All I said is that the sentence is flat. I think you are over-egging its meaning.

    "They chatted about the subject under discussion. She admired orators; he preferred a writer's fame. But surely, she argued, one must derive a deeper pleasure from moving people directly, in person; from seeing the emotion's of one's own soul entering into theirs. That sort of triumph did not greatly tempt Frédéric , who had no ambition at all."

    This is just the sort of thing that the actual Flaubert finds both important and interesting! As for the narrator, I am less sure, since he tells the story with such distance.

    "Every single line" is very strong. "Spirits rose."

    The "absent Flaubert" idea - and I agree that the word "absent" is a mistake, but never mind that - is meant as a contrast with narrators like those of George Eliot. If you want Flaubert to be present in every single line, how do you distinguish what his narrators do from those of Eliot?

    1. Yes, I agree that there is a difference between the authorial stance of the likes of Fielding, Thackeray or George Eliot on the one hand, and of Flaubert on the other, but the difference is not (as is often claimed, although I appreciate that you are not claiming this) that Fielding et al are present in their works, but Flaubert isn't: Flaubert's presence seems to me every bit as strong in his works as is the presence of Fielding or of George Eliot in theirs; but the authorial presence manifests itself in a different way.

      "What they chatted about, dear reader, need not concern us, for I think it is likely to have been dull and insipid and lacking in any point of interest: so let us move the narrative on."

      "They chatted about the subject under discussion"

      It's not merely that the two say the same thing, it's also that the authorial personality is equally present in both - in the former explicitly, in the latter implicitly, but, it seems to me, no less strongly.

    2. Sorry - Flaubert does actually go on to tell us what they were discussing. So my first example should have read:

      "What they chatted about, dear reader, need not concern us, for I think it is likely to have been dull and insipid and lacking in any point of interest: so let me merely summarise rather than enter into any of the detail, which you, dear reader, are bound to find boring."

    3. It's a tautology. Flaubert is present in every line because you know it's Flaubert!

      I'll be more explicit - these sentence-level comparisons are imaginary blindfold tests. Are those done much in classical music? They are so common in jazz. Flaubert deliberately write more sentences in SE, more than in MB, that are meant to confound the blindfold test.

      Blindfolded, I can sure tell that your paraphrase is not Flaubert. I don't think I would do well with the original, though.

      I still don't understand why you think narrator Flaubert thinks a discussion about responses to art is of no interest, rather than intense interest. Nor why you think this narrator in this book would ever think of summarizing to avoid boring his readers - he often goes out of his way to deliberately bore his readers!

    4. Although there is no way that Frédéric's specific ideas will be of any interest. That could well be what Flaubert means.

    5. Indeed. In the novel I am currently reading - Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons" - many of the characters are characterised to a great extent by their thoughts and ideas. So, when these characters discuss their thoughts and ideas, Turgenev gives them great weight: he reports in direct speech what they are saying, and describes in detail what they are thinking. He does all this because, in this novel, ideas are important: we, as readers, need to know what these people think.

      Flaubert does quite the opposite. Even when the characters are, as in this example, discussing important topics, Flaubert's giving us merely a bald summary (if that) of what they say and think seems to me to imply very strongly that Flaubert, the narrator, does not think their ideas are particularly important, and that it is not necessary for us to know them.

      It goes even further than that, I think. Flaubert would frequently (if my memory serves me right) describe mundane things in great detail. The implication seems to me to be that even these seemingly mundane things are more important than these peoples' ideas, which are nugatory.

      Whether or not we agree with Flaubert's viewpoint, it does seem to me that he *has* a viewpoint - a very strong authorial viewpoint - and that he projects it very strongly. This is why I get the impression that his authorial presence is very much in evidence throughout.

    6. The conversations in Fathers and Sons are the weakest thing in the novel, by far. Ivan, do you think you are writing a play? This is driving me slightly crazy in Portrait of a Lady right now, too. Take advantage of your form and compress some of this blah blah blah, I beg you.

      Flaubert's descriptions of mundane things are the way he tells us his characters' ideas. His method is radically different than Turgenev's, and like me he is skeptical about the role of ideas as such in fiction. Flaubert and I believe Turgenev mistaken in the weight he gives to his characters' "thoughts" and "ideas." Less chatter, more light and shadow effects, please.


  6. A very wise reviewer (even if just an amateur one) once noticed how Flaubert was mainly interested in contrasting light effects and hidden harmonies: that's where whatever he was trying to express could be found.

    An example of said contrasts: the plot of Salammbo couldn't be more eventful or more different than the one from the Sentimental Education; and yet both novels include near their end an scene with friends remembering incidents from their youth and how they compare to their present situation. From the beginning of Salammbo: "What people is this, they [the friends] thought, that amuses itself by crucifying lions!"; at the end, one of them says: "Do you remember the lions on the road to Sicca?". This last question asked while the friends are about to die, crucified.

  7. Yes, exactly, the music that will melt the stars.

    Unfortunately for me, many of those hidden harmonies are inaudible in English. But not all of them.

    Superficially, Salammbô and Sentimental Education are so different, yet in other ways Flaubert just seems to be writing the same novel again and again. He just needed new materials in each one to compose new harmonies.

  8. As to characters being flat or underdeveloped, if we see the novel as a great study of the European dandy in his first flowering, to be advanced in The Good Soldier and brought to perfect by Proust it makes more sense.

  9. I'll mention that I fo not at all think the characters are flat. It's the prose, the prose. A lot of good tricky work is done with the characters.