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?”
“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.