Sunday, 8 February 2015

And he ran along on the tips of his slippers with the air of a sleepwalker and swift as a tiger: reading Gustave Flaubert

On the 15th of September, 1840, about six o’clock in the morning, inside a boat, a young lout called Fréderic Moreau fell in love with a married woman called Madame Arnoux, her extraordinary beauty compensating the lack of any other enthralling features. He loved; he was not loved; and this joyless state of affairs went on for more than eight years, until he got caught up in the 1848 revolution that started France’s Second Republic; having nothing better to do, and still unloved, he idled about until the republic crumbled and gave way to the Second Empire in 1852; but Cupid continued to miss, and the lout travelled; then came back, many years later, met his old flame again and was unloved still, although by this time even the feature of beauty had been subtracted from her. He was still the same, however, since he never had any to lose.

I feel like I have so little to add about Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education; Henry James has said everything. "Here the form and method are the same as in Madame Bovary; the studied skill, the science, the accumulation of material, are even more striking; but the book is in a single word a dead one. Madame Bovary was spontaneous and sincere; but to read its successor is, to the finer sense, like masticating ashes and sawdust. L'Education Sentimentale is elaborately and massively dreary. That a novel should have a certain charm seems to us the most rudimentary of principles, and there is no more charm in this laborious monument to a treacherous ideal than there is interest in a heap of gravel." This conjures so cogently and eloquently my impression of reading this novel, even though I should find James’ skewering suspect; his novels have offended my palate with a taste of ashes and sawdust several times too.

Very well, any plot can be reduced to the point of insignificance; we all know it’s how it’s told that matters, not what’s told. But for my money Flaubert’s telling here doesn’t impress very much either. For some 450 quite anodyne pages the novel plods and stretches on, repeats itself and lingers, and turns back upon itself. And yet I have the horrifying suspicion Flaubert intended this effect all along, which either constitutes a sign of dementia or a proof of unique courage. What makes it so difficult to attack this novel is that it’s clearly about stasis, inertia and failure, so Flaubert clearly found a way of connecting form and content seamlessly, always a cause for rejoicing; the downside of that is that, well, it’s inert and static and conduces to prolonged tedium. What to do when the novel triumphs by boring you?

Perhaps the solution is to ignore all that and focus on the good bits. Flaubert never relinquishes certain qualities: characterization, humour and beautiful writing.

Madame Bovary benefits from the force of its characters; Emma is a woman who wants to have an adultery, she’s put that goal in her mind as the adventure that will save her from banality; and there are enough suitors around her equally eager to help her. It’s a happy novel, in a way, because everyone gets what they want, for a while. But in this novel no one wants anything; they dream of things but won’t lift a finger for them. In the early pages we see the complacent, self-satisfied world Fréderic inhabits and can’t escape from. As the boat sails along the river, he peers out at the files of attractive buildings on its banks. “More than one spectator longed, on beholding those attractive residences which looked so peaceful, to be the owner of one of them, and to dwell there till the end of his days with a good billiard-table, a sailing-boat, a woman or some other such dream.” Everyone longs for something; the protagonist wants love; others want money, political power and status. Having just matriculated at law school, he too is making plans for the future. “Fréderic was thinking about the room he would occupy in Paris, about the plan of a drama, subjects for pictures, future passions. He found that the happiness merited by the excellence of his soul was slow in arriving.” He’s dissatisfied; he’ll remain dissatisfied forever. Aboard the vessel he meets Jacques Arnoux, a man like him and illustrative of the novel’s atmosphere: cordial, elegant, amusing, but easily bored and distracted. Showing up on deck he captures the attention of the passengers with his good spirits, “[b]ut getting tired, no doubt, of their society, he moved away and installed himself further along.” This is an important theme: no one manages to keep his attention focused on one thing for too long. So we have tiredness, tedium, and ADHD before anyone diagnosed it. Fréderic meets him and they chat; Arnoux is vacationing in order to recharge from all his affairs. “He expressed his delight at having got away from business.” This is ironic, by the way, since he spends the entire novel slave to business, or rather, to the attempt at building a business that will improve his fortune and status; but he fails, indebts himself, tries to serve political tendencies, jumps from business to business, fails some more and eventually runs away from creditors, dashing Fréderic’s hopes of ever turning his wife into his mistress. He’s still a long way from knowing that, though; when he meets Madame Arnoux it’s all fascination, obsession, Wertherin pangs. “What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past? He longed to become familiar with the furniture of her apartment, all the dresses that she had worn, the people whom she visited; and the desire of physical possession itself yielded to a deeper yearning, a painful curiosity that knew no bounds.” There’s pain, there’s fear he’ll never meet her again. “He felt jealous of the inventor of those things which appeared to interest her so much. The more he contemplated her, the more he felt that there were yawning abysses between them. He was reflecting that he should very soon lose sight of her irrevocably, without having extracted a few words from her, without leaving her with even a memory.” And yet by the end of chapter 3 we read that “his great passion for Madame Arnoux was beginning to die out.” Inconsistency, impulsivity, that’s how Flaubert’s characters work; their minds change from one sentence to another, and the author captures the minutia of each change, the shifts in consciousness, the tiny jolts of psychological realism that warm James Wood’s heart.

The boat ride takes him to Nogent-sur-Seine, where his mother resides. There we meet another character of importance, his best friend Deslauriers. They both want to accomplish amazing things. “His ambition was to be, one day, the Walter Scott of France. Deslauriers dreamed of formulating a vast system of philosophy, which might have the most far-reaching applications.” As for Deslauriers, he wants a role in politics, in shaping society: “A new ’89 is on the way. People are tired of constitutions, charters, subtleties, lies! Ah, if I had a newspaper, or a platform, how I would stir all that up! But to undertake anything whatever, you need money! What a curse it is to be a tavern-keeper’s son, and to waste one’s youth in quest of bread!” He’s a materialistic counterpoint to Fréderic’s idealism, and recommends, “A last piece of advice: pass your examinations! It’s always a good thing to have a handle to your name.” He’s not much into romance, and even considers his friend’s infatuation “a final aberration of adolescence.” As for the protagonist, he’ll study, he’ll also hobble through desires of being an artist, but be that as it may he’s pretty certain he’ll need love to accomplish that. “Love is the feeding-ground, and, as it were, the atmosphere of genius. Extraordinary emotions produce sublime works.” I’m tempted to say this novel proves they don’t, but let’s move on.

The two dream of living together in Paris, but Deslauriers moves to Troyes to become a clerk at an attorney’s office. “Fréderic hung his head. This was the first of his dreams which had crumbled into dust.” Deslauriers, via his political ambitions, serves to bring Fréderic closer to a cadre of would-be revolutionaries and republicans who are going to muck everything up come 1848, but he also acts as a foil, since Fréderic is always getting into situations where he has to choose between love and friendship. For instance when he does return to Paris intending to lodge at Fréderic’s house. “In the rear of this apartment were a bedroom and a closet. The idea occurred to his mind to put up Deslauriers there. But how could he receive her, her, his future mistress? The presence of a friend would be an obstacle.” Another factor he brings up: money; Deslauriers has lots of projects and plans, but he never has money to execute them, and their friendship suffers when Fréderic fails to lend him any. Money is also a problem for him, but thank to one of those 19th century literature inheritances he becomes well-off and behaves accordingly:

   He had scarcely grasped his good fortune in his hands when people tried to take it from him. He announced his express determination to live in Paris.
   “To do what?”
   Madame Moreau, astonished at his manner, asked what he intended to become of him.
   “A minister!” was Fréderic’s reply.

When he moves to Paris he remembers Madame Arnoux, ingratiates himself with Arnoux, starts attending aristocratic dinners and going out with other louts like him. Basically Flaubert paints in as vast a canvas as it allows him to ridicule the entire society.

Misery and unhappiness follows Fréderic, and obviously he’s sensitive to those who show off their happiness. This is his going to a restaurant where he meets with other students. “Those around him were students like himself. They talked about their professors, and about their mistresses. Much he cared about professors! Had he a mistress? To avoid being witness of their enjoyment, he came as late as possible.” More disappointments: through Arnoux’s business, L’Art Industriel, “a hybrid establishment, wherein the functions of an art journal and a picture show were combined,” he discovers that artists are not what he thinks they are. “L’Art Industriel, situated in a central position in Paris, was a convenient place of resort, a neutral ground wherein rivalries elbowed each other familiarly. On this day could be seen Anténor Braive, who painted portraits of kings; Jules Burrieu, whose sketches were beginning to popularize the wars in Algeria; the caricaturist Sombaz, the sculptor Vourdat, and others, and not a single one of them corresponded with the student’s preconceived ideas. Their manners were simple, their talk free and easy. The mystic Lovarias told an obscene story, and the inventor of the Oriental landscape, the famous Dittmer, wore a knitted vest under his waistcoat, and went home on the bus.”

Oh, no, he takes the bus! He commutes! That’s so bourgeois!

Amongst Arnoux’s coterie we find the painter Pellerin, a remarkable creation in itself: a painter who doesn’t paint, as inert with his brush as the rest of his society with its ambitions and desires; there should be a whole novel about him. “Pellerin read every work on aesthetics, in order to find out the true theory of the Beautiful, convinced that, when he had discovered it, he would produce masterpieces. He surrounded himself with every imaginable auxiliary – drawings, plaster casts, models, engravings, and he kept searching about, eating his heart out; he blamed the weather, his nerves, his studio, went out into the street to find inspiration there, quivered with delight at the thought that he had caught it, then abandoned the work in which he was engaged, and dreamed of another which should be finer. Thud, tormented by the desire for glory and wasting his days in discussions, believing in a thousand fooleries, in systems, in criticism, in the importance of a regulation or a reform in the domain of Art, he had at fifty as yet turned out nothing save mere sketches.” We should be thankful for his lofty considerations, for whatever refusal they contain to partake of Arnoux’s contribution to mediocrity: “His object was to emancipate the fine arts, to get the sublime at a cheap rate. Over every industry associated with Parisian luxury he exercised an influence which proved fortunate with respect to little things, but fatal with respect to great things. With his mania for pandering to public opinion, he made clever artists swerve from their true path, corrupted the strong, exhausted the weak, and got distinction for those of mediocre talent; he controlled their fates with the assistance of his connections and of his magazine.” This so disgusts Fréderic, still fooling himself with a fantasy about becoming an artist, that “Madame Arnoux herself was as if diminished by the vulgarity of her husband.”

It would be erroneous to say that Fréderic is an idealist; he’s really bipolar: he has abrupt mood swings and is always in flux, one day he longs for important careers in politics, the other he just wants the love of a woman. This is the time when he thought he wanted to be an artist, and how he arrived at that decision. “He asked himself seriously whether he would be a great painter or a great poet – and he decided in favour of painting, for the exigencies of this profession would bring his into contact with Madame Arnoux. So, then, he had found his vocation!” Amazing, his vocation is in accordance to what will facilitate his love life! Some people can have their cake and eat it too! But Madame Arnoux, the opposite of the fiery Emma, is a respectable housewife who looks after her children and piously serves her husband, elegantly defusing all his attempts at courting her. “He envied pianists for their talents and soldiers for their scars. He longed for a dangerous illness, hoping in this way to make her take an interest in him.”

When he’s not trying to woo her he’s struggling with the “need of giving up this sort of life,” but fails again and again; although failing is perhaps too strong a word; he’d have to try to change in order to fail at that; this desire to become a different person is just one of the many wishes fighting for space inside his dream-filled, ADHD-troubled mind. By page 268 not much has yet changed, and we’re told that “he was firmly resolved (whatever he might do) on changing his mode of life, that is to say, to lose his heart no more in fruitless passions.” And by 382: “Political verbiage and good living blunted his moral sense. Mediocre as these persons appeared to him, he was proud to know them, and inwardly longed for bourgeois respectability.” The novel is a carrousel: no matter how many turns it takes, it always ends up in the same place. The whole novel takes place at parties and restaurants, amidst idle chatting about economy, art, politics; conversations lose their uniqueness as they morph into the previous ones that were identical and just as forgettable. And like I wrote before, I think this is Flaubert’s intention, which is quite clever in itself: deliberately give the reader page upon page of pap that he will have no interest in storing in his memory, to show the vapidity of this society. It’s a neat technique, but it still demands that he write pap.

But notwithstanding the drudgery of so much of the novel, there are diamonds here and there. Flaubert was a writer of exceptional descriptive powers. Here’s how he describes Sénécal, who grows from a political boor to exerting tremendous influence during the revolution. “An austere Republican, he suspected that there was something corrupt in every form of elegance, and the more so as he had no needs and was inflexible in his integrity.” Flaubert of course liked elegance, he cared about aesthetics above all else, and he saw democracy, with its masses ruling things, as a great threat to elegance and beauty. Sénécal believes in a society “which was to be more omnipotent, absolute, infallible, and divine than the Grand Lama and the Nebuchadnezzars,” and some of the most acidic pages concern the unraveling of the Republic in all its pettiness, meanness, arrivisme and stupidity.

I also loved this lampooning of literature. “The principal contemporary writers were to be found there. It was impossible to speak about their works, for Hussonnet immediately began relating anecdotes with reference to their personal characteristics, criticizing their faces, their morals, their dress, glorifying fifth-rate intellects and disparaging those of the first, and all the while making it clear that he deplored modern decadence. Any village ditty contained in itself alone more poetry than all the lyric poets of the nineteenth century; Balzac was overrated, Byron discredited, Hugo knew nothing about the stage, etc.” This is so modern! It’s like reading a condensed version of the formula for writing book reviews acceptable by Portuguese newspapers!

And then there’s always the careful, original language that Flaubert uses. There’s nothing beautiful in the novel; everything is sordid or pathetic or ridiculous; not even Madame Arnoux is smarter or more interesting than her environment, she’s no Emma Bovary, passionate and full of will; she’s bourgeois down to the fabric of her underwear. But Fréderic loves her, and that love transforms her. Or better yet, language transforms her. There are descriptions that ring with, forgive me the cliché, lyricism. Some of them are, yes, poetic. There are descriptions of happiness and joie de vivre that remind of Nabokov. His metaphors are always fresh, unexpected and precise. This is him describing the boat along the river: “At last, the vessel set out; and the two banks of the river, stocked with warehouses, timberyards and manufacturers, slipped past like two huge ribbons unrolled.” This one takes place at a party after someone talks about revolution: “All the other women remained silent, filled with a vague terror, as if they had heard the noise of bullets.” And when the revolution starts, here’s the incredible oxymoron used to simultaneously describe Fréderic’s usual lack of will and the impetuosity with which he jumps into every rash idea that crosses his mind for a moment. “In his hand he held a long military musket, and he ran along on the tips of his slippers with the air of a sleepwalker and swift as a tiger.” This sentence almost encapsulates the entire novel.

There was another reason I like reading Sentimental Education. When everyone was voting for me to read it, some people mentioned the connection with Eça de Queiroz, one of my favourite novelists. Heavily influenced by the Realists, Eça was in fact the introducer of Flaubert in Portugal, via a public lecture that brought down a government (more on that one day), and the most important figure in liberating the Portuguese novel from the prison of Romantic aesthetics inside which it had been doing time for decades now. Comparisons have been made between the two, books have been written on the similarities between Madame Bovary and Cousin Bazilio (a novel I need to re-read this year). Sentimental Education certainly expands the net of borrowings (before Eça’s consecration as Portugal’s greatest novelist ever!, detractors called it plagiarism): Pellerin is so clearly Camilo Cerrão, a painter full of theories who is always changing styles and pines for the Renaissance Maecenas, in The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers; the duel between Cisy and Fréderic no doubt served as a model for a similar one in O Conde d’Abranhos; and Fréderic’s amorous misadventures and attempts at being someone and failing sound a lot like the troubles of Carlos da Maia, from The Maias. The difference – the essential difference to me – is that Eça gives a lot of life and comedy to these bits and pieces he finds in Flaubert. Cerrão isn’t just a painter in search of a theory of beauty; he’s borderline lunatic in his fascination for the past, demanding to be treated by his clients the way Popes treated men like Raphael and Titian, and finding Art impossible in Democracy. Cisy may be cowardly, but he at least shows up to uphold his honour in a duel; the Count of Abranhos is so craven he informs the police of the duel in order for it to be stopped, such an indecent breach of protocol that even his seconds turn on him and literally force him to duel. And Carlos may just be a lazy loser in Fréderic’s tradition, but Eça was a natural born comedian and there’s never a dull moment with him. Although I think Eça did everything Flaubert did better than him – and had a few tricks of his own the Frenchman did not – it was still worth reading this novel just to gain a better understanding of Flaubert’s relationship with one of my favourite novelists.

In the end I wouldn’t say Sentimental Education is a bad novel; I think its weaknesses are premeditated effects necessary for the themes Flaubert wanted to develop, which means they’re not weaknesses at all. Even so I think it’s a dour, lifeless novel, like the society its characters inhabit, full of great if brief moments to reward the patient reader, and definitely a notch below the riveting Madame Bovary.


  1. I started this novel a few years ago, found the beginning somewhat tedious, and have yet to return to it despite having been a big fan of Madame Bovary. I often have better luck with novels reading them at a later date, but I'm a little concerned that my initial reaction to this one is the same as yours was the whole...way...through. Yikes!

    1. Richard, indeed I expected a better experience; I hold MB in such high regard. But I'm not giving up on Flaubert yet: there's still Salammbô, St. Anthony and his only book Borges liked, Bouvard et Pécuchet; perhaps I should start from here to see why the Master loved it.

  2. Miguel - This may well be the best piece I've ever read about Sentimental Education. In addition, you managed to bring the entire novel back to me decades after I read it (underscoring, as you note, that so little of it stays with one). Back then, those in my circle of reading friends were enthusiastic about Sentimental Education with its atmosphere of ennui and its endless commentary on art and literature. We used it as a litmus test. There were actually some who came away from it finding the ending to be satisfying, assuming that a great, lasting friendship had been portrayed. Those of us who were horrified by this grew closer together.

    I am scarcely saying anything about your fine post, but believe it or not, you actually make me want to reread Sentimental Education. I voted for it in your poll as I thought it merited reading next to The Maias. Like you, however, I'd pick the latter in a heartbeat.

    1. Scott, thanks for those kind words.

      I hope my disappointment hasn't lead you to regret the vote; this was a novel I very much had to read, especially since I've been immersing myself in Eça essays lately and this novel crops up here and there.

      It surely has enriched my knowledge of Eça; and reminded me why I vastly prefer him to Flaubert!

    2. I don't regret my vote in the least! I figured you'd appreciate Sentimental Education for the Eça angle regardless of how you felt about the novel itself. Just looking at the ending of Flaubert's novel next to that of The Maias shows how good Eça is in comparison.

    3. Yeah, it's a great novel, The Maias. unfortunately too long for me to reread it this year, I'm taking on The Relic and Cousin Bazilio instead; just got a short study on the picaresque in The Relic that I want to read in tandem with it.

  3. It has been a few years since I last read Sentimental Education, but I think I viewed it quite positively. I was very much taken by it: it is, indeed, my favourite French novel.

    I cannot of course comment on the novel in any great detail here, as I last read it quite a few years ago. But what particularly impressed me was Flaubert’s depiction of life essentially as drift. Nothing is really directed towards anything: things just happen; people get older, though not wiser, and then they die; and everything merely drifts along. The technical achievement seems to me astonishing: in the foreground are a group of people none of whom are particularly attractive or interesting (Madame Arnoux possibly excepted), and in the background are major historic events; but Flaubert never allows the background to overwhelm the foreground. And there are moments where we are allowed unexpected glimpses into characters that suddenly open up new horizons: for instance, Rosanette may appear simply as shallow and airheaded, but in what is almost a throwaway passage, she tells of her youth, when her mother had effectively sold her to a wealthy man; and she mentions that she had attempted suicide. It is not dwelt upon, but the sudden and seemingly casual presentation of a new perspective I found extraordinarily affecting. Indeed, the casual nature in which this new perspective is revealed is itself significant: even the strongest, most powerful of human emotions are merely incidental events in the drift.

    And there’s the ending which seems to me among the finest of any novel. Frédéric’s final meeting with Madame Arnoux is among the finest scenes I think I have encountered. Against all expectations, I was moved – especially at that moment when Madame Arnoux takes off her hat and reveals her hair, now all white.

    The last scene with Deslauriers is also wonderful. The two friends, now both in advanced middle age, reflect on a time when, as teenagers, they had tried to pluck up the courage to go to a brothel. But before they passed the threshold, they lost their nerve, and had run away. They look back on this now, and agree that this was the happiest time. One can only be happy before one has passed the threshold of experience: happiness lies only in expectation, not in reality. It is profoundly pessimistic, and very, very sad.

    I can’t help drawing a curious parallel between this novel, and another one that is very different in many ways – “Great Expectations”. In both novels, the protagonist comes unexpectedly into money; and in both, expectations are disappointed; and again, in both, the protagonist is obsessively in love, and that love is doomed to remain unconsummated. And both novels end with the protagonist, many years after the events of the rest of the novel, meeting again the person they had loved. I wrote a post here some years ago, comparing the two:
    I need to go back to Sentimental Education, and see what I make of it now. It still remains my favourite French novel.

  4. May i just add to the above:

    What I think particularly attracts me to Flaubert is the underlying sadness of it all. Yes, he was cynical, and presented life as essentially meaningless and futile, and humans as essentially too trivial and stupid to make much of anything; but underlying it all seems to me to be a profound sense of sadness. There's no casual shrug of the shoulders and a "What did you expect?" Rather, there seems to me to be a great melancholy that things should be so.

    Flaubert has always struck me as a Romantic who understands that Romantic ideals are unrealistic given the hard facts of life and of humanity, but who nonetheless finds himself attached to those ideals. This is why I find the ending of "Sentimental Education" so poignant: happiness can only exist when we are still young enough to believe in these ideals; once one has crossed the threshold of experience, all thatreally exists is a meaningless drift of mediocrity. But that does not prevent us from being nostalogic for those ideals that have been lost.

    This, for me at least, is what this novel conveys.

    1. Himadri, you seldom visit, but when you do it's a great reply!

      Apropos of the drift you speak of, just now I remembered the novel starts in a boat in a river; the metaphor is there from the beginning. That's one of the reasons why I admire Flaubert: his microscopic attention to detail.

      I can't disagree with anything you say; I also see this as a novel abotu drift; but like I said about tedium, the problem of representing a tedious society is that you need to convey it through tedium.

      I don't know if I see Flaubert as a Romantic; I think he's concerned with fighting the tragic view of life. That was especially clear in MB, where many lofty, melodramatic scenes were juxtaposed with some coarseness or ridicule, as if to say that absurd is always just around tragedy's corner.

      I think he tries to show the same in this novel; sometimes he succeeds, but often he fails to me.

      And yes, the white hair scene is special.

    2. Himadri - I also greatly appreciated your reply. You always raise enriching issues that make me question my assumptions. My response to Sentimental Education was also quite positive and enthusiastic when I read it (a long, long time ago, when I was maybe 20), and it's precisely this sense of aimlessness that I recall having such an impact. I do not, however, recall viewing the ending as poignant. Rather, I found it almost terrifying, that these two friends could reminisce about the "happiest" moments of their lives scarcely aware that they'd all but let life pass them by. That's not to say one can't be moved by that. I should in fairness revisit the novel before saying more (I should have done so before saying anything at all), but when I think of it, I associate Sentimental Education with being acidly unsentimental (hence the irony of the title) and unRomantic. I am curious to know how I would react to it now, with all that water under the bridge.