book: “Sentimental Education”

cover of "Sentimental Education", FlaubertLife is messy. If you didn’t believe that before reading Sentimental Education, it’s not Flaubert’s fault if you fail to believe it afterward.

The famous mid-19th-century flourishing of the novel came on very rapidly, and this book is a milestone. Though its characters, mores, and points of view are early-19th-century in being limited almost uniformly to leisure and salon characters–that is, the apparently moneyed, whether they had money at the moment or not–the style has become unmoored from Balzac’s chumminess with the reader and finds itself at sea. The reader may come along, or not, though “not” would be foolish, because though this novel’s style is unmoored, the appearance of drifting is an illusion. The style shifts are utterly deliberate. The sure hand on the rudder is Flaubert’s, and he firmly guided the construction and style of this long, exhausting, historical, and sometimes breathtaking tale.

This is a picaresque novel–of sorts–but against convention, the young and then not-so-young man is almost never referred to as “our hero”. And rightly not:

He hurried to the Café Anglais, where he had a splendid supper, and while he was eating he said to himself, “What a fool I was, back home, with my lovesick sorrow. Why, she scarcely recognized me! What a little bourgeois she is!”

And in a sudden burst of animal health, he resolved to lead a selfish life.

And he follows this resolve, as often as not. The problem, though, is that this protagonist doesn’t know what he wants, or rather he wants a number of things at nearly the same time, each vision of his desire amounting to a mere frame in the continuous emotional action movie that is this book.

But he desired her as an exotic, inaccessible object, because she was noble, because she was rich, because she was devout, telling himself that she had delicate feelings as exquisite as her face, with holy medals next to her skin and modest blushes in the midst of debauchery.

Almost as much as being a personal tale of desire and indecision, Sentimental Education is a historical novel. The detail of time and place is encyclopedic, as when the rich can afford to have straw thrown on the cobbles before their houses, to prevent passing carts from waking their ill. But just as often the people are trapped by their times in ways they cannot quite figure out.

“But has anybody the right to fight a duel?”

“It’s a relic of barbarism, and there’s nothing to be done about it.”

The reader smiles, then shudders. Flaubert, without having to say so, gently reminds any self-aware reader how easy it is to allow the barbaric to pass, and how younger generations may judge us for succumbing–and then later it will be their turn. The satire is nonstop, witty, and unexpected in timing, predating by decades (and no doubt influencing) Oscar Wilde and others. At the salon, two young men point out an older gentleman:

“He’s one of the old guard, with nothing to his name but his Croix d’honneur and his pension. He plays uncle to girls on the make in high society, arranges duels, and dines out at other people’s expense.”

“A scoundrel?” said Frédéric.

“No, a decent fellow.”

And there it is. It would be easy to miss. In this seemingly inconsequential salon exchange, the two young men vacillate between seeing this older gentleman as a target of ridicule, or as a worthy outcome for their own lives. This simple exchange is not a witticism but in fact captures the moral–the tragedy if there is one–of this great tale: that this very ambivalence between nobility and acquisitiveness played itself out in the young men’s lives for decades, and in the end this inability to choose defined who they were, and who their generation was.

In finding this astoundingly original, almost creepily perceptive, sweeping and wonderful book, Bibliosaurus is on a roll. Five stars.

“Sentimental Education”, Gustave Flaubert, 1869, Geoffrey Wall’s 2004 revision of Robert Baldick’s 1964 translation from the French, Penguin Books.

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