The Sentimental Education, by Gustave Flaubert
1869, 420 pp.
Flaubert's reputation is impossible to overstate. He is generally credited as the first of the Modernists, greatest of the Realists, the originator of prose constructed with the lapidary precision of poetry, the inventor of the modern novel, and perhaps the greatest pure literary stylist in history. Shelves groan under the weight of scholarly monographs about him, and it is quite difficult to find anything new and profitable to say. If anything, knowing his reputation in the literary world is a disadvantage: for me at least, it raised expectations higher than this translation could bear.
The Sentimental Education is the story of Frédéric Moreau, an up-and-coming young man recently arrived in Paris, and the trials and tribulations of his life and loves as he muddles through the end of the July Monarchy and the Revolution of 1848. I decided to read it because of the revolutionary connotation, and because Woody Allen lists it as one of the things that makes life worth living in Manhattan. I must admit that upon finishing it, I have to conclude that either he overstates or sets the bar lower than I do.
With Flaubert, the problem of translation may be insurmountable. The intricately constructed internal rhymes and alliteration and aural patterns of the original French are lost, and Flaubert's monomaniacal fixation on le mot juste is lost along with it. I imagine the experience of actually reading Flaubert is quite different from slicing through this old Signet paperback. Some quite good prose survives the translation, but it really does not seem worth criticizing the prose to any meaningful extent. Instead the reviewer is limited to structural criticism.
The Sentimental Education is a deliberately anecdotal work. Most of the events in the narrative were lifted from Flaubert's own life, and most of the characters are based loosely on people he knew. It lacks much of a plot and forward momentum save for the common thread of Frédéric's endless pursuit of Madame Arnoux, the wife of a crooked businessman. The first half is a series of parties, dinners, meetings, and brief conversations, mainly centering around the ambitions and subsequent failures of the characters. Frédéric is desperate for Madame Arnoux, but only succeeds in being swindled by her husband (with whom he makes friends, as a way to get near Madame) over and over. Frédéric's best friend Deslauriers wants to be a powerful lawyer, but lacks money has politically unpopular views. Pellerin wants to be a brilliant, innovative painter, but has no talent. Hussonet is a radical journalist, but ends up a censor under Louis-Napoleon. Dussardier and Sénécal are radical republicans; by the end, one switches sides and ends up killing the other. And so forth. The recurrent punchline is the ridiculous lengths Frédéric goes to in order to remain close to Madame Arnoux, and how his life gets wrapped up in the sordid affairs of her husband.
Frédéric is not a sympathetic character or a hero in any sense. His disinterest in politics and the lives of other people is a sort of running joke, and by the end of the novel he is figure so despicable as to seem almost a Dickensian caricature. Much of this seems to be in the service of subverting genre conventions. The Sentimental Education, complete with ironic title, is an anti-Bildungsroman, and is therefore under some obligation to produce the usual events of a coming-of-age story, but seen through Flaubert’s glass darkly. Thus we have Frédéric in a duel to defend the honor of woman he isn't with which ends not in heroic death, but a slightly cut thumb. Instead of amassing wealth, Frédéric constantly misses important business meetings to be with ladies who take advantage of him. When the Revolution finally turns up, it is almost a sideshow for Frédéric, who is much more upset about not having sex with Madame Arnoux. Instead of holding a pure, Werther-like passion, he does not even stay faithful, but instead sleeps with Rosanette, Arnoux’s mistress, in revenge. And why does he have this life-destroying, life-long passion for Madame Arnoux? He saw her on a boat at the beginning of the book and she looked good. It’s purely arbitrary, as indeed is all literary romance.
While The Sentimental Education lacks unity of a strong plot, it does have an unrelenting unity of theme and motivation. But it never rises to the level of tragedy, since Frédéric begins the book as such a dullard and a narcissist, so we never get a sense of innocence lost or principles being corrupted. There's also no foil character or counterpoint to emphasize Frédéric 's corruption. Instead, major characters are Frédéric, Rosanette, Arnoux, and Madame Arnoux, all of them venal and manipulative to varying degrees of success, and all of them playing musical beds with one another. We know of the weaknesses of the first three, though not so much the fourth since she is left as the mysterious ideal until at the end we see all at once that she is aged and degraded. The unifying factor is Flaubert's bitterness and disgust for bourgeois society and the people he has known to inhabit it.
It is possible to unpack these thematic elements a bit further. By the ending chapters, Frédéric has three women, forming a sort of Freudian trinity. Whenever we see Madame Arnoux, she is with her children, and Flaubert does not stint in laying on her motherly characteristics. Frédéric’s own mother is a little-seen, much put-upon presence, rather like Madame Arnoux herself. Through mainly his own indifference, Frédéric is engaged to his young neighbor, Louise, who we first see as a child, and who looks up to Frédéric as an older brother. Frédéric has an affair with Madame Dambreuse, who is the wife of an ill-fated wealthy businessman. She is a wife and nothing else, her character (and even her name) is limited to that function. Frédéric is driven for possession of the first, ignores the second, and gives up the third, who is the only one he could have reasonably been happy with. There is also the presence of Rosanette, the mistress of Arnoux and later Frédéric, serving the venerable and thankless role of the whore in the trusty virgin v. whore, adoration v. desire dichotomy. This adulterous link sets up a Frédéric v. Arnoux dichotomy as well: Arnoux is what Frédéric wants to be, but also totally bankrupt both morally and financially, which incidentally is how Frédéric ends up. Arnoux’s advantage seems to be that he sees his wife sexually, and is kind to his mistress, while Frédéric is never anything but self-serving and callous. Madame Arnoux seems at times complicit in this tangled arrangement, or is at least being used by Arnoux to get more money out of Frédéric, in a sort of emotional prostitution.
All of this is established through the long series of anecdotes, most of which follow a similar structure in which quite a lot of scene-setting and exposition is followed by oddly terse and brief dialogue or action. The heavy layering of establishing detail at the beginning of each new scene does wear on a bit, but its intricate construction is fascinating. Flaubert writes in a sort of prose equivalent of the deep-focus lens. For the non-cenephile, a deep-focus lens captures the foreground and background in equal focus, whereas the human eye naturally can focus only on one or the other. Most viewers don't notice this, but it's a way to show the world in more detail than humans normally perceive it. It is a subtle grammar of hyperrealism, and it suggests that the background of a shot provides context which is equally as important as the subject in the foreground. Citizen Kane is of course the masterpiece of the technique, and I have to wonder if the person who invented the deep-focus lens had ever read Flaubert. His eye is all-seeing: it picks up the fluttering of laundry in the windows, the sound of a trolley-car, children playing in the streets, the noise of people upstairs, and so forth. He is able to compress things which must be happening over variable lengths of time into one instant of hyper-aware detail. It's quite interesting the tiny pieces of the world he chooses to set a scene with, and he is undeniably brilliant at remaning almost invisible in the background of the prose while controlling so tightly what the reader notices and imagines. I can well believe that the effect in the original French is astonishing.