Reviewed by Victoria
If you’ve read a book by the 19th century French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, the chances are that it was Madame Bovary, the most famous and the most accessible of Flaubert’s novels. But supposing that you would like to venture further into his back catalogue? Where do you go? Sentimental Education is perhaps the obvious choice and on paper it sounds pretty intriguing: a bildungsroman concerning a young man who comes to Paris full of dreams and ambitions and runs into the 1848 revolution whilst attempting to seduce the married woman he loves – what’s not to like? But when you actually read Sentimental Education, it comes as a surprise: it is not what you might be expecting. This is likely to thrill Flaubert in his grave, who feared terribly that no kind of shiny literary innovation would last five minutes out in the world before acceptance and repetition turned it into tarnished dirty coin (and he is more or less right), but it might thrill readers less, who can get kind of ratty when their expectations are thwarted. But as one of the most quietly and stealthily significant, game-changing novels of the 19th century, asking literary and psychological questions still unanswered in the 21st century, it is worth your time. So: be prepared as you begin, and all will be well.
The novel concerns the sentimental education of Frédéric Moreau, a very average young man with excessive hopes and dreams. He stands on the brink of his own future with his very life in his hands – what will he become? What will he achieve? What great passions will he experience? Alas, he happens to be a self-obsessed dreamer, a coward and an apathetic young fool. The strongest force in young Moreau’s life is entropy, not least because all his energy goes into sustaining his impossible ideals. This is going to make it pretty hard for him to get a grip, as you will see. Anyhow, he goes to Paris to seek his fortune on the advice of a good friend, and the first thing he does is fall in love with the first attractive older woman he sees, naturally married, naturally unavailable, but so far so good. This is a necessary stage in a young man’s life, and Madame Arnoux is at least a sympathetic character, wronged by her husband but unfailingly kind and gentle. Caught up with dreams about storming her virtuous reserve, however, Frédéric manages to mess up all kinds of other opportunities for himself. This is a pattern that will continue across the novel. Frédéric’s focus will always be off, his aim never true.
In fact it’s hard to give a decent plot summary as the narrative mostly concerns things almost-but-not-quite happening. There are financial messes and political messes, there are arguments among friends and endless misunderstandings. Frédéric will actually stumble into the heart of the revolution, but as a poorly informed by-stander. There are love affairs over which much unnecessary anguish is spent, for real love goes unrequited whilst it is only the conniving kind that reaches fulfillment. So a great deal goes on in the novel, parties and politics and battles and what have you, but it all feels like a lot of pushing and shoving and you don’t come out with much at the end. In fact the novel ends with Frédéric and his best friend Deslauriers sitting by the fireside remembering the evening when they finally got into the brothel and were so scared by what they found that they turned and fled. This, they agree, laughing, was the best night of their lives.
So, the whole idea of what a sentimental education might look like, what it might be, is held under the ironic glare of Flaubert’s pessimism, his conviction (by this point in his life) that we are not teleological beings, headed towards our own perfection but deeply flawed individuals who will probably never make a mark on a large and indifferent world. All of Frédéric’s beautiful ideals get ground into the mud, one way or another, but – and this is an essential question that for all the darkness of Flaubert’s novels he never undermines – who can say whether having those ideals wasn’t one of the very best qualities in the young man? A proper sentimental education means going through life with clear-sight and the willingness to learn, turning the experiences we have of our loves and passions into mature wisdom. Flaubert was afraid that what a sentimental education really looked like was the coagulation of youthful dissipation into stolid, stodgy clichés, in terms of choices made and ideas grasped. People settled down into shallow graves, he feared, using their old fantasies to make the best of it, finding excuses and justifications for being so very unoriginal. As a novelist, though, he was too good just to let his fears get the better of him, and so Frédéric Moreau’s life is an ambiguous one, though it will strike the modern day reader (in a culture that has become hooked yet again on the most superficial aspects of celebrity and achievement) as a poor version of what he might have had.
Flaubert is such an interesting writer because he was a realist who hated Realism. Realism –which was still new and rather suspicious at the time Sentimental Education was written – is such a commonplace form of narrative that we don’t notice it now. Essentially, it refers to the kind of narrative that makes itself unobtrusive by removing its constructed nature from view. We forget we’re reading a book, so vivid and evocative is the prose: we are there, in the story. It’s also the kind of style that might slide into a quiet bit of coding, pressing the button of the tall, dark, handsome stranger to signal romantic interest, even though such paragons are almost entirely extinct in real life. But Flaubert wondered whether it wasn’t all a bit stupid, this having people ‘rushing’ along the street when they were excited or anxious, or gazing at the stars when they were falling in love. But then he was rather tormented by the thought that people actually did rush when they were excited and gaze at the stars when they felt romantic. How could you possibly get around the depressing fact that people insisted on being clichés themselves?
So at every level of the novel, Flaubert is asking questions – what makes a story true? How do you find the right words to tell it without falling thoughtlessly into conventions? And how do people live in real life with the conventions they thoughtlessly fall into? He will frustrate you, and annoy you at times undoubtedly with his refusal to give into the Hollywood version, and his bleak view of human nature. But isn’t great literature all about provoking us into thinking different thoughts and refusing the easy, tempting ruts of existence?
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education (Oxford University Press, 2016.) 978-0199686636, 480 pp., paperback.
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