Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Sentimental Education

I just finished reading Flaubert's novel A Sentimental Education, and once again I am baffled by French literature. Published in 1869, it's the story of a young man. Frédérick, who is "sentimental" -- more than wise, practical, focused or ambitious, he seems to be at the mercy of his feelings, mostly for women. I think he's in love with four different women, often in overlapping periods of time, through the book. So, yes, it's sentimental.

In what it depicts in his feelings, that is. But in narration, it seems alternately cynical and detached. IThe book as a moral presence never seems to come to terms with the material that it narrates. People fall apart in front of our eyes and the book -- the narrator -- seems to have no reaction. Fortunes are made and lost, people are shot on the barricades, sexual betrayals by the dozens occur, and the book never quite registers them. My only guess is that in French fiction, we are supposed to handle that as readers. Only I couldn't quite.

Young Frédérick bombs at almost everything he does. A revolution (1848) occurs in Paris and, astonishingly, he and his then-lover (or one of them) go off to Versailles to visit the royal palace, as tourists, while people are shooting each other a few miles away. The scene is like one of those soft-focus love scenes in the old (70s) movies (eg., Elvira Madigan -- see image). And yet the book seemed to have been interested in politics.

The scene that I gather shocked everybody when the book first cam out is the final scene. After all the love affairs have run their course, the book fast forwards about twenty years to nearly the present (of the writer, that is). Ferdinand meets with his former love, Mme. Arnoud, with whom he has never consummated his passion. She's now white-haired; they meet, and part forever. (Like in Eugene Onegin, but without Tchaikovsky showing us what the feelings are). But that is not the end of the book. At the very last pages, Frédérick takes up again with his long time friend (male), whom he has alternately helped and betrayed throughout the novel, and they reminisce about the good old days. Their final warm and fuzzy memory is of a visit to a quasi-Turkish brothel.

"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédérick.
"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.
End of book. With speech tag, no less ("said Deslauriers").

OK, I've been reading Dickens, and that's made me too cynical about cynicism like this (if that's what this is). Dickens wouldn't leave us like that. "It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. . . " (Tale of Two Cities).

But I know lots of people love A Sentimental Education, so I am almost certainly missing something really important. Maybe someday I'll get what Flaubert and French fiction is about.

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