I read “Madame Bovary” a long time ago and I don’t remember being thrilled, so I hadn’t planned on reading any of his other books. But 20 years later I started seeing “Sentimental Education” every now and then, on many “important” writers’/critics’ lists, and though I was a bit suspicious about seeing the same phrase everywhere – “the most important French novel of the XIX century” – it did get my attention. And then a few months ago I heard another “important” literary person say in an interview that “Sentimental Education” is probably the most important novel for anyone wishing to understand politics, and that did it for me. I lack a decent background in history for understanding what’s going on in the world, so I thought reading a classic would be a great way to fix that, plus give Flaubert another chance.
In terms of understanding politics, the novel was a huge disappointment. Flaubert writes about the French Revolution and conflicted forces around it as if his audience are participants of that time or fervent students of (French) history. He throws out names like Barbes, Artois, Guizot, Lamartine, Bastiat, etc. without any explanation, as if everyone knows who they are and what their views are, so the whole amazingly important historical moment when poor workers, the bourgeois, the monarchists, the Republicans all fought passionately for some wonderful ideal, remains as unknown to me as before I read the book.
Though I wasn’t even remotely interested in reading a love novel, that’s what I ended up doing. But that’s OK because what I failed to see in “Madame Bovary” became magnificently apparent in this book: Flaubert really is a great stylist. Later praised by Proust, Kafka and some other key literary figures, Flaubert has to be respected for his devotion to the perfect sentence. Everything he sets on describing turns out sounding brilliant, luscious, smooth – silver candlesticks, women’s clothing plated with gems, heavy silk curtains that fall revealing gentle folds, charming pug nose and lovely dimples. To me, the novel was worth reading because of that wealth of words and images.
In terms of plot… I failed to read the novel as I probably should have. Instead of following the main character as the symbol of that particular period when enthusiasm and hopes were being crushed so cruelly, I scrutinized him because of his, to me, moral ambiguity. In love with an unattainable woman the way poets are in love in their most blissful poems, Frederic longs for the married Marie Arnoux so much that he behaves like an asshole to three different women, managing to stay indifferent even when a baby he has with one of them dies, just because at that moment he’s thinking about how he’ll never see his dear Marie again.
But how masterfully Flaubert weaves his personality throughout the novel. How closely he shows him to us, how intimate we become. And though the writer never manages to spark any sympathy in this reader for any of his characters, he does make me curious about them. Though in the afterword it says that Flaubert never wrote solely for the act of writing, but mainly to express something, to show the universality of the world, I feel something essential missing from this book. Maybe that’s because I’m a prejudiced creative writing student who’s learned that the main character needs to experience some sort of inner transformation between the beginning and ending of the novel, and I don’t think Frederic had any real insight or experienced a transformation other than the one brought on to all people by the failed revolution and lost dreams. I didn’t get the sense that he understood why his personal dreams failed to realize, because he mainly saw the blame in external circumstances.
So, Flaubert, yes, no? My time with “Sentimental Education” certainly wasn’t wasted, but this is as far as I’ll extend this French acquaintanceship.
P.S. I came across this great website, Course Hero, that has zillion of literature infographics. Here’s one about Sentimental Education: