Sunday 23 May 2010
It is not the job of the novelist to tell us how to read, or why
I'm sorry to say that, older and hopefully more mature as I am, I've found myself to be equally uninterested in every character of Flaubert's A Sentimental Education. Published in 1869 after Flaubert spent 5 years working on it, this novel is apparently one of the most influential of the 19th century, and was adored by George Sand, Emile Zola, and Henry James. I haven't read Sand yet, but I really disliked the one Zola novel I've read so far; as for Henry James, everything and anything is forgiven in someone who could write like that. If I weren't doing my French Literature Project, I would have taken Zola's approbation of Flaubert's book as a warning not to read it.
A Sentimental Education tells the story of one Frédéric Moreau, a young man from the provinces come to Paris to study and make his name and fortune. He's got some talent, but he's not brilliant; he's charming but prone to make social blunders which others nonetheless forgive him for. He's not stupid but he is remarkably flighty and shallow and generally unlikeable - and yet, his fortune ultimately comes to lie in the way of making advantage "alliances" with women with power and money. Mind, he always holds a flame for one Madame Arnoux, who does eventually fall for him, but won't ultimately go there.
First of all, all these women who either love or want Moreau - why? I never once got a sense of what could possibly be attracting any of them to him. And this is not a simple case of taste - Flaubert completely fails to indicate where the attraction might lie. One thing I really loved about Dangerous Liaisons was that while most of Choderlos de Laclos's characters were essentially despicable, his writing was sophisticated enough to make them incredibly compelling as well. There's nothing I hate more than a boring villain or cad, and I'm sorry to say that I Flaubert writes nothing else in A Sentimental Education.
Besides penning a tale peopled by the incredibly dull, Flaubert also fails to make the historical context in which he set his tale - the 1848 revolution and creation of the French Second Republic - seem anything but a dry exercise in listing historical details. I haven't read many historical novels - or, more likely, I haven't engaged with them enough as such - but having recently read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, I have a sense of what a really good author can do with history, and Flaubert doesn't do it. History itself can come to seem so real as to have a pulse and a heartbeat, or it can seem so real as to cause claustrophobia - but not, I'm sorry to say, in A Sentimental Education.
In the end, this novel read to me like an intellectual exercise rather than as art; in my view, art should savour somewhat of the mystical if only in the execution (Henry James!). That Flaubert had an intellectual agenda in mind when writing this novel seems pretty clear both from the book itself and from translator Douglass Parmée's introduction to this edition. Parmée begins his intro with a series of aphorisms of Flaubert's describing both what he wanted this novel to do and how people ought to read it. I think it's Flaubert's instructions on how to read A Sentimental Education that caused me the most irritation, however: "Don't read A Sentimental Education like children, for diversion, nor for instruction, like ambitious persons; no, read it in order to live."
Eh? Every single character in this novel is either an idiot, a dullard, fatally spineless, or as selfish as a spoiled child - how are we supposed to use such things in our daily living? And how are we supposed to use it to live without taking it as instruction anyway? It is not the job of the novelist to tell his or her readers how to read, or why - and it's a doomed effort anyway. The thing about committed readers is that we will have our own experiences of each book we read, and I'm surprised when authors so completely fail to remember that. It makes me want to punch Flaubert (and maybe Harold Bloom) in the neck a little.
Now, I know it's too late to say this and be believable, but I will nonetheless try: in spite of the above, I didn't hate this novel. I didn't like it much, no, but there were substantial chunks of time in which I found myself reading a pretty good novel rather than a badly executed pamphlet, and those were enjoyable, engaging, and thought-provoking times. In spite of such moments, however, I doubt I'll make time for Flaubert in the future - such moments were too much the exception.
To redeem my experience of 19th-century literature, I've already launched myself into the second of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, Phineas Finn - and so far, so good. But now, I'm off for Sunday brunch in the sunshine with friends.