Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education”, II

And he went into a private room by himself. Through the two open windows he could see people in the windows of the houses opposite. Broad puddles quivered like watered silk on the drying asphalt, and a magnolia at the edge of the balcony filled the room with its perfume. This scent and the cool of the evening soothed his nerves; and he sank onto the red divan under the mirror…. etc., etc.

I feel guilty, because Flaubert probably spent hours writing that paragraph, but when I came to  it  I just skimmed past, because who cares? Likewise, when the woman Frederic has pursued for years takes him on a guided tour of her husband’s ceramics factory in order to keep him from declaring his love, that’s hilarious, but did Flaubert really have to spend two days reading up on ceramics just so he could have Mme. Arnoux use the terms “drabblers” and “roughing shop” correctly? There’s tons of that stuff, and Flaubert worked so hard on it, but I just don’t care.

Is not Mme. Arnoux, heaping up facts into a barrier making communication impossible, the very image of the realistic novelist? Or is it Frédéric, the obsessive lover — who is reminded of his supposed beloved  by every tiny detail of pretty much anything? (Here we are, back with Petrarch again).

Nonetheless, with Sentimental Education Flaubert, after several false starts, finally succeeded in writing a non-annoying novel. I will even go further, and declare that in this book, Flaubert came as close as any novelist ever has to portraying the real nature of the man-eating  Giant Catfish of Love, in all its vast stupidity. (Yes, man-eating. Woman are not Flaubert’s job).

Frédéric is the most inept seducer ever, and he ends up relaying messages between M. Arnoux (the wealthy man to whom he has attached himself), Arnoux’s lovely wife (whom he is intent on seducing), and Arnoux’s also-lovely mistress (whom he is also intent on seducing, though several hundred pages into the novel  he still hasn’t scored with either).* And then, after that, he starts offering each of them relationship counseling. There’s no way these scenes could be improved.

And when  the Mme. Arnoux’s wife finally does comes to Frederic’s place, alone, it is only to wheedle a substantial never-to-be-repaid loan out of him in order to save her beloved husband from bankruptcy; when Frédéric makes his play, after years of pining, Mme Arnoux   responds with a lecture on prudence worthy of a Kansas housewife. Finally, Frederic fights a comic duel to defend the good name of M. Arnoux…. or maybe Mme. Arnoux’s good name… or maybe Arnoux’s mistress’s good name. (Les Arnoux were the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of their time.)

It’s useless. It’s hard to make an antiwar movie because movies have to be exciting, and the excitement will make them objectively prowar. Same for anti-drug messages. And every book about high society explains that people in high society are shallow and heartless, but high society rolls on untouched, and the moths still flock to the candle, using these novels as guidebooks**. Love affairs in novels always end badly, but that makes no difference at all – people who already have an incurable love itch seldom even bother to read them, and if the do they don’t get the message. These stories might have some restorative and comforting effect for those who have already been terribly singed, but they don’t keep anyone away from the flame.

CODA

Early in the morning they went to visit the palace. Going through the main gate, they saw the whole facade in front of them.: the five towers with their pointed roofs and the horseshoe staircase at the far end of the courtyard, which was flanked on the left and the right by two lower buildings. In the distance, the moss-covered paving stones blended with the fawn tint of the bricks…etc., etc.

This is the Fontainebleau Palace, and he goes on for the greater part of four pages. It’s like Sir Walter Scott.

NOTES

*Frederic finally does score on page 283, but you just know that his triumph will end up turning to ashes in his mouth.

** In fact, Hugh Hefner modeled the Playboy Lifestyle (TM) and the Playboy Philosophy (TM) on The Great Gatsby, which he read as a tribute to Tom and Daisy Buchanan, and his concept sold like hotcakes.

Published in: on February 19, 2014 at 7:00 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m glad you’re finding it enjoyable (aside, of course, from the boring parts). It is indeed a classic dissection of Bourgeois Love, among other things.

  2. Love stories written by men end badly, mostly for the women in them. Love stories written by women generally end well for both parties, at least as seen by the author and the readers.

  3. I have another unfinished piece about 19th c. French eros, which strikes me as having been insane, with various sorts of macho and obsessiveness and misogyny and conventionalism and predation and self-obsession all horribly mixed. (American Puritanism doesn’t look so bad after you’ve closely examined French eros.)

    One peculiarity, though, is at the very beginning of this period of insanity George Sand’s “Horace” described a relationship which we would recognize as quite civilized, an poor but not miserable unmarried couple living under terms of mutual respect. One aspect of the arrangement is that the man avoids the company of anyone who fails to treat his lover with respect.

    In this book Sand also describes an insanely conceited macho romantic poet (who ends up as some kind of bureaucrat). At about the same time Gautier’s Mlle. Maupin also portrays an insanely ridiculous romantic lover of that type.

    But the show went on regardless.

  4. …but…but…but…what about Valery pretending to be a young girl and all the faun stuff triggered by Mallarme (Manet, Debussy)…classical themes, and very proper, in spite of the eroticism, no?


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