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….. (Sentimental Education)
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 Frederic, 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 Catfish of Love, in all its vast stupidity.
Frederic is the most inept seducer ever, and he ends up relaying messages between the wealthy man to whom he has attached himself, the man’s wife whom he is intent on seducing, and the man’s mistress whom he is also intent on seducing (though 200 pages into the novel he still hasn’t scored*) — and then after that he starts offering each of them relationship counseling. There’s no way those scenes could be improved. And then, when the rich man’s lovely wife finally comes to Frederic’s place, alone — but only to wheedle a substantial never-to-be-repaid loan out of him in order to save her beloved husband from bankruptcy. Afterwards Frederic finally makes his play, after years of pining, and she responds with a lecture on prudence that could have come from a Kansas housewife. And then finally Frederic fights a comic duel to defend the good name of M. Arnoux…. or maybe Arnoux’s wife’s good name… or maybe Arnoux’s mistress’s good name. (M. and Mme. Arnoux were the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of their time.)
However, it’s useless. It’s hard to make an antiwar movie because movies have to be exciting, and the excitement will be objectively prowar. Same for anti-drug messages. 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 don’t already have an incurable love itch don’t even bother to read them. The 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.
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.
*Frederic finally does score on page 283, but you just know that his triumph will end up turning to ashes in his mouth.