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.


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.

** 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)  

Why Did Henry James Kill Daisy Miller?

“Here comes my sister! She’s an American girl.”  

Randolph Miller in Henry James, Daisy Miller, 1878.

The American girl is different. Daisy Miller horrified European America and much of Europe with her cheerful boldness, so Henry James killed her with a villainous miasma. Why?

There are two stories in Daisy Miller. First, the comedy of manners: an heiress goes to Europe and shocks American-European high society with her free-and-easy, potentially lewd American ways. Second, the public-health story: an heiress goes to Europe and dies of malaria. James mushes these two not-very-gripping stories together:  if heiress A is the same person as heiress B, the feeling of meaning emerges. (more…)

Published in: on August 16, 2011 at 4:51 pm  Comments (9)  

Les songes drolatiques de Pantagruel


From "Poemas del río Wang"

Published in: on July 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm  Comments (1)  

Heredia, “Les trophées”

For a realistic picture of the life of the centaur you can’t beat the sequence “Hercule et les Centaures” in Heredia’s Les trophées. He gets down to the nitty-gritty — the seating arrangements for the various sorts of inlaws at centaur weddings, for example, or the stresses put on the centaur marriage by husbands who are continually sneaking off to score blonde chicks, and by wives in heat galloping off to run with the thoroughbreds.


Published in: on January 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Who Wrote This?

(This is not really a quiz. It’s just meant to show that that two classic authors were ahead of their time in more ways than you’d think.)


“Is it true that you’re going away?”
“Yes, in a few minutes”.
She repeated:
“In a few minutes?… and for good?… Shall we never see you again?”
Sobs choked her.
“Good -bye!  Good-bye!  Kiss me, please.”
And she clasped him fiercely in her arms.

a. Danielle Steele, To Love Again.
b. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind.
c.  Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education.
d. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre.


They embraced each other, her small body was burning in his hands; they rolled a few paces in an unconscious state from which he repeatedly but vainly tried to rescue himself, bumped dully against the door, and then lay in the small puddles of beer and other rubbish with which the floor was covered. Hours passed there, hours breathing together with a single heartbeat, hours in which he felt he was lost or had  wandered farther in foreign lands than any human being before him….

a. Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side.
b. Franz Kafka, The Castle.
c. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead.
d. Grace Metalious, Peyton Place.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 6:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Those people were crazy, I tell you

As a young man, away from home for the first time, Flaubert was “imperiously possessed” of the idea of castrating himself.

Geoffrey Wall, “Introduction” to
Gustave Flaubert, Three Tales

Published in: on December 11, 2010 at 6:18 pm  Comments (2)  

Plato and Kant have a lot to answer for

The romantics were the shock troops and sappers who softened up the honky world  for the consumer society. With liberty and equality, anyone could presume to want anything they wanted, without being accused of encroaching on others’ prerogatives. The aggregate quantity of desire multiplied exponentially, as Malthus pointed out, whereas the quantity of possible satisfaction increased only slowly, if at all. And to be too easily satisfied was shameful; an attainable or attained object was by definition degraded and unworthy. Last year’s chic outfit is this year’s wipe rag. Kant, Lamartine, and Novalis taught us that only the Ideal is good enough,  and marketing picked it up from there.

Equality and liberty did not preclude competition, and with improved means of transportation and communication the field of competition came to be the whole world. Every literate young man imprisoned in one of the modern European languages was drafted into a global contest — first to find the most unattainable ideal of them all, and then to immolate himself on that ideal. No wonder the motherfuckers were whiny.

And yes, “himself”. Bitches weren’t part of this, except as unattainable ideals. No hopeless striving for you, ladies!

Probably Plato was well-intended when he devised his celibate reform version of erotic obsession, but Jesus Christ! What a monster he unloosed upon the world!

Published in: on December 10, 2010 at 11:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Stacking hay and things of that kind, Part II

(Part I)

Bouvard and Pecuchet
Gustave Flaubert tr. Polizzotti
Dalkey Archive 2005

Realism is just one phase in the long whine of the literati. Courbet always excepted, realism is always satirical or polemical and has about as much to do with reality as romance novels do. When you read a realistic novel, it’s always important to figure out The Moral of the Story.

The moral of Bouvard and Pecuchet is roughly as follows:

Copy clerks should continue to live as copy clerks even if they inherit tons of money.

Self-education is a crime against nature.

Parvenus are morons and dumbshits who speak only in cliches, have no taste, and always fuck everything up.

In general, only morons and dumbshits take an interest in science and technology, which are mostly crap anyway.

Parvenus shouldn’t study agronomy — partly because they always fuck everything up, but also because agronomy is crap. Same for medicine.

It’s impossible to learn to farm, and besides, who would ever want to try?

If a hailstorm destroys a parvenu’s orchard, it’s because parvenus are morons and dumbshits.

On page 32, Bouvard and Pecuchet’s stacks of wheat spontaneously combust because they stacked it using the Clap-Meyer method from the Netherlands. What a couple of dumbshits. (more…)

Published in: on December 9, 2010 at 6:26 pm  Comments (4)  

Stephen Dedalus’s “Dubliners”

Dubliners is Dublin as Stephen Dedalus was able to see  it. The Dubliners of that time could not have been as uniformly pitiful, mediocre, and unworthy of respect as Dedalus shows them to have been. Dubliners is realism, but it’s tendentious and symbolist realism, with obsessive-compulsive tics which  only got worse during Dedalus’s later career. (Not that there are any other kinds of realism).

Realism supposedly mean “showing things as they really are” or something like that, but what a can of worms that turned out to be! First it meant stories about actuality (including the ugly aspects of actuality) as opposed to stories about imaginary ideal worlds. So far, so good. Then some writers (Flaubert) came to think that a perfectly-written novel would show the Real Truth of a situation, rather than just being a story. Then others (Ibsen) came to think that the truth of realism would motivate people to make the world a better place. Still others (Zola) titillated thir audiences with masses of vivid but unpleasant detail leading to some sort of point. Dedalus’s work was the climax, and he trumped Flaubert by claiming that certain privileged instants, properly written up, showed you the very truth of the very truth. This was all just the return of idealism. Actuality is crap, but Writing is truth. The cesspool of human life transfigured by Art. (more…)

Published in: on December 3, 2010 at 6:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

In Memoriam Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984)

Gone but not forgotten

Two and a half millenia ago sexuality was invented by the horrible Greeks and idealized by Plato. Once idealized, sexuality was as robust as anthrax and as insidious as herpes, and could nest dormant in your cells like trichinella or plasmodium . For most people during much of human history, sexuality merely wallowed in the murk like some enormous, slimy, barbeled catfish, and emerged only occasionally to engulf some hapless human victim. But from time to time sexual / anti-sexual idealists like Augustine and Dante encouraged and strengthened the  monster, and finally in 1830 (with the July Revolution and the opening of Hugo’s play Hernani) the French romantics and liberals brought the undead creature from mud to land. For almost two centuries now it’s been flopping and wallowing among us, going where it will, wreaking havoc and devouring any who dare come its way.

Many have tried to tame or defeat sexuality, but each attempt has only made it stronger and more horrible. Repression, chastity, marriage, idealization, libertinism, liberation, naturalness, “relationships”, psychoanalysis, bisexuality, intersexuality, transgendering, queering – nothing has worked, and sexuality still claims countless new victims each day. This creature has no benign forms and cannot be resisted, and all we can do now is resign ourselves to our sexual fates, whatever those may be, and hope for some post-sexual Beowulf or Parsifal to come along to drive a stake into the beast’s gigantic, loathsome head.

(The part about the 1830 Revolution in France will be explained in a later post. The rest is all common knowledge, though few admit it. Nineteenth century Frenchmen were as fucked up as 19th century Americans, but in a very different manner.)

Published in: on November 27, 2010 at 7:35 pm  Leave a Comment