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B+ : something of a train wreck of a story (content- and style-wise), but does gather compelling momentum
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
[The English quotes in this review are taken from the 1941 Anthony Goldsmith translation.]
Sentimental Education centers on Frédéric Moreau -- a: "long-haired youth of eighteen" at the beginning of the story.
The novel opens at a time and place that is nearly but not quite exact -- "the 15th of September, 1840, about six o'clock" -- typical of what follows in this narrative that constantly zooms in on small details, yet also sweeps broadly and quickly over a great deal.
If only I'd had a woman to love me, I might have achieved something. Why do you laugh ? Love is the sustenance of genius -- it is the very air it breathes. It is from passion that great works of art are born.His obsession with the married woman he has barely interacted with keeps his young romantic soul occupied for a while -- but he fails to do anything about it, "paralysed by the dread of failure". And as quickly as it flames up, a few months later, back in Paris, already he finds:
His great passion for Mme Arnoux was beginning to pass away.But in Paris he does fall into Arnoux's orbit -- an artistic circle of men with grand ambitions and vision --, and his passion is rekindled -- all the more intensely. Mme Arnoux becomes a true obsession, and from then on he is long driven by little else; though barely engaging with him, she becomes a center of his life as finds himself: "in love with everything connected with Mme Arnoux, her furniture, her servants, her house, her street". The longing for proximity to the object of his desire ties him even closer to Arnoux as well, the completely self-centered and oblivious husband -- himself involved with other women -- welcoming Frédéric as a companion to go out with (and later, when needed, a useful wealthy acquaintance who can be guilted into offering financial support). Arnoux drags him off for meals and adventures -- the price Frédéric has to pay for continued access to the woman he adores.
Arnoux would seem at first to be a worldly sort, but it's typical for the novel and its characters to find he's all self-confident superficial sheen, and completely inept. As art dealer with his salon, he briefly lives up to his grandiose vision of himself, but his spiral downwards is breathtaking as he is ever more outcast, beginning with business failures that are largely his fault -- he doesn't pay nearly enough attention to the details -- and then a series of failed ventures and plans that come to nothing -- "a musical café, where nothing but patriotic songs would be sung" (subsidized by the government, of course); "an enormous military hat shop"; a company providing gaslight in the towns of Languedoc -- until finally he winds up a dealer in religious supplies. Yet the tug of Mme Arnoux -- sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker -- will continue to pull Frédéric towards the increasingly hapless family.
The young Frédéric doesn't take his studies too seriously when he gets to Paris, but then he doesn't really think he has to: his mother is reasonably well off and he thinks he can look forward to a decent yearly income off what the family owns. Until it turns out there's practically no money left, forcing a humiliating retreat: without sufficient funds, Frédéric can't move in the Paris circles he would like to.
Flaubert only forces Frédéric to suffer briefly: pining away dejectedly at his mother's home, he receives news of an uncle dying without any other heirs: less than ten pages after he saw only a future of cash-strapped drudgery, Frédéric finds he should be made for life -- "twenty-seven thousand francs a year !".
Returning triumphantly to Paris, he can't help but first seek out the Arnouxs -- but in the years that have passed circumstances have changed, their world having begun its sad implosion: there's no 'Industrial Art' at the old site -- "No shop window, no pictures -- nothing !" Desperately, he hunts them down -- and it doesn't take too long. One-time art dealer Arnoux is now trying his hand at business, while the circle around him has drifted away, and Mme Arnoux has had a second child. No matter, Frédéric immediately returns to his old ways, hanging on, dropping by, trying to be part of their clearly somewhat more strained lives.
Frédéric was already free-spending before he really had the means -- plastering his student-room with prints bought from Arnoux, not because he took much pleasure in them but for the exuse to visit the establishment and perhaps be near madame ... -- and once he really has money at his disposal he very naturally takes to living it up all the more. In his desperate desire to please -- and to remain, somehow, attached to Mmme Arnoux -- he even unwisely lends a large amount to Arnoux when Arnoux is desperate, a business he invested in collapsing. (Of course, Frédéric had planned to invest the funds in another hopeless undertaking, a newspaper, so the choice was basically only between ways of throwing away his money.) Meanwhile, there is M.Dambreuse, the financier who could provide great opportunities for Frédéric -- but over and over Frédéric bungles dealing with him (though this occasionally works in Frédéric's favor, as Dambreuse continues to be intrigued by the young man).
There are several women in Frédéric's life -- though, of course, he manages to make a hash of his relationships with all of them. In Nogent, the neighbor, M.Roque, has an illegitimate daughter, Louise, who is smitten by him at an early age, while Arnoux's mistress, Rosanette, also falls for him; later, Mme Dambreuse takes to him as well; each is his for the asking, but at the opportune moments Frédéric always lets himself be distracted elsewhere. (He is a true, terrible cad.) And when Mme Arnoux hears that he is to be married (to Louise -- a match that is widely supported and seen as inevitable, even as Frédéric, as always, can't commit himself) -- she wonders about her own feelings for him and comes to believe: "Yes, yes ! I love him ! ... I love him !" -- but even that realization isn't enough to lead to a satisfying relationship with Frédéric, who always manages to sabotage every possible intimate connection.
The romantic and financial possibilities are good for Frédéric, even if he always sees flaws in Louise and Mme Dambreuse, rather than embracing them wholeheartedly. What he can't help think about is how both women would seem to offer a splendid future, materially-wise, as both come with fortunes attached -- until it turns out that Mme Dambreuse's expected fortune isn't nearly as great as anticipated.
Already at a young age, the illegitimate (and hence outcast, not welcome to play with the other local children) Louise formed a bond with Frédéric; in one of the novel's most unsettling scenes he sneaks the girl, who hasn't even reached the age of her first communion yet, into his mother's house ("when Mme Moreau was out, he took her up to his room") and she stretches out on his bed and announces: "I'm pretending I'm your wife". They spend a great deal of time together; Flaubert suggests: "His heart, deprived of love, fell back on the friendship of this child", but for her the connection obviously became much deeper.
Remarkably, both Louise and Mme Dambreuse are the ones to ask for his hand, rather than the other way around: "Will you be my husband ?" Louise asks him, for example ("I ask for nothing better", Frédéric finally manages to stutter in response), while Mme Dambreuse even has to repeat the question:
'Will you marry me ?'Of course, he can't commit -- though even when he seems on the verge of wanting to, he undermines these and his other potential relationships with his own foolish and inept behavior. His final return to Louise, thinking she might possibly do after all (though even here he vacillates), leads to a hilarious come-uppance, as he finds she has settled for another. (Typically for Flaubert and this tale, however, that too doesn't last: in the coda we learn she would later run off with a singer.)
From early on, Frédéric has ambitions -- though they're rarely more than airy fantasies. As a teenager: "It was his ambition to become the Walter Scott of France", and when he's bored by his studies he begins a novel ("Sylvio, the Fisherman's Son"), though even he recognizes the "lack of originality" to it and abandons it. Absurdly, then:
He wondered, seriously, if he was to be a great painter, or a great poet; and he decided in favor of painting, for the demands of this profession would bring him closer to Mme Arnoux. So he had found his vocation ! The aim of his existence was now clear, and the future infallible.Of course, this lasts about as long as it tok him to reach this conclusion .....
In the turmoil of 1848 he wants to stand for political office -- but of course does nothing in support of his candidacy, and falls miserably short: Of course:
It was Frederic's own fault; he had missed his opportunity; he ought to have come sooner; he should have bestirred himself.The story of his life ..... Not that he doesn't occasionally bestir himself -- though always, it seems, taking what seems practically evasive action, avoiding opportunities that present themselves and instead racing off into foolishness instead.
Flaubert even explicitly describes Frédéric as: "the weakest of men" (an: "homme de toutes les faiblesses"). So also when he settles with Arnoux's mistress, Rosanette, he is incapable of forcing the issue when he demands she choose between him and Arnoux ("She answered mildly that she did not understand 'that sort of tittle-tattle'" ["'ragots pareil'"]) and soon finds himself reduced to: "now her chattel, her property". Then, when he settles on Mme Dambreuse, he can't bring his heart to be in it (not that that stops him):
This did not prevent his simulating the most passionate ardour; but in order to feel it, he had to call up the image of Rosanette or Mme Arnoux.A background of political and social turmoil -- culminating in the violence of 1848 -- and the large cast of secondary characters from different walks of life make Sentimental Education very much a portrait of its times -- though as with the first two very short chapters (in a novel where the chapters are otherwise very long) that quickly set the scene, Flaubert closes the novel with two short chapters set some two decades later, in the near-(then-)present and quickly sums up what became of the major players, in a reminder of how history and individuals' lives easily fade into the day-to-day.
Frédéric isn't so much politically uninterested but incapable (as is his case artistically and romantically, too). He is shallow and weak -- and Flaubert allows him barely any saving graces: "he endured the idleness of his mind and the stagnation of his heart", Flaubert sums up some two decades of his life after 1848. Frédéric's fortune dwindles, but doesn't disappear (more through luck, one imagines, than any commonsense on his part), but money is always a feature -- and despite the ease with which the foolish Frédéric still manages to hold onto his, Flaubert does do a fine job of sketching the socio-economic issues of the times, summed up in the warning one of Frédéric's acquaintances sounds, of: "a newer and even more detestable form of feudalism, the feudalism of money" that was being established. (It is amusing to see, however, how much of the old-school fiction tropes of (real and possible) inherited and married-into money seeps into the novel -- most amusingly in Mme Dambreuse's (and, by extension, Frédéric's) great disappointment.)
Sentimental Education is an odd and in many ways unpleasant novel. Flaubert's craft makes the exceptionally uneven time-flow of how the story unfolds bearable, but the dominance of the characters' flaws and failures is wearing. Ultimately, however even this works, giving the novel a peculiar momentum, and a train wreck sort of fascination. Flaubert doesn't force the more obvious suffering on his characters -- Frédéric is never reduced to any abject poverty, for example -- yet his more realistic presentation of their pathetic life-arcs is almost more cruel than a more fantastical outcome might be.
Sentimental Education is not exactly an enjoyable read, but it is an oddly fascinating one. It 'works', in its own strange, awful way.
- M.A.Orthofer, 17 July 2018
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French author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) wrote several acknowledged classics.
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