Reflections on The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

In the third of his mighty trilogy of histories of the long nineteenth century, The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914, as in its two predecessors, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to hide his strongly Marxist point of view. Every page shouts his contempt for the era’s ‘bourgeois’ men of business, its ‘capitalists’ and bankers, the despicable ‘liberal’ thinkers of the period and so on. From time to time his contempt for the bourgeoisie rises to the level of actual abuse.

The most that can be said of American capitalists is that some of them earned money so fast and in such astronomic quantities that they were forcibly brought up against the fact that mere accumulation in itself is not an adequate aim in life for human beings, even bourgeois ones. (p.186)

Replace that final phrase with ‘even Jewish ones’ or ‘even Muslim ones’ or ‘even black ones’ to get the full sense of how deliberately insulting it is intended to be and how unacceptable his invective would be if applied to any other group of people.

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to quote Marx (who died in 1883, saddened by the failure of his communist millennium to arrive) or Lenin’s views on late capitalism and imperialism (Lenin published his first political work in 1893), and he loses absolutely no opportunity to say ‘bourgeoisie bourgeoisie bourgeoisie’ scores of times on every page till the reader is sick of the sight of the word.

Hobsbawm’s highly partisan and politicised approach has strengths and weaknesses.

Hobsbawm’s strengths

On the up side, using very simplistic binary oppositions like ‘the developed world’ and ‘the undeveloped world’, the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, helps him to make great sweeping generalisations which give you the impression you are gaining secret access to the engine room of history. If you ignore the complexity of the histories and very different cultures of individual nations such as America, Britain, France and Germany, and lump them altogether as ‘the West’, then you can bring out the broad-brush historical and economic developments of the era, grouping together all the developments in science, chemistry, physics, technology, industry and consumer products into great blocks, into titanic trends and developments.

This gives the reader a tremendously powerful sense of bestriding the world, taking part in global trends and huge international developments. Just as in The Age of Capitalism, the first half or so of the book is thrilling. It makes you feel like you understand for the first time the titanic historical forces directing world history, and it’s this combination of factual (there are lots of facts and figures about industrial production) and imaginative excitement which garnered the trilogy so many positive reviews.

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

Hobsbawm makes obeisance to the Marxist convention that ‘bourgeois’ ideology was riddled with ‘contradictions’. The most obvious one was the contradiction between the wish of national politicians to define and delimit their nations and the desire of ‘bourgeois’ businessmen to ignore all boundaries and trade and invest wherever they wanted around the globe (p.40).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the way the spread of ‘Western ideology’ i.e. education and values, to developing countries, or at least to the elites within European colonies, often led to the creation of the very Western-educated elites who then helped to overthrow it (he gives the London-trained lawyer Gandhi as the classic example, p.77, though he could as easily have mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Cambridge, trained at London’s Inner Temple as a barrister).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the between the way the mid-century ‘bourgeois’ industrial and economic triumph rested on a mechanical view of the universe, the mechanical laws of physics and heat and chemistry underpinning the great technological advances of the later nineteenth century. Hobsbawm then delights in the way that, at the end of the century, this entire mechanistic worldview was overturned in a welter of discoveries, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, the problematic nature of the sub-atomic world which gave rise to quantum physics, and deep discoveries about the bewildering non-rational basis of mathematics.

These are just some of the developments Hobsbawm defines as ‘contradictions’ with the aim of proving that Marx’s predictions that capitalism contained within itself deep structural contradictions which would undermine it and lead inevitably to its downfall.

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

Except that Marx was wrong and Hobsbawm is wrong. His continual mentioning Marx, quoting Lenin, harking back to the high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848, invoking the memory of the Commune (redefined, in good Marxist style, as a heroic rising of the downtrodden working classes, rather than the internecine bloodbath that it actually was), his continual harking forward to the Bolshevik revolution as somehow the climax of all the trends he describes, his insistence that we, he and his readers, all now (in the mid-1980s when he wrote this book) still live in the forbidding shadow of the Russian revolution, still haunted by the spectre of communist revolution — every aspect of his attitude and approach now seems dated and irrelevant.

Now, in 2021, it is 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites revealed:

  1. Their complete failure to build an economic and social system which could be a serious alternative to ‘capitalism’.
  2. The extraordinary extent to which communist regimes had to surveil, monitor and police every aspect of their populations’ behaviour, speech and thoughts, in order to prevent them relapsing into the ways of human nature – the prison camps, the psychiatric wards, the secret police. Look at China today, with its censorship of the internet and its hounding of dissidents, its suppression of Falun Gong and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Seen from our contemporary perspective, Hobsbawm tendentious habit of naming every clash in policies, every development in cultural thinking as some kind of seismic ‘contradiction’ which will bring global capitalism tumbling down, looks like what it is, a biased obeisance to Marxist ideas which have long ago proved to be untrue.

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

To some extent his attitude is based on one particular logical or rhetorical trick which can be proved to be false.

In the later chapters of the book, about the arts, the hard and social sciences, Hobsbawm repeatedly claims that this or that aspect of ‘bourgeois ideology’ of the mid-nineteenth century came under strain, suffered insoluble contradictions, underwent a crisis, and collapsed.

I think this is the crux of the massive mistake he makes. It consists of several steps:

  1. identifying every element of mid-nineteenth century political and cultural theory as some universal thing called ‘bourgeois’
  2. identifying this ‘bourgeoisie’ as the central and necessary figure of the capitalist system
  3. and then claiming that, because in the last few decades of the nineteenth century this ‘bourgeois’ ideology came under strain and in many ways collapsed, that therefore this shows that capitalism itself, as a system, must come under strain caused by its internal contradictions and therefore must collapse

Surely anyone can see the logical error here. All you have to do is stop insistently repeating that mid-nineteenth century ideology was identical with some timeless ‘bourgeois’ ideology which necessarily and uniquely underpins all capitalism, and simply relabel it ‘mid-nineteenth century ideology’, and then all your sentences stop being so apocalyptic.

Instead of saying ‘bourgeois ideology was stricken by crisis’ as if The Great Revolution is at hand, all you need say is ‘mid-nineteenth century political and social beliefs underwent a period of rapid change at the end of the century’ and the portentous sense of impending doom hovering over the entire system vanishes in a puff of smoke – and you are left just describing a fairly banal historical process, namely that society’s ideas and beliefs change over time, sometimes in abrupt reversals resulting from new discoveries, sometimes as slow evolutionary adaptations to changing social circumstances.

Put another way, Hobsbawm identifies mid-nineteenth century liberal ideology as if it is the one and only shape capitalist thinking can possibly take and so excitedly proclaims that, by the end of the century, because mid-nineteenth century ‘bourgeois’ beliefs were quite visibly fraying and collapsing, therefore capitalism would collapse too.

But quite obviously the ‘capitalist system’ has survived all the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crises’ Hobsbawm attributes to it and many more. It is still going strong, very strong, well over a century after the period which Hobsbawm is describing and when, he implies, it was all but on its last knees.

In fact the basic idea of manufacturing products cheap and selling them for as much profit as you can, screwing the workers who make them and keeping the profits to a) enjoy yourself or b) invest in other business ventures, is probably more widespread than ever before in human history, seeing how it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in post-communist Russia but especially across hyper-modernising China.

In other words, Hobsbawm’s use of Marxist terms like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ may have a certain explanatory power for the era he’s describing, but after a certain point they are too simplistic and don’t describe or analyse the actual complexity of even one of the societies he describes, let alone the entire world.

At some point (which you can almost measure in Hobsbawm’s texts) they cease to be explanatory and become obfuscatory, hiding the differences which separate America, Britain and Germany much more than unite them. Use of the terms simply indicate that you have entered a certain worldview.

Imagine a Christian historian identifying mid-nineteenth century ideology as the one and only expression of ‘Christian’ ideology, an ideology which divided the population into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’. Imagine this historian went on to describe how the widespread ‘crisis’ in Christian belief at the end of the century indicated that the entire world was passing out of the phase of Christian belief and into infidel unbelief.

If you read something like that you would immediately know you are inside the particular worldview of an author, something which clearly means a lot to them, might shed light on some aspects of the period – for example trends in religious belief – but which in no way is the interpretation of world history.

a) Plenty of other interpretations are available, and b) despite the widespread laments that Christianity was dying out in the later nineteenth century, contrary to all their pessimism, Christianity now has more adherents worldwide than ever before in human history. And ditto capitalism.

The dominance of the key terms Hobsbawm deploys with such monotonous obsessiveness (capitalism, bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal ideology) don’t prove anything except that you have entered the worldview of a particular author.

The system with the real contradictions, contradictions between a) its utopian claims for equality and the reality of a hierarchical society which privileged party membership, b) between its promises to outproduce the West and the reality of permanent shortages of consumer goods and even food, c) between its rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the reality of the harsh repression of any kind of political or artistic unorthodoxy – was communism, whose last pitiful remnants lie rusting in a thousand statue parks across Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

Because Hobsbawm identifies the mid-nineteenth century worldview with the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ as the indispensable foundation of ‘capitalism’, he tries to pull off the conjuring trick of claiming that, since the mid-nineteenth century worldview drastically changed in all kinds of ways in the last decade of the century, these change invalidate the ‘bourgeoisie’, and that this, in turn, invalidates ‘capitalism’. Proves it is wrong and doomed to collapse.

You can see how this is just a three-card trick which moves vague and indefinable words around on the table at speed to bamboozle the impressionable. For despite the trials and tribulations of the century of extremes which followed, ‘capitalism’ in various forms appears to have triumphed around almost the entire world, and the materialistic, conventional, liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ which Hobsbawm so despises… appears still to be very much with us, despite all Hobsbawm’s protestations about its terminal crises and death throes and contradictions and collapse.

Victimology tends to tyranny

To anyone familiar with the history of communist Russia, communist China and communist Eastern Europe, there is something unnerving and, eventually, worrying about Hobsbawm’s very broad-brush division of the entire world into victims and oppressors.

The first half of the twentieth century was the era of totalitarian governments seeking to gain total control over every aspect of their populations and mould them into better humans in a better society. The first thing all these regimes did was establish goodies and baddies, and rouse the population to be on perpetual guard against the enemy in whatever guise – ‘the bourgeoisie’, the ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘reactionary elements’, ‘the Jews’, and so on.

Dividing the entire huge world and eight billion people into simple binaries like ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘workers’, ‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’, ‘white’ masters and ‘black’ victims, is worryingly reminiscent of the simplistic, binary thinking which the twentieth century showed leads to genocides and mass killing.

Hobsbawm criticises the nationalist parties of the late-nineteenth century for dividing up populations into citizens and outsiders, members of the Volk or aliens, a process of which the Jews were notable victims. And yet he enacts the very same binary oppositioning, the same outsidering of a (large) group of society, by objectifying and insulting the ‘bourgeoisie’ at every opportunity.

It’s the same old mental slum: if only we could get rid of the gypsies / homos / lefties / commies / bourgeoisie / capitalists / Catholics / Protestants / Armenians / Jews / Croats / Serbs / Tutsis / Hutus / men / whites / blacks / immigrants / refugees, then society would be alright. I call it ‘If-only-ism’.

If capitalism and imperialism were inevitable, how can anyone be guilty?

In Age of Capital Hobsbawm describes how the industrial revolution amounted to a lucky fluke, a coming together of half a dozen circumstances (of which the most important was, in his view, Britain’s command of the waves and extensive trading network between colonies) and this helps you realise that some people were able to seize the opportunity and exploit it and become masters of small firms and then of factories etc. Clever, quick, resourceful or well-placed men leapt to take advantage of new opportunities. Any history of the industrial revolution names them and gives biographies of individuals central to the series of inventions or who then set up successful firms to exploit them.

However, the tendency of Hobsbawm’s very high-level Marxist approach, his sweeping surveys which pull together evidence from Austria, or France, from north Italy or New York, is, paradoxically, to remove all sense of agency from the humans involved. Hobsbawm makes it seem almost inevitable that the first industrial revolution (textiles) would give rise to a second (iron and coal) which in turn would give rise to a third (steel, organic chemistry, electrics, oil).

And he makes it seem inevitable that, once the world was fully mapped and explored, then the other ‘western powers’ which by 1890 had more or less caught up with Britain in terms of industrialisation, would join the competition to seize territories which contained valuable minerals or exotic produce (tea, coffee, bananas). That an acceleration of imperial rivalry was inevitable.

But if it had to pan out this way, how can you blame anyone? If, viewed from this lofty godlike perspective, it was inevitable that industrialisation broke out somewhere, that it would spread to all similar regions and states, that the now numerous industrial nations would find themselves in competition for the basic resources (food) and more arcane resources (rubber, oil, rare metals) required to drive the next stage of industrial development – can you blame them?

You could call it Hobsbawm’s paradox, or Hobsbawm’s Choice. The more inevitable you make the entire process sound, the less reason you have to be so cross at the ‘bourgeoisie’.

The reality is that you can, of course, hold the western nations accountable for their actions, but only if you descend to a lower level of historical discourse than Hobsbawm’s. Only if you begin to look at specific actions of specific governments and specific men in specific times and places an you begin to make assessments and apportion praise or blame.

Responsibility and guilt can’t really exist at the level Hobsbawm is operating on because he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning individuals (with only a few exceptions; Bismarck’s name crops up more than any other politician of the period) and instead emphasises that it all unfolded according to almost unavoidable historical laws, implicit in the logic of industrial development.

If humans couldn’t avoid it, then they can’t very well be blamed for it.

In light of Hobsbawm’s theory, is equality possible?

The same set of facts give rise to a parallel thought, which dogged me throughout reading this book, which is — if what Hobsbawm says is true, if industrial and technological developments tend to be restricted to just a handful of certain nations which have acquired the technology and capital resources to acquire ‘liftoff’ to industrialisation, and if, within those nations, the benefits of industrialisation accrue overwhelming to a small proportion of the population; and if this process is so stereotyped and inevitable and unstoppable — then, well… is it even possible to be fair? Is it possible to achieve anything like ‘equality’? Surely the entire trend of the history Hobsbawm describes with so much verve suggests not.

Putting aside the issue of fairness in one nation aside in order to adopt Hobsbawm’s global perspective, he often repeats the formula that countries in the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ (whatever you want to call it) were forced by the demands of consumer capitalism or The Market to turn themselves into providers of raw materials or a handful of saleable commodities – after all, this was era which saw the birth of the banana republic. But, I thought as I ploughed through the book… what was the alternative?

Could undeveloped nations have turned their backs on ‘international capitalism’ and continued as agrarian peasant nations, or resisted the western imperative to become ‘nations’ at all and remained general territories ruled by congeries of local sheikhs or tribal elders or whatever?

At what stage would it have been possible to divert the general trend of colonial takeover of the developing world? How would it have happened? Which British leader would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong; we renounce all our colonies and grant them independence today?’ in the1870s or 1880s or 1890s? What would have happened to the sub-continent or all those bits of Africa which Britain administered if Britain had simply packed up and left them in 1885?

As to all the wealth accumulating in Britain, among its sizeable cohort of ship-owners, traders, factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers and what not. On what basis would you have taken their wealth away, and how much? Half? All of it and shot them, as in Bolshevik Russia?

Having seized the wealth of the entire ‘bourgeoisie’, how would you then have redistributed it to the bedouin in the desert or the native peoples of Australia or the Amazon, to the workers on the rubber plantations, in the tin and gold mines, in the sugar fields, to squabbling tribes in central Africa? How could that have been done without a vast centralised redistribution system? Without, in fact, precisely the centralising, bureaucratic tendencies of the very capitalist system Hobsbawm was criticising?

And who would administer such a thing? Having worked in the civil service for over a decade I can tell you it would take hordes of consultants, program managers, project managers and so on, who would probably be recruited from the host country and make a packet out of the process?

And when was all this meant to happen? When, would you say, the awareness of the wrongs of the empire, or the wrongs done to the ‘undeveloped world’ became widespread enough to allow such policies to be enacted in a democracy where the government has to persuade the majority of the people to go along with its policies? In the 1860s, 70s, 80s?

Live Aid was held in 1985, just as Hobsbawm was writing this book, and which I imagine brought the issue of Third World poverty and famine to the attention of even the dimmest members of the population. But did that global event abolish poverty, did it end inequality and injustice in in the Third World? No, otherwise there would have been no need for the Live 8 concerts and related charity efforts 30 years later, in 2005. Or the ongoing efforts of all the industrialised nations to send hundreds of millions of dollars of support to the Third World every year (hence the furore surrounding the UK government cutting back on its foreign aid budget this year.) Not to mention the continuous work of thousands of charities all across the ‘developing world’.

When you look at the scale of activity and the amounts of money which have been sent to developing countries since the Second World War, it makes you wonder how much would be enough? Should every citizen of every industrialised nation give, say, half their annual earnings to people in the Third World? To which people? In which countries? To India, which has invested tens of billions in a space program? To China, which is carrying out semi-genocidal policy of incarceration and mass sterilisation in its Xinjiang province? Do we need to take money from the British public to give it to Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping? Who would manage that redistribution program, for whatever civil servants and consultants you hired to make it work would earn much, much more than the recipients of the aid.

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

When I was a student, reading this trilogy educated me about the broad industrial, economic and social forces which created and drove forward the industrial revolution in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, doing so in thrilling style, and for that I am very grateful. Hobsbawm’s books highlighted the way that, through the 1850s and 1860s, capitalism created an ever-richer class of ‘owners’ set against a rapidly growing number of impoverished workers; how the industrial and financial techniques pioneered in Britain spread to other Western nations; how the industrial system evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into a) a booming consumer society in the West and b) the consolidation of a system of colonial exploitation around the world.

I had never had the broad trends of history explained so clearly and powerfully and excitingly. It was a memorable experience.

But rereading the books 40 years later, I am now painfully aware that the simplistic Marxist concepts Hobsbawm uses to analyse his period may certainly help to elucidate it, but at the same time highlight their own ineffectiveness.

The confidence that a mass working class movement which will rise up to overthrow the inequalities of the West and liberate the developing world, that this great liberation is just around the corner – which is implicit in his numerous references to 1848 and Marx and the Commune and Lenin – and that all it needs is a few more books and pamphlets to spark it off….goes beyond boring to become sad. Although the historical facts he describes remain as relevant as ever, the entire ideology the books are drenched in feels terribly out of date.

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

In chapter 4 Hobsbawm discusses the politics of democracy. Throughout he takes it for granted that extending the franchise to all adults would result in the revolutionary change he supports. He starts his discussion by referencing the powerful German Social Democratic Party (founded back in 1863) and the British Labour Party (founded in 1900) and their campaigns for universal suffrage, as if giving the vote to ‘the working class’ would immediately lead to a social revolution, the end of inequality and exploitation.

Only in the chapters that follow does he slowly concede that new mass electorates also helped to create new mass, populist parties and that many of these catered not to the left at all, but to right-wing nationalist ideas of blood and Volk. For example, the notorious Karl Luger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, whose Christian Social Party espoused populist and antisemitic politics which are sometimes viewed as a model for Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

In fact it had already been shown that universal male suffrage not only didn’t lead to socialist revolution but the exact opposite, when, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution which overthrew the French monarchy, the French granted universal male suffrage and held a presidential election in which the opera bouffe candidate, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, promptly won with 74% of the entire male adult vote, and then went on to win the plebiscite held after his 1851 anti-leftist coup with 76%.

So any educated person knew in the 1850s that extending the franchise did not, in and of itself, lead to red revolution. Often the opposite. (This is a point picked up in Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 which quotes umpteen later Victorian politicians and commentators arguing against extending the franchise precisely because they’d seen what it led to in France, namely the election of a repressive, right wing autocrat.)

Hobsbawm’s excited description of the way the ‘scary’ working class were ‘threatening’ bourgeois hegemony, were on the brink of ‘seizing power’ and righting the world’s wrongs, underplays the extent to which universal suffrage led:

  1. directly to the rise of populist nationalist anti-left wing governments
  2. and to the fragmentation of the left into ‘reformists’, prepared to compromise their radical principles and ally with liberal parties in order to get into parliament, and the die-hards who held out for radical social change

In other words, extending the franchise led to the exact opposite of what Hobsbawm hopes. Something borne out after the Great War, when the franchise was drastically extended to almost all adults in most European countries and the majority of European governments promptly became either right-wing or out-and-out dictatorships. Mussolini won the 1924 Italian general election; Hitler won the largest share of the vote in the Weimar Republic’s last election. Or Hungary:

In January 1920, Hungarian men and women cast the first secret ballots in the country’s political history and elected a large counterrevolutionary and agrarian majority to a unicameral parliament. (Wikipedia)

Switching from Hobsbawm altogether to the present day, 2021, any reader of the English left-liberal English press must be struck how, since the Brexit vote, it has stopped being a taboo subject to suggest that quite possibly a large proportion of the British electorate is thick and uneducated (terms you frequently meet in the Guardian newspaper). You can nowadays read plenty of ‘progressive’ commentators pointing out that the great British electorate was persuaded, in voting for Brexit (2016) and Boris (2019), to vote for populist right-wing demagoguery and against their own best interests as working people. I have read so many commentators pointing out that it is the very conservative working class communities who voted for Brexit who are most likely going to suffer the prolonged consequences of economic dislocation and decline.

In other words, right now in 2021, you can read representatives of the left openly stating that universal franchise, one person one vote, not only doesn’t lead to the socialist paradise Hobsbawm implies it will, but the opposite – rule by right-wing populists.

As far as I can remember, thoughts like this would have been utterly taboo in the 1980s, or have immediately identified you as a right-wing conservative. But now I read comments like this every day in the Guardian or New Statesman.

So – this is the recent experience and current political discourse I bring to reading Hobsbawm’s chapter about democracy and which makes me think his assumption, his faith, his Marxist belief, that simply expanding the franchise to all adults would of itself bring about social revolution and justice and equality is too simplistic.

  • It doesn’t correlate with the historical fact that, as soon as the franchises of most European nations had been radically expanded (after the Great War), lots of them became very right-wing.
  • It doesn’t speak to our present situation where, it’s true that no-one is openly suggesting restricting the franchise, but many progressives are questioning whether the universal franchise produces the optimum results for a nation and its working class. Trump. Brexit.

The world is not as we would like it to be.

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

I am a Darwinian materialist. I believe there is no God and therefore no purpose or direction to human lives or events. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. Shit happens, people try to cope. Obviously shit happens within a complex web of frameworks and structures which we have inherited, it takes a lot of effort to disentangle and understand what is going on, or what we think is going on, and sometimes it may happen in ways some of which we can broadly predict. But ‘events, dear boy, events’ are the determining feature in human affairs. Take Afghanistan this past week. Who knew? Who expected such a sudden collapse?

This isn’t a very profound analysis but my aim is to contrast my preference for a theory of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of human affairs with Hobsbawm’s profound belief in Marxist teleology, meaning the very nineteenth century, rationalist, scientistic belief that there are laws of history and that human societies obey them and that they can be predicted and harnessed.

Teleology: the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

Teleology is the belief that if you shave away all the unfortunate details of history, and the peculiarities of culture, and the impact of charismatic individuals, in fact if you pare away enough of what makes people people and societies societies, you can drill down to Fundamental Laws of History. And that Karl Marx discovered them. And that these laws predict the coming collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a wonderful classless society. And that you, too, can be part of this future by joining the communist party today for the very reasonable online registration fee of just £12!

Anyway, the teleology (‘sense of direction, meaning or purpose’) which is a vital component of Marxism, the confidence in an inevitable advent of a future of justice and equality, which underpins every word Hobsbawm wrote, evaporated in 1991 and nothing has taken its place.

There will be no Revolution. The ‘capitalist system’ will not be overthrown. At most there will be pointless local revolts like the Arab Spring, revolts which, more than likely, end up with regimes more repressive or anarchic than the ones they overthrew (Syria, Libya, Egypt).

This sort of thing will occur repeatedly in countries which did not enjoy the early or middle benefits of the technological revolutions Hobsbawm describes, countries of the permanently developing world, which will always have largely peasant populations, which will always depend on the export of raw materials (oil being the obvious one), which will always have unstable political systems, liable to periodic upheavals.

The environmental perspective

If there is One Big Thing we do know about the future, it is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere in Hobsbawm’s book, which is that humanity is destroying the environments which support us.

My son is studying biology at university. He says it amounts to having world-leading experts explain the beauty and intricacy of various eco-systems in beautiful places around the planet – and then describing how we are destroying them.

As a result, my son thinks that human civilisation, in its present form, is doomed. Not because of global warming. But because we are killing the oceans, exterminating all the fish, destroying species diversity, wrecking agricultural land, using up all the fresh water, relying more on more on fragile monocultures, and generally devastating the complex web of ecosystems which make human existence possible.

Viewed from this perspective, human activity is, overall, fantastically destructive. And the massive ideological divide Hobsbawm makes between the tradition of the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, Communards, Bolsheviks and communists he adulates, on the other, fades into insignificance.

We now know that polluting activity and environmental destruction were as bad or worse under communist regimes as they were under capitalist ones. It was the Soviet system which gave us Chernobyl and its extended cover-up. Capitalist ones are at least capable of reform in a way communist regimes turned out not to be. Green political movements are a feature of advanced ‘capitalist’ countries but were suppressed, along with every other form of deviance, under communist governments.

But then again, it really doesn’t matter from a global perspective. Looked at from the planet’s point of view, all human activity is destructive.

So this is why, looking at them from a really high-level perspective, as of aliens visiting earth and reviewing the last couple of centuries, these books no longer make me angry at the wicked ‘capitalist’ exploitation of its workers and entire colonial nations and the ‘heroic’ resistance of the proletariat and the exploited peoples of the colonial nations.

I just see a swarm of humans ruining their habitat and leading, inevitably, to their own downfall.

Hobsbawm’s style

Hobsbawm is very repetitive. He mentions bicycles and cars and so on representing new technologies at least three times. I swear he points out that imperialism was the result of increasing competition between the industrial nations at least half a dozen times. He tells us that a number of Germany’s most eminent revolutionaries came from Russia, namely Rosa Luxemburg, at least four times. He repeats President Porfirio Diaz’s famous lament, ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States’ twice. He tells us twice that western governments were keen to invest in medical research into tropical fevers solely because the results promised to help their officers and administrators survive longer in colonial outposts several times. He repeatedly tells us that Bismarck was the master of maintaining peace between the powers (pp.312 and 318).

The impression this gives is of rambling, repetitive and circular arguments instead of linear, logical ones.

Hobsbawm’s discussions are often very gaseous in the sense that they go on at length, use lots of highbrow terminology, but at the end it’s hard to make out or remember what he’s said. The discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital was long and serious-sounding but I emerged at the end of it none the wiser. The long discussion of sociology in chapter 11 of this book left me none the wiser about sociology except for Hobsbawm’s weird suggestion that, as a social science, it was founded and encouraged in order to protect society against Marxism and revolution. Really?

In a similar spirit, although he uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’ intensively throughout both books, I emerged with no clearer sense of what ‘bourgeoisie’ really means than I went in with. He himself admits it to be a notoriously difficult word to define and then more or less fails to define it.

On a more serious level I didn’t understand his discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital or his discussion of the increasing democratisation in the 1890s in this volume, because they were vague and waffly. It seemed to me that as soon as he left his home turf of economic development, his ideas become foggy and repetitive.

And sometimes he comes over as a hilariously out of touch old buffer:

By 1914 the more unshackled youth in the western big cities and resorts was already familiar with sexually provocative rhythmic dances of dubious but exotic origin (the Argentinian tango, the syncopated steps of American blacks). (p.204)

‘The syncopated steps of American blacks’. No wonder American capitalism was doomed to collapse.

Overall conclusion

Hobsbawm’s books are thrilling because of their scope and range and the way he pulls together heterogenous material from around the world, presenting pages of awe-inspiring stats and facts, to paint a vivid, thrilling picture of a world moving through successive phases of industrialisation.

But he is eerily bereft of ideas. This comes over in the later chapters of both books in which he feels obligated, like so many historians before him, to write a chapter about The Arts. This is not his natural territory and the reader has to struggle through turgid pages of Hobsbawm dishing up absolutely conventional judgements (Van Gogh was an unrecognised genius; the arts and crafts movement was very influential), which are so lame and anodyne they are embarrassing.

I had noticed his penchant for commenting on everything using numbered points (‘The bourgeois century destabilised its periphery in two main ways…’; ‘Three major forces of resistance existed in China…’, ‘Three developments turned the alliance system into a time bomb…’, and many others). Eventually it dawned on me that he produces these nifty little sets of issues or causes or effects instead of having ideas. Lists beat insights.

Considering how fertile Marxist literary and art criticism has been in the twentieth century (cf György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Frederick Jameson) it is very disappointing how flat and untheoretical and banal Hobsbawm’s comments about the arts in both books are. In these later sections of each book it is amazing how much he can write without really saying anything. He is a good example of someone who knows all the names and terminology and dates and styles and has absolutely nothing interesting to say about them.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

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Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in Czechoslovakia

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Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution during the communist purges.

Communism in England

The Good Soldier Švejk – Epilogue to Part One (1922)

Hašek included a three-page Epilogue to Volume One of The Good Soldier Švejk, which is interesting for a number of reasons (pp.214-216 of the Penguin edition).

First and foremost it shows that even when he was not being ‘literary’, he wrote in the same blunt factual way as in the novel, for example using the kind of sententious truisms which could have come straight from the mouth of Švejk:

Life is no finishing school for young ladies

The epilogue is predominantly concerned to defend Hašek’s use of coarse language including swearwords. He bluntly tells us he disdains the use of circumlocutions or asterisks as ‘the stupidest form of sham’.

The argument from realism He, Hašek, has simply reported how real people actually talk.

Life is no finishing school for young ladies. Everyone speaks the way he is made… This book is neither a handbook of drawing-room refinement nor a teaching manual of expressions to be used in polite society. It is a historical picture of a certain period of time.

He doesn’t develop any reason why but just takes it for granted that a realistic depiction of the world, and of how people actually behave and actually speak, coarse language and all, is a good in itself and doesn’t need justification. What he is describing is ‘perfectly natural’ and therefore, by implication, writing about it is the same terms is ‘perfectly natural’, too.

The argument from hypocrisy Hašek proposes that the only people who are ashamed of ripe or bawdy language in a novel are hypocrites, the ones with the most to hide, ‘the worst swine and the experts in filth’.

It is the people who most loudly proclaim their moral indignation in public who take pleasure in frequenting public toilets in order to read the graffiti. It is those who would like to turn the whole country into a refined drawing room who in fact, in secret, practice the worst vices.

To the pure in heart everything is pure. Or, as he puts it, the well-brought-up man may read anything.

The argument from strength Then he tries another tack – that the easily offended are weak.

Those who boggle at strong language are cowards, because it is real life which is shocking them.

He, Hašek, has simply reported how actually people actually talk. Not his problem if some readers and critics – if ‘weaklings like that’ – are too sensitive to face the truth about the world.

The argument from cultural health But, says Hašek, the net impact of these ‘cowards’ and ‘weaklings’ is not neutral: it causes actual harm. They are the people who:

cause most harm to character and culture. They would like to see the nation to grow up into a group of over-sensitive people – masturbators of false culture…

Again the idea is only glancingly referred to and not explored, but clearly implies that

  1. a nation should be strong
  2. that literary realism or culture which faces up to how real people actually speak and behave requires a kind of moral and aesthetic strength
  3. and that this facing up to reality builds that kind of moral and aesthetic strength in a ‘nation’

The argument from character building It’s only referred to in one word, but Hašek slips in the idea that the kind of censorship and repression his critics promote is damaging not only to (national) culture, but to character. Implicit in that phrase is the idea that reading strong language spoken by ‘real’ people toughens the reader up and is character building.

The argument from political dissent He then goes on to say that the person the landlord Palivec is based on got in touch with Hašek when he learned he was in the book, and bought twenty copies, and frankly admitted to being well known for his foul language.

But, Hašek asserts, it is not just bad language. Palivec is a representative social and political figure. His crude language expresses ‘the detestation the ordinary Czech feels for Byzantine behaviour’ and their ‘lack of respect for the Emperor and for fine phrases’.

So in this sentence fine and polite and refined language is associated with the Imperial Court and its oppression of the Czech people, and crude language is associated with opposition to Austrian rule.

Hašek’s characters’ effing and blinding are acts of linguistic rebellion against the Austro-Hungarian ascendency and its effete and hypocritical manners.

To summarise, literary realism of the type Hašek practices:

  • describes the real world
  • avoids hypocrisy
  • is strong and healthy
  • makes the reader strong and healthy
  • helps create a strong and healthy national culture

The kind of disapproval and censorship his critics call for:

  • would result in works painting a deceptive picture of the real world
  • is the cry of hypocrites who promote beauty but are themselves leading experts in ‘filth’
  • is the cry of weaklings and cowards
  • whose censorship, if put in place, would weaken and undermine both individuals and the national culture

Hašek’s aim

Very briefly, he says he’s not sure his book will achieve its aim. Well, what is its aim? Hašek explains it in this way:

The fact that I have already heard one man swear at another and say ‘You’re about as big an idiot as Švejk’ does not prove that I have. But if the word ‘Švejk’ becomes a new choice specimen in the already florid garland of abuse I must be content with this enrichment of the Czech language. (p.215)

Thoughts

1. It is interesting that Hašek chooses to defend his book entirely from the accusation of bad language. As I make clear in my review of Volume One, I barely noticed that the characters saying shit or bollocks – the kind of language I’ve read in thousands of novels since, especially from the 1960s onwards.

What I did notice was the casual violence they show to each other, the frothing anger of all the officials which underpins the incidents of kicking, hitting and flogging we witness along with much worse tortures and even executions (which, it is true, we don’t tend to see, but have amply reported to us).

About this no-one seems to have complained, and Hašek doesn’t feel compelled to justify. In a way, this is the most shocking thing about this little epilogue.

2. I don’t accept the idea that Hašek went to all this trouble just to add the word ‘Švejk’ as a term of abuse to the Czech language. There’s a lot, lot more going on in his big novel, most notably his fierce satire on everything Austro-Hungarian, namely its stupid bureaucracy and its incompetent army but by extension, with everything bourgeois and fake.

Then there are the fierce statements about the horror of war, all the more bitter for their often throwaway character.

And then there’s the motivation all comedians share, to make people laugh – to make them laugh and maybe do other things too, like reflect on war and society – but first and foremost, to amuse and entertain them.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (1869)

This is Flaubert’s third novel, and in fact it’s the last one he finished, if we categorise his fourth book, the temptation of Saint Anthony, as a theological fantasia rather than a novel.

With the previous two novels, Flaubert had established a reputation as a highly literary writer, becoming famous for his meticulously detailed realism. He had also gained a reputation for ‘immorality’: Emma Bovary, the heroine of his first book is shown progressing – or declining – from shy convent schoolgirl, through dissatisfied wife, to reluctant seducee and then seasoned and cynical adulterer. But Emma’s small-town tragedy was eclipsed by the astonishing violence and exotically sensual atmosphere of his second book, Salammbô, a historical novel describing in loving detail the stupefying cruelties of 3rd century BC Carthage.

A consequence of Flaubert’s meticulous craftsmanship was that he took a very long time writing each of his books, sometimes spending a whole day crafting a sentence, searching, as he put it, for le mot juste – for just the right word to create the effect he wanted. There was a seven-year gap between Salammbô and this third work – plenty of time for critics and readers alike to wonder which course he would follow – another realistic tale of contemporary French life, or another oriental phantasmagoria.

In the event it was the former. Sentimental Education is sub-titled ‘The history of a young man’ and that is exactly what it is, the story of a young Frenchman’s emotional, intellectual and social development in the years 1840 to 1851.

Among Flaubert’s entertaining and very readable correspondence, are a number of places where he explains his aim in the book. To one one correspondent he wrote that:

I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation – or, more accurately, the history of their feelings. It’s a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays – that is to say, inactive.

The guiding idea is that the young hero is a romantic, who wants to have a pure and romantic love – but he lives in a ‘fallen’, ‘bourgeois’, business-minded age, an age which cannot sustain him or his dreamy ideals, in which his ‘ideals’ seem to be hopelessly frustrated and compromised and he himself eventually becomes – as we shall see – cynical and manipulative.

Now whether this is the fault of the age, with its ‘bourgeois’ values, or of the protagonist for being such a naive fool, is left for the reader to decide.

The plot

Sentimental Education is divided into three parts, is very long (420 pages in the Penguin paperback version which I read) and exceedingly complicated. My summary is consciously as rambling as the plot itself i.e. I haven’t tried to simplify and regularise it; as a reader I found the book often baffling and sometimes incomprehensible.

Part one

We meet the hero, young Frédéric Moreau, in 1840 when he is an eighteen-year-old student, come from his home in Normandy to study law in Paris. The core of the plot is his enduring love for an older married woman, the wife of the art dealer Jacques Arnoux, who he sees on the Paris-to-Normandy river boat (along the river Seine) and spends the rest of the novel pursuing.

All this is completely autobiographical – Flaubert himself hailed from Normandy (his father was a surgeon), he studied law in Paris and he fell in love with an older married woman, like his hero. Looking back at his romantic younger self, Flaubert gives Frédéric numerous flights of romantic reverie, indulging what was obviously his own early lyrical sensibility. But the older Flaubert is much more world-weary, cynical and pessimistic, a tone which is prevalent in the third person narrative, and above all in the course of events, and the cynical outcomes of almost all the characters.

More interesting than the character of Moreau himself is the network of acquaintances Flaubert creates around him to convey the Parisian artistic and intellectual life of his generation. The art dealer Arnoux is depicted as a crook, inciting artists to paint meretricious works for money and ripping them off in all kinds of dodgy deals. He runs a magazine, L’Art Industriel, and every Wednesday he holds open house for painters, critics, writers, composers and so on to come round and chat. Moreau bumps into the young joker Hussonet and via him worms his way into becoming a regular at these open days, with the sole view of talking to Madame Arnoux who, however, rarely appears.

Meanwhile, his old schoolfriend from back in Nogent, Charles Deslauriers, turns up in Paris to study law and the pair share rooms, drinks, jokes. Frédéric organises a Saturday soirée for his friends. In one or other of these settings, we meet the following characters and follow their endless arguments about art and politics. It turns out to be necessary to really get to know them since they all reappear over the course of the next 12 years or so, playing key roles in the complex personal story, and background political developments, of the age.

  • Baptiste Martinon, law student
  • Marquis de Cisy, nobleman and law student
  • Sénécal, math tutor and uncompromising Republican
  • Hussonet, journalist, drama critic and joker
  • Dussardier, a simple shopworker who Moreau and Hussonet help after he’s wrongfully arrested for assaulting a policeman
  • Regimbart, ‘The Citizen’, a fiercely doctrinaire revolutionary
  • Pellerin, a painter with more theories than talent
  • Madamoiselle Vatnaz, actress, courtesan, frustrated feminist

The ‘plot’ i.e. the tangled sequence of events over the next 11 years (1840 to 1851) involves the appearance, disappearance and reappearance of all these characters, shedding light on their changes and developments, generally in a pessimistic downwards direction. For example, Frédéric’s childhood friend Deslaurier fails as a lawyer and would-be politician, turning to journalism where he writes scurrilous pieces for other papers and nags Frédéric to loan him the money to set up his own.

Whenever there is political turbulence, we can be sure of hearing about Sénécal and Regimbart, who, in different ways, rage against the ruling classes and the king. Over the eleven years they follow drastically different courses, Regimbart becoming a monosyllabic drunk, Sénécal  undergoing a complete volte-face to become a violent reactionary.

Pellerin is a broadly comic character, reminiscent of Homais in Bovary, in that he is mechanically predictable: whenever we meet him he is in thrall to yet another theory of art, changing his allegiance from Michelangelo to Titian to Velasquez and so on, never achieving anything, always complaining.

The plot is complex and multi-layered, but two key elements are Frédéric’s love life and his career (both ill-fated).

Love life (1)

Frédéric sees Madame Arnoux on the boat to Nogent and it is love at first sight. He inveigles his way into Monsieur Arnoux’s confidences with the sole purpose of seeing more of Madame. However, he finds himself being taken up by the cheery, good-natured Arnoux himself and initiated into the fact that Arnoux keeps a mistress in a set of rooms. Arnoux takes him there, and Frédéric meets the rather bony, dry, sharp Madamoiselle Vatnaz.

This adulterous relationship of Arnoux’s is one of the revelations of a Big Night out, when almost all the Parisian characters go to the opening of a new cabaret, the Alhambra. In a scene which is very filmic, they encounter each other in different rooms, drink, gamble, bump into each other later in the evening, are introduced to girlfriends, mistresses and courtesans and so on.

Career

As she sends him off to Paris, his loving mother hopes that Frédéric will work hard at his law studies, become a lawyer, stand as a deputy to the National Assembly and become a minister. Needless to say, none of this happens. Frédéric fritters away his money and his time on pointless love affairs, and looks every possibly gift horse in the mouth. After getting into the arty set around Arnoux’s magazine, he decides to become a painter (cue comic advice from the inept painter Pellerin). Later, Frédéric thinks he might become a journalist. In actual fact he ends up becoming a well-heeled wastrel. This becomes increasingly frustrating for the reader, and by about page 300 I really wanted to give Frédéric a good slap and tell him to sort his life out.

Right from the start Frédéric is advised by Frédéric’s mother’s friend Roque to go and contact a high society banker, Monsieur Dambreuse, to whom he is given a letter of introduction. Over the next 300 pages Frédéric only occasionally goes to see Dambreuse who: offers him the low-down on buying share in a new company which is bound to succeed – distracted by yet another love visit somewhere, Frédéric fails to do this. Then Dambreuse offers to make Frédéric secretary in the new company, in exchange for him purchasing shares: again Frédéric misses this opportunity because he just has to go and visit Madame Arnoux (yet again).

The most unaccountable stupidity is when, after being rejected by Madame Arnoux, Frédéric returns to his mother’s house in rural Nogent, and discovers that the little girl next door who he used to play with, the daughter of his mother’s neighbour, old Roque, has blossomed into the lovely young woman, Louise. They immediately get on well and it becomes clear that Louise is infatuated with him. The parents, of course, are totally informed and approve the match, Frédéric’s mother because old Roque is loaded and, if he marries Louise, Frédéric will inherit all his money – old Roque because he wants his daughter to gain a title and buried deep in Madame Moreau’s past is, in fact, a landed title, which Frédéric could revive.

Louise and Frédéric become so close that they are allowed to walk out together, the Nogent community is informed that they are engaged, and they themselves expect to marry. This goes on for some time, maybe a year, until Frédéric wakes up one fine day to find that a distant uncle – uncle Barthelemy – has died and left him a substantial fortune in property, from which he will be able to extract a very comfortable annual income.

This goes straight to his head and he tells his mother and Louise that he must go back to Paris to make his Great Career. Off he goes, hires himself an enormous apartment, decorates it in the finest fashion, hires a showy carriage and servant, and generally behave like a shallow idiot. What does he do with his position? Does he make careful plans to further his career by, for example, re-contacting the rich Dambreuse? No. He plunges back into the pointless vortex of love affairs and mistresses.

What is incomprehensible to me is that, after Frédéric returns to Paris, he promptly forgets all about Louise who is not mentioned for the next two hundred pages while Frédéric falls back into the same mind-numbingly boring routine of carrying a torch for Madame Arnoux, visiting the Arnoux household, getting caught up with Arnoux’s mistress, and so on.

Love life 2

Back in Paris Frédéric discovers that Arnoux has moved. It takes him some trouble to track him down, whereupon he discovers that Arnoux has completely changed career, selling his art magazine and investing in a pottery factory outside Paris. Moreover, he has dumped Mlle Vatnaz and his new lover is one Rosanette, a courtesan.

There is another Big Party scene, a fabulous masked ball. At this point I realised that Flaubert likes Big Set-Piece Scenes. Madame Bovary features a Rural Wedding, the Agricultural Show and a Rural Funeral, all reminiscent of big mid-Victorian panoramic paintings. As befits a novel set in the Big City, Sentimental Education includes similar Set Pieces but with an urban setting – The Cabaret Party in part one and The Masked Ball in part two, both described in loving detail, at length, and opportunities for Flaubert to display his ability with complex scenes featuring numerous characters, all displaying new and unexpected aspects of their personalities and unexpected relationships between each other.

A feature of these scenes, as with the several Big Dinner Parties given by M. Dambreuse, is that the reader is often as confused as Frédéric by the gossip, mutterings, sniggers behind fans, people looking at him with raised eyebrows, and so on. Whatever Frédéric does, social gossip is always one step ahead, and it’s a feature of the book that he’s not only the last one to find out various important facts about other characters, but that Flaubert makes the reader share in Frédéric’s imperceptiveness, his dimness.

Frédéric likes Arnoux’s mistress, Rosanette, and has Pellerin paint him a portrait of her (giving rise to many comic moments highlighting Pellerin’s ineptitude as an artist). His old schoolfriend Deslauriers is resentful of Frédéric’s new wealth and asks 15,000 francs of him to set up a new newspaper. Frédéric listens to the unrealistic proposal for it, but promises the money anyway.

However, just as he receives the money from his own solicitor, Arnoux comes bustling round to his apartment to tell him that he desperately needs about 12,000 francs as he is about to be declared bankrupt: just for a week, two at the most. Still obsessed with his ‘love’ for M. Arnoux, in the vague hope that by helping the husband he will get ‘closer’ to the wife, Frédéric gives Arnoux the money, and then has to make up some excuse for letting down Deslaurier who, not surprisingly, is bitterly disappointed. Frédéric himself is then let down when cheery Arnoux is unable to repay him next week, or the week after and, as the months go by, Frédéric realises that the money is lost.

Frédéric begins pursuing Rosanette in earnest and takes her to the races, but she goes home with a man named Cisy. At dinner one night at Cisy’s opulent home, Cisy reveals that he had gone home with Rosanette to win a bet. The guests talk about Arnoux and lewdly suggest that Madame Arnoux has been a mistress to many men. Frédéric throws a plate at Cisy, and the argument escalates. The men agree to a duel and Flaubert depicts the formalities of such an event in painstaking detail – but on the appointed day, Cisy faints and the whole thing – symbolic of all the romantic dreams which fizzle out in sordid disappointment – is a damp squib.

Thinking of money has raised the spectre of working with or for Dambreuse, who Frédéric goes to meet and who offers him job but – Frédéric fails to keep the appointment they make to discuss it in detail, because he hears that Arnoux’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse and he makes a wild goose chase visit out to the factory in the country outside Paris to see Madame Arnoux – again. The journey, the countryside and the factory are all interestingly described, but I really want to shake Moreau and tell him to grow up.

Frédéric hesitatingly makes his feelings clear to Madame Arnoux who brushes him off with very sensible nostrums about how duty comes first and brief affairs never lead to happiness. Rebuffed, Frédéric goes straight back into Paris and to the apartment of Rosanette, who he has fancied since he met her. Only after he’s left, does Madame Arnoux have an epiphany and realise that she does love Frédéric.

The Rosanette connection becomes more and more complex in the final third of the novel, because Frédéric discovers that, as well as Arnoux as a lover, Rosanette has for some time had an elderly ‘sponsor’, M. Oudry. Later, in part three, we discover that she is seeing a rich Russian aristocrat. And then in another twist, Frédéric discovers that she seems to be in love with a pretentious Paris actor, Delmas.

None of this prevents Frédéric pursuing her and eventually having sex with her so that (presumably) she becomes ‘his’ mistress. At some point I had to give up and confess I didn’t understand the ‘love’ story in the novel at all. I don’t understand how Frédéric can be passionately in love with Madame Arnoux and yet dedicate so much time to seducing Rosanette, all the time knowing that Rosanette has been the mistress of his beloved’s husband and continues to see other men, and then in the rural scenes back at Nogent, go walking out with Louise and declare to her that he has never been happier.

It’s not a question of him being a cad or a ‘sexual predator’ as modern usage has it – it is much weirder than that. Throughout the novel I had the sense that Flaubert was describing a set of values and a mindset which I just simply don’t understand.

In the concluding scenes of Part Two Frédéric finally gets Madame Arnoux on her own, without her maid or small children, and there tells her he loves her and – for the very first time – she admits that she loves him too. For some reason there is no kissing or sexual contact at this moment, instead – as in so many of these 19th century fictions – they are left on tenterhooks of love and sensuality but…. make an appointment to meet the next day. The reader can’t help thinking this is a convention created purely and solely to create problems and misunderstandings, as in a bedroom farce.

And sure enough, the next day, Mme Arnoux’s son is seriously ill with croup and so, of course, she doesn’t keep the rendezvous. So Frédéric – thinking he has been jilted – promptly goes round to Rosanette’s place and for the first time really oversteps the bounds of 19th century caution, kissing her, putting his arm round her waist and – we are led to believe – finally having sex with her (the first time he’s done it with anyone, as far as we can tell).

Part three (1)

I am hopelessly confused by the love life aspect of the story. Frédéric knows that Rosanette has been the mistress of his beloved Madame Arnoux’s husband, has been attached to a rich old geezer, Oudry, as well as the rich Russian prince, and discovers that she holds a torch for the Parisian actor and yet still thinks he loves her.

The political scenes come as a relief from the love life because at least I understand their logic. The February 1848 revolution breaks out right at the end of part two, and Frédéric associates the sense of liberation and freedom in the air of Paris with his ‘love’ for Rosanette, who he is now regularly sleeping with.

Part three follows straight o from this, with Frédéric getting caught up in the February street fighting, which is described vividly.

French politics – an interlude

In 1830 France had one of its many revolutions and, in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ of July, overthrew King Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch, and replaced him with his cousin Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans.

The reign of Louis-Philippe was characterised by a wide range of political factions, who jostled and bickered for the next eighteen years: on the right some dreamed of restoring the legitimate line of Charles X (hence ‘the legitimists’) – the ‘Orleanists’ supported Louis-Philippe himself – some ‘imperialists’ wanted a return to the glory years of Napoleon. In the ‘centre’ were all sorts of middle-class republicans, who thought France would thrive best without a monarchy, although they all disagreed about who ought to lead the government of this hoped-for republic. On the left was a florid assortment of socialists who wanted to see society reorganised for the benefit of the working class, and even the newly-coined term ‘communists’, who wanted the abolition of private property and the inauguration of a completely utopian, propertyless, and so completely equal, society.

There were insurrections and attempted coups against Louis-Philippe in 1832, 1834 and 1839. These disgruntlements are the backdrop to the occasional political arguments among the characters mentioned above. But it was a bad harvest and industrial depression in 1847 which threw both peasants and urban workers out of work, many of them making their way to Paris in search of employment. These men provided the mobs which rose up in February 1848 and marched on the royal palace carrying torches and muskets. Louis-Philippe fled out the back door and made his way to exile in England (as so many continentals did during the 19th century, monarchs and revolutionaries alike). A republic was declared, a Provisional Government cobbled together, and three years of instability and uncertainty followed.

Flaubert captures the confusion, and the violently opposing political opinions, very well, as Frédéric a) sees for himself the fighting on the streets in February b) hears how the cross-section of pals from his soirees back in part one have fared in the disturbances (shot, arrested, imprisoned, hero of the revolution etc).

In a farcical scene Frédéric is encouraged to go along to one of the countless political clubs which have flourished after the revolution, and stand for election as a deputy. Initially greeted as a hero because he had (more or less accidentally) spoken up against Louis-Philippe at a society dinner given by the banker Dambreuse, when he protests about a Spanish ‘comrade’ giving a long speech in Spanish, the fickle crowd turn against him and just as vehemently attack him for being a member of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’. He is forced to make a speedy exit, the whole scene embodying Flaubert’s contempt for ‘the mob’ and for politics in general. ‘Stupid’ and ‘stupidity’ are words which recur in Flaubert’s descriptions both of crowds and mobs, but also of high society with its reactionary clichés and stereotypes.

Months of political uncertainty follow, against which Frédéric finds out that Arnoux is still Rosanette’s lover. He tries to get Rosanette to choose between them, but she refuses and so – sick of politics and her vacillation – Frédéric takes Rosanette on a prolonged holiday in the beautiful countryside surrounding the royal palace at Fontainebleu. This four or five-day trip is described in minute detail, the precise itinerary of each day’s outings, with exactly what part of the forest and landscape they saw, what the light was like, and what they ate that night for dinner.

This is odd, because they are on this holiday precisely during the notorious ‘June Days’, the decisive event of 1848. Under Louis-Philippe, National Workshops had been set up to provide a dole for the large number of unemployed in Paris. After the February revolution the Provisional Government commissioned a report into the future of the Workshops, and the right-wing leader of the committee recommended closing them down to save money.

As soon as these findings leaked out, socialist leaders roused the working classes and barricades went up all over Paris (again). The government asked the newly appointed Minister of War, General Cavaignac, to put down the insurrection, which he did with great bloodshed. As many as 3,000 people were killed in the resulting street fighting and all the socialist leaders were arrested and put in prison. Cavaignac was appointed President of the Council of Ministers, becoming effective dictator, until the presidential elections which were held in December 1848.

Part three (2)

Anyway, Flaubert must get his hero back into the thick of things and so he invents the pretext that Frédéric reads that his long-standing working class friend, Dussardier, has been wounded. Despite Rosanette’s bitter protestations, Frédéric travels back into Paris (itself difficult because the coaches have stopped running) only to be arrested by various members of the suspicious and angry National Guard.

Flaubert vividly conveys the atmosphere of completely random violence and terror created by insurrection and street fighting. Frédéric is locked up in various ad hoc barracks and prisons, before finally convincing someone in authority to let him proceed to Dussardier’s house, where he finds the working class hero being tended by none other than wiry Mlle Vatnaz. Being a good chap – if also, as we know by now, hopelessly indecisive and weak-willed – Frédéric goes back every day for a fortnight to offer help and moral support.

Things move on. Frédéric attends a dinner chez Dambreuse which is fraught with currents and counter-currents, since Monsieur and Madame Arnoux are there and so is Louise, Monsieur Roque’s daughter, the one Frédéric is meant to be engaged to. Maliciously, the other male guests bring up the subject of the portrait Frédéric persuaded Pellerin to do of Rosanette. In a cameo moment earlier in the story, when Frédéric refused to pay for it, Pellerin had displayed it prominently in his window, with a caption proclaiming that Rosanette was Frédéric’s mistress. As the guests remember and discuss this incident, both Mme Arnoux and Louise realise that Frédéric is her lover. Nonetheless, as they all leave the dinner, Louise walks arm in arm with Frédéric, reminding him that they had pledged to get married. Frédéric makes a fool of himself trying to wriggle out of it.

Meanwhile, life with Rosanette is serene and pleasant. He has moved in with her. They tend the window boxes and watch passersby, neither of them needing to work for a living.

But that doesn’t stop Frédéric – upon hearing gossip that Monsieur and Madame Arnoux are becoming estranged – from going straight round to see Madame Arnoux and – finding her alone – blames her for not coming to see him the morning of their rendezvous. She explains that she had stayed at home to tend her ill son. All is forgiven and they declare their undying love for each other, and indulge in a long, lingering kiss. Then they hear a creak of floorboards and look up. Rosanette is standing there. She had followed Frédéric, and got past the front door, any servants, up the stairs and into the room unimpeded. For me this felt like almost any moment from Eastenders or a Whitehall farce. Somehow everyone involved takes it calmly, Rosanette asks Frédéric to come home with her, Madame Arnoux waves goodbye from the top of the stairs.

Back in their apartment, Frédéric has a furious row with Rosanette, accusing her of following him, in the middle of which she reveals that she is pregnant with his child. Eastenders. This argument makes him realise he despises Rosanette. From that point onwards, Frédéric continues to live with her but is increasingly repelled by her commonness and vulgarity. The happy honeymoon in Fontainebleu, the lazy days staring from the sunny balcony, are completely gone.

Whereupon – and this is the kind of turn of events which genuinely mystifies me – Frédéric decides to seduce Mme Dambreuse in order to gain social standing. The Seduction Scene is described in some detail and Frédéric, who is becoming expert at this, is astonished that Madame Dambreuse gives in so quickly, lying back on her sofa with her eyes closed, which is the signal for him to kiss her.

Once this intimacy is established, Frédéric is astonished to discover just how much Madame Dambreuse hates her husband. It turns out (rather inevitably) that he has also had many mistresses, and that the ‘niece’ they have brought up in their household – Cécile, who we’ve met at their parties and dinners – is in fact his love child by one of his mistresses, who Madame D agreed to raise, but loathes. To his astonishment, she asks if he will marry her.

In quick succession, two key events follow: the previously hale and hearty Monsieur Dambreuse falls ill and dies, and Rosanette’s new-born baby dies. (In one of the many aspects of the novel which seem incomprehensible to the modern reader, as soon as the baby was born she had farmed it out to a wet nurse who lived out in the country – why? – and on the one time Frédéric goes to visit he is appalled by the squalor of the hut the baby’s being kept in, the goats wandering round, the animal manure around the building: why?).

During M. Dambreuse’s illness his wife reveals to Frédéric that, what with her own dowry, all her husband’s business interests, she will be worth some three million francs! Given that Frédéric is living very comfortably on about 15,000 francs a year, this obviously represents an absolute fortune and – being the impractical dreamer that he is – Frédéric starts planning extensions to the house, the creation of his own personal library, a bigger, grander carriage, more servants etc.

Monsieur Dambreuse’s funeral is another typically Flaubertian Set-Piece, with great detail about all the practical arrangements, leading into satire on the starchy behaviour of the high society invitees, and then their unbuttoned conversations at the post-funeral reception.

But Frédéric comes round a day or two later to find Madame Dambreuse sitting on the floor surrounded by a sea of documents, safes, folders and papers, crying. Turns out her husband had destroyed the will in which he left everything to her and instead – has left everything to the love child, Cécile. Frédéric’s dreams go up in smoke, but he still pledges his loyalty to her.

From this point onwards, Frédéric secretly splits his time between the two women, spending the afternoon with Rosanette, going to see Madame Dambreuse every evening. He congratulates himself on his cleverness, on using the same phrases, reading the same poetry, with each of the women. He enjoys his own ‘wickedness’.

Money

As in Madame Bovary it is money troubles which trigger the multiple crises and bring the long rambling plot to a climax.

  1. Rosanette is unable to pay off some debts she owes, and when she tries to cash in some shares which Arnoux gave her, discovers that they are worthless. She takes him to court and her suit is a contributory cause of the final collapse of all Arnoux’s financial scams.
  2. We learn from multiple sources that M. Arnoux has finally been overtaken by his financial difficulties and is preparing to flee the country, along with Madame A.

Initially Frédéric hears gossip that M. Arnoux only needs 12,000 or so francs to remain solvent. In fact he hears it from the painter Pellerin, who he and Rosanette (bizarrely) commissioned to paints a portrait of their dead child. Petrified at the thought of losing Madame Arnoux (if she flees Paris), Frédéric asks for money from Mme Dambreuse, making up a cock and bull story about a friend being threatened with prison.

But M. Arnoux’s debts are much bigger than a measly 12,000 francs and by the time Frédéric goes round with the money he discovers they have fled to Le Havre, presumably to flee the country and his debtors.

Madame Dambreuse discovers his motive for borrowing the money and confronts him in a big shouting match. She accuses him of having multiple lovers, which is close enough. Now earlier in the story we had been told how Frédéric’s oldest friend, Deslaurier, had himself made a pass at Madame Arnoux (is seducing each other’s wives and mistresses all these people do?). When she rejected him, he conceived an obdurate hatred for her. As part of his ongoing attempts to ‘get on’ he had then made himself a sort of legal adviser to Monsieur Dambreuse, and then to his widow.

Now, like the serpent in the garden of Eden, Deslauriers spitefully suggests to Madame Dambreuse that she sell some of the debts which Arnoux racked up with her husband on to a debt collector.

She does so, the debt collector acts with typical aggressiveness, and this results in the bailiffs declaring a public auction of all the Arnouxs’ furniture and possessions.

A few days later, on one of her Frédéric’s lazy afternoon coach rides, Madame Dambreuse deliberately makes the driver ride by the auction house and – as if on a whim – insists to Frédéric that they go in.

Frédéric is horrified to realise what is going on – the auction of all Arnoux’s possessions – but is forced to watch as all the intimate belongings of (despite everything) his one true love, are auctioned off – the carpet she tiptoed across, the bed linen she slept in etc.

Madame Dambreuse watches Frédéric’s discomfiture with real upper-class scorn. When a trivial object of Madame Arnoux’s, a silver keepsake, comes up, Madame Dambreuse insists on outbidding everyone else in order to own it. Frédéric begs her not to, to have pity on his heart – but she insists. It is a very powerful scene.

When they finally exit the auction house, Frédéric sees Madame Dambreuse into her grand carriage, shuts the door, bids her adieu and walks away.

It is over. It is all over. His love is dead. His heart is crushed. He hates Madame Dambreuse; there will be no reconciliation. He knows Rosanette has other lovers; their child is dead; he hates her too. And the only woman he ever loved has gone away, he knows not where.

Sick of Paris and its ‘high life’, he retreats like a broken animal to his home territory, catching a train and stage coach back to Nogent. But as he comes closer he hears church bells and – as a in a fairy tale – he arrives at the church just in time to see Louise in a wedding dress exiting the church on the arm of her new husband, none other than his oldest dearest friend, Deslauriers.

Here and there, in the previous hectic fifty pages or so, had been carefully inserted references to Deslaurier’s absence in Nogent. Now we realise (as does Frédéric) that his best friend had been a) badmouthing him to his own mother, Old Roque and Louise, telling everyone about his married mistresses b) working his way into the affections of both Old Roque and Louise c) using Old Roque’s influence to stand as deputy for the whole region – in all of which he succeeded.

Frédéric is crushed. All his hopes lie in tatters. There remains one last, brutal disillusionment. Frédéric returns to Paris and Flaubert engineers a scene whereby Frédéric witnesses a bit more street fighting (the timeline has moved on to 1851 now) and he sees the good simply working class man Dussardier mount a final barricade and be brutally hacked down with a sword by a policeman of the new order, the Second Empire of Napoleon III. And this enemy of the working class is none other than – Frédéric’s old friend, the violent republican Sénécal, who has completed an intellectual volte-face from fire-breathing socialist to murderous imperialist, a flaring symbol of the utter stupid futility of politics.

Coda

The last few pages of the novel are genuinely emotional. Burnt out, abandoned, Frédéric leaves France and goes travelling to lose himself and when he returns, is a broken man.

He travelled.
He knew the melancholy associated with packet-boats, the chill one feels on waking up under tents, the dizzy effect of landscapes and ruins, and the bitterness of ruptured sympathies.
He returned home.
He mingled in society, and he conceived attachments to other women. But the constant recollection of his first love made these appear insipid; and besides the vehemence of desire, the bloom of the sensation had vanished. In like manner, his intellectual ambitions had grown weaker. Years passed; and he was forced to support the burden of a life in which his mind was unoccupied and his heart devoid of energy.

‘Towards the end of March, 1867, just as it was getting dark, one evening, he was sitting all alone in his study, when a woman suddenly came in.’

It is Madame Arnoux. She and her husband are living in obscurity in rural Brittany. She and Frédéric swear their undying love to each other. Maybe their love has survived and meant so much because they were never together. She takes her cap off to cut a lock of her hair for him, and he is stricken to see that her hair has gone completely white. She is an old lady. She leaves. It is the last time they will meet.

In the final final scene, years later, Frédéric encounters Deslauriers again and the novel ends the way it began, with the pair swapping stories of the past. On the final page they decide that their best memory is of being about 16 and trying to sneak into the town brothel in Nogent. Like simpletones they picked nosegays for the girls but, once inside, all the girls laughed at their sweet innocence and, overcome by embarrassment, first Frédéric and then Deslauriers had fled.

Now they sit by the fire, too old men reminiscing and agreeing that, yes, that was probably the happiest moment in their lives.


Paris

Rosy clouds, scarf-like in form, stretched beyond the roofs; the shop-tents were beginning to be taken away; water-carts were letting a shower of spray fall over the dusty pavement; and an unexpected coolness was mingled with emanations from cafés, as one got a glimpse through their open doors, between some silver plate and gilt ware, of flowers in sheaves, which were reflected in the large sheets of glass. The crowd moved on at a leisurely pace. Groups of men were chatting in the middle of the footpath; and women passed along with an indolent expression in their eyes and that camelia tint in their complexions which intense heat imparts to feminine flesh. Something immeasurable in its vastness seemed to pour itself out and enclose the houses. Never had Paris looked so beautiful. He saw nothing before him in the future but an interminable series of years all full of love. (Part one, chapter five)

If Madame Bovary was a portrait of rural France, Sentimental Education, although it includes a few other settings (Frédéric’s home town of Nogent, the Fontainebleu excursion), feels like a portrait of Paris, its streets, its geography, the wide river Seine, its colourful nightlife, and then as a setting for street fighting and revolution.

The two big parties I mentioned are complemented by smaller but still grand affairs – a formal dinner at Monsieur Dambreuse’s, where Frédéric is surprised at how boring and staid the banking-class guests are – a day at the races in the Champs de Mars (where Madame Arnoux sees Frédéric accompanying Rosanette, one of the many small incidents which add complication to the endless bedroom farce of his love life). Here is Frédéric mingling his dopey romantic feelings with the street life of the city.

The dinners were now renewed; and the more visits he paid at Madame Arnoux’s, the more his love-sickness increased. The contemplation of this woman had an enervating effect upon him, like the use of a perfume that is too strong. It penetrated into the very depths of his nature, and became almost a kind of habitual sensation, a new mode of existence.

The prostitutes whom he brushed past under the gaslight, the female ballad-singers breaking into bursts of melody, the ladies rising on horseback at full gallop, the shopkeepers’ wives on foot, the grisettes at their windows, all women brought her before his mental vision, either from the effect of their resemblance to her or the violent contrast to her which they presented. As he walked along by the shops, he gazed at the cashmeres, the laces, and the jewelled eardrops, imagining how they would look draped around her figure, sewn in her corsage, or lighting up her dark hair. In the flower-girls’ baskets the bouquets blossomed for her to choose one as she passed. In the shoemakers’ show-windows the little satin slippers with swan’s-down edges seemed to be waiting for her foot. Every street led towards her house; the hackney-coaches stood in their places to carry her home the more quickly; Paris was associated with her person, and the great city, with all its noises, roared around her like an immense orchestra. (Part one, chapter five)

There are plenty of descriptions of sunrise over Paris, of Paris at twilight, of the fires burning over revolutionary Paris, of the excitement in the air of spring in Paris, and so on. Paris is intellectual ferment, the hustle and bustle of the streets, money and glamour but above all, the sensual promise of women.

The Seine, which was of a yellowish colour, almost reached the platforms of the bridges. A cool breath of air issued from it. Frederick inhaled it with his utmost energy, drinking in this good air of Paris, which seems to contain the effluvia of love and the emanations of the intellect. He was touched with emotion at the first glimpse of a hackney-coach. He gazed with delight on the thresholds of the wine-merchants’ shops garnished with straw, on the shoe-blacks with their boxes, on the lads who sold groceries as they shook their coffee-burners. Women hurried along at a jog-trot with umbrellas over their heads. He bent forward to try whether he could distinguish their faces—chance might have led Madame Arnoux to come out.

The shops displayed their wares. The crowd grew denser; the noise in the streets grew louder. After passing the Quai Saint-Bernard, the Quai de la Tournelle, and the Quai Montebello, they drove along the Quai Napoléon. He was anxious to see the windows there; but they were too far away from him. Then they once more crossed the Seine over the Pont-Neuf, and descended in the direction of the Louvre; and, having traversed the Rues Saint-Honoré, Croix des Petits-Champs, and Du Bouloi, he reached the Rue Coq-Héron, and entered the courtyard of the hotel. (Part one, chapter seven)

The role of women

Obviously, the main line of the plot is Frédéric’s extraordinarily tangled love life – which I found incomprehensible from start to finish. Saying he carries a torch for a beautiful, sensitive, married woman but ends up going out with a courtesan makes it sound too simple and comprehensible; in fact his love affairs proceed through a sequence of scenes with Madame Arnoux, Rosanette, Mlle Vatnaz and others, every single one of which is difficult to understand – their dialogue, their expectations, their attitudes – all seemed completely alien and unreal to me.

Lengthy dialogue which seems to completely miss the point, alternates with abrupt scenes which skate over what would – for a modern person – be profound emotional or moral issues. And they recur again and again. As an example, as the June Days approach, Frédéric bumps into the banker Dambreuse (who has shifted with the times to become a devout republican), who unexpectedly praises Arnoux for saving his life the last time the mob invaded the Chamber of Deputies and surprises Frédéric by announcing that he has been elected a deputy. In response to this news:

Frédéric, after he had quitted M. Dambreuse, went back to Rosanette, and, in a very gloomy fashion, said that she should choose between him and Arnoux. She replied that she did not understand ‘that sort of talk’, that she did not care about Arnoux, and had no desire to cling to him. Frédéric felt an urge to leave Paris. She did not offer any opposition to this whim; and next morning they set out for Fontainebleau.

So their ‘honeymoon’ trip to Fontainebleu is Frédéric’s response to the fact that his mistress refuses to stop seeing (and presumably having sex with) the husband of the woman he really loves??

I found the endless indecisiveness of the central ‘love story’ more remote from my understanding of human nature  than something out of Chaucer or an Icelandic saga. Why does Frédéric ping pong between just these two women – are they the only two women in Paris? Why is he proud at making Rosannette his mistress when he knows that she continues to see Arnoux, as well as old M. Oudry, the Russian aristocrat and who knows how many others?

Putting that to one side, I think even if you aren’t particularly feminist in outlook, it’s also hard not to get upset at the way women are discussed and treated in the book. Whenever the men get together (which is a lot – Frédéric’s one-on-ones with friends, Frédéric’s house parties, Arnoux’s regular ‘at homes’, in nightclubs, in restaurants, at formal dinners) the conversation among men left to themselves quickly turns to ‘women’, with the men discussing the merits of this or that mistress, or type of woman, or women in general, usually dismissed as fickle or shallow.

When the young lads go for a night out at a new nightclub, the Alcazar, in part one, the aim is to pair off with one of the women there, who are categorised as ‘courtesans, working girls or prostitutes’.

The conversation turned on women. Pellerin would not admit that there were beautiful women (he preferred tigers); besides the human female was an inferior creature in the æsthetic hierarchy.

‘What fascinates you is just the very thing that degrades her as an idea; I mean her breasts, her hair…’

‘Nevertheless,’ urged Frederick, ‘long black hair and large dark eyes…’

‘Oh! we know all about that,’ cried Hussonnet. ‘Enough of Andalusian beauties on the lawn. Those things are out of date; no thank you! For the fact is, honour bright! a fast woman is more amusing than the Venus of Milo. Let us be Gallic, in Heaven’s name, and after the Regency style, if we can!’

Entry-level feminism will be outraged at the relentlessly secondary role given to women, often nameless, judged only on their appearance and seen as appendages to the named and ‘interesting’ men.

Sénécal placed his glass of beer on the mantelpiece, and declared dogmatically that, as prostitution was tyrannical and marriage immoral, it was better to practice abstinence. Deslauriers regarded women as a source of amusement – nothing more. M. de Cisy looked upon them with the utmost dread.

A little to the side of this obvious perspective, I was interested in the way that the objectification and denigration of woman helped the men to bond: Discussing women is a ‘safe’ activity – as opposed to discussions of either art of politics, which lead immediately to bitter arguments. Discussing sex may have its own disputes, but is essentially a unifying exercise at which older men nod and boast about their conquests, while younger men brag and lie.

Flaubert’s overall artistic intention – as stated in a series of famous letters – was to eliminate the intrusive narrator’s voice from his fiction. Narrators had cheerily interrupted their novels to point a moral and make suave generalisations for a hundred years or more. Flaubert very self-consciously set out to reject this entire tradition. The author’s tone was to be everywhere felt but nowhere explicitly visible.

Another aspect of this approach is that Flaubert claimed to be just presenting reality as it is.

If Charles Bovary is weak, if Emma Bovary is a bad mother, if Rodolphe is a sexual predator – it is not Flaubert’s fault. He is presenting humanity in all its weakness.

Ditto, in Sentimental Education, if Frédéric is weak-willed, a prey to feeble sensuality, in thrall to stupid ideals of romance, utterly unable to make the most of the opportunities life presents him with, it is not Flaubert’s fault. If a group of men at a dinner party or a nightclub end up talking about women, Flaubert is showing what the life of his time was like (and the life of men has been right up to the present day).

He would claims that men are like that and he is simply showing it, warts and all.

On the plus side, Flaubert presents the character of Mademoiselle Vatnaz, an avowed feminist and a reminder that, like the arguments of socialists, the arguments of feminists have existed, been published, promoted and discussed, since at least the time of the French Revolution.

The ill-temper of Rosanette only increased. Mademoiselle Vatnaz irritated him with her enthusiasm. Believing that she had a mission, she felt a furious desire to make speeches, to carry on disputes, and – sharper than Rosanette in matters of this sort – overwhelmed her with arguments.

One day she made her appearance burning with indignation against Hussonnet, who had just indulged in some blackguard remarks at the Woman’s Club. Rosanette approved of this conduct, declaring even that she would take men’s clothes to go and ‘give them a bit of her mind, the entire lot of them, and to whip them.’

Frédéric entered at the same moment.

‘You’ll accompany me – won’t you?’

And, in spite of his presence, a bickering match took place between them, one of them playing the part of a citizen’s wife and the other of a female philosopher.

According to Rosanette, women were born exclusively for love, or in order to bring up children, to be housekeepers.

According to Mademoiselle Vatnaz, women ought to have a position in the Government. In former times, the Gaulish women, and also the Anglo-Saxon women, took part in the legislation; the squaws of the Hurons formed a portion of the Council. The work of civilisation was common to both. It was necessary that all should contribute towards it, and that fraternity should be substituted for egoism, association for individualism, and cultivation on a large scale for minute subdivision of land.

The Woman’s Club? This is the only mention made of it in the text. It is fascinating to learn that such a thing existed in 1848, and that all the characters take it and the various arguments for women’s liberation entirely for granted, much as they take the arguments of the legitimists or the socialists, or any other political point of view.

Like Flaubert I am pessimistic about political change. The socialists in this book argue passionately for a change to the system which will abolish poverty and inequality. The feminists argue for a transformation of relationships between the sexes to make men and women truly equal.

170 years later, the arguments are exactly the same and being put with exactly the same vehemence, as if the Great Day of Freedom and Equality is just around the corner, just within reach, only requires a handful more newspaper articles, a couple more stirring speeches and… human nature will be transformed forever. Always mañana.

Summary

Early on I stumbled across the criticism made by Henry James – who adored Madame Bovary – that Sentimental Education lacks charm. He is right. The first hundred pages or so seemed qualitatively superior to the remaining 300. The boat trip to Nogent, Frédéric’s reunion with his old school friend, his poor student days rooming with Deslaurier, his mother’s fussing concern, old Roque the neighbour and his little daughter – all this have a charm and novelty.

But once he has inherited his fortune and goes off to Paris, Frédéric and the novel settle into a boring and repetitive pattern of him repeatedly visiting a) the Arnoux household to be ignored by Madame b) the apartment of Rosanette, where there are hundreds of pages of incomprehensible 19th century etiquette, before he does the simplest thing in the world and puts his arm round her waist and kisses her – at which point she ‘succumbs’ and becomes his mistress. Which is complicated in the final hundred or so pages with the addition of Madame Dambreuse. I freely admit I just didn’t understand the behaviour, motivation or psychology of any of the characters in Frédéric’s three-cornered love life, and so I failed to really understand the core of the book.

That said, as with Bovary the pleasure of the text is in the precise description of almost any individual scene – you can open the book at random and soon come across one of Flaubert’s wonderful descriptions of scenes and settings, large or small. Take this excerpt from the big dinner party chez Dambreuse.

Under the green leaves of a pineapple, in the middle of the table-cloth, a dolphin stood, with its snout reaching towards a quarter of roebuck and its tail just grazing a bushy dish of crayfish. Figs, huge cherries, pears, and grapes (the first fruits of Parisian cultivation) rose like pyramids in baskets of old Saxe. Here and there a bunch of flowers mingled with the shining silver plate. The white silk blinds, drawn down in front of the windows, filled the apartment with a mellow light. It was cooled by two fountains, in which there were pieces of ice; and tall men-servants, in short breeches, waited on them.

There are many moments of lucid clarity like this.

But that said, where Madame Bovary seems to me superior is that its narrative is carried forward in a much more dynamic and straightforward way, with a kind of tragic inevitability – the book is the record of her decline and fall which unfolds with the unstoppability of a Greek tragedy. Whereas Frédéric in Sentimental Education is more like a hamster who just goes round and round in his wheel for hundreds of pages, shilly shallying between one women or another, his personality and his situation never really changing or developing, not till towards the end anyway.

You could be clever and argue that this quality of stasis, of the hero being stuck in a rut, is itself a critique of the limitations, the paralysis, of ‘bourgeois’ society.

But plenty of people in 19th century France lived wildly exciting and achieveful lives, went abroad to run its growing empires, or developed new technologies, industries, made scientific discoveries, even rebuilt Paris – during this period. Fortunes were made, political careers forged, and new arts and designs created – the ‘Second Empire’ style in furniture was created and, as Flaubert was writing this novel (1862-69), the young generation of painters who would be dubbed ‘the Impressionists’ were developing entirely new ways of thinking about art and reality.

Flaubert’s era was one of staggering change and innovation. In other words, the choice of a bumbling ne’er-do-well as protagonist, like the earlier choice of a small-town adulteress, reflect Flaubert’s personality, temperament and aesthetic, rather than the reality of his era.

To make a really sweeping generalisation – insofar as Flaubert is often seen as a patron saint of modern novelists, you could say that he helped to create the stereotype of the author as outsider, as ineffectual bystander – despite living in one of the most dynamic and exciting eras of European history.

Flaubert helped create the reputation of literature as carping and critical of contemporary society – and as deliberately getting its own back on the society which increasingly rejected it, by dwelling on the one area where it could hurt and sting bourgeois culture – by deliberately and provocatively defying conventional sexual morality, by focusing on increasingly degraded or deviant ideas of sexuality.

The political timeframe

Anyway, back with Sentimental Education, I haven’t really brought out the very artful way Flaubert sets the entire story against the fraught political events of 1840 to 1851; how he creates different political points of view for the gang of characters we meet early on and then shows how their initial political beliefs develop, triumph, fail, mutate or are disappointed.

Not only does the final third take place against the revolutionary turmoil of 1848, but the final scene of the auction, when all his hopes and illusions are utterly crushed, is made to coincide with the coup mounted by the President Louis Napoleon, who will go on to have himself crowned the Emperor Napoleon III.

This is a deep and fruitful aspect of the novel but it would require a separate review to do justice to it.

Conclusion

Sentimental Education is a complex, rich, deep, carefully organised and in many places beautifully written novel, but which I really struggled to understand or sympathise with.

The final pages – Madame Arnoux’s appearance as an old lady, and the final scene of two wistful old men reminiscing about their schooldays – are immediately understandable and moving: but too much of the preceding 400 pages was psychologically and morally incomprehensible, so completely alien to modern behaviour and values, that I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century (from the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to the death of Mao in 1976) China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering.

Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought.

The centrepiece of the trilogy is the second book, about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated.

Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression i.e. people beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who consider the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another.

Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element
  • bourgeois
  • bourgeois idealist
  • bourgeois sentimentalist
  • capitalist roader
  • Chiang Kai-shek roader
  • counter-revolutionary
  • degenerate
  • decadent
  • deviant element
  • exploiter
  • go-it-aloner
  • hoarder
  • hooligan
  • humanist
  • hypocrite
  • individualist
  • kulak
  • lackey
  • landlord
  • middle-of-the-roader
  • reactionary
  • rightist
  • right deviationist
  • running dog of imperialism
  • saboteur
  • schemer
  • servant of imperialism
  • speculator
  • spy
  • swindler

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)

Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.


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