The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

Need I stress that I intend no theoretical statement at all, and that the entire book is simply a practitioner’s confession? Every novelist’s work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel is; I have tried to express here the idea of the novel that is inherent in my own novels. (Preface)

This book contains seven essays on the art of the novel. First, a few observations.

Kundera is an academic Remember Kundera was a lecturer in ‘World Literature’ at Charles University in Prague for some 20 years (1952-75). This is a grand title and obviously encouraged a panoramic overview of the subject. Then he emigrated to France, where he continued to teach at university. He is, in other words, an academic, an expounder, a simplifier and teacher of other people’s views and theories, and that is probably the most dominant characteristic of his fiction – the wish to lecture and explicate.

He discusses a narrow academic canon You quickly realise he isn’t talking about the hundreds of thousands of novels which have been published over the past 400 years – he is talking about The Novel, the ‘serious novel’, ‘real novels’ – an entirely academic construct, which consists of a handful, well at most 50 novelists, across that entire period and all of Europe, whose concerns are ‘serious’ enough to be included in ‘serious’ academic study.

Non-British And he is very consciously European. This means many of his references are alien or exotic to us. Or just incomprehensible. When he says that The Good Soldier Schweik is probably the last popular novel, he might as well be living on Mars. There is no mention of Daniel Defoe, of Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James, DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, or anyone from the British ‘Great Tradition’ except the dry and dusty Samuel Richardson, in some histories, the founder of the English novel. He mentions Orwell’s ‘1984’ to dismiss it as a form of journalism. All Orwell’s fiction, he thinks, would have been better conveyed in pamphlets.

There is no mention of American fiction: from Melville through Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner (OK, Faulkner is mentioned right towards the end as one of the several authors who want nothing written about their lives, only their works), Updike or Roth or Bellow. No reference to science fiction or historical fiction or thrillers or detective fiction. Or children’s fiction. There is no mention of South American fiction (actually, he does mention a novel by Carlos Fuentes), or anything from Africa or Asia.

Some exceptions, but by and large, it is a very very very narrow definition of the Novel. Kundera can only talk as sweepingly as he does because he has disqualified 99.9% of the world from consideration before he begins.

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

In 1935 Edmund Husserl gave a lecture titled ‘Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man’. He identifies the Modern Era as starting with Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632) and Descartes (Discourse on the Method, 1637) and complains that Europe (by which he includes America and the other colonies) has become obsessed with science and the external world at the expense of spirit and psychology, at the expense of Lebenswelt.

Kundera says that Husserl neglected the novel, which was also born at the start of the modern era, specifically in the Don Quixote of Miguel Cervantes (1605). It is in the novel that Europeans have, for 400 years, been investigating the interior life of humanity. The novel discovers those elements of life which only it can discover. Therefore the sequence of great novelists amounts to a sequence of discoveries about human nature:

  • Cervantes – explores the nature of adventure
  • Richardson – the secret life of feelings
  • Balzac – man’s rootedness in history
  • Flaubert – details of the everyday
  • Tolstoy – the intrusion of the irrational into decision making
  • Proust – the elusiveness of time past
  • Joyce – the elusiveness of time present
  • Mann – the role of ancient myth in modern life

At the start of the Modern Era God began to disappear, and with him the idea of one truth. Instead the world disintegrated into multiple truths. In the novel these multiple truths are dramatised as characters.

The whole point of the novel is it does not rush to judgement, to praise or condemn. Religion and ideologies (and political correctness) does that. The whole point of the novel is to suspend humanity’s Gadarene rush to judge and condemn before understanding: to ‘tolerate the essential relativity of things human’ (p.7).

He describes how there is a straight decline in the European spirit, from Cervantes – whose heroes live on the open road with an infinite horizon and never-ending supply of adventures – through Balzac whose characters are bounded by the city, via Emma Bovary who is driven mad by boredom, down to Kafka, whose characters have no agency of their own, but exist solely as the function of bureaucratic mistakes. It’s a neat diagram, but to draw it you have to leave out of account most of the novels ever written – for example all the novels of adventure written in the later 19th century, all of Robert Louis Stevenson, for example.

As in all his Western books, Kundera laments the spirit of the age, how the mass media are making everything look and sound the same, reducing everything to stereotypes and soundbites, simplifying the world, creating ‘the endless babble of the graphomanics’ –  whereas the novel’s task is to revel in its oddity and complexity.

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

In a written dialogue with an interviewer, Kundera moves the same brightly coloured counters around – Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce. The novel was about adventure, then about society, then about psychology.

He states his novels are outside the novel of psychology. There’s psychology in them but that’s not their primary interest.

Being a central European he sees the 1914-18 war as a catastrophe which plunged art and literature into the grip of a merciless History. The essential dreaminess of a Proust or Joyce became impossible. Kafka opened the door to a new way of being, as prostrate victim of an all-powerful bureaucracy.

He clarifies that a key concern is the instability of the self: which is why characters often play games, pose and dramatise themselves; it is to find out where their limits are.

He clarifies his approach as against Joyce’s. Joyce uses internal monologue. There is no internal monologue at all in Kundera. In fact, as he explains it, you realise that the monologue is his, the author’s as the author tries different approaches in order to analyse his own characters. His books are philosophical analyses of fictional characters. And the characters are conceived as ‘experimental selfs’ (p.31), fully in line with his core idea that the history of the novel is a sequence of discoveries.

If the novel is a method for grasping the self, first there was grasping through adventure and action (from Cervantes to Tolstoy). Then grasping the self through the interior life (Joyce, Proust). Kundera is about grasping the self though examining existential situations. He always begins with existential plights. A woman who has vertigo. A man who suffers because he feels his existence is too light, and so on. Then he creates characters around these fundamentals. Then he puts them into situations which he, the author, can analyse, analyse repeatedly and from different angles, in order to investigate the mystery of the self.

Thus a character is ‘not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self.’ (p.34) Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of their existential problem’ (p.35).

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. (p.42)

The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence. (p.44)

The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters. (p.83)

A theme is an existential enquiry. (p.84)

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

The Sleepwalkers is the name given to a trilogy of novels by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951). The three novels were published between 1928 and 1932. They focus on three protagonists and are set 15 years apart:

  1. Joachim von Pasenow set in 1888
  2. August Esch set in 1903
  3. Wilhelm Huguenau set in 1918

In their different ways they address on core them: man confronting the disintegration of his values.

According to Kundera, before one writes one must have an ontological hypothesis, a theory about what kind of world we live in. For example The Good Soldier Švejk finds everything about the world absurd. At the opposite pole, Kafka’s protagonists find everything about the world so oppressive that they lose their identities to it.

After all, What is action? How do we decide to do what we do? That is, according to Kundera, the eternal question of the novel. (p.58)

Through an analysis of the plots of the three novels, Kundera concludes that what Broch discovered was the system of symbolic thought which underlies all decisions, public or private.

He closes with some waspish criticism of ‘Establishment Modernism’, i.e. the modernism of academics, which requires an absolute break at the time of the Great War, and the notion that Joyce et al. definitively abolished the old-fashioned novel of character. Obviously Kundera disagrees. For him Broch (whose most famous masterpiece, The Death of Virgil didn’t come out till the end of World War Two) was still opening up new possibilities in the novel form, was still asking the same questions the novel has asked ever since Cervantes.

It is a little odd that Kundera takes this 2-page swipe at ‘Establishment Modernism’, given that a) he is an academic himself, and his own approach is open to all sorts of objections (mainly around its ferocious exclusivity), and b) as he was writing these essays, Modernism was being replaced, in literature and the academy, by Post-Modernism, with its much greater openness to all kinds of literary forms and genres.

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

Second part of the extended ‘dialogue’ whose first part was section two, above. Starts by examining three principles found in Kundera’s work:

1. Divestment, or ellipsis. He means getting straight to the heart of the matter, without the traditional fol-de-rol of setting scenes or background to cities or towns or locations.

2. Counterpoint or polyphony. Conventional novels have several storylines. Kundera is interested in the way completely distinct themes or ideas can be woven next to each other, setting each other off. For the early composers a principle of polyphony was that all the lines are clear and distinct and of equal value.

Interestingly, he chooses as fine examples of his attempts to apply this technique to his novels, the Angels section in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – which I found scrappy and unconvincing – and Part Six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is by far the worst thing he’s ever written, embarrassingly bad.

There’s some chat about Kundera’s own personal interventions in his novels. He emphasises that anything said within a novel is provisional hypothetical and playful. Sure, he intervenes sometimes to push the analysis of a character’s situation deeper than the character themselves could do it. But emphasises that even the most serious-sounding interventions are always playful. They can never be ‘philosophy’ because they don’t occur in a philosophical text.

From the very first word, my thoughts have a tone which is playful, ironic, provocative, experimental or enquiring. (p.80)

This is what he means by ‘a specifically novelistic essay’ i.e. you can write digressions and essays within novels but, by coming within its force field, they become playful and ironic.

The final part is an analysis of his novels in terms of their structure, their architecture i.e. the number of parts, the way the sub-sections are so distinct. And then a really intense comparison with works of classical music, in the sense that the varying length and tempo of the parts of his novels are directly compared with classical music, particularly to Beethoven quartets. Until the age of 25 he thought he was going to be a composer rather than a writer and he is formidably learned about classical music.

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

A short essay about Kafka. He uses the adjective Kafkan, which I don’t like; I prefer Kafkaesque. What does it consist of?

  1. boundless labyrinth
  2. a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy), which tends to make his life’s meaning theological. Or pseudo-theological
  3. the punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done
  4. when Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but…

Fundamentally his stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers.

What strikes Kundera is that accurately predicted an entire aspect of man in the 20th century without trying to. All his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, communist etc, thought endlessly about the future society. But all of their works are lost. Kafka, in complete contrast, was a very private man, obsessed above all with his own personal life, with the domineering presence of his father and his tricky love life. With no thought of the future or society at large, he created works which turned out to be prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

This Kundera takes to be a prime example of the radical autonomy of the novel, whose practitioners are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity, which no other science or discipline can.

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

As Kundera became famous, and his books published in foreign languages, he became appalled by the quality of the translations. (The English version of The Joke particularly traumatised him; the English publisher cut all the reflective passages, eliminated the musicological chapters, and changed the order of the parts! In the 1980s he decided to take some time out from writing and undertake a comprehensive review of all translations of his books with a view to producing definitive versions.

Specific words are more important to Kundera than other novelists because his novels are often highly philosophical. In fact, he boils it down: a novel is a meditation on certain themes; and these themes are expressed in words. Change the words, you screw up the meditations, you wreck the novel.

A friendly publisher, watching him slog away at this work for years, said, ‘Since you’re going over all your works with a fine toothcomb, why don’t you make a personal list of the words and ideas which mean most to you?’

And so he produced this very entertaining and easy-to-read collection of short articles, reflections and quotes relating to Milan Kundera’s keywords:

  • aphorism
  • beauty
  • being – friends advised him to remove ‘being’ from the title of The Unbearable Lightness of Being’: but it is designed to be a meditation on the existential quality of being. What if Shakespeare had written: To live or not to live… Too superficial. He was trying to get at the absolute root of our existence.
  • betrayal
  • border
  • Central Europe – the Counter-Reformation baroque dominated the area ensuring no Enlightenment, but on the other hand it was the epicentre of European classical music. Throughout the book he is struck by the way the great modern central European novelists – Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz – were anti-Romantic and modern just not in the way of the flashy avant-gardes of Rome or Paris. Then after 1945 central Europe was extinguished and – as he was writing this list – was a prophetic type of the extinguishment of all Europe. Now we know this didn’t happen.
  • collaborator – he says the word ‘collaborator’ was only coined in 1944, and immediately defined an entire attitude towards modernity. Nowadays he reviles collaborators with the mass media and advertising who he thinks are crushing humanity. (Looking it up I see the word ‘collaborator’ was first recorded in English in 1802. This is one of the many examples where Kundera pays great attention to a word and everything he says about it turns out to be untrue for English. It makes reading these essays, and his ovels, a sometimes slippery business.)
  • comic
  • Czechoslovakia – he never uses the word in his fiction, it is too young (the word and country were, after all, only created in 1918, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed). He always uses ‘Bohemia’ or ‘Moravia’.
  • definition
  • elitism – the Western world is being handed over to the control of a mass media elite. Every time I read his diatribes against the media, paparazzi and the intrusion into people’s private lives, I wonder what he makes of the Facebook and twitter age.
  • Europe – his books are streaked with cultural pessimism. Here is another example. He thinks Europe is over and European culture already lost. Well, that’s what every generation of intellectuals thinks. 40 years later Europe is still here.
  • excitement
  • fate
  • flow
  • forgetting – In my review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I pointed out that Mirek rails against forgetting as deployed by the state (sacking historians) but is himself actively engaged in trying to erase his past (claiming back his love letters to an old flame). Kundera confirms my perception. Totalitarian regimes want to control the past (‘Orwell’s famous theme’), but what his story shows is that so do people. It is a profound part of human nature.
  • graphomania – he rails against the way everyone is a writer nowadays, and says it has nothing to do with writing (i.e. the very careful consideration of form which he has shown us in the other essays in this book) but a primitive and crude will to impose your views on everyone else.
  • hat
  • hatstand
  • ideas – his despair at those who reduce works to ideas alone. No, it is how they are treated, and his sense of the complexity of treatment is brought out in the extended comparison of his novels to complicated late Beethoven string quartets in 4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition
  • idyll
  • imagination
  • inexperience – a working title for The Unbearable Lightness of Being was The Planet of Inexperience. Why? Because none of us have done this before. We’re all making it up as we go along. That’s what’s so terrifying, so vertiginous.
  • infantocracy
  • interview – as comes over in a scene in Immortality, he hates press interviews because the interviewer is only interested in their own agenda and in twisting and distorting the interviewees’ responses. Thus in 1985 he made a decision to give no more interviews and only allow his views to be published as dialogues which he had carefully gone over, refined and copyrighted. Hence parts two and four of this book, although they have a third party asking questions, are in the form of a dialogue and were carefully polished.
  • irony
  • kitsch – he’s obsessed with this idea which forms the core – is the theme being meditated on – in part six of the Unbearable Lightness of Being. It consists of two parts: step one is eliminating ‘shit’ from the world (he uses the word ‘shit’) in order to make it perfect and wonderful, as in Communist leaders taking a May Day parade or TV adverts. Step two is looking at this shallow, lying version of the world and bursting into tears at its beauty. Kitsch is ‘the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.’ (p.135)
  • laughter – For Rabelais, the comic and the merry were one. Slowly literature became more serious, the eighteenth century preferring wit, the Romantics preferring passion, the nineteenth century preferring realism. Now ‘the European history of laughter is coming to an end’. (p.136) That is so preposterous a thought I laughed out loud.
  • letters
  • lightness
  • lyric
  • lyricism
  • macho
  • meditation – his cultural pessimism is revealed again when he claims that ‘to base a novel on sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all. (p.139)
  • message
  • misogynist – gynophobia (hatred of women) is a potential of human nature as is androphobia (hatred of men), but feminists have reduced misogyny to the status of an insult and thus closed off exploration of a part of human nature.
  • misomusist – someone who has no feel for art or literature or music and so wants to take their revenge on it
  • modern
  • nonbeing
  • nonthought – the media’s nonthought
  • novel and poetry – the greatest of the nivelists -become-poets are violently anti-lyrical: Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka (don’t think that’s true of Joyce whose prose is trmeendously lyrical)
  • novel – the European novel
  • novelist and writer
  • novelist and his life – quotes from a series of novelists all wishing their lives to remain secret and obscure: all attention should be on the works. Despite this, the army of biographers swells daily. The moment Kafka attracts more attention that Josef K, cultural death begins.
  • obscenity
  • Octavio – the Mexican writer, Octavio Paz
  • old age – frees you to do and say what you want.
  • opus
  • repetitions
  • rewriting – for the mass media, is desecration. ‘Death to all those who dare rewrite what has been written!’ Jacques and His Master
  • rhythm – the amazing subtlety of rhythm in classical music compared to the tedious primitivism of rock music. Tut tut.
  • Soviet – the Germans and Poles have produced writers who lament the German and Polish spirit. The Russians will never do that. They can’t. Every single one of them is a Russian chauvinist.
  • Temps Modernes – his cultural pessimism blooms: ‘we are living at the end of the Modern Era; the end of art as conceived as an irreplaceable expression of personal originality; the end that heralds an era of unparalleled uniformity’ (p.150)
  • transparency – the word and concept in whose name the mass media are destroying privacy
  • ugly
  • uniform
  • value – ‘To examine a value means: to try to demaracte and give name to the discoveries, the innovations, the new light that a work casts on the human world.’ (p.152)
  • vulgarity
  • work
  • youth

7. Jerusalem Address: the Novel and Europe (1985)

In the Spring of 1985 Kundera was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. He went to Jerusalem to deliver this thank you address. It is a short, extremely punch defense of the novel as a form devoted to saving the human spirit of enquiry in dark times.

In a whistlestop overview of European history, he asserts that the novel was born at the birth of the modern era when, with religious belief receding, man for the first time grasped his plight as a being abandoned on earth: the novel was an investigation of this plight and has remained so ever since.

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood. (p.159)

Every novel, like it or not, offers some answer to the question: What is human existence, and wherein does its poetry lie? (p.161)

But the novel, like the life of the mind, has its enemies. Namely the producers of kitsch and what Rabelais called the agélastes, people who have no sense of humour and do not laugh. He doesn’t say it but I interpret this to mean those who espouse identity politics and political correctness. Thou Must Not Laugh At These Serious Subjects, say the politically correct, and then reel off a list which suits themselves. And kitsch:

Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for the banality of what we think and feel. (p.163)

The greatest promoter of kitsch is the mass media which turns the huge human variety into half a dozen set narratives designed to make us burst into tears. We are confronted by a three-headed monster: the agélastes, the nonthought of received ideas, and kitsch.

Kundera sees European culture as being under threat from these three forces, and identifies what is most precious about it (European culture), namely:

  • its respect for the individual
  • for the individual’s original thought
  • for the right of the individual to a private life

Against the three-headed monster, and defending these precious freedoms, is set the Novel, a sustained investigation by some of the greatest minds, into all aspects of human existence, the human predicament, into human life and interactions, into human culture.


Central ideas

The novel is an investigation into man’s Lebenwelt – his life-being.

Novelists are discoverers and explorer of the capabilities, the potentialities, of human existence.

Conclusions

1. Fascinating conception of the novel as a sustained investigation into the nature of the self, conducted through a series of historical eras each with a corresponding focus and interest.

2. Fascinating trot through the history of the European novel, specially the way it mentions novelists we in England are not so familiar with, such as Hermann Broch or Diderot or Novalis, or gives a mid-European interpretation to those we have heard of like Kafka or Joyce.

3. Fascinating insight into not only his own working practice, but what he thinks he’s doing; how he sees his novels continuing and furthering the never-ending quest of discovery which he sees as the novel’s historic mission.

But what none of this fancy talk brings out at all, is the way Milan Kundera’s novels are obsessed with sex. It is extraordinary that neither Sex nor Eroticism appear in his list of 63 words since his powerfully erotic (and shameful and traumatic and mysterious and ironic) explorations of human sexuality are what many people associate Kundera’s novels with.

Last thoughts

Changes your perspective It’s a short book, only 165 pages with big gaps between the sections, but it does a very good job of explaining how Kundera sees the history and function of the novel, as an investigation into the existential plight of humanity. It changed my mental image of Kundera from being an erotic novelist to being more like an existentialist thinker-cum-writer in the tradition of Sartre.

The gap between Britain and Europe There is a subtler takeaway, which is to bring out how very different we, the British, are from the Europeans. True, he mentions a few of our authors – the eighteenth century trio of Richardson, Fielding and Sterne – but no Defoe, Austen, Scott or Dickens.

The real point is that he assumes all European intellectuals will have read widely in European literature – from Dante and Boccaccio through Cervantes and into the eighteenth century of Diderot, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade. And when you read the French founders of critical theory, Barthes or Derrida, or the influential historian Foucault, they obviously refer to this tradition.

But it remains completely alien to us in Britain. Not many of us read Diderot or Novalis or Lermontov or even Goethe. We’ve all heard of Flaubert and Baudelaire because, in fact, they’re relatively easy to read – but not many of us have read Broch or Musil, and certainly not Gombrowicz. Though all literature students should have heard of Thomas Mann I wonder how many have read any of his novels.

My point being that, as you read on into the book, you become aware of the gulf between this huge reservoir of writers, novels and texts in the European languages – French, German and Russian – and the almost oppressively Anglo-Saxon cultural world we inhabit, not only packed with Shakespeare and Dickens, but also drenched in American writers, not least the shibboleths of modern American identity politics such as Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou.

Reading this book fills your mind with ideas about the European tradition. But at the same time it makes you aware of how very different and apart we, in Britain, are, from that tradition. Some of us may have read some of it; but none of us, I think, can claim to be of it.

Credit

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera was first published in French in 1986. The English translation was published by Grove Press in the USA and Faber and Faber in the UK in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

She still was not happy – she never had been. What caused this inadequacy in her life – why did everything she leaned on instantly decay? … Oh if somewhere there were a being strong and handsome, a valiant heart, passionate and sensitive at once, a poet’s spirit in an angel’s form, a lyre with strings of steel, sounding sweet-sad epithalamiums to the heavens, then why should she not find that being? Vain dream! There was nothing that was worth going far to get: all was lies! Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a misery. Every pleasure brought its surfeit; and the loveliest kisses only left upon your lips a baffled longing for a more intense delight. (Madame Bovary, Part three, chapter six)

Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert is one of the most famous novelists of the 19th century, in any language. Born in 1821 in Normandy, he went to Paris to study law but dropped out after being afflicted by a mystery illness, probably epilepsy. He returned to Normandy and spent the rest of his life living off a modest private income in the remote village of Croisset, devoting himself to literature.

His early (unpublished) novels are lyrical and romantic. As he matured he reined in his tendencies to lush romanticism in order to create a new kind of studied realism.

Madame Bovary

Flaubert is most famous for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857) the low-key, realistic depiction of the life of a small-town woman, Emma Rouault, originally the daughter of a farmer, who marries the well-meaning but dull local doctor, Charles Bovary, but soon yearns for something more.

She has an affair with a stylish local landowner, Rodolphe, who, after several years of dallying, dumps her when she shows signs of wanting to leave her husband and getting serious. As a result Emma has a nervous breakdown and takes months of being tenderly cared for by her husband to recover. Sone years later she develops a passionate and sensuous affair with young Leon the law clerk from her small town, who has moved on to bigger things in Rouen. With him she arranges weekly meetings for days of unbridled sensuality.

Nemesis comes not as a result of these affairs, but through Emma’s equally wanton way with money. The village haberdasher, Lheureux, preys on her over the years, selling her all kinds of luxury knick-knacks she doesn’t really need, making her consolidate her debts into large promissory notes, renewing these at extortionate interest, and finally handing the lot over to a rack-renting debt collector who announces that  she is bankrupt and that he is going to impound and sell off all the good doctor’s belongings and house to pay off the debts.

On this last, climactic day, Flaubert shows Emma desperately running round the village, begging everyone she knows for money. She begs the haberdasher himself, the local lawyer, then goes out to the chateau of her old lover Rodolphe, in a vain attempt to rekindle his interest and get him to lend her money. She takes the coach into town to beg Leon to get the money for her from a friend and then suggests that he steals the money from his employer. One by one all the men reject her.

Finally, in a delirium of despair, Emma goes in the back of the local chemist’s shop, persuades his biddable young assistant to fetch her a jar of arsenic (whose existence we’d learned about in an unrelated scene years earlier, but which she now remembers) and stuffs her mouth with it.

She staggers back home and there follows a protracted death bed scene, at which Charles her husband is distraught and calls for a set of more senior doctors to come and help. Quickly the two local ‘experts’ realise there’s nothing they can do for her and so they take up the offer of Homais, the chemist, to repair for a slap-up dinner at his house (his wife fussing and fretting that she doesn’t have anything special to hand). Back in the sick room, Emma coughs and pukes her last breaths, while the local curé struggles to administer the sacraments. She dies.

The trial of Emma Bovary

Because it was so matter of fact and realistic in its depiction of Emma’s affairs (for its day, 1857) Madame Bovary was seized by the authorities, and Flaubert and the publisher of the magazine it was serialised in were prosecuted for ‘insulting public morals and offending decent manners’.

The trial lasted one day and the defendants were acquitted, although Flaubert was reprimanded by the court for his use of graphic detail concerning ‘adulterous and corrupt affairs’.

The trial, as well as his devotion to the art of writing, which became apparent when Flaubert’s wonderfully colourful and thoughtful correspondence was published after  his death (1880), made Gustave a kind of patron saint of serious literary types, both writers and critics.

Realism

The appeal, the pleasure, of realism is in the precision of the descriptions. Flaubert excels at interiors.

A young woman in a blue merino dress with three flounces came to the threshold of the door to receive Monsieur Bovary, whom she led to the kitchen, where a large fire was blazing. The servant’s breakfast was boiling beside it in small pots of all sizes. Some damp clothes were drying inside the chimney-corner. The shovel, tongs, and the nozzle of the bellows, all of colossal size, shone like polished steel, while along the walls hung many pots and pans in which the clear flame of the hearth, mingling with the first rays of the sun coming in through the window, was mirrored fitfully. (Part one, chapter two)

One day he got there about three o’clock. Everybody was in the fields. He went into the kitchen, but did not at once catch sight of Emma; the outside shutters were closed. Through the chinks of the wood the sun sent across the flooring long fine rays that were broken at the corners of the furniture and trembled along the ceiling. Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider. The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders. Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders. (Part one, chapter three)

Light is important in these prose paintings. They have the still, pregnant precision of interiors by Vermeer.

The precisely rendered descriptions extend to finely observed accounts of humans and their surfaces.

In bed, in the morning, by her side, on the pillow, he watched the sunlight sinking into the down on her fair cheek, half hidden by the lappets of her night-cap. Seen thus closely, her eyes looked to him enlarged, especially when, on waking up, she opened and shut them rapidly many times. Black in the shade, dark blue in broad daylight, they had, as it were, depths of different colours, that, darker in the centre, grew paler towards the surface of the eye. His own eyes lost themselves in these depths; he saw himself in miniature down to the shoulders, with his handkerchief round his head and the top of his shirt open… (Part one, chapter five)

And Flaubert deploys the same forensic skills in his descriptions of human behaviour.

When shy Charles marries sentimental Emma, their wedding feast is an opportunity for Flaubert to satirise the behaviour of the small-town Normans he himself lived his whole life among.

Until night they ate. When any of them were too tired of sitting, they went out for a stroll in the yard, or for a game with corks in the granary, and then returned to table. Some towards the finish went to sleep and snored. But with the coffee everyone woke up. Then they began songs, showed off tricks, raised heavy weights, performed feats with their fingers, then tried lifting carts on their shoulders, made broad jokes, kissed the women. At night when they left, the horses, stuffed up to the nostrils with oats, could hardly be got into the shafts; they kicked, reared, the harness broke, their masters laughed or swore; and all night in the light of the moon along country roads there were runaway carts at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clambering up the hills, with women leaning out from the tilt to catch hold of the reins. (Part one, chapter four)

He’s good at crowd scenes. As well as the wedding feast, he really goes to town in his description of the annual Agricultural Show in the novel’s main setting, Yonville. There’s a sumptuous and vivid set-piece description of a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at Rouen. And Emma’s funeral is another opportunity for Gustave to show his skills at large-scale compositions, the prose equivalent of the large canvases of his contemporary realist, the painter Gustave Courbet.

Flaubert’s characters

Flaubert applies the same wry, detached attitude to his characters.

We get a detailed account of the upbringing of Charles Bovary – which amounts to him being spoiled as a boy by his mother and encouraged to run around in the woods to become ‘a man’ by his father, all of which creates his easy-going, lazy personality. Charles drops his medical studies in Rouen and flunks his exams; then gives them another go, scrapes through to qualify as a doctor, and his doting mother finds him a nice, quiet, rural job as doctor in Tostes (a town near the river Seine, about ten miles south of Rouen).

At first we see Emma only through Charles’s eyes when he goes to treat her father, a worthy old farmer, Monsieur Rouault. Her physical beauty and stillness in the dark parlour entrance him. It’s only after they’re married, that Flaubert gives us a chapter describing Emma’s background and we begin to realise she is not at all what she seemed to simple Charles.

Only now are we told that Emma Bovary née Rouault is shallow, sentimental and silly, having been raised on a diet of romantic novels and sentimental religion at a convent school. It turns out that her poise and stillness conceal a mind consumed by the worst clichés of cheap fiction.

She thought, sometimes, that, after all, this was the happiest time of her life – the honeymoon, as people called it. To taste the full sweetness of it, it would have been necessary doubtless to fly to those lands with sonorous names where the days after marriage are full of laziness most suave. In post chaises behind blue silken curtains to ride slowly up steep road, listening to the song of the postilion re-echoed by the mountains, along with the bells of goats and the muffled sound of a waterfall; at sunset on the shores of gulfs to breathe in the perfume of lemon trees; then in the evening on the villa-terraces above, hand in hand to look at the stars, making plans for the future. It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, and that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could not she lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills? (Part one, chapter seven)

Thus Flaubert, skewering the shallow tropes of popular fiction.

Emma hoped the confident amiable young doctor had come to take her away from a life of rural boredom. Instead she finds herself trapped in an arguably even worse life of small-town boredom.

Perhaps she would have liked to confide all these things to someone. But how tell an undefinable uneasiness, variable as the clouds, unstable as the winds? Words failed her – the opportunity, the courage. If Charles had but wished it, if he had guessed it, if his look had but once met her thought, it seemed to her that a sudden plenty would have gone out from her heart, as the fruit falls from a tree when shaken by a hand. But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him. (Part one, chapter seven)

A trajectory of alienation which continues throughout the book, until Emma comes to loathe and detest everything about Charles.

Banality

What Flaubert hated, what terrified him most, was banality. Life is banal and, oh God, people are so trite and shallow. In their different ways, Charles and Emma are almost spiteful portraits of dullness.

Charles’s conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everyone’s ideas trudged past, in their everyday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.

And poor Emma, the heroine around which these four hundred pages rotate, is an embodiment of the inchoate longing for adventure, for romance, for something, in the mind of a silly, shallow, provincial young woman, trapped by her narrow upbringing, limited life opportunities and her own trite personality.

Life in 1840s rural France seems almost unbearably dull to us, reading the book in the 21st century – but was doubly so for women who lived virtually under house arrest. Of course, she could go out whenever she liked, except that, in the dull little towns where the couple lived, there was almost nothing to do and no-one to see.

The thought of having a male child afforded her a kind of anticipatory revenge for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free. He can explore the passions and the continents, can surmount obstacles, reach out to the most distant joys. But a woman is constantly thwarted. At once inert and pliant, she has to contend with both physical weakness and legal subordination. Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze hat blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains. (Part two, chapter three)

Inevitability

The story of this small-town tragedy unfolds with a kind of grim inevitability. Flaubert pinpoints with surgical precision the moments where Emma slowly realises she doesn’t love Charles, then chafes at her restricted life, then begins to dislike Charles, then ends up passionately hating him.

This makes her ill, stressed and unhappy. She loses appetite. Charles and his domineering mother, blissfully unaware of her feelings, decide a change of scene is called for and they move to a different town, the (fictional) rural town of Yonville. This is the setting of most of the story.

Against the rhythms of rural and small town life, against the backdrop of the Wednesday market and the Agricultural Show attended by the Department Prefect (part two, chapter 8), we watch Emma:

  • get pregnant, desperately hope it will be a boy who she can project her wish for freedom onto, and sink into despair when it is a girl, who she resents and never bonds with
  • has an almost wordless, touchless, intense passion with a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who shares her naive love of literature and music – perversely she doesn’t return his obvious admiration and he leaves to study in Paris, plunging her deeper into despair

It is then that she is spotted by Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy local landowner and experienced womaniser. With cold calculation he sets out to seduce Emma and add her to his list of conquests.

If he is what we nowadays call a ‘sexual predator’, Emma is far from helpless victim. She is depicted as self-centred and heartless – her lack of affection for her own little girl is quite upsetting to anyone who’s been a parent.

And Flaubert depicts with quite haunting insight the development of their affair, its ups and downs, as both parties are by turns genuinely carried away with love and lust, or have moments of doubt and repulsion, return to the fray willing it to remain heady and romantic, become slightly hardened… and so on.

In other words, there are no heroes or villains, everyone is portrayed with a clinical detachment, sometimes with tones of compassion, sometimes broad satire (the chorus of gossipy townspeople), sometimes bordering on contempt.

Style

Stupid young married woman is seduced by cynical womaniser, has further affairs, runs up huge bills  – then kills herself. It’s not a novel you read for the plot. Instead, it’s a book you can open at any page and immediately enjoy for the precision and deftness of its style. God, it’s good writing, even in translation. Here are the household servants.

‘Let me alone,’ Felicity said, moving her pot of starch. ‘You’d better be off and pound almonds; you are always dangling about women. Before you meddle with such things, bad boy, wait till you’ve got a beard to your chin.’
‘Oh, don’t be cross! I’ll go and clean her boots,’ replied Justin.
And he at once took down from the shelf Emma’s boots, all coated with mud, the mud of the rendezvous, that crumbled into powder beneath his fingers, and that he watched as it gently rose in a ray of sunlight. (Part three, chapter twelve)

Composition

And the conception, the composition, feels so right. If the plot isn’t exactly original, it unfurls with a kind of stately orderliness and clarity. Although it is categorised as a ‘realist’ novel, there are in fact many scenes which seem pregnant with an almost medieval sense of allegory and deeper meaning.

In part two, chapter six, Emma hears the church bell of Yonville ringing and is suddenly overcome by the need to confess and unburden herself. She bustles along to the church but there follows an excruciating scene where she tries to hint and convey to the curé that all is not well, but he is hopelessly distracted by a class of unruly young boys he is trying to teach the catechism. Eventually Emma leaves having said nothing, with all her frustration redoubled and bottled up. Back at the house she sits in an agony of frustrated unhappiness while her poor little daughter, Berthe, comes tugging at her skirt, wanting to play. Emma tells her to go away but like all toddlers she comes back and then Emma snaps and pushes her hard with her elbow. With perfect inevitability, Berthe falls backwards and cuts her cheek against the curtain holder, at which Emma snaps out of her misery and panics, shrieking for the maid and then for Charles who comes running. All are impressed by Emma’s doting hyper-care for the child; only we, the reader, have any idea at all of the raging turmoil in her mind which drove her to be so thoughtless.

The whole incident unfolds with the heavy inevitability of a Greek tragedy yet at the same time is entirely naturalistic. There’s nothing forced or symbolic or precious about it. This, you feel, is how life is, made up of silly frustrations, unhappinesses, angers and accidents.

But the way Flaubert chooses and selects these moments is almost breath-taking. ‘Realism’ sounds like it ought to be dull, but Flaubert’s selection of just the right psychological and emotional moments from this tawdry story means that every single scene is alive with meaning and intensity.

And the words. The extremely careful phrasing of every sentence which is used to depict all these charged scenes.

The furniture in its place seemed to have become more immobile, and to lose itself in the shadow as in an ocean of darkness. The fire was out, the clock went on ticking, and Emma marvelled at this calm of all things while within herself was such tumult. But little Berthe was there, between the window and the work-table, tottering on her knitted shoes, and trying to come to her mother to catch hold of the ends of her apron-strings.
‘Leave me alone,’ said Emma, putting her from her with her hand.
The little girl soon came up closer against her knees, and leaning on them with her arms, she looked up with her large blue eyes, while a small thread of pure saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk apron.
‘Leave me alone,’ repeated the young woman quite irritably.

The ticking clock, the spool of spittle, all scream out Emma’s unbearable unhappiness. Character, mood and emotion is portrayed with stunning brilliance on every page. This is what makes Madame Bovary a masterpiece. Here is Charles, alone by the body of Emma, after she’s died and been dressed for her funeral by the village women.

It was the last time; he came to bid her farewell.

The aromatic herbs were still smoking, and spirals of bluish vapour blended at the window-sash with the fog that was coming in. There were few stars, and the night was warm. The wax of the candles fell in great drops upon the sheets of the bed. Charles watched them burn, tiring his eyes against the glare of their yellow flame.

The watering on the satin gown shimmered white as moonlight. Emma was lost beneath it; and it seemed to him that, spreading beyond her own self, she blended confusedly with everything around her – the silence, the night, the passing wind, the damp odours rising from the ground.

Comedy

If Flaubert is harsh on the self deceptions of the lovers – Emma herself, the calculating cad Rodolphe, the genuinely intoxicated young Leon – and gives an unflinching portrait of Charles’s dull obtuseness and the bossiness of his domineering mother, always ready to stick her oar in – an under-appreciated aspect of the book is its broad humour.

Comedy is harder to quote or pick out of a novel than its countless serious strands and issues. It generally needs more context or build-up. But there’s a kind of Dad’s Army, warm humour about Flaubert’s depictions of the inhabitants of the Norman village. If they can be caught out in petty hypocrisies or pompous speeches or absent-minded behaviour or gossiping, they will be.

A lot rotates around the figure of Homais, the pompous village chemist, who fancies himself as a scientific pioneer, quietly breaks the law by giving medical consultations on the side, and also largely writes the little local paper. Flaubert gives us big quotes from this august journal, allowing us to judge for ourselves its pompous provincial quality.

There’s a classic scene which takes a bit of explaining: Charles’s father dies of a stroke. Charles is so upset he deputes Homais to tell Emma. Homais, in his self-important way, writes a long speech (tearing up numerous drafts in order to arrive at just the right slow revelation of this tragic occurrence.)

And so Homais sends his boy to fetch Emma and tell her it’s important. She is walking by the river, but when the boy tells her something serious has happened and she must come to Monsieur Homais’ at once, she is understandably panic-stricken. But – and here’s the comic denouement – when Emma arrives breathless and anxious, she finds Homais in a fury because his assistant has gone into his inner sanctum and meddled with his chemistry equipment. Emma repeatedly asks what is the important message, while Homais rants and shouts at his poor cowering assistant.

Finally, in a paroxysm of anger, Homais turns to Emma and declares ‘Charles’s father has died,’ then returns to chastising his assistant. See, it’s not very funny when I write it down here. But if you are properly absorbed in the world of the book and its characters and the flow of the narrative, I found it very funny and it is clearly intended to be funny.

Similarly, at the end of the book, as Emma lies slowly dying, Charles sends messages for help to the two most senior doctors in the neighbourhood. After quickly examining the patient, the most senior one concludes there is no hope (he is correct) and, none of them wanting to be associated with death (bad for business), they eagerly take up Monsieur Homais’s invitation to cross the road to his house for a slap-up lunch – which is the point where his wife begins fussing that she doesn’t have fine food suitable for such eminences and sends out in a fluster for some luxury fare.

I grew up in a village. I have kids of my own and a network of family, cousins, in-laws, all with their foibles and peculiarities. My parents have died, friends have died, I’ve seen people behave very oddly around bereavements and funerals: the strongest collapse in tears, the weakest turn out to be brilliant at organising the funeral, some just can’t face it, can’t face death.

Without trying very hard I’ve come across commentary on the internet describing the behaviour of Homais and the doctors as ‘despicable’ and ‘contemptible’, but this seems to me much too harsh, simplistic and judgmental. Their behaviour is human, all-too-human. The judgers obviously haven’t learned from Shakespeare that something can be intensely tragic and howlingly funny at the same time – the message also conveyed 400 years later by Samuel Beckett. And maybe they haven’t been at many death beds or attended many funerals.

In fact, at a pinch, this could be taken as the humanist message of ‘literature’ – that people are complex, really complex, that what outsiders regard as ‘positive’ traits, can be mixed in with ‘negative’ traits, that people’s feelings and motivations fluctuate from moment to moment. It is as if modern readers took the moment when Emma pushes her daughter over as the one and only moment which Defines Her Character and condemn her as a Bad Mother.

That is to take a legalistic, social worker-cum-Nazi informer view of human nature, where one chance action or one chance remark against the Great Leader, condemns a person for life.

Literature – or some kinds of relatively modern literature – are intended to work precisely against simple-minded judgementalism and to show human beings in all their contradictoriness. The public prosecutor in Rouen didn’t understand this, and saw only a story about an immoral woman. It is disheartening, but not that surprising, that in our own hyper-judgmental times, many teachers and students of literature take a similarly one-dimensional, judgmental view of Flaubert’s characters.

Not that he’d have been surprised. It is exactly what he’d have expected.

Translations

As befits such a classic, Madame Bovary has been translated into English numerous times.

Madame Bovary, 1886 by Eleanor Marx-Aveling
Madame Bovary, 1928 by James Lewis May
Madame Bovary, 1946 by Gerald Hopkins
Madame Bovary, 1950 by Alan Russell
Madame Bovary, 1957 by Francis Steegmuller
Madame Bovary, 1959 by Lowell Bair
Madame Bovary, 1964 by Mildred Marmur
Madame Bovary, 1965 by Paul de Man
Madame Bovary, 1992 by Geoffrey Wall
Madame Bovary, 2010 by Lydia Davis
Madame Bovary, 2011 by Adam Thorpe

I read the old 1950 Penguin translation by Alan Russell, but I’ve quoted from the only version which seems to be available online, the one by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

Gustave Courbet

Here’s a depiction of a rural funeral by the great pioneer of realism in painting, Gustave Courbet. In its sense of a) composition with large number of figures b) its emphasis on the quirks and individuality of the people depicted – their boredom, itchy noses and distracted looks, in among the expressions of genuine grief and remorse – it is very much the visual equivalent of Flaubert’s all-encompassing vision.

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

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