Along with almost every student of literature I think Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to be one of the West’s greatest novels. Somehow until now I never got around to reading Flaubert’s last novel Sentimental Education. Many informed readers consider the work at least the equal of its more famous predecessor. So I finally read it. I’m afraid I’m not one of those who find the novel great. I think Henry James’ assessment of the novel captures its essence: Here the form and method are the same as in “Madame Bovary”; the studied skill, the science, the accumulation of material, are even more striking; but the book is in a single word a dead one. “Madame Bovary” was spontaneous and sincere; but to read its successor is, to the finer sense, like masticating ashes and sawdust. L’Education Sentimentale is elaborately and massively dreary. That a novel should have a certain charm seems to us the most rudimentary of principles, and there is no more charm in this laborious monument to a treacherous ideal than there is interest in a heap of gravel.
Woody Allen in his movie Manhattan says that Sentimental Education is one of the reasons life is worth living. He’s indulging his penchant for pretentiousness which is next to boundless. You’re in really rough shape if this novel is what makes your life worth living.
Flaubert produced a mediocre book written by a master. The story covers the 10 years in the life of its protagonist Frédéric Moreau – 1840 to 1850; there’s a short postlude that concludes the novel almost 20 years after its story is over. Moreau is surely the most mediocre and boring central figure in any novel I can think of by a major writer. Not only is he boring and inconsequential, but so is everyone else in the book. Frédéric is in love with an older married woman – Marie Arnoux. He is as unsuccessful in his pursuit of her as he is in anything else he attempts. He lives off of an inheritance from an uncle which he squanders and is cheated out of a large part of it. He’s really not mediocre; he’s sub-mediocre.
To be sure, the writing is often brilliant; but it’s brilliance in the service of the trivial. More than 500 pages about the utterly inconsequential is a test of stamina without reward. The novel covers the events leading up to and following the revolution of 1848. It’s depiction of Paris is sometimes dazzling – eg, the ball and the debates in the post revolutionary parliament. But these rewards do not compensate for the long dry spells punctuated by the protagonist’s complete imbecility. If you want great depictions of Parisian life in the periods just before and just after Sentimental Education go to Hugo and Proust. The profusion of characters and events here are mostly dry, lifeless, and uninteresting.
I think what happened is that Flaubert was overwhelmed by cynicism. Cynicism is OK if tempered by wit and a little distance. But there’s no detachment, just a great literary skill in the service of a pack of donkeys. Flaubert said: 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. Well he achieved is goal – inactive passion. Flaubert is cynical about love, friendship, loyalty, trust, city life, country life, honor, business, the poor, the middle class, the rich, politics, and government. The last two merit cynicism, but too much of a bad thing is soporific.
Sadly Flaubert seems to think he is Moreau . They were born in the same year and appear to share many of the same indecisive and weak characteristics. Why he depicted himself as such a lox when of course he was a genius brings us back to terminal cynicism. Read the novel if your interested in what a great writer does when he’s off his game and/or has previously said all he has to say.