Put on your best underwear and bring the lube of your choice because the Sentimental Education love-in starts here. I kinda lost my head over this book. I’m not even entirely sure why, although I guess that is an aspect of mad-love, that inability to put your finger on the cause or essence of it. In one sense, the conditions were favourable prior to my reading. I like Flaubert [Madame Bovary is one of my favourite novels]; and I generally enjoy 19th century literature concerned with morally-impaired social climbers [although I’m sort of reaching my limit with these books]; and I love French writers. So, yeah, the chances were that I was always going to dig this. And, yet, even if someone shared my passion for all those things, I can still imagine that some would find Sentimental Education disappointing or *whisper it* boring.
The storyline isn’t anything out of the ordinary [it is certainly of a type], nor is it particularly dramatic, or sweeping, for much of the time, and one could, perhaps legitimately, disparage the novel as being little more than a standard story of well-to-do posturing. And, yet, I fell hard for it. My reading of the book is that it is, more than similar novels by Balzac or Maupassant etc, a psychological-character portrait, in the way that, for me, Henry James’ novels are. Don’t get me wrong, Sentimental Education isn’t stream-of-consciousness, or anything like that, and yet there is something modern about it, something fresh, something different. That is the genius of Flaubert as a writer, I guess, and, without wishing to break my self-imposed rule about not reviewing like an eager undergrad, I’ll try and pick out one or two of the techniques he employed [some say invented] that showcase his skill. More than anything, though, I want to focus on Frederic, the deceptively complex, anti-heroic, would-be womaniser.
The word womaniser [oh womaniser oh you’re a womaniser, baby. Thanks, Britney!] is possibly misleading in this case, as it suggests someone Byronic, charismatic and, ultimately, irresistible.
[P]’s Quick Guide To Being A Ladies Man
1. Try and look something like this:
2. Learn the words to this song and make them your mantra:
3. Be Trent:
[As an aside, I was watching that film with a girlfriend once and she screamed that’s you! whenever he opened his mouth, which isn’t, probably, the best basis for a relationship.]
Anyway, if anyone in this book is an archetypal womaniser it is Arnoux. Frederic, the central character, is a different beast [less Trent, more Mikey]. Initially, he appears shy and awkward, particularly around women, which is not something I can relate to [although, in the final reckoning, I guess one isn’t meant to be able to relate to him. But we’ll come back to that]. I’ve never been a wallflower, really. I find all that bumbling, tentative bullshit [beyond a certain age] intensely irritating; especially when it is directed towards the opposite sex. Girls don’t confuse me, they don’t scare me, and I don’t feel uncomfortable around them [maybe because I was brought up by one who, herself, was very outgoing]. I’d have concerns about anyone beyond the age of, I dunno, 17 who feels that way. Which is not to say I don’t like women or don’t respect them, I do, a lot; I just don’t see in them that otherness that some men do; for me they’re not a riddle to be worked out or an object to be appreciated. I find that attitude way more disrespectful. And Frederic struck me as that sort [certainly for the first 200 pages]; he is seemingly unable to relate to women as human beings; they are something to look at, adore, and embarrassingly lust after. Sure, I may be misreading the novel, but that is how he came across to me.
Frederic’s [first and longest-lasting] object of affection is Madame Arrnoux, who is married to his friend [the woman-womaniser-oh]. Frederic makes a play for Madame Arnoux with periods of hanging around, doing her favours, and making unsubtle and embarrassing hints. I won’t say, of course, whether this play works for him eventually. The important point is that at this stage Frederic comes across like a hormonal, overwrought teenager who has spent too much time listening to Creep by Radiohead, someone who thinks himself unworthy of being in the presence of such perfect beauty and wants no more than to be able to revere and serve it! None of which is new ground; there are plenty of novels that deal with infatuation, and reciprocated or unreciprocated love and affection. This is where Flaubert’s skill as a novelist makes a difference. One of the things I liked most is how off-stage Madame Arnoux was for most of the novel. Frederic sees her on a boat at the beginning, falls in love, despite not talking to her, then spends most of the story moping because he thinks he can’t have her. He actually interacts with her very infrequently, and the time they spend in each other’s company is nearly always insignificant and dominated by small-talk. We experience Madame as Frederic does – although the book isn’t written in the first person – in glances and short-lived meetings over a number of years. Flaubert only once [as I remember] allows us inside her head; she remains, for the most part, a reserved presence, someone who is ever-present and yet, strangely, mostly absent. I thought all that was really neat.
In any case, plot-wise at least, everything at this stage is fairly predicable. However, soon enough things become more intriguing and the depth [or lack of!] of Frederic’s character is revealed. What I was most interested in is the distinction between his actual behaviour and the way that others [and you as a reader – if you’re not careful] see him, a distinction made clearer through his interactions with the other women in his life, especially Rosanette. Initially, his behaviour towards Rosanette is quite similar to his behaviour towards Madame Arnoux. He is pitifully inept at talking to her, and although he tries to put the moves on her he fails miserably; indeed, his attempts to make her his mistress are hilarious. One of the funniest scenes in the novel is when Frederic comes up behind her while she is dressing and performs lewd gestures [which I took to mean thrusting motions], which, let’s face it, is about as charming as sticking your tongue in your cheek and making cocksucking movements. Again, his actions and approaches are awkward; and, due to his lack of confidence and skill, he resorts to a kind of servility that she takes advantage of but doesn’t respect. Poor Frederic! A sad bastard, right?
However, once he manages to have his way his attitude changes, or, if you prefer, he shows his ‘true colours.’ Suddenly there is revealed a cynical aspect to his character. He who once appeared to be a man who was inclined towards romanticism is shown to be someone with a darker side; and one can then see his previous actions from a different perspective. As noted, it was possible, at first, to view his unsuccessful attempts at flirtation and romance as the actions of someone overwhelmed by the beauty of his targets. Yet, look at it another way: just because someone is rubbish at picking up women doesn’t mean that they are a sensitive soul. This is a mistake that people often make. It is the case that, from the point at which he is successful he treats his women badly, he cheats and lies without any real conscience. This is not a man who is so in love that he has lost his mind or is driven to act weirdly or pathetically by his longing, but someone who is perhaps using that [even though it’s a bad choice] as a favoured tactic. One comes to realise that this is a man without any real moral compass, that the bumbling, inexpert manner merely covers his callousness and convinces others of his artlessness.
Without wanting to stray any further into spoilers territory, consider his attitude towards Rosanette when she wants something from him emotionally, when she finds herself in genuine difficulty; his behaviour at those times is atrocious, and bordering on sociopathic. Indeed, it is easy to accept his great love for Madame Arnoux, and yet at one point he considers the idea of drugging her and ‘taking her’ that way. To an extent, Frederic is more like Updike’s Rabbit than, say, Lucien Chardon or Georges Duroy; he is more pathetic wanker, less loveable scoundrel. And, yet, I actually felt less sympathy for him than I did for Rabbit, because he is not as lost or confused. It is interesting that in all the reviews I have read Frederic gets off relatively lightly in comparison with Rabbit. Rabbit seems to generate intense hatred, perhaps because he is a schmucky American rather than a well-to-do Frenchman.
I wrote earlier about Flaubert’s skill as a novelist, and want to say something about a couple of his moves. I believe he is credited with inventing a technique, a kind of indirect speech, whereby instead of attributing words directly to a character he would write something like this [which is a conversation between two people]:
“I cannot possibly be there for three o’clock”
He was never able to make appointments
“I make appointments all the time”
In effect, you have to presume that the line ‘he was never able to make appointments’ was spoken by someone. I really really liked that. I also loved how subtle Flaubert was prepared to be, how trusting of his readers. I hate being hit over the head with revelations, plot-points, themes etc. Flaubert allows you to come to your own conclusions. For example, when Madame Arnoux becomes immensely upset at receiving flowers from her husband. We know that Arnoux had earlier been given a note from a mistress, we know that he uses some paper from his pocket to wrap the flowers, but Flaubert never tells us that he used that note to wrap the flowers. In fact, this incident is only once, briefly, touched upon again. So, you, as the reader, have to connect the dots yourself. And I thought that was fucking ace.
One last thing, despite being unable to relate to Frederic he does feel like a real man, he does feel fully-realised. To compare Flaubert to Balzac again, in Lost Illusions [as good as it is] I didn’t believe in any of the characters. I believe in Frederic and that is what is most important to me in terms of my enjoyment – he just doesn’t resonate with me. I might not ever have behaved like him, or be able to see myself in him personally, but the book did remind me [and does remind me] of my life; the nights out, the ever changing cast of women, the onset of real cares and responsibilities and the continuing efforts to avoid them, the super-abundance of stimuli, the foolish behaviour, the friendships easily made and easily discarded and then re-made, the dabbling in politics without actually understanding the issues, the jobs and careers that seem ideal and all-important, but which are swapped or dropped with nary a second thought. Sounds like a mess, doesn’t it? But it is, life is a messy business.