cad

BEL-AMI BY GUY DE MAUPASSANT

Ah, le scélérat….rebonjour, mon ami…

I’ve read so many French novels about cads and ladies men that I’m now something of an expert. I am able to recognise the subtle differences of approach these men take, and their various motivations, like a marine biologist who can adroitly identify different breeds of shark, which to a layman would all look the same. Take, for example, Julien Sorel, who conducts his amorous pursuits as though they were a military campaign, who, as I said in my review of The Red and The Black, is all about winning, and isn’t too interested in drinking the victory champagne, if you know what I mean. Then there is Lucien Chardon, who, on the surface, is much like Julien, in that he is young and self-obsessed. Lucien, however, is primarily a careerist, and so uses women as a way of climbing the social ladder. Moreover, he is able to convince himself that he is truly in love and, unlike the manipulative Julien, does not alter his character to suit the circumstances, believing that his own is his best weapon. Finally, consider Valmont, who is more or less a sociopath; he behaves worse than the previous two gentlemen, and does so out of boredom. And what of Georges Duroy? How does he fit into the rogues gallery? Well, he is a most unusual piece.

Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant’s fine novel, begins with the above-named hero skulking around a hot and foul-smelling Paris, evidently frustrated and ill-at-ease. He barges people with his shoulder, he wants to throttle anyone who has more money than him [which is pretty much everyone], he longs for the touch of a woman and for a drink to ease his rasping throat. Maupassant reveals that he was once in the Army and describes his attitude, in one of the book’s most memorable lines, as being like ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land, and reference is made to shooting Arabs while on duty. One gets the impression that Duroy might be dangerous, physically dangerous, and I must admit that I wasn’t expecting anything quite so dark, so noirish.

“His pockets empty, his blood seething, he was excited by the whispers of the whores on street corners.”

It is a brilliant, thrilling introduction, but it is, I think, slightly misleading. When Duroy gets a new job as a journalist, he is shown to be nervous, lacking in self-confidence, without any great talents or merits. The clearest indication of this is when he attempts to write an article, but finds that he is incapable, that he cannot even start it. Far from being a Machiavellian cad, with supernatural charm, he is pretty much dull-witted; he is slow on the uptake, naïve [or green, as he describes himself, I think]. Moreover, he is, for at least two-thirds of the book, honest or at least transparent. For example, when his mistress, Clotilde, wants to go for a walk he initially says that he would rather stay inside, but when pressed he confesses that he doesn’t have the money to pay for their entertainment. He doesn’t do this because he is trying to elicit sympathy, or manipulate her into giving him money [even though she does] but because he is simply unable to keep his fear or worry to himself.

What is most striking about the first part of the book is that Georges Duroy is thoroughly average, is unexceptional in every way, except perhaps his looks; even his motivations and ambitions are, for want of a better word, standard, are the kind almost everyone has. He wants money in his pocket and a woman…well, don’t we all? Yes, he also wants to get ahead, to raise himself up, but he actually lacks the mental wherewithal to accomplish it on his own. Indeed, every time Duroy does move up in the world, or gets a break, his success is courtesy of someone else, or at least something outside of himself; his victories are, more or less, pure dumb luck. For example, his journalism job comes via an old military friend who works for a paper, his first article is written by his friend’s wife, his standing in the paper is increased when he survives a duel, and so on. For the most part, things happen to Duroy, he doesn’t make them happen.

Perhaps in recognition of his own limitations, Duroy’s character is, until late in the novel, primarily a docile one. It is Madeleine Forestier who advises him to go see the woman he makes his lover; when Madeleine requests that he keep their impending marriage quiet, he acquiesces; and when she tells him to break it off with Clothilde, he again does just as he is told. This may sound exceedingly dull, and I accept that it lacks the sturm and drang of most other 19th century French novels, but it did feel fresh; and the novelty makes it engaging. In fact, one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is how adult, how contemporary the relationships are [again, in the first part]. For example, when Duroy thinks about making love to Madeleine he is told in no uncertain terms that she finds all that preposterous, and will not countenance it. Moreover, when the couple speak of marriage she makes it clear that he will only be accepted if he grants her the freedom to which she is accustomed and treats her as though she is a partner, an ally, not his possession.

It ought to be clear then that Bel Ami is somewhat removed from the grand romanticism and emotional bombast one finds in Balzac et al. If I had to make a comparison I would say that Maupassant’s novel has more in common with the work of Georges Simenon or even Charles Bukowski, that his protagonist is reminiscent of the cowering and gloomy Ferdinand Bardemu, the narrator of Celine’s novels. It is not until some two hundred pages into the book [out of two hundred and ninety] that Duroy begins to exhibit the kind of traits and behaviour one would expect of a immoral scoundrel in a classic French novel. I must admit that my interest waned a little from this point onwards; the dumb-fun-factor is greater, but the story becomes familiar and predictable. Moreover, I did not feel as though the change in Duroy’s character was well handled – it is too abrupt, too extreme – and, ultimately, I got the impression that the author himself wasn’t really sure what was behind it.

After a happy start to his marriage, Duroy begins to resent the fact that his wife once belonged to someone else, and suspects that she cuckolded her first husband. As noted, in the previous two hundred pages one could not say that he has been a nice man, but he certainly hasn’t been a irredeemable bastard, either. Therefore, it is natural to suppose that his jealousy is the reason that he begins to behave as wickedly as he does from this point onwards. However, while I can accept that jealousy could lead someone to thinking ‘fuck it, feelings are for idiots, I’ll have no more of that, and will therefore treat everyone like shit and please myself,’ I don’t see how this feeling is then transformed into an overwhelming, passionate envy, directed towards anyone in a superior position, and a obsessive desire to supplant them and become top-dog. I don’t, either, buy that he would swing from tormenting jealousy to, well, complete indifference where his wife is concerned. More importantly, during this final section of the novel Duroy is able to do things without breaking sweat or batting an eyelid, that before he found difficult or impossible. He lies, he schemes; he shows intelligence, talent, daring, cunning, and so on. Maupassant had spent the greater part of Bel Ami giving the reader the impression that his hero was an average, albeit attractive, schmo who frequently gets lucky, and yet suddenly he is some sort of Devilish Byronic figure who has complete command over himself and everyone else? Come on.

With this in mind, my preferred interpretation is that the catalyst for his caddish manoeuvres is a series of existential confrontations with death. In the first instance, consider his proposal to Madeleine Forestier, which comes while the couple are watching over the dead body of her husband. On the surface, this seems like an outrageous, cynical step, and yet a panicky Duroy appears to be genuinely struck by his own mortality, and the need to make the most of his time on earth, and as such his offer of marriage is hardly an example of cold-hearted cuntishness. There are, in addition, two other incidents, prior to Forestier’s passing, where death is on the agenda: a kind of soliloquy delivered by a colleague, Norbert de Varenne, and a duel. These two passages are, for me, Bel Ami’s finest moments; and both appear to have a profound effect upon Duroy.

The duel is, of course, particularly significant, because it involves, not death as an abstract, as something happening to other people, but the very real threat of it happening to Duroy himself without too much delay. Again, I have to credit Maupassant with a modern outlook, because his hero does not take it in his stride, he does not rise to the challenge, nor welcome the opportunity to defend himself against unfair criticism. No, he does what most of us would do: he gets scared. He isn’t necessarily a coward, but rather a rationalist; he wants to avoid fighting because it is, well, dangerous; he questions the absurd dictates of honour, which have put him in a situation whereby he must fire at a man he has never met and has no real beef with. It isn’t difficult to imagine that if someone has had a brush with death it might spur them on to being more ruthless in pursuit of their desires and dreams, but how much this theory holds weight, when one considers that Duroy’s character does not immediately change in the way that it does following the jealousy chapters, I don’t know. In any case, being someone who is terrified of dying I understand myself how motivating that fear can be; in fact, I consider it to be responsible for a great many of my actions, both positive and negative. For what it is worth, the philosopher Martin Heidegger proposed that one should always keep death, or one’s mortality, in mind, that this was the only way to ensure an authentic existence.

 “We breathe, sleep, drink, eat, work and then die! The end of life is death. What do you long for? Love? A few kisses and you will be powerless. Money? What for? To gratify your desires. Glory? What comes after it all? Death! Death alone is certain.”

I have spent much of this review focusing on the particulars of Duroy’s character, without, as yet, saying anything about the wider significance of the action. To this end, John Paul Sartre said of Maupassant’s creation that ‘his rise testifies to the decline of a whole society.’ If I am honest, I’m not entirely sure what he meant by this. What Duroy’s ultimate victory suggests to me is that the structure of French society, maybe western society as a whole, was changing; but whether that was for the better or worse I cannot say. Duroy comes, one must remember, from low stock; his parents are tavern owners, and he frequently refers to them as peasants. As the novel reaches a climax Georges, in a sense, has infiltrated the upper reaches of French society, and laid his hat there. Maupassant seems to be suggesting that he is one of the new breed of men, the nouveau riche, who will usher out the old aristocracy, taking their money, their positions, and their titles. It isn’t just Duroy either; the biggest winner in the novel is the Jewish financier, M. Walter, who in some kind of stock market scam earns millions. Does unscrupulous common men making all the money and having all the power testify to a decline? It is certainly a sign of the times, is more in keeping with the world we live in now than that of privileged barons and lords, but I’m less than convinced that it is a bad thing, certainly in comparison to the alternative.

THE RED & THE BLACK BY STENDHAL

When I was at university my best friend and I would regularly write to each other as, for the first time, we were at different ends of the country. These letters [yes, letters – we were not being pretentious; neither of us could afford a computer as kids and so didn’t know how to use email until later] would usually contain details of any, uh, girl-related activity, music recommendations and book recommendations. Parts of these letters have stayed with me – certain relationships [one in particular with a girl called Julie; my mate had issues with Wayne, her ex], certain records he urged on me and which I bought as soon as I was able, and certain books I sought out from the library. One of the books he once recommended was a French novel, about a young man trying to make his way in the world. I replied to my friend that it sounded interesting, or something of that sort, and a week later a package, rather than the expected letter, arrived. Inside was Le Rouge et la Noir by Stendhal. As I opened the book I noticed that my friend had written something on the reverse of the cover. “Julien Sorel is you!” it said.

What did he mean by that? Well, first of all, to call me, at that time, an arrogant boy with a chip on my shoulder about my upbringing is probably right on the money. Furthermore, I must admit, that I was, shall we say, a bit of a cad, and that, more specifically, I approached my relations with women almost as though they were a test of my daring or courage. I was, then, regularly getting myself embroiled in ridiculous situations, things like seeing how many girlfriends I could manage at the same time; or sleeping with my friend’s girlfriend, in the same halls of residence in which he also lived, only a couple of rooms away in fact, so that I had to hotfoot it out of there in the early hours of the morning, hoping that he wouldn’t be on the corridor and catch me. I also got up to various sordid things in photobooths, on trains and at concerts, and so on. Now, before anyone starts spamming me with negative comments, I am fully aware that this was not admirable, nor recommendable, behaviour; but, yes, it is fair to say that I was a little like Julien Sorel.

“An English traveller relates how he lived upon intimate terms with a tiger; he had reared it and used to play with it, but always kept a loaded pistol on the table.”

Julien is the poor son of a carpenter, who has ambitions to be a priest; he is, on the surface at least, a sensitive, bookish sort. In the early stages of the novel one might think that The Red and The Black is going to be a French version of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, a book that will focus on the exploits of a generally good boy as he struggles to better himself. However, when Julien moves in with the de Renal’s, in the capacity of tutor to their children, it quickly becomes clear that he is a rather haughty and self-obsessed sort, who considers the world something to bring under his heel, and often sees and uses people dispassionately. This dispassionate approach is particularly interesting in relation to the lady of the house, Louise de Renal, with whom he starts an affair. Julien, whose hero is Napoleon, conducts this relationship as though undertaking a military campaign. He makes notes for himself, writes plans; he doesn’t behave intuitively, or act on passionate impulse, but, rather, does what he thinks he ought to do in order to win the mayor’s wife, making bolder and bolder plays seemingly as a way of finding out what exactly he can get away with. Crucially, he doesn’t really want the woman, but thinks it fitting that he have her, and enjoys the idea that a rich lady will fall for the likes of him; it is, for him, the winning that counts, he has no great interest in drinking the victory champagne. As suggested in my opening paragraphs, Julien, just like my good self, is particularly sensitive regarding his background; and this colours the way that he sees the world. He appears to believe that everyone undervalues him, or disdains him, and so, in a kind of retaliation, or boon to his ego, he wants to conquer them.

“Yes I’ve won a battle, he said to himself, but one must profit by it.” “I ought to keep a diary of this siege, he said to himself on returning to the hotel; otherwise I will lose track of my assaults.” “The hand was very quickly withdrawn; but Julien conceived that it was his duty to ensure that it was not withdrawn when he touched it.”

Madame de Renal, on the other hand, genuinely loves Julien, although it is suggested that she loves him more for what he is not than what he is. I found her a fascinating character, both in terms of her personality and psychology and what she says about Stendhal as a writer. She is considered in Verrieres to be a chaste, proud and high-minded woman, who will not succumb to flirtation, having spurned the advances of Valenod. However, Stendhal portrays her as essentially artless; she is a woman who does not consider herself superior to men, but, rather, thinking them coarse and dull, she has no interest in them. There’s a really nice insight when it is said that she doesn’t find her husband boring simply because she finds other men more boring than him. I loved that; a really clever, subtle distinction. She falls for Julien, then, because he is not a man; he is, at seventeen, literally a boy; indeed, when she first sees him she likens him to, even suspects him of being, a girl dressed as a boy, and notes his fine pale complexion. Once she gets to know him a little, he also gives the impression of being cultured and well-read and in touch with his own finer feelings. Everything he is, her husband, and other provincial men, are not.

In the hands of many writers Louise de Renal would be unbearable. Dickens’ work features a number of these inexperienced, otherworldy women, and readers generally want to lynch them. Yet, while she does occasionally irritate, for the most part I found Madame thoroughly endearing. And this is because Stendhal doesn’t really judge his characters, or only in a gently satirical way, or try and tell you what to think of them; he allows them to breathe, and doesn’t make them ‘a type’ of one extreme or another. Louise, for example, is an adulteress, who adores her lover more than her own children, which is not particularly admirable, of course. Yet she is also sympathetic, primarily because she is clumsily dealing with the novel state of being in love, and because her husband is a boor. She is strangely noble, because her feelings are pure, but ignoble in her actions. Likewise, she is artless, but not dim; she is both strong and weak…she, as much as can be the case with any fictional character, like a real person.

I mentioned Dickens before, but it is particularly interesting to compare Stendhal to his contemporary Honore de Balzac, especially his novel Lost Illusions, which features another beautiful youngster with grand ambitions. The obsessive coffee-guzzler was a fan of operatic characterisation – almost everyone is one-dimensional, usually either wholly, ridiculously good [David Séchard], or demonically bad [his father]; everything with him is cranked up to ten…one imagines all his characters either sinisterly twirling a ‘tache or ringed with a halo. His women are particularly polarised, some are angels [Eve – yes, Eve] and others are snakes [Madame de Bargeton]. Furthermore, although I love Lost Illusions, Balzac comes across as a blowhard, taking cheap shots at his characters, and by extension certain elements of society, and constantly generalising and stereotyping; indeed, he does exactly what Stendhal does not do: he explicitly moralises, he demands that you view his characters in the way that he wants you to. The prose of the two authors is entirely different also; Balzac was prone to very long, complex sentences, full of clauses and classical allusions; Stendhal wrote very simply, almost conversationally. This isn’t a translation issue, it was an intentional style choice; and as a result his book fairly wallops along.

While Book One is a pretty standard, but very enjoyable, tale of a cheating milf and her young lover, featuring much roguery and melodrama, the second, which involves Julien’s relationship with Mathilde de La Mole, is something else entirely. Of course, it is different on the most literal, basic level, in that Mathilde is a younger woman, similar in age to Julien, and she is not married, but this is obviously not what makes Book Two so extraordinary. I was once in a relationship that simply would not settle down, would not work; it was, I think I have said elsewhere, an Israeli-Palestinian type deal. Anyway, after some time spent needling each other, my ex-girlfriend one day said to me, “we both want the power in the relationship; we’re too proud and bloody-minded to allow ourselves to submit, even for a moment, to the other. And so we are constantly trying to make the other submissive.” Or words to that effect. And I think she was right. What is so startling about Julien and Mathilde’s relationship is that it is just like this so modern a conflict. They are equals – not socially, but intellectually and emotionally – and they are both too proud to give in to the other; so they spend much of their time antagonising each other, butting heads; yes, they will occasionally call a truce, and so come together, but one or both will regret it almost immediately afterwards. The thing is, love can only flourish if one relinquishes one’s ego, one’s absolute power over oneself. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that, once again, Mathilde esteems Julien for what he is not, rather than what he is; he is not like the tiresome, predictable suitors she has previously attracted; she sees danger in him and reckless passion.

None of this, however, is the novel’s real selling point; I was very impressed by much of what Stendhal pulls off in The Red and The Black but there is one thing about it that had me in awe. Andre Gide said that the book was far ahead of its time, and Friedrich Nietzsche spoke glowingly of the Frenchman’s psychology, but neither, in my opinion, quite goes far enough in their praise. Ahead of its time? Reading it you’d think Sendhal had a DeLorean. The first psychological novel? It’s as though Henry James had looked at Dumas’ body of work and thought ‘I can do that – rascals, heroism, cheating women – a piece of piss!’ And, lo, he did do it, furnishing the adventure story with unrelenting, complex introspection. In all seriousness, I couldn’t believe what I was reading: there are pages and pages given over to the characters’ thought processes, so much so that for much of the second half there’s hardly any plot at all. For example, there’s a chapter in my translation called Dialogue With a Master, most of which is dedicated to de Renal’s interior monologue concerning his suspicions about Julien and his wife. Moreover, Mathilde’s presence in the text is almost entirely in her head and Julien’s. And this book was published in 1830! Truly, if Virginia Woolf is to be called a modernist, then what is Stendhal?

A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION BY GUSTAVE FLAUBERT

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:

Image

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.