Flaubert, The Sentimental Student

Theme:  Paris!

We have finally come to the end of our current theme, the enigmatic and debauched city of Paris.  I chose to end with Flaubert, and one of his well-known classics at that.  Sentimental Education a delightful, romantic and passionate ride through the streets and classes of Paris.  It begins with the young protagonist, Frederic Moreau, a youth open to all that life has to offer.  But, too young to know any better, he falls for an older woman, Madame Arnoux, who is obviously married.  From this moment on, his life and decisions are colored by his love for her, determined by her reactions to his behavior.  Oh love, how could you take such a young lovestruck man and put him under your cruel thumb?  Ah, not Love’s fault, but Flaubert’s.  The cynics out there upon reading this torch song of a novel will repeatedly want to scream at Frederic, “Move on!  She’s married and it’s never going to happen!”.  But pampered little Frederic is deaf to our shouts and pleas.:

Never had he seen anything to compare with the splendor of her dark skin, the seduction of her figure, or the translucent delicacy of her fingers.  He looked at her work basket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were a thing of beauty.  What was her name, her home, her life, her past?  He longed to know about the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; and even the desire for physical possession gave way to a deeper yearning, an aching curiosity which knew no bounds.

Doomed, I tell you, he is doomed.  He finds out her name and immediately befriends her husband, the slickster Mr. Jacques Arnoux.  And through Arnoux and his pals, he is introduced to artists, rebels, but most importantly to dinners at the Arnoux’ where he can gaze at Madame for a couple for hours a week.  The only consistent thing in his life is his love for her.  His ambitions fade when he receives a comfortable inheritance from his Uncle.   Through the city of Paris he rushes, buying up all that he can think of how it will impress her.  But Madame is the picture of decorum  and reserve.  And with all of this unrequited love popping up every other well-crafted sentence, we meet Deslauriers, Dussardier, Pellerin, The Dambreuses, Hussonnet, Delmar and a mistress who goes by the name of ‘The Marshal’.  What a cast of characters we are given. 

Interestingly enough, this is where Flaubert excels in creating a masterful classic – the motivations and deceits of these characters represent archetypes of the morality of people during the backdrop of the revolution which proved to be one of France’s defining moments.  True, Frederic keeps house with a courtesan after a perceived slight by Madame Arnoux, he pretends he is going to marry a country girl to anger Madame Arnoux, the a society widow, all to get a reaction from her that will indicate the she is madly in love with him.  But there is also passions for the politics and money, place and power, art and freedom woven into the texture of this novel.  Frederic’s seems the most frivolous and simultaneously the purest because above all else, he is searching for that one love that makes all other endeavors pale in comparison, all other ambitions seem petty and hallow.  Yet, he is frivolous because he seems so oblivious to the world around him, escapes when the city is in turmoil, is proud that he ignores the mounds of bodies left for someone else’s caretaking after an insurgency.  This novel captures Paris at  a critical historical movement and in true French fashion, the main focus of the story is the unrelenting love of Frederic and the revolution is the noise that goes on around him.

His relationship with Madame Arnoux makes him a perpetual student of obsession and infatuation.  Frederic learns of his jealousy and anger and ability to forgive all through his absolute devotion for Madame Arnoux.  Seemingly, he becomes the man who keeps wondering when he will know what he is supposed to know, but realizes he doesn’t want to give up learning the way that he is learning.

Not to mention the Flaubert’s writing itself.  A cross between effusive and concise, he deftly gives us satire and sentimentality with a matched hand.    He has a particular sense of imagery that is evocative and lush.  He exemplifies this in a passage describing a costume party he attends that is teeming with courtesans:

They came so close to him that Frederic could see the beads of sweat on their foreheads; and this dizzy, whirling movement, growing ever faster and more regular, produced a sort of intoxication in his mind, filling it with other pictures, while the women passed him in a single dazzling vision, each with her distinctive beauty exciting a different emotion.  The Polish girl, surrendering languidly to the music, made him long to hold her to his heart while the two of them travelled in a sleigh across a snow-covered plain.  The Swiss girl, waltzing with her body held straight and her eyelids lowered, opened up vistas of tranquil pleasure in lakeside chalet.  Then, all of the sudden, the Bacchante, flinging her dark mane backwards, made him dream of fierce kisses in oleander groves, beneath stormy skies, to the dull beat of tabors.  The Fishwife, out of breath from dancing so fast, was shrieking with laughter; and he wanted to go boozing with her at Les Porcherons, to grope under her blouse with both hands, like in the good ol days.  The Stevedore, whose nimble toes barely touched the floor, seemed to suggest, in the suppleness of her limbs and the gravity of her face, all  the refinements of modern love, which combines the precision of a science with the mobility of a bird.  Rosanette was whirling about with her hand on her hip; her knot-shaped wig, bobbing up and down on her collar, scattered orris-powder everywhere; and, at every spin, she nearly caught Frederic with the tips of her golden spurs.

Flaubert draws the setting so well, you feel as if you’ve been there or didn’t need to be there because he has lived it for you.  What made me even more aware of his prose was to read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, a excellent work about the craft of fiction but also some great analysis of what makes Flaubert’s writing seem so stylistic, singular and modern.  A book well worth owning if you are at all interested in writing and how good literature is written.

So, mes amis, we have come to an end of our time in Paris.  I thank you so much for coming with me, if even for a short visit.  Next, maybe you will head with me to the East?  Look forward to seeing you…a la prochaine.

Sentimental Education
By Gustave Flaubert
Translated by Robert Baldick
Introduction by Geoffrey Wall
432 Pages
ISBN 9780140447972

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