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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A novel in the tradition of Tolstoy - but Life and Fate is by no means another War and Peace

Everything about it suggests that Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate, which he completed in 1960 but was held by Soviet authorities and not published till a microfilm copy was smuggled to France in 1980, would be a great 20th-century novel - one of those vast Russian works in the tradition of Solzhenitson and, especially, Tolstoy - an examination of a crucial period if Russian history, a novel in which scenes of military and domestic life develop in parallel - and yet - through the first 100 or so pages (it's a 900-page novel) this novel totally fails to live up to hype and expectation. We get various scenes of the siege of Stalingrad in WWII, but the scenes are so lifeless and bloodless and devoid of action and feeling - you almost understand why the Soviets wouldn't publish the novel; it would have bored too many Soviet citizens to death! None of the characters seems alive or distinct in any way; time and again Grossman misses opportunities to capture the military life as experienced by ordinary soldiers (as in two novels I've read recently about the first WW - All Quiet on the Western Front and War and Turpentine). There are a confounding # of characters, introduced abruptly and haphazardly. Obviously he's trying to write a 20th-century v of W&P, but he in no way approaches the narrative elegance of Tolstoy. W&P seems as if it would be hard to read but it's actually quite easy because Tolstoy's characters are distinct and his sense of action is vivid, always. Life and Fate is a slog from the jump. I am just getting into some chapters about domestic life, which focus on the family of a physicist living in exile from the war in a small city where they feel out of touch w/ intellectual and academic life. I will read more chapters today in the hope that maybe I was just unreceptive to this work yesterday (that happens - I always recommend giving books at least 2 days' worth of reading before putting them aside), but I'm not confident. Grossman may have been a dutiful scribe, but he does not seem to have the creative spark and insight that makes for a great or at least a good novelist.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A military novel in its purest form, devoid of ideology and almost outside of history: All Quiet on the Western Front

The brief afterword to the Random House "Reader's Edition" (who else would buy a book?) of Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, makes two good points. First, the editor (can't find editor's name online; sad) notes that here is no heroism in this novel; that is, it differs from most war fiction in that the life and death of the soldiers is almost entirely a matter of chance. Though there are some scenes involving courage, or at least endurance (notably, the night the narrator spends in a bomb crater alongside a dying French soldier) we don't have the sense that skilled or heroic soldiers have any better chance of survival than anyone else. The soldiers are part of a massive human attack wall, and some are mowed down by bullets or killed by explosions (later, by the advance of tanks) without distinction, just by chance. This novel makes the case that the 1st World War was the worst possible set of circumstances for foot soldiers: the military technology was lethal and there was no defense against advancing forces - just two armies facing off in trenches and killing each other one at a time until one of the forces has nothing left: pure brutality. Second point: The Nazi party and government hated this novel, tried to stop distribution, would have killed Remarque had he not taken refuge in Switzerland, and in fact did kill his sister. The crime: Showing German soldiers and cynical, vulnerable, sometimes afraid, sometimes shirking orders or standing up to authority - in other words, a realistic portrait of soldiers and military life (editor also notes, as I have posted earlier, that you could pretty much change the proper nouns and this could be a novel about English, French, or even American soldiers). This portrait directly opposed the Nazi vision of valorous, patriotic, loyal soldiers devoted to the fatherland; in fact, the one character who espouses patriotism and service is despised by the young men he'd encouraged to enlist. All Quiet is a war novel in its purest form, devoid of ideology and almost outside of history (in that it could, with the necessary changes, apply to any modern military action).

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The strange experience, for Americans, of fighting a battle within miles of the "homeland"

A few developments in Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, as a few of the German soldiers, recuperating in a base camp away from the front for a few days, swimming in the canal spot three French young women and begin flirting - and they make a date to meet them that night. The soldiers purloin some bread and sausages and swim across the river (naked, but carrying their boots!) and visit the young women; They ply them with provisions and then, presumably, have sex with the women (in keeping w/ protocol of the time, scenes of gruesome violence are OK but not scenes of sex). Readers have to think about these women: Are they prostitutes? Are they just that hungry that they'll sell their bodies for food? Are they just women out for a good time with some soldiers? There's no doubt that after the war these women will be branded as traitors, and perhaps justifiably. We develop some sympathy for the German soldiers over the course of this novel, but there are limits; consorting w/ the enemy seems beyond the pale. Later, the narrator goes home for 2 weeks of leave - a painful chapter as he feels he doesn't fit in anywhere; he senses that his family - mother ill w/ cancer, no social services to speak of, father working OT to pay medical bills, not enough food anywhere - is suffering, but he can't talk openly about the experiences of the front. He hears the usual bloviation from older men not in the service who have their own ideas about how to win the war and what territory German should seize - so easy for them to talk and boast, and there's nothing to say in response. In yet another painful scene he visits the mother of a dead comrade and swears to her that her son died instantly and w/out pain - an obvious palliative lie. It's strange for Americans to read of these two week visits home after service on the front, as we realize that for the past 150+ years we've never fought a battle on American soil. It's odd, to us, to have the battlefields so close to the "homeland" - making it easier in some ways to service, and in other ways much harder, as every town and village is in jeopardy. When the narrator returns from leave he's put to work in a post guarding Russian POWs, men who are suffering from near starvation. He is a humane man and provides them w/ some morsels of food when possible, and it's true that nobody really has enough to eat - but, still, the treatment of the POWs is deplorable and by today's standards - the Geneva Convention, if that's still in effect - borders on being a war crime.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A war novel without ideology: All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Marie Remarque's 1928 classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, is justly known for its depiction of battlefield conditions in the first World War - and by the middle of the novel, when the squadron of 150 men encounters its first days of continuous bombardment and attack, the vivid account of carnage becomes almost unbearable: details such as the rats and their constant attack on the few crusts of reak on which the soldiers depend for survival, the gruesome infantry attacks, w/ the German soldiers using spades (rather than bayonets) to kill or maim the French troops, the constant whistling, screaming, and thunderous explosion of shells and grenades, the aftermath with the moaning of the injured and maimed, the gas attacks that rip apart the lungs of the unwary, the rats fattening on the battleground corpses, so much, almost too much - and then the soldiers get a reprieve, a few days away from the front, and we wonder how they can ever summon the strength to go back. But Remarque's point is that the "veteran" soldiers - they're only 20 years old for the most part - become numb and inured, and as he notes several times they will never recover from the experiences they endured in the war (he wrote the novel about a decade after the war, in which he apparently served for a brief time in battle and a longer time in the hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds). English-language readers will always be a little uneasy reading this novel, which focuses on German troops attacking the French and possible English lines; in part of course the message is that for the ordinary soldier war is almost absurd - there's never a mention of any purpose in the war; the only hawkish patriotism comes from the elderly on the home front, notably the schoolmaster who encourages his students to enlist for the "fatherland." You could almost literally change the topical references and make this a novel about English, French, or even American soldiers and it would read just the same - translating not only the language but the nationalities - and that's also part of EMR's point - like that famous war poem "The Man He Killed." It's a novel about war stripped of politics and ideology.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A war stripped of politics, strategy, and enmy soldiers

Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, was brought to my attention recently when of all tings Bob Dylan cited it in his Nobel lecture s one of his 3 early literary inspirations - the only one of the 3 I hadn't read. I had, however, seen the movie when I was in h.s. and considered it one of the most influential films I'd ever seen - the first to get me to think seriously about pacifism and anti-war activities - in the beginning of the Vietnam era. I've read many novels about the first World War, most recently the excellent War and Turpentine, but reading All Quiet for the first time I can see that it was tremendously influential and formative, mainly because it's about the experience of war as lived and felt by ordinary foot soldiers. These soldiers are with the German army, pressing toward a front in France - but the nationality and the specifics of any one campaign are irrelevant. The power of this novel is that it's a work stripped of politics and of military strategy. It starts with the life of soldiers in an advancing army who are driven mainly by boredom, discomfort, and hunger. In the strange and powerful first scene they get their first full meal in sometime because an advance patrol lost half its men in an attack - so now the 80 remaining soldiers have enough rations for 150 men. The novel focuses on them martinet-like drill sergeants, the absurdities of military bureaucracy, and notably the bombastic patriotism of the schoolmasters who encouraged all patriotic young men to enlist - this latter played a big role in the movie and will I suspect in the novel, too. But just as we think this may be a forerunner to the mordant war comedy of say Catch-22, the men advance into a firestorm and we get a brutal scene of death, destruction, and survival by chance - a truly terrifying scene. What strikes me in particular is that we see absolutely no enemy soldiers - just the bombs, rockets, shells, bullets, and the sound of war - it's a war stripped of people and of antagonism, and all the more terrifying for that.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Thoughts on the ending of If Beale Street Could Talk and the forthcoming movie

There will be spoilers here, as I'm thinking about how Barry Jenkins may adapt James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk into a movie, with particular attention to the end of the novel. Now that I've finished reading the novel and have been surprised, in a sense, or maybe let down, by the ending, I think what Jenkins needs to do to give the narrative some structure and tension, that is, a dramatic arc, is to focus more than Baldwin did on the illegal incarceration of Fonny. I think I'd begin with the young couple, Fonny and Tish, as they search for a loft in which they can live and Fonny can work on his sculpture; there's a nice scene in the novel - almost at the end! - in which they rent the loft from a sympathetic landlord. Then they go out to celebrate, have a nice dinner at a restaurant owned by Fonny's friends, and then a confrontation at a grocery store where a young Italian guy starts touching Tish, Fonny comes to her rescue, and a racist cop intervenes and is obviously infuriated and humiliated by Fonny. Thus begin the troubles. I think there's a moment when Tish spits at the cop, and this can be the bridge back to the beginning of the relationship between Tish and Fonny - the screenplay can cut all they way back to their childhood and then bring them up to the present - and then the trouble resumes, as the cop engineers Fonny's arrest on rape charges (Jenkins will have to build this out more than Baldwin does). Then begin the family disputes over the fate of Fonny, and a rather desperate and odd effort to prove his innocence by tracking down the victim all the way to Puerto Rico and trying to get her to w/draw her testimony. The real dilemma: Does Jenkins want to stay true to Baldwin's vision and end w/ Fonny in prison for an indefinite period awaiting trial? With Fonny's father a suicide, frustrated by his inability to raise enough $ for bail? It's such a dark ending, and feels almost slapped on, as if Baldwin just had to finish with this novel so pulled some plot elements together in a rush. Yet that is his vision, and I doubt his executors would approve a version that completely changes the vision. Maybe there's a compromise - with Fonny out of prison but still facing doubt and anxiety about the forthcoming trial? As all of the world knows, there are many racist cops and literally countless frame-ups of young black men - but this story goes even further and imagines a complete racist conspiracy, a cop literally waiting for a crime that he can nail on Fonny, even though there is a ton of exculpatory evidence. Jenkins might do better to tone that down - not make it about a criminally vindictive cop but about a racist and indifferent system. All told, I thought this novel was headed toward a more upbeat conclusion - following on yesterday's post, I'd thought that JB made a point of noting that Fonny was not circumcised and I thought that would be a key bit of exculpatory evidence, boy was I wrong; I suspect Jenkins may ease off on the despair at least a little, making it a story of sad times but with a ray of hope, like the adaptation of Sapphire's Push (movie title: Precious).

Friday, July 14, 2017

Issues Barry Jenkins will face in adapting Baldin's novel for the screen

A couple of scenes in James Baldwin's 1974 novel (his last?), If Beale Street Could Talk (do others find this title kinda odd, given that the entire novel takes place in Manhattan? - I get the reference, but still), that Director Barry Jenkins (of Moonlight, looked his name up, sorry) will have to consider as he adapts this novel for his next film include: the "summit meeting" between the 2 families, Tish's and Fonny's (sorry, got his name wrong in yesterday's post my bad) to inform all that Tish is pregnant (while Fonny is in prison). What starts off as an OK meeting between two families that seem to bear each other no animosity becomes a violent, profane confrontation between the 2, leading to a complete break (this may touch on the Romeo-Juliet doomed lovers theme that JB introduced, though it's not quite the same as two long-term feuding families and a forbidden love affair - this just pushes the young couple into Tish's family orbit and estranges them from Fonny's). Jenkins will have to make this a central scene, but will have to cut radically; the novel reads much like a play at this point, but it would take far too much screen time to preserve all of the dialogue. The first sex scene between F and T will obviously be in the movie, but (one hopes) without all the talking and w/ no voice-over narration from T. The post-sex scene when the young couple goes to T's family to announce that they plan to get married is sweet and realistic and I'm sure BJ will want to make this a central, character-establishing scene. The big question is: How much of the false-arrest plot will he preserve and how will he handle it? To be honest, it's not Baldwin at his best here. Fonny was arrested on what by all accounts appears to be a case of mistaken ID and of police racism and malfeasance: He is charged w/ raping a woman, and a lot of the facts don't match up: he was far away from the scene at the time, for one thing. What Baldwin never or at least has not yet made clear is why and how the police would nab Fonny as a suspect. This element of the plot would be much stronger if JB had made it ambiguous, provided some explanation for the false arrest, some understanding of why the police would grab the wrong guy - this guy, in particular - and frame him. This may be something BJ will work on in his adaptation - building the tension and the doubt. I would say JB has dropped a major hint as to how Fonny will be exonerated; I won't divulge this now but will see if my hunch proves correct.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


Started re-reading James Baldwin's 1974 novel (his last?) If Beale Street Could Talk - I'd read it first sometime in the late 70s - which I've read that the writer-director of Moonlight is adapting as his next movie. The story itself is tame by today's standards (and by Baldwin's, much less groundbreaking than his debut Go Tell It on the Mountain or his novel on homosexuality Giovanni's room or his essays), as if he was trying to write a more conventional bed seller about a teen romance. The 17-year-old Tish, who has just learned she is pregnant by her 20-year-old boyfriend, Lonny, who is locked up in the Tombs. Over the first third we don't yet know why he's in prison; we do know that his family is sure he is innocent and has hired a pricey (white?) lawyer for his defense. Director (sorry can't remember his name right now) will have a lot of decisions to make. Novel begins w Tish and Lonny conversing thru glass at the prison as she tells him she's pregnant. Do you begin w this scene and then flash back or so you tell story chronologically: from their first meet on playground as kids fighting each other thru their first date (to L's family's Harlem church) to first sex at Lonny's e village apt (following dinner at rest where everybody knows L - a scene that reminded me of lady and the tramp!) and up to present when the 2 families gather to hear Tish' news? How do you preserve Tish's narrative voice: thru voice over? Do you have clear breaks among the various time segments as in Moonlight or go w the more conventional use of present narration w flashbacks? How much time if any do you spend on the back stories of secondary characters esp the parents and sisters of the two main characters? Most of all how do you build the narrative, which is pretty static - mostly back story - for the first third? What's the central conflict? Ominously Tish notes that her friends cal her and Lonny Romeo and Juliet - tho as she says they probably hadn't read the play. There may be an ominous note here; their families are by no means at war but is their romance doomed - and if so by what? Fate? Race? Poverty?

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

South Korean films are among the best today; a new piece of South Korean fiction in the New Yorker

Fine piece of fiction in the current double-issue (how do they get away with that?) New Yorker, Caring for Plants, by South Korean writer making I would guess first English-language magazine appearance, Hye-young Pyon. I'll consider the piece as a short story for the moment, and found it gripping and engaging right from the start, as we get a vivid "close-3rd-person" (i.e.,  told in 3rd person but never leaving the POV of the protagonist) of a 40-something man who is severely injured in a car accident that, we quickly learn, took the life of his wife, a passenger in his speeding car. Over the course of the story we follow his painful, gradual, partial recovery; he eventually leaves the hospital and goes home, under the care of his mother-in-law, w/ whom he had a tense relationship and who of course blames him for her daughter's death. The story touches on the creepy and horrendous as we gradually understand the magnitude of the mother-in-law's mistreatment of this man, and his frightening incapacity to do anything to improve his fate - it's a horror story in a way, but of a true-life sort, the horror of being imprisoned in a nonfunctional body (for ex., he can barely speak and cannot use a telephone). The story ends with a weird twist that I'm not sure I got - I think I did - but I won't give it away. But I will say that when you look at the bio-info at the front of the book you'll see he has a novel forthcoming in English, and I'm pretty sure this piece is an excerpt - you'll know what I mean when you finish. In some previous posts I have slammed New Yorker editors for relying too heavily on excerpts from forthcoming fiction, which seems to me often just flag waving and promotion; that said, this excerpt, if that's what it is, breaks the rules because of the stand-alone quality of the piece and because it introduces most if not all readers to a new voice. South Korean films are among the most interested made today, and this is a good step toward our seeing more of contemporary South Korean fiction.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Why I've change my thinking about Flaubert's Sentimental Education

Finished reading Flaubert's Sentimental Education while flying home from Paris via Air France - a great experience re-reading this novel daily while traveling through France over past 2 weeks; the sense of the streets of Paris in particular the great homes in the Fauborg Saint Germaine brought some sections of the novel even more to life - made it easier to comprehend the clashing of grandeur and privilege with the working-class lives all through the society that made life in such splendor possible for the few. Of course the working classes of Paris today are nowhere near the Fauborg, except insofar as the restaurants and bars are part of the working class - so the rage in the streets and the governmental upheavals in 1848 that GF re-creates so brilliantly seems like ancient history, which it is. Most of all I was struck by how different the novel seems to me at this stage in my life. I wouldn't have thought so but, like many great novels, it inevitably means something different to readers of different ages. I loved this novel when I was younger, and experienced it primarily as the story of a group of young men, one in particular (Frederic Moreau) who devote their lives to the pursuit of an abstract and elusive ideal and at the end look back and recognize that they have failed but that it was better to fail in a grand manner than never to have aspired. Frederic's obsession with the beautiful and inscrutable Mme Arnoux seemed to me a paradigm for love lost: His desire to the inaccessible woman seemed a way to protect himself from all true feelings, or sentiments, of love. Reading the novel today I am much more struck by Frederic's cruelty and vanity: He betrays 4 women, including the woman who gives birth to his only child; he inherits a great deal of money, which he squanders and wastes on senseless and useless possessions and items of status. He dabbles in politics but with no commitment to anyone but himself and no views or ideals. He is, in short, a dislikeable and shallow character, mean to everyone he meets and knows, a liar and a spendthrift. He sometime friend and sometime rival Arnoux is a scoundrel but at least good-hearted and full of life. So, in fact, I don't love the novel as much as I once did, sad to say, but still find it one of the great political novels of all time (even if much of the politics is obscure to contemporary readers), a terrific establishment of a set of characters and their inter-actions over the course of time, and most of all astonishing in its re-creation of various scenes and milieus, especial the pastoral interlude on Fountainbleu with the guns in Paris in the background, the street demonstrations, the salons and drawing room, Arnoux's art gallery and his ceramics factory, the near-death of Mme Arnoux's child, the boat ride up the Seine in the first chapter - so many. It also strike me that 2 other potential novels lurk in this one: Frederic's friend Deslauriers seems to have a life story worth telling (he fills us in a bit in the last chapter), and especially Rosanette, the "mistress" of many in this novel, would have been as good a subject for GF as Mme Bovary: the abuse she suffered in childhood, her rise to prominence in society as a mistress and, to put it bluntly, a whore, her devotion to Frederic, her own duplicity, her need to survive, her loss of a child - a great potential novel there!

Monday, July 10, 2017


Part 3 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education includes the long "pastoral" interlude in which Frederic and his "mistress," Rosanette, leave Paris for several weeks near Fountainbleu - they rent carriages and drive idly around the countryside day after day - neither money or time is ever an issue in their pointless lives - as the gunshots ring in the background. There's revolution in the air to which they are indifferent and oblivious. Over the course of this interlude we see the inevitable doom of this relationship of convenience - R clearly uninterested in the cultural observations the F offers. We also learn of her tragic background, sold into sex slavery at 15 to support her mother's drinking. F seems strangely unsympathetic- a shallow man. But his growing estrangement from R leads him to so far his most ennobling action in the novel - a dangerous return to Paris to help his wounded friend Dussardier. As it happens tho D doesn't need his medical attentions and the short-lived revolution is soon suppressed and F is none the wiser. In fact his relationships w women at this point descend to a new low as he not only continues to pursue the unhappy and vulnerable Mme Arnoux but he betrays R - now pregnant by the way - and is cruelly dismissive of Mlle Roque, the young woman from his home town who know nothing of his philandering and dissolution and naively believes they are soon to become officially engaged.

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Sunday, July 9, 2017


In part 3 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education we see the utter chaos of the political scene in Paris ca 1848 w a political party representing every shade and nuance of political belief and every special interest group (e.g. A party of artists...). To his credit Frederic has become interested in the world around him and is encouraged to run for a seat in the legislature. Of course it's not clear what he believes is, if anything, but at least for the moment he has stopped obsessing about Mme Arnoux, about his "mistress " Rosannette and about spending his fortune on trivialities. Flaubert has some fun w a few comic scenes at political rallies - Frederic does not fit in at all w these lifetime political obsessives, figures entirely familiar at American universities in the late 20th century and probably today. We also get a delightful scene in which the self-centered and probably corrupt aristocrat Dambeuse (?) comes to Frederic for protection - uttering self-serving inanities such as "after all, all of us are workers" or "dammit Proudhon has some really fine ideas." In other words the world has turned upside down overnight and everyone is doing what he or she can to survive - there are dead bodies in the streets as a reminder

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Saturday, July 8, 2017


Part 3 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education strikes a new tone as the first chapter focuses on the revolution in the street. Frederic at least for the first 20 pages or so has no direct or participatory role; rather, he is our point of view onto the revolutionary events - some of which are bloody and cruel. Flaubert seems to be a writer of omniscience but that's not quite correct; his omniscient descriptions of place, setting, character, and milieu are always mediated - Flaubert gives us in heightened form what his characters would see all around them but of course could never capture in language (part of the joke: Frederic has dreams of becoming a writer tho it's obvious he will always be a dilettante). The exceptions in Flaubert's narrative style, the few moments when has as author speaks directly to the reader, are therefore all the more striking bcz of their rarity as well as their beauty and precision - such as the famous aside in Mme Bovary about a mirror carried along beside a highway or about a writer pounding an a drum for bears to dance to when he wanted to move the stars. In Sentimental Education the 3rd section has F observe how each of his coterie has been engaged in the revolutionary actions- and for the first time in the novel F begins to think about others and about the forces that oppress others in his society - the beginning of his attaining self-knowledge, however painful and belated.

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Friday, July 7, 2017


The conclusion to part 2 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education is a classic, possibly the best example of cinematic that is montage-like naturalistic writing from the 19th century or from any era for that matter. Flaubert moves fluently among three narrative strands but not in a simplistic, ironic manner - rather each narrative strand complements the others and sharpens or perceptions about the character of the protagonist, Frederic Moreau, and about the culture in which he lives. Main narrative strand: F at last has gotten Mme arnoux to indicate that she loves him that she is tired of her troublesome husband and that she may be available. So F has rented and furnished a "love nest" and he sets up an appointment to meet Mme Arnoux and to secretly bring her to this abode. He by chance has set the assignation on a day that Paris is erupting w anti-royalist demonstrations so as he waits for her we hear gunshot and get occasional glimpses of the demonstrators - uncle F's friends. But he abandons his friends and any ideals he has left as he awaits Mme A and is furious that she does not show up. She is at home w her young boy who is near death from croup - and she comes to see this as a message from providence and vows to renounce the adulterous relationship she's almost entered. In the end F goes to the high-class prostitute, Rosannette, and declares he is no longer patient or gentlemanly - he flings himself on her and they have sex and he cries and says he's never been so happy. We have to wonder at this point if he had actually been virginal- or had some kind of sexual inhibitions or misfunctions (the end of the novel would suggest not). In any event by the end of this section we see his complete abnegation and solipsism - his indifference to the upheavals under way in his world, to the need of his so-called friends, and to the whole concept of marital and interpersonal fidelity.

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Toward the end of part 2 of Flaubert's Sentimental Education Frederic begins a relationship w the young (she seems to be 15 at most!) daughter of M Roque, the widower who has been interested in not exactly marrying but more like building a business alliance w F's mother back home in the provinces. We know F's relationship w Mlle Roque will fail as he is too drawn to the dissolute, amoral milieux of Paris - he will inevitably hurt her but it will be good for her to move beyond him. She is still young. But we get insight into F's troubled mind through his awkward "courtship" of Mlle Roque: He seems touched that she seems to be in love w him and he says she is the first person ever to do so and we feel that this is sad and true : even his mother seems mostly to want to push him into a career and she seems unaffectionate. He, too, is drawn to Mlle R by the wealth of her insidious father. Finally we sense that he will inevitably hurt her, that he is afraid of success in love, that he is attracted only to the unobtainable and that this kind of attraction is a defense that protects him from engagement with and commitment to others.

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017


In some ways Flaubert's two major protagonists - Mme Bovary and Frederic Moreau - have much in common and in other ways they are opposites. First, both are young people from the provinces who believe the only suitable life for people of their ambitions is the "big" city, which I put in quotes bcz for Bovary that's still a provincial capital. Second, each is dissatisfied w his/her station and place - EB believes she should be a great romantic figure and FM believes he should be an aristocratic gentleman. Both betray those closest to them in pursuit of their ideals and both prove destructive, cruel, and careless. Yet their endings are vastly different: Emma does by her own hand leaving family behind in tatters. Frederic abandons his dissolute life and at the end looks back and realizes he has wasted his life and given up any chance at happiness. Which is a worse fate? I would only say that the two dates differ in part because of gender and in part because of class. We cannot really imagine Emma ending her life by traveling (alone) across Europe and then looking back and saying her childhood adventures were the best time of all. She is beset by too many obligations to do so. Nor can we imagine Frederic poisoning himself; men of his class or at least he likes to imagine his class are not prone to histrionics - killing himself by poison would have been the ultimate in déclassé and would have made Sentimental education a trashy romance novel - the sort that Emma would read in fact.

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017


Left off at a dramatic point in Flaubert's Sentimental Education last night as Frederic prepares to duel Cisy, his pretentious and insecure aristocratic friend, in a matter of so-called honor. C at a dinner of other young aristos is made increasingly uncomfortable as the others insult him and it's obvious he's the least sophisticated and worldly in the group. Trying to sound tough and experienced he says something insulting about Arnoux; F steps up to A's defense. C stupidly says the one good thing about A is his sexy wife - at which point F gets enraged and throw a plate at C. I love that Flaubert slyly notes that as the drinking boys try to sort out this affair of honor the waiters clean up the mess. Anyway: a duel. Even in this comic duel, which reminds me of augucheek's duel in 12th Night, it's obvious that this behavior w all of the attendant code - the seconds, the choice of weapons, and so on - show the 19th c aristocracy at its most barbaric. This novel continues to bring Frederic deeper into the lower depths and what we have to wonder is will he ever become educated about feelings and responsibilities and if he ever does will there be anything left of his life to save.

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Monday, July 3, 2017


By the midpoint of Sentimental Education the protagonist, frederic, has touched the lower depths. He completely abandons his commitment to his lifelong friend, Deslaurier, after promising to give him a lot of money to back his political publication F changes his mind and gives the money to the insidious Arnoux to pay a creditor. Even F can't be stupid enough to believe A will ever pay him back. In fact he gives him the money so as to ingratiate himself in the eyes of Mme A whom he continues to pursue - at least in his mind. But despite his obsession w her he cannot bring himself to approach her directly and all of the "signals" she gives him suggest that she is virtuous and loyal to her husband - who is not faithful in kind. In short F is at this point in the novel completely feckless and immoral. At the same time his friends are becoming increasingly obsessed and bitter in fact Delaurieais seems to be a bipolar character talking feverishly about his political plans. Meanwhile the wealthy Desmaurier (?) has enticed F to buy shares in a coal scheme - another way in which F is throwing away his money to impress others - he cannot see how people are abusing him and takin advantage of him. One scene I particularly like is F'a visit to A's ceramics factory - which turns Out of course to be far less grand than he'd been led to believe. In fact if I could edit Flaubert for a moment the scene would have been even better is there were no manufacturing under way at all. Either way, F is a fool and we'll see what he learns in his "education "

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Sunday, July 2, 2017


In part 2 of Sentimental Education Flaubert sets up a contrast between the two social milieux that pull Frederic on opposite directions. He goes to a social gathering at the dwelling of the prosperous high-ranking businessman Desmaurier (?) where the conversation is insipid and politically reactionary - and later F has a gathering of his friends from the old days before he was wealthy and they have a lively debate about art and politics, leaning to the left of course. His friends begin to emerge as distinct characters and we esp focus on Deslaurier, his best friend fro youth, who becomes increasingly angered by political injustice. His goal is to run a newspaper that will espouse views of the left and he and another of the crowd out the squeeze on F - he at first says he's a little strapped, which stirs D'a anger: it's ok for you to live in a mansion while others are on the street. Guilt-tripped, F comes thru w a large contribution, realizing that he is already running thru his vast inheritance. Meanwhile, he is trying to make the flirtatious (at best) Roseannette (?) aka The Marshall, his mistress - not clear how this fits in w his obsession about Mme Arnoux except that maybe he is afraid of winning her. He develops a ridiculous plan to have one of his crowd paint R's portrait and to be present at each sitting. In sum, he thinks he's a great lady's man, a great schemer, a great friend, and a great patron - but he is none of these. He's a shallow and ignorant young man who treat women and his male friends badly and his heading toward a fall.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017


So Frederic returns to Paris as a rich young man and immediately sets off in search of the Arnoux family - now that he's rich he suspects he can sweep Mme A off her feet so to speak - but on arrival he finds that the A's have moved inexplicably and given no forwarding info. He spends two frustrating (and comic) days trying to track them down for which we say serves you right - he is entirely Del-centered and a complete ingrate at this point in the novel. When he finds them m Arnoux explains that he had to give up hid line as an art dealer and go into ceramics because nobody is serious about art any longer - and F is foolish enough to believe this, while it's obvious to all readers that A is a scoundrel who had to run away from creditors. Making thing worse F goes off w A - leaving Mme at home - for a night of debauchery at one of the most decadent soirees in literature - the complete counterpart to the salons of, say, Proust - party ends w the guests literally smashing all the china and nobody seems to care except maybe A who provided the china to the host, his mistress. At this point we can only say to Frederic: if you can't see how worthless these people are you will get what you deserve. To top it off he spends a huge part of his inheritance buying and furnishing a new house - noting that there would be room to house his impoverished best friend but he doesn't want the guy around interfering w his efforts to seduce Mme Arnoux so he knocks out a wall and converts the extra bedroom into a smoking lounge. How petty and mean-spirited.

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