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

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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!

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