Category Archives: Flaubert, Gustave

‘Sentimental Education’ by Gustave Flaubert

Sentimental Education (L’Éducation sentimentale), published in 1869, was Flaubert’s third novel and is possibly his most autobiographical work in that it covers the life of someone of similar age and background as Flaubert himself. He had already written an unpublished novel with that name in 1845 and decided to return to the subject matter in 1863—I’m not sure if the early version has ever been published, in either French or English. The story’s main focus is on the early adult life of Frédéric Moreau in the years leading up to the 1848 revolution and more specifically Frédéric’s unconsummated love affair, or infatuation, with the older Mme (Marie) Arnoux, which is based on Flaubert’s own infatuation with an older married woman, Élisa Schlesinger.

The novel begins with Frédéric returning home by boat to Nogent-sur-Seine from his schooling in Paris. Two months hence he will return to Paris to begin his legal studies at university. On board the boat he strikes up a conversation with an older man, Jacques Arnoux, who runs an art journal/shop in Paris. After taking leave of M. Arnoux he comes across a beautiful woman who turns out to be Mme Arnoux.

    What he then saw was like an apparition:
    She was seated in the middle of a bench all alone, or, at any rate, he could see no one, dazzled as he was by this vision. At the moment when he was passing, she raised her head; his shoulders bent involuntarily; and, when he had placed himself some distance away, on the same side, he looked at her.
    She wore a wide straw hat with pink ribbons which fluttered in the wind, behind her. On either side, her black hair traced the curve of her large eyebrows, descended very low, and seemed amorously to press the oval of her face. Her robe of light muslin spotted with tiny dots spread out in numerous folds. She was in the act of embroidering something; and her straight nose, her chin, her entire person was cut out on the background of the blue sky.
[…]
    Never had he seen such lustrous dark skin, such a seductive figure, or such delicately shaped fingers as those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past? He longed to become familiar with the furniture of her apartment, all the dresses that she had worn, the peope whom she visited; and the desire of physical possession itself yielded to a deeper yearning, a painful curiosity that knew no bounds.

When Frédéric quickly reacts to prevent Mme Arnoux’s shawl from falling into the sea, she thanks him before she’s whisked away by M. Arnoux. Frédéric is completely smitten.

When Frédéric is back in Paris studying he meets someone who works for M. Arnoux and manages to become an acquaintance of Arnoux’s with the goal of meeting Mme Arnoux. Frédéric discovers that although M. Arnoux has many mistresses Mme Arnoux has no lovers. Frédéric eventually gets an invitation to dinner from M. Arnoux where he can hopefully be introduced to Arnoux’s wife. In order to impress her Frédéric spends money on new and expensive clothes. It turns out that his longtime friend from back home, Deslauriers, plans to arrive in Paris on that same day. Frédéric is so obsessed with meeting Mme Arnoux that he abandons his friend at home without a thought. He has a wonderful time, he manages to talk briefly with Mme Arnoux, and when he returns home in the evening he is surprised to find his friend in his flat as he’d completely forgotten about him during the evening.

Flaubert introduces us to many characters—fellow students of Frédéric, acquaintances of Arnoux, Arnoux’s mistresses and friends from home. They begin to blur together a bit as the narrative flits between them quite briskly. They are all pretty much selfish, bland characters and Flaubert very rarely delves into their lives or their thoughts; instead we discover the characters only through their spoken words and their actions and we are never sure whether they are telling the truth or not. Frédéric is rather feckless, lacks any ambition or focus, is amoral, fickle and is never satisfied. Even his love for Mme Arnoux fades when she is no longer nearby, only to re-awaken when she comes to his notice again. By the end of Part One it is revealed that Frédéric has come into an inheritence, just when he was thinking that his future looked bleak. This then allows him to return to Paris to live the high-life. He squanders money but is not totally reckless with it. He lends money to friends when they ask for it and rarely gets it back. He is offered a job by the wealthy acquaintance, M. Dambreuse, but fails to take him up on it. He seems to have charm but we rarely experience it ourselves. Through the novel he gets involved with one of M. Arnoux’s mistresses, Rosanette, with whom he has a child, Louise Roque a childhood sweetheart who loves Frédéric and asks him to marry her—he equivocates despite the fact that she is attractive, wealthy and eager to marry him. By the end of the novel he has an affair with the wife of the wealthy M. Dambreuse, with whom marriage arrangements are made upon the death of her husband. But as soon as any of these other women are available to him he loses interest in them as he is still infatuated with Mme Arnoux.

I very nearly gave up on this novel early on as not only was the main character maddening but all the others were as well. Frédéric is incredibly self-centred, he lacks any depth whatsoever and yet nearly everything seems to work in his favour in the end. The only thing that Frédéric is focused on is Mme Arnoux but even that we wonder whether it’s just out of habit rather than any true feelings towards her—when he meets her years later he is shocked that her hair is grey and he instantly loses interest in her. Flaubert’s style of writing doesn’t help as at times it just seems like he’s uninterested in the characters and just seems happy to catalogue one event after another with no apparent control over it. I have been reading Frederick Brown’s biography, Flaubert: A Life, alongside my current readings of Flaubert’s works and it’s interesting to hear what Brown says about it.

The novel leads everywhere and nowhere, like a maze of paths all running into culs-de-sac.

A contemporary critic described it as a ‘compendium of descriptions’ and Henry James said: ‘the book is in a single word a dead one’. Even Flaubert himself was unsure of the book. Here’s another quote from Brown:

Flaubert’s correspondence seldom sounded a confident note about L’Éducation sentimentale during the entire four and a half years of its composition. While creating a modern antihero in Frédéric Moreau, he kept berating him for his modernity. How could so ineffectual a character captivate readers?

Although it was a bit of a struggle to read I have found that I have grown to like it more since finishing it. It’s one of those books that stays with you and besides, I keep thinking I must have missed something important, especially as many people have given it glowing reviews. Still, there were some funny and/or interesting episodes in the book; one of my favourites was a duel scene between Frédéric and a character called Marquis de Cisy. Both duellists were cocky to begin with but by the time of the duel both were wishing that it could be cancelled. The duel is abandoned when Cisy faints and grazes his thumb. Blood is drawn. Honour is saved.

My next Flaubert book was going to be Salammbô, which is set in Carthage following the First Punic War, but will now likely be a library book that collects three very early stories by him: Memoirs of a Madman, Bibliomania and November. And there’s the biography to finish as well.

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Flaubert’s ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’

It is thought that Flaubert had intended a second-volume of Bouvard and Pécuchet which was to consist of the collected writings of its titular characters. It may well have included his Dictionary of Received Ideas (Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues) which wasn’t published until 1911-13. This satirical dictionary was added to the end of my Penguin copy of Bouvard and Pécuchet and I thought it would be fun to share a few of my favourite entries.

AUTHORS  One should ‘know a few authors’: no need to know their names.
BEETHOVEN  Don’t pronounce Beatoven. Be sure to swoon when one of his works is being played.
BLONDES  Hotter than brunettes (See BRUNETTES)
BOOK  Always too long, whatever the subject.
BREAD  Nobody knows what filth goes into it.
BRUNETTES  Hotter than blondes. (See BLONDES)
CELEBRITIES  Find out the smallest details of their private lives, so that you can run them down.
CRUCIFIX  Looks well above a bed—or on the scaffold.
DEICIDE  Wax indignant over it, even though the crime is somewhat infrequent.
EARLY RISING  A sign of morality. If one goes to bed at four in the morning and rises at eight, one is lazy; but if one goes to bed at nine in the evening and gets up the next day at five, one is an active type.
ENGLISHMEN  All are rich.
ENGLISHWOMEN  Express surprise that they can have pretty children.
FEUDALISM  No need to have any clear idea what it was, but thunder against it.
GIBBERISH  Foreigners’ way of talking. Always make fun of the foreigner who speaks your language badly.
GODFATHER  Always the godchild’s real father.
HEALTH  Excess of health causes illness.
HERNIA  Everybody has one without knowing it.
IDEALS  Perfectly useless.
IDIOTS  Those who think differently from you.
IDLERS  All Parisians are idlers, although nine out of ten Parisians come from the provinces. In Paris nobody works.
JAPAN  Everything there is made of china.
LAW (THE)  Nobody knows what it is.
LITERATURE  Occupation of idlers.
MEDICINE  When in good health, make fun of it.
NEIGHBOURS  Try to get them to do you favours without its costing you anything.
OPTIMIST  Synonym for idiot.
PROPERTY  One of the foundations of society. More sacred than religion.
RABBIT PIE  Always made of cat.
SERIALS  The cause of our present demoralization. Argue about the way the story will end. Write to the author suggesting ideas. Fly into a rage when you find that one of the characters bears your name.
SPELLING  Like mathematics. Not necessary if you have style.
TOYS  Should always be educational.
UNPOLISHED  Whatever is antique is unpolished, and whatever is unpolished is antique. Remember this when buying antiques.
WEALTH  Substitute for everything, even reputation.
WORKMAN  Always honest, unless he is rioting.

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‘Bouvard and Pécuchet’ by Gustave Flaubert

Of all of Flaubert’s works the one that most appealed to me was Bouvard and Pécuchet, a story about two clerks who embark on a mission to understand everything. It was published posthumously in 1881; it was an unfinished work even though Flaubert had been working on it for nearly ten years. An earlier draft from 1863 exists which has what I feel is a better title, The Two Woodlice (Les Deux Cloportes). The two woodlice, Bouvard and Pécuchet, are single, middle-aged clerks who happen to meet and strike up a friendship one day in 1838. The meeting takes place on the first page of the book and has a Beckettian feel to it.

Two men appeared.
One came from the Bastille, the other from the Jardin des Plantes. The taller of the two, in a linen costume, walked with his hat pushed back, waistcoat undone and cravat in hand. The smaller one, whose body was enveloped in a brown frock-coat, had a peaked cap on his bent head.
When they came to the middle of the boulevard they both sat down at the same moment on the same seat.
Each took off his hat to mop his brow and put it beside him; and the smaller man noticed, written inside his neighbour’s hat, Bouvard; while the latter easily made out the word Pécuchet, in the cap belonging to the individual in the frock-coat.
‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘we both had the same idea, writing our names inside our headgear.’
‘My word, yes! Someone might take mine at the office.’
‘The same with me, I work in an office too.’
Then they studied each other.

They quickly become good friends, meeting each other at lunch or after work to go for a walk, sharing meals and conversation. They are, however, quite different: Bouvard is a widower, he has curly hair, he is rotund and is quite sociable; whereas Pécuchet is a bachelor, has black hair and is rather morose. One day Bouvard is notified that he has inherited his uncle’s fortune—this uncle is actually Bouvard’s natural father. Bouvard decides to wait until his retirement before moving to the country at Chavignolles. There is no question of Pécuchet being left behind and he is invited to share Bouvard’s good fortune.

This all happens in the first chapter. In the second chapter Bouvard and Pécuchet get used to their new surroundings and try to find out how to survive in the country. Although those around them offer advice both men dive into books and magazines to determine the best way to run their farm. They take up every hare-brained scheme that they come across, which often involves paying a lot of money for equipment, and ignore the advice of others. This sets the pattern of the whole book whereby Bouvard and Pécuchet decide they need to know about something, they then do some research and try to put in practice whatever they come across, fail, then move on to their next obsession. For example, Bouvard has read that bleeding his bullocks will fatten them up, they end up dying from it; he decides to make beer from germander (mint family) leaves which cause intestinal problems of those that try it; they decide to have a pear orchard but all the trees die. They try making jam, pickling vegetables and making bread, but fail. They then get a still and try to produce liqueurs, but after narrowly escaping death when the still explodes, Pécuchet says ‘Perhaps it is because we don’t know any chemistry!’ And so chapter three is about their attempts to understand chemistry then anatomy, medicine etc. Each subsequent chapter is taken up with their search for knowledge on a variety of subjects, always with the same lack of success. Initially Bouvard and Pécuchet are optimists, always convinced that they will be successful but by the time they get to study philosophy in chapter eight they have finally had enough and decide to commit suicide on Christmas Day but then upon seeing a midnight mass procession they turn to God. The book doesn’t end there as they end up adopting two children and then try to find the best way to educate them. Although the book is unfinished Flaubert left a plan which indicates that they end up getting a double-sided desk made so that they can go back to their original work as copyists.

Bouvard and Pécuchet is certainly a strange book and one that takes a bit of getting used to as there is no real narrative just the cycle of attempt and failure. Flaubert tries to connect the chapters to give it some overall structure but this can be rather tenuous. Although a lot of the episodes were humorous I felt that Flaubert was holding back on the humour. I wondered about his aims in writing such a book and most of what I read about it suggests that he was trying to show how pointless most knowledge is. But for me the problem is with Bouvard’s and Pécuchet’s approach to knowledge; they seem to be uncritical consumers of all knowledge regardless of its source, they seem unable to learn from their mistakes, they are merely dabblers and dilettantes and seem unwilling to listen to others’ advice. For example the fact that they can’t grow pear trees is not because the knowledge to do so is not there but it is because they are fools who are incapable of processing the information. After all, it is possible to grow pear trees. That there is a lot of useless, wrong or dangerous information around is apparent to the modern-day internet user and the ability to sift out all this crap from the relevant and useful information is a daily task that we all have to perform—sadly there are still many modern-day Bouvards and Pécuchets around.

However, all this reading had disturbed their brains.

I had a quick look in Frederick Brown’s biography of Flaubert, Flaubert: A Life, to see if I could uncover a bit more about Flaubert’s intentions in writing this book and what exactly drove him to continue with it for so long. It was interesting to find that Turgenev warned him from making it too heavy and suggested the story lent itself to a satire. Flaubert ignored Turgenev’s advice. In a letter to his sister, dated 6th June 1877, he wrote ‘At times, the immense scope of this book stuns me. What will come of it? I only hope I’m not deceiving myself into writing something goofy rather than sublime. No, I think not! Something tells me I’m on the right path! But it will be one or the other.’ I think it is more goofy than sublime, but I don’t see that as a negative criticism as I believe that Flaubert should have played up the ‘goofiness’ even more.

In the end the main problem with it is that it’s a bit too repetitive. I felt that the last couple of chapters became a bit more focused as their route from philosophy to religion then to education had more of a narrative drive than the earlier progression through literature, drama, politics and love. It was quite a fun book to read and it was a shame Flaubert didn’t finish it but I feel that he should have paid more attention to Turgenev’s advice.

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