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Monday, June 14, 2021

Review of "A Sentimental Education"

 

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Flaubert is more famous for what is called “The Perfect Novel” - “Madame Bovary”, but to me, about to begin my 8th decade, “A Sentimental Education” (SE) is really his greatest work. (Unfortunately, I don’t read French so my understanding and appreciation is no doubt limited by that).

SE covers the active adult life of Frédéric and his lifelong love for the older wife of a friend and business partner, Madame Armoux. There are many other characters who come and go through the years. It is a long, extended account of their youthful friendships, petty betrayals, reconciliations, failures, and revivals over the course of about a quarter of a century.

There is a lot going on in the background which makes it doubly fascinating for us in the Boomer generation. I spent several semesters studying 19th Century European history, so the period - the incredible Revolutions of 1848, the Franco Prussian war, the rise of Bismarck, the Paris Commune, is all pretty familiar to me. SE is about a young liberal from the provinces, who doesn’t want to give up his newly won place in the middle class, and who during the 1848 Revolution, thought he was living through the arrival of freedom and democracy for the France and the rest of the European continent. But then, drip by drip, in the major centers of power, the counter attacks from the Right succeed and you can feel the exuberance of life drain out of Fredric and his compatriots. In Paris, where all the action takes place, Emperor Napoleon III, the second rate nephew of the first Bonaparte, takes power. The thrill is gone, but life and the petty bourgeois drama of Frederic and his acquaintances goes on, and they replace their revolutionary zeal with serial seductions and betrayals.

As a parallel to our times, the Sixties were a kind of 1848 moment. Like 1848, the revolutionary movement was worldwide, and it combined not just politics, but art, and literature and culture. But as perhaps happened to us, time passes and the purity of their feelings slowly becomes polluted. For Frederic and his friends, whose relationships are defined by those heady student days of demonstrating against the power, they have a second chance 23 years later in the aftermath of the Franco Prussian War, during the brief Paris Commune, with its refrain “To the Barricades!” But they are now older and have their petty lives with some pitiful fortunes to protect. And thousands caught in the wrong palace at the wrong time are being shot. Their reaction to it, their self justifications and avoidance of the larger reality all is quite interesting in light of how we baby boomers have reacted to Trump.

But it is the way Flaubert shows the passage of time and how his characters react and feel this passage which is the most amazing feature of the novel. It is a difficult book to read, especially, I suppose, if you are not steeped in the history of those times. Flaubert thrust you into the middle of things with little introductory preparation. You feel unmoored, and even though you might know that outside their petty jealousies and recriminations and flare ups of romantic feelings and subsequent melancholies, the reader knows there is a world going on out there, and sometimes wonders, do they know? How much does any of it matter? It is a lesson in life. I have read it twice and feel I am only just beginning to understand this novel.

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