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Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Gustave Flaubert

Book Review
Sentimental Education
by Gustav Flaubert
p. 1869
Read Penguin Paperback Edition

   You can't really appreciate Flabuert's novel, Sentimental Education, without getting a sense of the way the main character's name is written.  It is spelled "FREDERIC" without the accents.  In many of the translations they translate his name to FREDERICK, and that just misses so much of the subtlety of the name itself.  A large portion of the plot of Sentimental Education describes the attempt of a young, provincial man trying to "make it" in the big city.   In that regard it is the inspiration for a more contemporary take on the same theme like Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.

  In Sentimental Education, Frederic Moreau is helped by what is termed a "modern inheritance" - not enough to conquer, but enough to keep him in the game.   Part of what makes Sentimental Education a frankly  scintillating example of the Novel as Art Form is the way Flaubert integrates the exciting current events of the time and place (Paris, France, mid 19th century) with a very insightful, very cutting Novel of manners.

  The way Flaubert depicts Frederic Moreau stumbling through puddles of blood and dead bodies with a kind of spirit akin to that displayed by Alex in Clockwork Orange- a kind of gleeful sang froid, will be recognizable to any critic who has had to cope with the output of hyper-prolific internet rap acts like Odd Future- "SKIPPING THROUGH THE BODIES" I call it.   Well, at the very least, it's nothing new.

   Sentimental Education is also worth reading for the tour-de-force depiction of material possessions- which is definitively a trait picked up by a modern Author like Brett Easton Ellis.  Although writers like France Burney or the Bronte sister depicted social space, they didn't really depict the material dimension of that space- the possessions.   Flaubert, with his lavish depictions both memorializes and satirizes what we call "consumer culture"- he's writing about Paris in the 1840s.

   A third dimension of mastery of the Novel as Art Form that Flaubert shows in Sentimental Education is his manipulation of time in the novel to pull the reader along by the force of events.  Again, this is a big, big difference between Sentimental Education and earlier Novels- they are very, very clumsy when it comes to time.   Many fields of Artistic endeavor have seen a general shortening of length- or compression- of the form- whether it be MP3s or the Short Story.

  It's important to be able to appreciate Sentimental Education as a satire similar to the effect that Burgess was going for in Clockwork Orange or Ellis in American Psycho.  At the same time there is the very real and realistic depiction of human emotion that certainly came from "with-in."   I suspect that's an ingredient to every classic novel that many non classic novels lack- people don't care about the characters.

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