Saturday, 10 May 2014

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert


Sentimental Education though saturated in cynicism still retains a notion of what is high and holy and a guiding light and principle that sustains hope in vicissitudes. Though single it comes in many forms; Louis, Napoleons, Francs and Centimes. I speak of money in the form of legacies, loans, defalcations, escroquerie,, dodgy business, usery, grand horizontalery, palm greasing and occasionally earned honestly. The banker Dambreuse has as his coat of arms:

Monsieur Dambreuse’s arms, in a velvet square were repeated on it three times. They were ‘sable, with sinister arm or, and clenched fist gauntleted argent’, with a count’s coronet and the motto: ‘By every path’.

What happened in ‘89? Was the tree of Liberty not sufficiently fertilised by the blood of aristocrats. Seemingly not because 30 years later they, the aristos, were back and the sans culottes were still pulling their long tailed shirts between their legs. Frederic Moreau the hero or anti-hero of this novel is the son of a noblewoman, an extinct line, with a small encumbered estate. In this complex novel with rapid and confusing time changes indebtedness is traced with precision. Frederic’s chagrin at finding out just how mortagaged his estates are is narrated with feeling. The spectre of employment is staring him in the face, only an heiress can save him now. However this classic French route to greatness is denied him by an unrealistic romantic passion for the wife of a friend, Jacques Arnoux. This man is one of the more attractive rascals in the book who is given roaming rights by his wife but who herself remains virtuous. According to the translator, Robert Baldick, this element in the story tracks closely an infatuation of Flaubert’s.

Frederic’s love must have been noted by the bohemian circle he moved in , his secret glances and sheep’s eyes certainly mocked though we must infer this as the centre of consciousness in the novel is Frederic’s. It is his emotional education after all and his blankness gives him an EQ of 75. He flies into the arms of a courtesan when the assignation made with Madame Arnoux is cancelled when her child is afflicted by croup. That scene where his death seems immanent is rendered beautifully:

’Yes my love, my angel, my precious!’
She went to fetch some toys, a doll, a picture-book, and spread them out on his bed to amuse him. She even tried to sing.
She started a song which she used to sing to him when she was dandling him on her knees and dressing him in his baby-clothes in that very same little tapestry chair. But he shivered along the whole length of his body, like a wave in a gust of wind, his eyeballs stood out, she thought he was going to die, and turned away to avoid seeing him.

The death of the courtesan’s child is treated as a vulgar farce. He has been with a baby farmer in the country and one suspects that the complicated debts of his mother may have caused her to neglect paying his keep. We meet with this form of infanticide in many novels of the 19th.century.

I was reading the Penguin Classics edition translated by Baldick with introduction and endnotes which elucidate the political allusions in the book which are many. Some of the cobblestones must have been hurled many times. My book bristles with post its marking fine passages. It will be re-read. That cutting of a lock of white hair at the end. Just a master stroke and there are so many like it.

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