Penguins on Parade: Sentimental Education!
Some Penguin Classics live forever in the shadow of their more famous brethren, which is of course unfair. My lit’rary friends and I have often lamented the way so many authors are best known for their second-best work, and predicting when and how it’ll happen seems to boil down to divining the urgencies of high school literature instructors. Joseph Heller is known for Catch-22, not God Knows; Anthony Burgess is known for A Clockwork Orange, not Earthly Powers; John Gardner is known for Grendel, not The Sunlight Dialogues …the list goes on, and it has a long pedigree.
Gustave Flaubert’s haunting 1869 masterpiece L’Education Sentimentale is a perfect case in point. Flaubert took longer to write it than any of his other novels, worked harder on it, populated it with more characters than anything else he’d written, sweated blood to purge the book clean of the petty contrivances and emotional shortcuts of, for instance, Madame Bovary (which he’d written more than a decade before), only to have the final product greeted with tepid curiosity – and to have his day’s foremost critic of contemporary fiction, Henry James, pin the thing to the cork-board of popular estimation with one of those instantly memorable put-downs at which he was so adept: he called it a dead novel.
As a critic, James had a bad habit (shared by many a critic in his own day and since) of confusing “I am bored and I am reading this novel” with “This novel is boring me,” and that’s certainly what he was doing in his review. But it’s unlikely the book would have prospered even if James had championed it (as some scattered other critics did)(although not in Boston, where the critic for the Evening Transcript made bad-tempered reference to “the endless, pointless chattering of a canopy full of monkeys”); it shared virtually none of the primary-color concentration of Madame Bovary, had no clear focal point of reader sympathy, indeed could almost be said to have no point, in the easy-reducibility modern understanding of that term.
In short, it’s a harder book than its much more famous predecessor, much as Tender is the Night is a harder book than The Great Gatsby or Against the Day is a harder book than Gravity’s Rainbow. Harder books are almost always more intriguing than easier books, especially when you know the author has genuine talent. That genuine talent is a quicksilver thing, half insecure improvisation, half nervous commercialism – the fact that it’s so untrustworthy is why we so often tend to distrust the writers who move us the most. The place where those writers can be most explicitly trusted – the place, ironically, where they’re most like the rest of us – is in the heart of the fire that burns them: if you want to know an author’s mind, go to his easiest work, but if you want to know an author, whole and personal, go to his hardest book and don’t let up until you’ve cracked it open.
Sentimental Education is tough to crack open, although readers without French are given every help by Robert Baldick’s clear-as-glass 1964 Penguin Classics translation. Flaubert’s cast of characters is bewilderingly vast, but at the heart of it all is Frederic Moreau, an innocent young man from the provinces (where have we heard that before?) who comes to the big city with half-articulated hopes to make it his own. He falls into an erotic-platonic strange relationship with Marie Arnoux, an older married woman, although that relationship doesn’t blind him to the fact that he himself is the object of a similar strange passion on the part of young Louise Roque. These characters (and many, many others) are intensely, immediately involved with each other, and yet Flaubert softens even their most trivial exchanges with the glow of nostalgia, as when Frederic and Louse are walking in a garden and just naturally start reminiscing like elders on an age long past:
“Do you remember when I used to take you into the country?”
“How kind you were to me!” she replied. “You helped me to make sand-castles, to fill my watering-can, to hold on to my swing.”
“What’s become of all those dolls of yours that were called after queens or marquises?”
“I’ve really no idea.”
“And your little dog Darky?”
“He got drowned, the poor dear!”
“And the Don Quixote with the illustrations we colored together?”
“I’ve still got it!”
A great deal of time passes in the novel; we follow our large cast of characters through all of life’s little triumphs and reversals, we see them come to mean everything to each other and then cease to, and the long shadows of oncoming loss darken even their few perfectly happy moments – and Flaubert finds the sweetness in that, better than any other French writer of his day. “In every parting,” he famously tells us, “there comes a moment when the beloved is already no longer with us.”
“This isn’t how we expected to end up in the old days at Sena, when you wanted to write a critical history of philosophy, and I a great medieval novel about Nogent. I’d found the subject in Froissart: How Messire Brokars de Fenestranges and the Bishop of Troyes attacked Messire Eustache d’Ambrecicourt. Do you remember?”
And as they exhumed their youth, they asked each other after every sentence:
“Do you remember?”
Baldick emcumbers his excellent edition with very few end-notes and, miraculously, a brief and businesslike Introduction, so the whole focus of this Penguin Classic is on the book itself. It’s a valiant effort, however (fittingly?) doomed. Emma will have her way in the end.