Ford Madox Ford said that one had to read Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education fourteen times in order to fully grasp it; he had memorized whole sections of it. Franz Kafka said it was one of his favorite novels. Not bad for a book that was widely criticized for its heartlessness and cynicism when it was published.
People speak glibly about Flaubert’s style. I’ve noticed that the best way to get people to talk about your “style” is to talk about it yourself. That’s what Flaubert did, and Truman Capote as well. Flaubert’s correspondence attested to his hours spent on his couch, his “marinade,” searching for le mot juste; he would write just a few paragraphs a day.
What are the earmarks of Flaubert’s style in Sentimental Education, the subject of Peter Brooks’s Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris? Short sentences and mostly short scenes, more actual dialogue than in the earlier Madame Bovary, but most of the dialogue summarized in free indirect discourse, which has none of the intimacy of actual, stuttered, circular, self-serving talk but makes the scenes move along at a clip. The descriptions (unlike Nabokov’s, say) never draw attention to themselves but are an exquisite assemblage of closely observed, muted details, as in this one of the novel’s main character, Frédéric Moreau, dining with Madame Arnoux, the married woman with whom he is in love:
He scarcely uttered a word during these dinners; he gazed at her. On her right temple she had a little beauty-spot; her bandeaux were darker than the rest of her hair, and always seemed a little moist at the edges; she stroked them occasionally, with two fingers. He knew the shape of each of her nails; he loved listening to the rustle of her silk dress when she passed a door; he secretly sniffed at the scent on her handkerchief; her comb, her gloves, her rings were things of real significance to him, as important as works of art, endowed with life almost human; they all possessed his heart and fed his passion.
Few of Frédéric’s thoughts are given, but when they are, they are often of a sudden romantic élan, a shiver of the old romantic agony, almost immediately neutralized by a mundane detail or cynical thought. Thus when his old friend Deslauriers wants to meet his beloved Madame Arnoux, Frédéric thinks he would gladly risk his life for his friend, but then he is worried that Deslaurier’s shabby “black coat, his attorney-like behavior, and his extravagant remarks, might annoy Madame Arnoux, compromise him and lower him in her estimation.”
Frédéric nurses romantic impulses, but he doesn’t have the genius to lend them substance or to pursue them. He feels that Madame Arnoux’s husband Jacques is a “kindly, intelligent man,” but a moment later, when Jacques insultingly chucks Frédéric under the chin, the younger man immediately demotes him in his mind—and his wife as…
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