Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert; drawing by David Levine

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 well. The essence of romanticism is that every serious passion is forever; lovers take vows for all “eternity.” But the essence of realism is that emotions contract and expand and drift second by second. In Flaubert’s world, ambitions and passions are unstable:

He asked himself in all seriousness whether he was to be a great painter or a great poet; and he decided in favour of painting, for the demands of this profession would bring him closer to Madame Arnoux. So he had found his vocation! The object of his existence was now clear, and there could be no doubt about the future.

Flaubert’s descriptions are rarely flashy, but they reveal carefully pondered, almost scientific observations. “Science” was a fundamental word in his aesthetic vocabulary. He complained to his best friend, the writer George Sand, that his contemporaries were insufficiently devoted to “science,” by which he meant economics, history, and politics. Even political sentiments are very unstable in Flaubert’s world. At one point in Sentimental Education a professor who has challenged those in power is extremely popular with the mob. Yet when a moment later he takes a position contrary to popular sentiment, he is instantly despised. “He was hated now, for he represented authority.” These mercurial sentiments are true both intimately and as social phenomena.

Flaubert took years to write Sentimental Education. He was an ardent researcher who applied to his new book the methods he had previously employed in preparing Salammbô, set in Carthage in the third century BC. He retraced the walk Frédéric and the courtesan Rosanette take through the forest of Fontainebleau almost minute by minute, researched the manufacture of porcelain (one of Arnoux’s businesses), plotted out the various combats in the streets of Paris during the 1848 insurrection, and studied the stock market and female fashions year by year.


Of course there are the more familiar stylistic elements in Flaubert’s writing. Words are not to be repeated in close proximity. One scene must grow seamlessly out of the preceding one, the famous progression d’effet. The beginning of chapter 19 is the single sudden rupture of this rule:

He travelled the world.

He tasted the melancholy of packet ships, the chill of waking under canvas, the boredom of landscapes and monuments, the bitterness of broken friendship.

He returned home.

He went into society, and he had affairs with other women. They were insipid beside the endless memory of his first love. And then the vehemence of desire, the keen edge of sensation itself, had left him. His intellectual ambitions were fading too. The years went by; and he resigned himself to the stagnation of his mind and the apathy that lived in his heart.

Although this is a celebrated passage, it’s not really characteristic because it groups sustained emotions over long periods. Flaubert is both a romantic and a realist, but realism, with all its subversions of the grandiose, usually prevails.

Another feature of the style of the novel is its many topical references to political events and crises and to artistic and political figures who had been quickly forgotten. It is a strange practice, requiring footnotes even for the French reader. It goes to prove that Flaubert’s ideal reader really was a contemporary. He said that he was writing “the moral history of the men of my generation.”

This is the starting point of Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris. After twenty years of being the richest and most powerful world capital, Paris was in ruins. In 1871 the French had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War and the emperor Napoleon III had been deposed. The Commune of Paris was furiously battling the forces of the French government headquartered at Versailles. While the fighting continued, Flaubert was in constant touch by post with Sand; seventeen years older than Flaubert, she was a socialist of long standing while he had long been staunchly conservative.

When the fighting stopped (and after the Communards had destroyed the Tuileries Palace, the Hôtel de Ville, and many other government structures), Flaubert visited the ruins with Maxime Du Camp, a close friend with whom he had traveled through the Near East between 1849 and 1851. Tourists were already visiting the ruins, which many people admired more than the buildings that had once stood there. Everything was carefully recorded by photographers. Du Camp later recalled:

As we were looking at the blackened carcass of the Tuileries, of the Treasury, of the Palace of the Legion of Honor and I was exclaiming on it, he said to me: “If they had understood L’Education Sentimentale, none of this would have happened.”

The claim was, in one sense, absurdly arrogant. The far-left Communards were not likely to read difficult fiction by a writer who was anything but engagé. After eighteen months, much of the novel’s first printing of three thousand copies was still unsold. Whereas a censorship trial had assured the success of Madame Bovary, no such scandal publicized Sentimental Education.

Then what could Flaubert have meant? As Edmund Wilson once noted, he “seems always to see humanity in social terms and historical perspective.” Ever since the French Revolution, writers and “intellectuals” (a word not yet invented) viewed themselves as participants in history. Before the Revolution, society had changed at a geological pace; after the Revolution there were constant changes in the French government: Napoleon I, the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1814, the July Revolution of 1830 that overthrew Charles X, and the ascent of the “bourgeois king” Louis-Philippe, who ruled until 1848. Then a new republic was declared, with Napoleon’s nephew Louis-Napoleon elected “prince-president.” In a coup d’état four years later he declared himself Emperor Napoleon III and ruled for eighteen years.

What did it mean to be an actor in history? For one thing, it meant that a Parisian such as Frédéric (or Flaubert, who had been born in 1821) could trace his emotional development in parallel to the shifts in national history, just as an American of my age (born in 1940) came of age in the bland 1950s, felt that human nature was changing forever in the exciting 1960s, no longer believed in “human nature” in the 1970s, became cynically materialistic in the 1980s, and so on. I doubt that even Flaubert would claim that his protagonist’s “sentimental education” was in lockstep with the zeitgeist, but he could justifiably argue that Frédéric could not have remained indifferent to coming of age during the reign of Louis-Philippe or living through the revolution of 1848 and the creation of the Second Republic—the period of the major events of the novel, which begins in 1840, when Frédéric is eighteen.


Brooks, who has written extensively about France as well as the mechanics of the novel, here combines the two, as he did in Henry James Goes to Paris (2007). As he points out in his subtle, wonderfully informed book, in Sentimental Education there is “no morally sensitive protagonist in the manner of Henry James’s Lambert Strether or Maggie Verver. That role is passed on to the reader, who must ultimately draw the lessons from the colossal failure of a generation unequal to its rendezvous with history.”

Brooks also draws our attention to the fact that the historical novel, as invented by Walter Scott, took place in the distant medieval past. By contrast, in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, Fabrice del Dongo fights at Waterloo. Referring to Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Brooks writes: “As Stendhal’s narrator explicitly tells us, politics has become the context of everyday life in a country excruciatingly aware of an underlying class warfare.” Sound familiar?

Brooks argues that the factual historical novel set in the recent (as opposed to the mythic) past is “to represent, by means of an invented action, the true state of humanity in a past and historical epoch.” If that epoch is fairly recent, an autopsy might reveal how we got to where we are now. Gravity’s Rainbow, by looking at corporations profiting from both sides of World War II, might tell us something about the effect of international business on politics today (Paul Manafort springs to mind). One Hundred Years of Solitude shows us how a people can almost instantly forget a troubling episode (the United Fruit Company’s violence in South America or our war in Vietnam).

This new historical fiction often illustrates the lives of minor characters in the past, so Brooks claims: “The historical novel is not supposed to be merely costume drama or historical flight of fancy. It is meant to get at a kind of truth of everyday life—customs and ways of being—that political histories tend to scant.” In other words, it has the same mission as the Annales historians.

Whereas Gone With the Wind, say, puts modern characters—with contemporary feelings and ambitions—into historical drag, a true historical novel, such as Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, manages a kind of archaeology of the sentiments. We discover entirely different ideas about religion (pervasive, Lutheran) and the marriageable age for girls (twelve). The end-of-the-year family confession of sins and the hesitation of a poor aristocrat to marry a rich bourgeois girl—this is all strange to us and true to the period in which it is set, nearly two hundred years before it was written. Fitzgerald’s Russian novel, The Beginning of Spring, takes place in 1913 but was written in the 1980s. Once again with admirable authenticity she rendered class relations, the emotions of a dour Tolstoyan, the hospitality of a rich merchant with his array of liqueurs, and so on.

But Flaubert was trying something more difficult. Brooks argues that he wanted to portray the lives of ordinary people, not the renowned. And he adds:

I have suggested that the “realist” novel of the nineteenth century comes about when Balzac shortens the distance between the represented historical moment and the moment of writing—reduces it to some ten or twenty years, looking back from the 1830s and 1840s to the 1820s, so that he is writing about near-contemporary society, attempting to see it in the same totality as the earlier periods represented in the historical novel.

Today many people seem to be disdainful of historical novels, as if they were all costume dramas or invitations to sentimental nostalgia. Perhaps history has sped up so much that there is nothing to learn about where we are now from even the recent past. What can the Beatles and the King assassination tell us about Trump and Avatar? Maybe we prefer to slip into the distant past, an alternative universe that has the advantage at least of not being ours. Maybe that’s why we like the works of Penelope Fitzgerald and Beryl Bainbridge so much.

Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris covers not only the political events of the time but also Flaubert’s tender relationship with George Sand. They had a rich correspondence, which was adapted for the stage by Irene Worth and Peter Eyre twenty years ago. Sand admired Flaubert and wrote one of the few favorable reviews of Sentimental Education, though privately she reproached him for being so unfeeling and ironic with his hero. I’ve noticed that it’s not uncommon for writers to invent characters with ten points fewer of IQ but otherwise based on themselves, characters they proceed to torture for three hundred pages.

Flaubert loved Sand, who combined masculine and feminine qualities; he called her Chère Maître. She wanted him to get married, but he dismissed her “fantastic” suggestion, saying, “There is an ecclesiastical side of me that people don’t know.” He thought of himself as a monk in the service of art.

To please her and to prove that he was a better person than most people thought, he wrote for her his story “A Simple Heart” (Sand died before he finished it). In it a pious, uneducated servant woman, who can picture the Father and the Son but not the Holy Ghost, shifts her affections over the years from the family she works for to a sailor-nephew to the parrot that her employer gives her—and finally, after the parrot dies, to the stuffed parrot itself. When the servant is dying, she sees the gates of heaven opening to reveal the Holy Ghost: her stuffed parrot.

This is the perfect example of progression d’effet, in the way that love, by gradually shifting from one object to another, makes us weep over what sounds like a bad joke: an old lady confuses her parrot with the Holy Ghost. That transformation is, in a sense, the work of the story, just as we could say that the work of Lolita is to turn the story of a scheming pedophile and the girl he exploits into one of the great heartbreaking novels about love, in a direct line of descent from The Princess of Clèves to Adolphe to Anna Karenina. Brooks quite properly observes that far from being the ironic tale of a batty old peasant, “A Simple Heart” is a feeling testament to human goodness—the perfect memorial to Sand.