Frederick expected that he would have felt spasms of joy; but the passions grow pale when we find ourselves in an altered situation; and, as he no longer saw Madame Arnoux in the environment wherein he had known her, she seemed to him to have lost some of her fascination; to have degenerated in some way that he could not comprehend—in fact, not to be the same. He was astonished at the serenity of his own heart.
Flaubert, A Sentimental Education
Despite its towering reputation as one of the greatest books ever written, I didn’t get along with A Sentimental Education when I tried reading it roughly a decade ago. The story of a thoughtful young man -Frédéric Moreau – living through the revolution of 1848 and founding of the Second French Empire grated on me, Frédéric’s musings romantic, often over the top.
While I have a high threshold for much Victorian sentimental writing, I found this book barely readable. It’s possible I read it at the wrong time, that whatever was happening in my life made it difficult to settle in properly and pay due attention. Should I give it another try? I wouldn’t have considered it until, perusing the most recent issue of the Literary Review, I stumbled upon a mention of a new book about this novel, as well as Flaubert’s relationship with writer George Sand.
The book argues for the importance of Flaubert’s book, its place in the literary canon, and the relationship between these two authors. My experience with George Sand has been more limited than with Flaubert; I’ve read only her Indiana. I admit I found it less than riveting. I knew of her friendship – and correspondence – with Flaubert, even owned a volume of their letters, but got no further than that.
I hadn’t realized Flaubert considered A Sentimental Education his monumental achievement, nor that it was a critical flop on publication. I’ve read and re-read Madame Bovary, a story I vastly prefer to his exploration of the French philosophical and political climate during one of the most tumultuous times in its history. To be honest, that interests me very little; it’s Emma Bovary who moves me.
There’s some high-flown language in Madame Bovary, as well, but its storyline and characters make for more conventional fiction. If I can’t engage in the story, I can’t engage with the book. Nevertheless, Peter Brooks’ book caught my eye. It promises to challenge my belief about A Sentimental Education, arguing why it is, in fact, an important book.
A lifetime student of literature, I’m bothered I haven’t developed an appreciation of Flaubert’s masterpiece. I know I’m missing something. Added to that, Brooks’ book promises deeper study about the personal relationship between Flaubert and Sand. Even if I don’t have a lot of background reading their work, I know their reputations. I love reading about the inter-connectedness of great writers, how each influences the other.
It’s unlikely I’ll re-read A Sentimental Education anytime soon. Still, it’s good knowing if I should find myself hankering to try the French classic again, there’s a literary expert who’ll hold my hand.