on July 9, 2004
Smoke billows from a Seine river steamship, flags flap in a spring breeze, a young man catches a glimpse of the woman that will serve as a life long romantic love. These images float across the opening pages of "Sentimental Education," Gustave Flaubert's portrait of mid-19th century Paris society.
I'd read this book in college and when I recently slogged through the horrific "Da Vinci Code" I decided to reward myself by re-reading "Sentimental Education," a novel that evokes the spirit of an age, etches a portrait of a culture and delves into the heart of human fraility and grandeur.
Twenty years ago I was intoxicated by this book, believing it to be the perfect novel, populated with distinct and realistic characters but now I feel that the characters are the weakest aspect of the book. There is something sour, cheap and small about all of them that makes them seem more alike than different. Flaubert was adept at catching the nuances of character flaws but failed to recognize that people can also have great heart, courage and self-awareness
But the set pieces are stunning, unmatched by anything else I've ever read.
Standouts are the all-night costume party of at Rosanette's with the glorious descriptions of the interiors, costumes and the personalities, Flaubert's take on the historic June 1848 with every sordid, petty, chaotic detail preserved and Monsieur Dambreuse's funeral complete with detailed descriptions of purchasing tombstones and the look and feel of a mid-19th century cemetery.
Flaubert published "Sentimental Education" in 1869 after tinkering with the novel for more than twenty years. Like the impressionist art movement that arose at about the same time, the book remains fresh and alive because Flaubert focuses on capturing the details of the world around him that make it come to life in a richness of sight, sound, smell and feel that I don't think will ever be equalled.
on April 22, 1998
"The Sentimental Education" is an absolutely brilliant novel. That Flaubert's most famous and most highly regarded novel is "Madame Bovary" is astounding to me. That novel has many failings, whereas "Education" has none. The writing is the best you'll ever read, the story is touching and deep and rich, the charcters wonderfully drawn. And the last paragraph in the novel is both hilarious and endearing, and makes it a novel that is brilliant to the very last word. I can not recommend this novel highly enough. It is somewhat of an overlooked masterpiece (overshadowed by the lesser "Bovary"). One critic said that the reason "Forrest Gump" (the movie version) did so well was that "it dealt wonderfully with unrequited love, something we can all relate to." Well, "Education" is about unrequited love, and it deals with it with 100 times the power that "Forrest Gump" did. The novel also includes a revolution and the Parisian social world. "THE SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION" HAS EVERYTHING!!! When Woody Allen listed the "things that make me happy to live," one of the things he listed was "`The Sentimental Education' by Gustave Flaubert."
on May 8, 1998
I agree with a reviewer before me that this masterpiece is overshadowed by Bovary and, for the life of me, I can't understand why. The main character is better, Emma Bovary's complaints do little to outshine Frederic Moreau's idle lifestyle. It's wonderful--the language, the descriptions and, most of all, the way in which Flaubert can make the reader see how utterly wretched the "upper class" lifestyle is. Excellent, from beginning to end.
on October 29, 2003
A definite master piece for readers that have some grasp of the classics. Taken in the context of a classic literary debate on human nature I could appreciate this book. a real window to the French zeitgeist of Flaubert's times, and influential even on the present state of the French weltanschauung. He points at the nature of human beings, which was a bit disparaging of a verdict, or was it? Was it just the way things are in a nonjudgmental way. He gave some wonderful snap-shots of life in Paris around 1848 and seemed to give an objective view of a critical, if not underrated, moment in world history. Human nature is a conniving/duplicitous one and more than likely people become victims of their own connivances. Those who are singularly minded were rather boring and shallow. However, for Flaubert, like Goethe, friendship and love still, somehow, remain in tact as the highest virtue even through all the muck, egotism, and self-rightousness the book describes -- but, one could argue, Flaubert arrives there by more legitimate means than some other great authors who have pointed in that direction.
He seemed to be debating directly with the great works of the past, actually there are many parallels to Dickens "Great Expectations". and Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther" These books are hinted at. It is stated that someone has no "expectations" (Dickens) and "The Sorrows" is more directly talked about on p. 413. Flaubert in debate with great authors, and not taken for his sadistic qualities, works quite well. This book, juxtaposed, to the two aforementioned books would be great topics of discussion; also Maslow "theories of peak experiences" seem apropos to mention in the context of a discussion on this book. Flaubert was saying, to me, that one is essentially born with a nature, or at the least it develops early on, and behaviors show themselves in various circular patterns of endeavor. The story of his youth, at the end, is a micro pattern of macro reoccurring events throughout the book. Frederic's idealization of Madame Arnoux saves him from a worse fate than Wether's idealization of Charlotte: Werther ends up committing suicide for his love, however, Frederic is possibly saved from a fate worse than death.
Flaubert's foray into the forest (323) it is filled with symbolism, and seemed like key pages that I didn't grasp well. I am sure I will come back to this book again.
on May 23, 2003
To real Flaubertians, this novel ranks slightly above Madame Bovary. It's the true apogee of French and arguably, World Lit, at least so far as the novel is concerned. It's Flaubert's microcosmic/macrocosmic masterpiece.
In some ways, it's Flaubert's answer to Stendhal, given the fact it's a roman à clef, similar in scope and theme to Le Rouge et Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme. It's also a Bildungsroman, in the same Stendhalian, Goethian tradition. The young Frederic experiences love and warfare in much the same way as the young Julien Sorel does in Le Rouge. Readers will also be reminded of Marius in Hugo's Les Miserables (both authors use Paris revolts as central incidents). Both authors also witnessed the 1848 February uprising personally. Hugo, as a rather passionate defender of the Republic, incorporates his experience in describing an earlier, similar revolt in 1832. Flaubert as a dispassionate, even slightly amused, observer, describes the 1848 downfall of the monarchy from the point of view of his young protagonist. The manner in which the two authors incorporate the incidents of the revolution reflects on their personal styles and sensibilities (Hugo adhering to his romantic idealism, ready to mount the barricades - Flaubert, the detached, acerbic, silent witness, standing aside making mental notes). Lovers of literature can appreciate the masterful manner in which both geniuses weave historical incidents within the threads of their narratives. Lovers of irony will most likely prefer Flaubert's treatment.
Flaubert was constantly striving for objectivity, and Sentimental Education is his most completely realized creation in that regard. It's one of the least heavy handed exercises in creative writing that any author has ever produced. The master's prose is faultless, brilliant, refined to its essence in every turn of phrase. All superfluity of expression has been discarded. The reader is left with a highly faceted, exquisite sapphire of a work. Lovers of literature from James to Gide to the present day have been overawed by its brilliance.
on September 9, 2001
Nothing in Madame Bovary would have prepared me for this: A Sentimental Education is the most aimless, undramatic (intentionally so, mind) novel I've ever read. A mediocre young man comes to the Big City and has several on-and-off affairs with a number of mediocre women. And that's about it, really. While there are in fact hints of drama here and there, it's all incidental; there's no buildup to anything greater. Even the 1848 revolution seems distant and somehow irrelevant to the novel's lazy meanderings. All of this is intentional, of course; Flaubert was clearly striving for as close an imitation of life, devoid of any of the artifice that most authors employ, as possible. It is, I suppose, the ultimate example of the French naturalism movement: Zola and Maupassant, great writers that they were, really had too strong dramatic instincts to ever write as dispassionately as this.
If this makes the novel sound terribly dull, it's really not: admittedly, it's not the most gripping book I've ever read, but Frederic, feckless though he is, does manage to be somewhat sympathetic, and the secondary characters are, by and large, well-realized--the working class hero type Dussardier stands out in particular. And the ending is oddly poignant. One problem I did have was Flaubert's infuriating habit of mentioning characters by name without having previously introduced them, making for some highly disorienting passages. However, even this is navigable after you've gotten used to it.
I do recommend A Sentimental Education to you. I really can't decide whether or not I like it more than Madame Bovary, but it's certainly an intriguing work. Flaubert may ultimately not be one of nineteenth century France's greatest writers (let's face it: he's no Balzac or Zola), but that doesn't mean he deserves to be lost in the crowd.
on March 6, 2001
This is a tremendous book. This book combines all the best features of 19th century fiction into one package. Insightful social observation and commentary, psychological insight, brilliant descriptive writing, and a tremendous canvas. As with Madame Bovary, Flaubert is concerned with tracing the effects of Romantic ideals in ordinary life. As with Madame Bovary, this phenomenon is examined by pursuing the life story of a single individual. In a sense, this book is a complement to Madame Bovary. Where the latter dealt with provinical life, The Sentimental Education deals with the glittering and corrupt center of France, the great metropolis of Paris. Flaubert combined his basic aim with the goal of providing a comprehensive overview of the Second Empire. The result is bursting with artful plotting, powerful and acute writing, and Flaubert's unique brand of irony. A tremendous achievement.
on December 12, 1999
Anyone gets the feeling that we are at this very moment living inside this book? The American Empire at its peak and ripest, filled with decadance and cynicism (I don't condemn it, just the truth as I see it), led by a philandering leader and run by self-satisfied, culturally-enlightened yuppies. Our corporate conventions are their society salons, only with better technology and lamer style. People are just easing back from the Big Revolution (1968 or 1789) when another one rumbles down the hill - with a string of smarties running behind to profit from it.
Just a thought that pops into my head. But the more you think, the more it gives you the creeps ...
on February 18, 2000
Flaubert's style is most fascinating. The way he brings you from one end of Paris to the other, through multiple conflicting relationships, among what else, in a page in a half. His succinct procession of human thought traverses mountains of emotions. L'Education sentimentale would make an incredible screenplay. The politics and romance represented with both innocent and self-serving intentions show bitterly honest failure and the signifigance of decisions. Dessardier shines as a representitive of the poor class and is the novel's only true hero. But who can forget Vatnaz's call for women's rights? Read it!
on June 7, 1997
"L'éducation sentimentale" is by all means the
greatest French novel I have ever read. It gives a
hypnotically clear picture of the lives and times
before and after the 1848 Revolution. This book
transports the reader into history and makes him
feel he has been there himself. Flaubert's great
prose can of course only be fully appreciated in
French, but a translation at least gives some idea
of the wealth of this book