Plac­ing a novel that flum­moxed crit­ics in con­text

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY SU­NIL IYENGAR book­world@wash­post.com

In the fi­nal chap­ter of Gus­tave Flaubert’s “Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion” (1869), Fred­eric Moreau and his old school chum Des­lau­ri­ers rem­i­nisce by the fire­side. They trade news about mu­tual ac­quain­tances, many of whom have fea­tured vividly through­out the pre­vi­ous 400 pages. “And as they ex­humed their youth,” Flaubert writes, “at ev­ery sen­tence they kept say­ing: ‘Do you re­mem­ber?’ ” We take leave of the two as they re­call an event pre­dat­ing the novel: a doomed trip to a brothel. “‘Ah, that was our best time!’ said Fred­eric. ‘Could be? Yes, that was our best time!’ said Des­lau­ri­ers.”

As lit­er­ary his­to­rian Peter Brooks de­scribes it in his per­sua­sive new book, “Flaubert in the Ru­ins of Paris,” that scene cap­tures much of what con­tem­po­rary crit­ics found so baf­fling and dis­taste­ful in Flaubert’s novel. The pro­tag­o­nist, some­what of a rake and a so­cial climber to be­gin with, has just with­stood a se­ries of per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal up­heavals. He has seen his ro­man­tic hopes dashed, pur­sued af­fairs any­how, taken part in a duel, run for pub­lic of­fice, and wit­nessed mass in­sur­gency and blood­shed — the Revo­lu­tion of 1848, which forms the back­drop of Fred­eric’s vac­il­la­tions.

And yet, by end­ing on the brothel episode, Flaubert im­plies that “ev­ery­thing we have read in this long novel has been some­how off tar­get, mere se­quel to the im­por­tant but un­recorded event,” Brooks writes. He ar­gues that the de­fla­tion­ary ten­dency so marked in “Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion” pro­ceeded from Flaubert’s scorn for most po­lit­i­cal move­ments and the chronic delu­sions that en­able them. Es­pe­cially now, when our po­lit­i­cal rhetoric is so over­heated — not to say overblown — read­ers can find sanc­tu­ary in Flaubert’s oblique hu­mor, his dead­pan nar­ra­tion.

Brooks is a de­pend­able tour guide to the novel and its re­ver­ber­at­ing les­sons. To per­form this func­tion, he re­lies on Flaubert’s cor­re­spon­dence with fel­low-nov­el­ist Ge­orge Sand, on archival photos of 1870s Paris and on his es­timable gifts of rap­portage.

When Flaubert came to write “Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion,” he was look­ing back on a failed revo­lu­tion. Al­though the French king, Louis-Philippe, ab­di­cated in early 1848 and a pro­vi­sional govern­ment took charge, it was rocked by class war­fare and proved alarm­ingly frag­ile. Only three years later, Louis-Napoleon (a nephew of Napoleon Bon­a­parte) mounted a suc­cess­ful coup and be­came em­peror. That episode oc­ca­sioned Karl Marx’s cel­e­brated state­ment about the way his­tory re­peats it­self: “the first time as tragedy, the sec­ond time as farce.” Fred­eric and his hap­less en­tourage regis­ter this an­ti­cli­mac­tic mood in word and deed. They “prove in­ad­e­quate to this mo­ment,” Brooks writes, “a mo­ment at which his­tory it­self, para­dox­i­cally, seems to stum­ble and fall.”

Un­like a char­ac­ter out of, say, Balzac, Fred­eric drifts with the tide. Nei­ther swim­ming to safety nor smash­ing on the rocks, he’s trapped in an eddy. “There is a kind of se­rial un­fold­ing of the plot, one thing lead­ing to an­other with­out a re­turn to any master plot for one’s life,” Brooks notes, con­ced­ing that “Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion “re­mains a book that chal­lenges more than it pleases” (al­though tal­ents as var­ied as Émile Zola, Ford Ma­dox Ford and Franz Kafka swore by it). Henry James, an avowed fan of Flaubert, nev­er­the­less called Fred­eric “an ab­ject hu­man spec­i­men” and wrote that the reader is bound to ask: “Why, why him?”

One an­swer to this ques­tion, Brooks sug­gests, is that Fred­eric’s paral­y­sis amid the over­whelm­ing pace of regime change is a le­git­i­mate re­sponse for a char­ac­ter in a new kind of his­tor­i­cal novel, one that can treat the con­di­tions of shock and in­credulity that so many po­lit­i­cal spec­ta­tors feel in our own time. Given the daily tu­mult of 1848 Paris, to pre­sume that Fred­eric could “of­fer an ad­e­quate con­scious­ness of the event would be a fal­si­fi­ca­tion, or else mad­ness,” Brooks rea­sons. Rather than in­ter­vene, the sane thing is to “do no harm” — a stance that Brooks calls Flaubert’s “moral im­per­a­tive,” not­ing that the nov­el­ist had a physi­cian-fa­ther and thus may have been in­flu­enced by the Hip­po­cratic oath. For the new his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist, then, “the past is beyond re­demp­tion. The telling has to of­fer its own re­ward.” From this an­gle, Brooks of­fers, it’s en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate that Fred­eric and Des­lau­ri­ers squan­der the end­ing of “Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion” on a rib­ald tale. But the telling — or Flaubert’s telling — must stu­diously avoid false­hood, which can be be­trayed in high-mind­ed­ness or sloppy dic­tion. To Flaubert, “bad style, es­pe­cially the rem­nants of Ro­man­tic il­lu­sion­ism, is ly­ing, and there­fore to be cen­sured,” Brooks ex­plains.

By bring­ing “style” into it, Brooks nods to Flaubert’s rep­u­ta­tion as a com­pul­sive tweaker, some­one who could spend all day re­work­ing a para­graph. While it’s true that he viewed his call­ing as monas­tic in its soli­tude and schol­arly de­vo­tion, “Flaubert was too much the his­to­rian to stand aside from the world,” Brooks claims. In 1870-1871, soon after “Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion” saw print, Paris was gripped by an­other revo­lu­tion, lead­ing to an­other rad­i­cal ex­per­i­ment in self-govern­ment (the ill­fated Paris Com­mune), which yet again pro­voked a bru­tal crack­down from re­ac­tionary forces. As if that weren’t enough, the city had starved all win­ter, un­der siege by the Prus­sians. Af­ter­ward, Flaubert toured the city ru­ins with his friend Maxime du Camp, to whom he lamented that if only his coun­try­men had read “Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion,” the Ter­ri­ble Year might have been averted.

What can “Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion” teach us to­day? Ac­cord­ing to Brooks, it re­veals “the tragi­comic in­abil­ity of hu­man be­ings to pro­duce the re­sults they seek in man­age­ment of pub­lic af­fairs.” The an­ti­dote, Flaubert be­lieved, is to un­der­stand hu­man mo­tives through what he called “sci­ence” — es­sen­tially the so­cial sci­ences — and through “nov­els of the an­a­lytic ex­ac­ti­tude sought by Flaubert.”

And not a minute too soon. Next year, France must reckon with the 50th an­niver­sary of an­other Parisian re­volt: the stu­dent strikes of May 1968. Mean­while, the na­tion is con­duct­ing an elec­tion that car­ries ex­is­ten­tial over­tones. What do the French say? La plus ça change?

Su­nil Iyengar’s po­ems and book re­views ap­pear in var­i­ous pe­ri­od­i­cals, and he di­rects re­search at the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts.

FLAUBERT IN THE RU­INS OF PARIS The Story of a Friend­ship, a Novel, and a Ter­ri­ble Year By Peter Brooks Ba­sic. 241 pp. $32

Peter Brooks is a re­li­able tour guide to Gus­tave Flaubert’s 1869 novel “Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion,” a book that Brooks con­cedes “chal­lenges more than it pleases.”

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