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A superb translation of a perfect novel
on May 25, 2001
This is simply one of the most satisfying novels I have ever read. And the Parmee translation is excellent - there is not an awkward word or phrase anywhere in the text. Flaubert loved to write fiction which captured the pettiness, baseness, and stupidity of human relations. Misanthrope might be too harsh a word for Flaubert, but he certainly didn't have much patience for the sort of crass greed and shallow, unquestioning conformity he witnessed as a young man in Paris in the Revolution of 1848. I understand that Flaubert started working on this novel very early in his career, but abandoned it several times before finally bringing it to pres in 1869. The care and time Flaubert took in writing this novel shows, especially when you compare it to Madame Bovary, Flaubert's famous book. Bovary is an easier book to "understand". Flaubert may have felt misunderstood. Bovary can be read as an attack on the bourgeoisie, their dull, conformist lives, and the stupid and ultimately self-defeating passions they indulge in an effort to escape from the suffocating monotony of their existence. Or it can be read, as most readers tend to read, as a morality tale about the tragic consequences of adultery. The Sentimental Education sets the record straight, however. Flaubert was not a moralist preaching on the sins of adultery in Bovary. This novel makes that obvious. Here Flaubert again takes up an attack on the bourgeoisie, this time leaving no room for misunderstanding.
I once met someone (a literature student specializing in 19th century fiction, no less!) who complained to me how boring she thought the Sentimental Education was. So boring that she never bothered to finish it. To this day I believe she approached the book in the wrong frame of mind. She may have been expecting some Balzac-ish bildungsroman, about the provincial who comes to Paris and grows into a society man. Instead, she discovered a novel about a dull provincial who comes to Paris thinking he is going to grow into a society man, but is such a poor judge of human character and relations that he meets defeat at every corner. But it is one thing to say the book is dull. It is another to point out that Frederic Moreau is a very dull human being. But then, we remember... we know people like Moreau. At some point or another, we all may have even behaved like Moreau. And we know and live in a society composed of people like the rest of the characters. Moreau's world is the world of bourgeoisie. 150 years later, in another language on another continent, I am surprised to see how little some things have changed.
Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, has analyzed this novel extensively (see "The Rules of Art" and "The Field of Cultural Production") because he finds the document perfect for sociological analysis of the bourgeoisie and the intellectual communities that developed in Paris in 1848. Flaubert had a brutally frank eye and pen, quick to capture the most subtle social implications in a single gesture. After reading Flaubert and Bourdieu, I am haunted by how persistent and relevent Flaubert's vision of society and human relations continues to be.