Another French book to add to the collection this time. A book that, when first faced with, I was not excited about and very nearly did not read. However, the fact that I haven’t read much Flaubert in the past, along with the fact that I am a French student, and should probably have read Flaubert, persuaded me.
In fact, I am quite glad I did manage to persuade myself, as I was pleasantly surprised by what the novel had to offer. The beginning was dry, as I had sort of anticipated, but I persevered and it paid off. At first, I tried to read the book entirely in French, but quickly realised that this would lead to lots of skimming, and decided that reading an English translation alongside the original was a much better approach.
As you might imagine, the book is filled with the scandalous romances that took place in the 19th Century, and in particular follows those of Frédéric Moreau. However, alongside or rather entwined with, these many romances, we follow Frédéric’s political beliefs, at a time of great political change in the country. Inevitably, his political and social beliefs have an effect on his love affairs and, in a bid to gain social and political status, he becomes disloyal and dishonest towards his multiple mistresses.
It is interesting that, in spite of the many encounters Moreau makes during the course of the novel, he ultimately ends up alone, having made very little social progress in comparison to the beginning of the novel. Also, even though he has met numerous new and different people, at the end of the narrative, he still only really has the person he had at the beginning: Deslauriers. It is as if Flaubert wanted to show that social standing and importance counts for very little if you aren’t a decent person- even back in a time when money and social status seemed to be incredibly important. I really appreciate noticing little life lessons like this, that are so relevant nowadays, despite the fact that so many years have passed since- it shows that, after all, we are still people, no matter how society may have changed.
What I also like, as is the case in so many of the novels published at the period, is the intertextuality. Flaubert, like other contemporary novelists, acknowledge other great works of the period, that affected literature then, and continue to do so now. In this instance, Blazac’s Comédie Humaine, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote are just two of the classics that are explicitly mentioned, with other more subtle references scattered among the pages. I think this nod of the head to such great works shows that Flaubert is not embarrassed to be influenced by other great writers, and in a way shows his humility- accrediting him further as an author, in my opinion.
I cannot lie and pretend that Sentimental Education is the most exciting book I have ever read. It is not filled with action and drama- though the love affairs are a little shocking- but it does provide the reader with some important life lessons (subtle as some may be) about what is important to function and succeed in society, and that is sometimes more important than a gripping narrative plot.