Nat Leach’s 2019 Year in Reading

I invited my friend and sometime EMJ contributor, Nat Leach, to write about the highlights of his year in reading. Not only did he write about his favourites, he also described his idiosyncratic reading project. Enjoy! (I couldn’t help but add a few editorial comments along the way.)

When Dorian suggested that I consider writing a review post on my reading for the year, I was keen to share some of my thoughts, but also felt the need to preface it with a confession of sorts, so here goes:

Candida_Hofer_Philip_Johnson_Library_New_Canaan

I have never been the sort of person who could read just one book at a time. When I was an undergraduate student, I kept a pile of books beside my bed. I would read a chapter from the top book, place it in a new pile beside the first one and repeat until the pile was empty. Then, I would repeat the same process in reverse. This had the benefit of keeping my reading fresh, never getting bogged down in one thing, and allowing me to continually be surprised. It took me a little longer to finish books, but I quite enjoyed this too; when I really liked them, I wanted to savour them, and when I didn’t like them, I was soon able to switch to something else.

The problem came when I entered graduate school, moved to a city with excellent used book stores (London, Ontario) [have to say, this does not correlate to my memory of London! – DS] and started to become more broadly curious about literature, theory, philosophy, and just about everything else, than I ever had been before. One pile became two, then three, and eventually I had a long coffee table covered with nothing but book piles. My system became more sophisticated, but the basic principle of moving from one book to the next did not change. Over the years, I made compromises (my wife insisted on bookshelves to replace that coffee table, for example) but I never changed my ways. I continued to enjoy picking up books with no preconceived decision-making process in mind. Thomas de Quincey’s excellent essay on sortilege and astrology influenced my thinking on this point; he accepts that connections exist between things that cannot be rationally understood, so sees value in allowing chance to bring them to light. And indeed, I have often felt that I was reading just the right book at just the right time, some kind of synchronicity between my reading and my life, or between two books I happened to be reading at the same time.

It wasn’t until I joined Twitter two years ago that I began to take stock of my reading life. For one thing, I joined Twitter to participate in the great book conversations that I discovered there, but it’s hard to join in conversations when you have only read parts of so many books. How many times can you say “Oh yeah, I read the first quarter of that book! It’s really good!”? For another thing, I realized that I’m not as young as I used to be, and in the face of inevitable mortality, I’d rather die having finished a few good books as opposed to having started a whole bunch.

It was at this point that I realized that the only way to overcome the negative effects of an absurd and ill-advised reading strategy, I was going to need another absurd and ill-advised reading strategy. I hit on the idea of methodically working my way through all of those never-completed books one at a time from A to Z (from Achebe to Zola, if you will). I already tended to arrange my reading alphabetically, so this simply built in the requirement that I had to finish a book before moving on to the next one.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I now read only one book at a time. But at least I’m now cycling between 20-30 books rather than hundreds, and focusing primarily on a single book. Nor does it mean that I am entirely rigid in my system; it initially intended to involve only books that I had already started, but gradually I have allowed alluring new books to slip into their place in the alphabetical queue. I have also made exceptions for borrowed/library books and communal Twitter events, all of which slow my progress somewhat, but since the pleasure is in the journey, I also enjoy these diversions and side-trips.

All of which is to explain why most of my reading for the year falls within a fairly small alphabetical range. In 2018, I got through A, B and most of C. This year, I finished C and got through D, E and most of F. If I keep this pace of almost 3 letters per year, I’ll be done this project by 2027 (and then I’ll probably just start again). Statistically speaking, I completed 39 books last year and 31 this year; not huge totals, but since I hadn’t even cracked 30 since 2000, I think I can say my new system is showing progress. Also, 9 of the 31 were over 500 pages, which partly accounts for the slower pace. These 31 books were written by authors from 15 different countries, which I thought was a pretty remarkable ratio considering the arbitrariness of my system, although this diversity primarily comes from various countries in Europe; I may need to work on exploring other continents. I read 18 books by men and 13 by women.

0067

 

Having said all that, I present thumbnail sketches of my 2019 reading:

Couperus, Louis- Eline Vere

Technically, my last book of 2018, but I finished it on January 3, and it’s so good, I’m including it. It’s a book with a personal connection for me, since my Dutch grandmother had numerous figurines of the title character around her house in The Hague; she explained that because this book was so famous, Eline had become a sort of figure of pride for the city. Once I finished the book, this puzzled me a little, since Eline is not exactly the heroic sort of character one would expect to be commemorated in this way, but the book is fantastic in its depiction both of its social world and Eline’s disaffection and alienation from it. [I really love this book too, and wish it were better known! — DS]

Crummey, Michael- Galore

A magical realist novel set in Newfoundland (think One Hundred Years of Solitude but with a whole lot more ice). Crummey incorporates the folklore and history of the island into a compelling and fantastical multi-generational narrative (this is one of those novels where you are very grateful that there is a family tree included at the beginning of the book). It also features that rarest of things, an ending that is totally unexpected and yet a perfectly appropriate way of resolving the narrative.

Dante- The Divine Comedy

There’s not much new that I can say about Dante, but I do think that reading this book is an experience that everyone should have at least once in their life. Even a lapsed Unitarian like me has to appreciate the thoroughness of his cosmology, even if I’d be very afraid of someone who actually believed all of it. It does inevitably suffer from Milton’s problem, that what happens in Hell is so much more interesting than what happens in Heaven.

David, Filip- The House of Remembering and Forgetting

I had high hopes for this book after reading some early reviews, but in the end was disappointed with it. There are some powerful moments, but it ultimately reads as an awkward mishmash of Holocaust narrative and mysticism (two things that, frankly, do not go together). [Might explain why I never finished this book. — DS]

DeLillo, Don- Falling Man

I count White Noise among my favourite novels of all time, and it didn’t seem surprising that the author of a book that depicts mundane American life being punctured by disaster would choose to write a novel about 9/11. DeLillo represents the traumatic aftermath of the event on one man and his family in a thoughtful and nuanced way. This narrative is juxtaposed with a number of scenes focalized through one of the hijackers which seem to offer a broader perspective, though these segments seem rather under-developed compared to the main plot. I enjoyed the book, although in the end, I found myself wondering if it had really gone anywhere (but maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to?)

Dickens, Charles- Hard Times

This is a book that my younger self didn’t get on with very well because of its overt didacticism, but this time I enjoyed it a great deal, having a better sense of its context. Still not my favourite Dickens, but that’s not really a criticism.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor- Crime and Punishment

Another literary experience that I think everyone should undergo, harrowing though it is. I was already about halfway through the book, having read the crime and was awaiting the punishment. I was somewhat surprised by how long I had to wait, as the book seems quite digressive, but that may also be the point, that the consequences of the crime infiltrate every aspect of Raskolnikov’s life.

Drndic, Dasa- Belladonna

Another book I was very much looking forward to, and this one did not disappoint; it’s fiercely written and utterly compelling. Andreas Ban’s body is deteriorating in a way that mirrors the corruption he sees in his country, Croatia, and his memories and experiences frame the book’s reflections on history, politics, theory, and culture. Much of the book recounts Nazi and Ustase persecution of Jews in WWII and condemns the post-independence government of Croatia for its complicity in rehabilitating war criminals (both from WWII and from the Balkan genocides). Its attacks include a lengthy screed that will cure you of ever wanting to read Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones. [I’m a big fan of Littel’s novel, so now I’ve got to read this. — DS]

Du Maurier, Daphne- My Cousin Rachel

This is a perfect book of its kind. Is Rachel a kindly relative or a cynical gold-digger? Is Philip a paranoid misogynist or a potential victim? Du Maurier keeps the pendulum swinging between these options, building suspense and cultivating uncertainty so that we’re never entirely sure of the truth, but compelled to keep reading. So good it sent me on a Du Maurier book-buying binge after finishing it. [And rightly so! I too loved this one. — DS]

Duncan, Sara Jeanette- The Imperialist

This Canadian classic from 1904 begins as a domestic drama about the Murchison family in a small town in Ontario, but widens into tackling broader economic and political issues. The family’s eldest son, Lorne, becomes an advocate for a preferential trade agreement with Great Britain, and runs for political office on that platform. The novel does get a bit bogged down in economic minutiae of a past era, but its concerns with British isolationism, election fraud, and the exploitation of Canada’s Indigenous people all seem disturbingly current.

Duncker, Patricia- Hallucinating Foucault

In the 1990’s, I think this was an obligatory book for theory-heads like me, but despite touching on Foucaultian themes such as madness and incarceration, it doesn’t really have much to do with him. The book starts with an interesting academic mystery, a graduate student searching for a French author with an oblique connection to Foucault, but fizzles out once he actually finds him. It just feels like the book tries too hard, culminating with an overtly symbolic character death that I couldn’t help laughing at. [Wow, now I need to re-read it. I loved it when I read it as the theory-head graduate student Nat describes, and have always wondered what happened to Duncker. Could I have been so wrong? (Yes.) — DS]

Edgeworth, Maria- Ormond

Edgeworth was much admired by Jane Austen, but her books have not achieved as wide a readership as Austen’s. The perceived regionalism of her Irish settings is no doubt one cause, but this book is at its strongest in its early scenes depicting the tension between Irish and Anglo-Irish ways of life. This novel begins in a picaresque mode, with Harry Ormond sent to live with an Irish relative after nearly killing a man in a quarrel and aspiring to become “an Irish Tom Jones”.  Ormond does improve morally, and the narrative loses some of its energy in the later scenes in Paris which demonstrate his reformed character. Perhaps this didacticism is another reason for Edgeworth’s neglect, but it does not negate this book’s many charms.

Eliot, George- Daniel Deronda

This one was quite a commitment, but was definitely the best book I read all year. From its in medias res opening that takes hundreds of pages to untangle to its swerve in the second half of the book away from concerns with individual relationships towards larger cultural, religious and moral issues, I found it thoroughly compelling both in narrative terms and in ethical ones.

Esquivel, Laura- Like Water for Chocolate

This is as close to light vacation reading as I get; magic realism with a feminist kick. Tita is expected by family tradition to remain unmarried in order to take care of her mother until her death, and the narrative is about overcoming the weight of these expectations. Tita’s creative energies are channeled into cooking, and a recipe accompanies each chapter, making this a potentially very tasty read (although most of them seemed too advanced for my culinary abilities).

Fallada, Hans- Every Man Dies Alone

This book about one couple’s small acts of resistance against Nazism drew me in from the very start and the ensuing cat and mouse narrative raises ethical questions about the obligation and the capacity to resist injustice. These questions become more ponderous as the book goes on, and the stakes are raised, but we never lose sight of the message that each individual must make these choices in ways both big and small. [So, so good! — DS]

Farrell, M.J. (Molly Keane)- Young Entry

I didn’t know whether to file this under F (for the author’s pen name) or K (for her real name), but chose the former simply because I was keen to read it. One of my favourites of the year for sheer reading pleasure; much as the plot about teenage girls coming of age against the backdrop of hunting culture in early 20th century Ireland sometimes bewildered me as I lack the vocabulary for hunting, horse riding and ladies’ underthings, the writing is so sharp and witty, I just went along for the ride. There are, for example, some wonderful passages presented from the point of view of the dog, or take this description of a runaway bicycle: “As the slope grew steeper, and consequently their progress faster, Prudence made the interesting discovery that Mr. Bennet’s bicycle entirely lacked brakes.”

Findley, Timothy- Headhunter

I remember wanting to read this book when it was first published (1993) because I had just read Heart of Darkness and was intrigued by the book’s initial premise, that Mr. Kurtz escapes from the pages of the book and terrorizes Toronto. That is quickly revealed as the delusion of a mentally ill character (Kurtz and Marlow are, coincidentally, the names of two psychologists), however, and what is depicted in this book is actually more horrifying (as readers of Findley might well expect.) Exploitation of the mentally ill, a child pornography ring, graphic violence against humans and animals: it’s not a book for the squeamish. In the end, I’m not sure it really holds together, as it tries to do way too much (and is already over 600 pages), but it sure is prescient on topics such as fake news and climate change denial.

Fink, Ida- A Scrap of Time

I read this book on Dorian’s recommendation, and he’s much better equipped than I am to explain the brilliance of these Holocaust stories. What impresses me most about them is the way that Fink dramatizes the complex dimensions of impossible moral situations. By showing, for example, a father remembering his attempt to hide while his children are being taken away (“Crazy”), or a woman being asked to suppress her past in order to keep a new lover (“Night of Surrender”), Fink makes us see the horrifying ways in which the persecutions of the Holocaust are perpetuated and internalized by survivors. [Yes, these stories are indispensable. — DS]

Flaubert, Gustave- Sentimental Education

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading this book, I got about as wide a range of responses as possible; some people love the book, others hate it, and some feel completely indifferent about it. Upon reading it, I can understand all those responses; it’s a chaotic novel that challenges readerly expectations in ways that might seem exhilarating, annoying, or tedious depending on the reader. I liked the book for the most part; even though the protagonist, Frédéric is often quite obnoxious, and his desire for the unattainable Madame Arnoux so excessive, I was still interested in him as a somewhat exaggerated exemplar of the human condition. His single-minded commitment to the object of his passion and his vacillation on every other desire seem painful, but typical human weaknesses. [Oh man, do I have mixed feelings about this one. — DS]

Fleming, Ian- You Only Live Twice

This was the first Bond novel I had ever read, and was not at all what I expected; the first half reads as a travelogue of Japan, and only in the second half do we get into some (fairly tame) spy stuff. The villain’s diabolical plan is somewhat limited in scope, but his “suicide garden” of toxic plants is evocative and terrifying. I liked it much better than the film, which used almost no material from the book, aside from some character names.

Gaskell, Elizabeth- Cranford

I must confess that I read this one out of order because it was the next book up on my e-reader while I was on vacation. I already knew that I loved Gaskell’s writing, her perceptive analysis of human character and her ability to produce powerfully emotional scenes. What I learned from this book is that she can also be laugh-out-loud funny. These vignettes about women in an English village are sweet, heartbreaking, and humourous by turns; my favourite moment is when a rather hyperbolic panic caused by a suspected wave of break-ins sweeps the town.

Best of the rest:

Levi, Primo- The Monkey’s Wrench

I re-read (and wrote about) The Periodic Table in commemoration of Levi’s centenary, and had intended to write about it in conjunction with The Monkey’s Wrench, but realized it would have been too much. The two books have much in common, including Levi’s characteristically keen eye for the nuances of human character, and a belief in the ennobling power of work. Where The Periodic Table celebrates the chemist’s ability to solve mental challenges, The Monkey’s Wrench often celebrates the more physical aspects of work in stories told by Libertino Faussone, a fictional character whom Levi identifies as a composite of many real men, and the narrator, a version of Levi himself. The most interesting parts of the book, though, are the many places where this manual labour is compared to, and aligned with, the act of story-telling itself.

Pontoppidan, Henrik- Lucky Per

This book intrigued me and frustrated me by turns, but it certainly did make me think. Most of my frustrations came from the book’s seeming uncertainty about how it felt about the protagonist. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, in which Per is a rebel against the soul-destroying form of Christianity practiced by his family, but as Per’s behaviour becomes more reprehensible, the book seems to lack a critical distance from him so that it’s not clear how we are supposed to react to his egotism. This book inspired me to re-read Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a favourite of mine which seemed a clear model for this novel, although the possibility of redemption is handled very differently in the two works. Despite my frustrations, this is a book that has stuck with me.

Vermette, Katerina- The Break

I read this fantastic, troubling book because Dorian told me to and you should too!

The Best Days of Our Life: Sentimental Education

I’ve written before about how my wife and a friend of ours from the days when we were all starting out as academics and in our first, temporary jobs after graduate school decided to read Proust together. We tackled one volume each summer for seven years, switching between his city and ours once our careers and life-paths took us in different directions.

We finished Proust and decided to stay with French literature: two years ago we read Madame Bovary. Last year we didn’t read anything; instead we went to our friend’s wedding. But we were back at it last week. Our book this year was Flaubert’s other well-known book, Sentimental Education (1869). We had a hard time with it and although our friend thinks we should try Bouvard and Pecuchet next year I think he’s going to be outvoted. I’m plumping for Stendahl but neither of the others seems much interested. We’ll probably end up with either Balzac or Zola. Vote your choice in the comments!

I don’t think I would have made it though Sentimental Education without the reading group. Certainly I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much on my own. Each of us experienced the same phenomenon: we didn’t much like reading the book, but we sure enjoyed talking about it. Nonetheless, I’ve concluded that Flaubert is a writer I admire but do not like. He’s like Joyce for me. They’re both so, I don’t know, airless. I need my books a little shaggier. That’s why I wrote a dissertation on Lawrence, I guess.

A Steamer and Shallow Waters in the Seine, Normandy c.1832 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

A Steamer and Shallow Waters in the Seine, Normandy c.1832 Joseph Mallord William Turner

Anyway, here are some observations on the novel, taken from the notes I scribbled during our conversations:

We did understand, by the way, that not liking the book was pretty much the point. It’s a book about having high expectations for life and one’s self and being disappointed in them. But the trick is that those expectations aren’t foiled because of bad luck or history or poverty or illness. Rather they’re foiled from inability—including the inability to recognize one’s lack of ability. Sentimental Education is about being mediocre. The narrator readily lets us see how mediocre the characters are, which makes the novel Olympian and rather disdainful.

The hero, if you can put it that way, is Frédéric Moreau, a young man from the provinces who flunks out of law school but is able to live in relatively grand style anyway because he inherits a lot of money from an uncle. In fact, at the beginning of the book he’s returning from a trip to visit the uncle, his mother having sent him there in hopes of currying the man’s favour. Frédéric returns from Le Havre to Nogent-sur-Seine via Paris, where he switches to a steam ship because he’s sulky about having to go home for the summer and it will take him longer to get there by boat than by any other route. So he begins taking a petty revenge against his mother. This is a fine introduction to a novel filled with mean-spirited and selfish actions.

The boat trip results in more than a small-minded psychological victory, though. Onboard Frédéric meets Jacques Arnoux, an art dealer and impresario and eventual porcelain manufacturer with whom he will be intertwined for the rest of the book. More importantly, he meets Arnoux’s wife, with whom he is immediately besotted. Much of the novel is about the relationship they never quite consummate.

But it’s not really a love story. Yes, Frédéric falls immediately for Madame Arnoux, swooning for her, to the point that he ignores her lack of interest and regularly misrepresents her words and deeds as coded expressions of her own desire for him (though eventually they do become something like lovers). But Sentimental Education is no Anna Karenina. It’s not even Madame Bovary. For one thing, Madame Arnoux isn’t the only woman in Frédéric’s life. There’s Rosanette, one of Arnoux’s mistresses, with whom Frédéric takes up; the two even have a child together. There’s Louise, the daughter of the Frédéric’s neighbour in Nogent-sur-Seine. And finally there’s Madame Dambreuse, the wife and eventual widow of a banker, who Frédéric meets through Louise’s father, who is Dambreuse’s business manager. Got all that? Sentimental Education is a book obsessed with crowds, but it doesn’t have that many characters. In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, there are a number of young men Frédéric knows from his time as a student, including his schoolboy friend Deslauriers, who is a lot poorer than Frédéric. The two treat each other fairly badly, considering they’re such good friends.

Anyway, I was saying it’s not really a love story. Flaubert defined it as the only kind of love story suitable for his generation: “It’s a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays—that is to say, inactive.”

This idea of passivity or inactivity—remember, the big event in Frédéric’s life is his inheriting a small fortune from his uncle—affects more than just romance. Sentimental Education is famously also a novel about politics, even about revolution. The last part of the book is set against the Revolution of 1848, when the Orleans monarchy was overthrown in favour of the short-lived Second Republic. Many of the book’s characters are active in these turbulent political events, though Frédéric mostly avoids them (he literally leaves town during the most dramatic and violent weeks). And with the exception of one character, a shopkeeper called Dussardier who Frédéric and his circle befriend on a lark, and who is a committed Republican, so committed that he dies for the cause, no one partakes of these events out of a sense of duty or obligation or passion. According to the introduction to the new Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated by Helen Constantine, Flaubert did not know Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) in which he famously said that history repeats itself, once as tragedy and once as farce, but Sentimental Education could have been written with that dictum in mind.

The reason the 1848 revolution was a pale imitation of 1789, at least on the evidence in this novel, is that it was self-interested. Self-interest matters a lot in this novel; if it’s about anything, it’s about how people use each other. Characters regularly claim to care for things—movements, causes, other people—but prove not to. This isn’t just a function of their fickleness or moral laxity: it’s a function of the world they live in. No one feels secure enough in their place in society that they don’t feel the need to use others to get ahead. Even Madame Arnoux, who in general is gentle and definitely put upon by her rakish/obnoxious husband, isn’t above using Frédéric’s infatuation with her to help her family out financially. (Again, Dussardier, the shopkeeper, is the only exception, but he’s such a minor character and he meets such a sad end that we can’t make an example of him.)

Flaubert could have made much of this cutthroat world in which everyone is out to get everyone else, or, in which a lot of cynical people are out to get each other and whatever innocents are around—but then he’d have been Henry James, and Flaubert is after something more dispiriting than the actually quite lurid and melodramatic James. (Madame Dambreuse is the most Jamesian character—there’s a great moment when she and Frédéric attend an auction of the Arnoux’s personal effects—they’ve fallen into financial ruin—and when she sees how distressed Frédéric is by the sale of so many objects he had become so familiar with, having attached them to his love for Madame Arnoux, not least a small jewellery box, she insists on outbidding everyone for it and giving it to him, just to show him who’s boss.)

The dispiriting part isn’t just that everyone uses everyone else. It’s also that they’re not always that good at it. Frédéric in particular is a hard character to get a handle on, because he’s so narcissistic, always preening in mirrors and admiring his outfits, always ready to do whatever it takes to keep up his image, yet at the same time he’s regularly taken advantage of. He’s not very clever, but he’s also not naïve. His self-reflections, when they occur, never lead anywhere. They don’t make him act any differently. We’re in the odd position of neither liking him much nor of feeling bad for him when he’s been fleeced. Who could like a guy who, walking through a crowded street, thinks things like:

He felt sick at the sight of their vulgar faces, the idiotic remarks, the foolish satisfaction on their sweaty foreheads! However, the knowledge that he was worth more than these people lessened the fatigue he felt contemplating them.

Here as elsewhere, Flaubert uses free indirect discourse—the description of a character’s thoughts in apparently omniscient voice—to devastating effect. The more we know Frédéric the less we like him. The mingling of narratorial and character’s voice is often so subtle it takes us a while to figure out who is being judged. Early on in the novel, when Frédéric is still poor and convinced he’ll stay that way, he convinces himself that poverty could work to his advantage:

A soul like Madame Arnoux’s would surely be moved by that sight [of the poverty that would no doubt bring out his genius] and she would take pity on him. So this catastrophe was a stroke of luck after all. Like the earthquakes in which treasures are uncovered, it had revealed to him the secret riches of his character.

Flaubert uses metaphor so sparingly that when we get one we are apt to hold onto it gratefully. At last, a poetic moment! But when we think about what’s being said here we see something more disheartening than high-flown, beautiful rhetoric. Who thinks of an earthquake as something that reveals buried treasure? Who ignores its destructiveness? Maybe someone who doesn’t in fact have any secret riches or rich interior life.

Flaubert loves bathos: any time he verges on the lyrical, he’s sure to follow it with a prosaic detail. A long description of arriving in Paris at dusk works itself up to an unusually delicate effusiveness—“the entire greeny stretch of the Seine tore itself into silvery shards of silk against the pillars of the bridge”—only to be immediately followed by: “He went to have dinner for forty-three sous in a restaurant in the Rue de la Harpe.” Or consider this momentary idyll amidst the bustle of the city:

Leaning on the plush windowsill, [Frédéric and Deslauriers] smoked cheroots. The sun was shining, the air was mild, swarms of birds flew down into the garden; statues of bronze and marble washed by the rain glistened. Aproned maids sat chatting on chairs. And you could hear children laughing, along with the continuous murmur of the fountain.

Nice, right? I love Paris in the springtime. But how does Frédéric respond?

Under the influence of the wine circulating in his veins, half asleep, bemused and with the light full in his face, he felt nothing but an immense sense of well-being, a dull voluptuousness, like a plant saturated in warmth and wet.

He responds stupidly, complacently, dully, like a plant. Notwithstanding some lyric pages in the countryside near Fontainbleu late in the novel, this isn’t a book that loves the country. Flaubert was not a writer who knew the name of every flower or tree. In this world-view, it’s not a good thing to be like a plant saturated in warmth and wet. (That’s about as much sex as Frédéric gets, by the way.)

After all, plants don’t do much. One of the most fascinating things about Sentimental Education for me was watching Flaubert try to escape from his own trap. Hardly anything happens in this novel. It’s not dramatic. In fact, it’s against the very idea that life is dramatic, structured like a story with obstacles to be overcome and climaxes to be attained. It ironizes the story of the young man on the make who comes to the capital form the provinces and takes the town by storm. It ironizes Balzac, in other words. There aren’t any set pieces in this novel. A scene at the horse races could have been highly dramatic. It could have shown Frédéric as a hero, or advanced one of his affairs. It could have been the horse race from Anna Karenina. But it’s not.

The second race was not very entertaining, nor the third, apart from a man being carried off on a stretcher [good joke there: all of J. G. Ballard in a nutshell]. The fourth, in which eight horses battle it out for the Prix de la Ville, was more engaging.

A paragraph about this race follows. It’s interesting enough, I guess. But then this:

A dispute held up the last race. The crowd, bored, broke up. Groups of men were chatting below the stands. The talk was rather loose. Some society ladies left, shocked by the proximity of the kept women.

And that’s it. Except traffic. What follows is a pretty lengthy description of how long it took everyone to get home, since all the carriages were leaving at once. Always, always, Flaubert ironizes and debunks. But what is he left with? What kind of a novel repudiates all the things that make up novels? That’s the corner Flaubert paints himself into, the aridity I complained about at the beginning.

Very rarely does Flaubert indulge in pathos. One such moment comes near the end of the book. Frédéric and Rosanette’s child falls seriously ill. Frédéric, who hasn’t had much to do with it, tries to downplay the illness; Rosanette is frightened. The child falls unresponsive; Rosanette calls Frédéric to her side. But it’s too late:

The child was dead. She took him up, shook him, hugged him, calling him the sweetest names, covered him in kisses and sobs, walked round and round, distraught, tore out her hair, uttered little cries; and collapsed on the couch where she remained open-mouthed [in Madame Bovary the motif of open mouths signals imbecility and vacuity], with floods of tears issuing from her staring eyes. Then she was overcome with lethargy and all became calm in the apartment. The furniture was turned upside down. Two or three napkins lay around. Six o’clock struck. The night light went out.

I find those napkins heartbreaking, a forlorn symbol of the aftermath of sudden, terrible emotion. But my reading partners thought this made me a chump (they’re more Flaubertian than I am, I guess), noting, perhaps rightly, that the emotion (all Rosanette’s) peters out rather quickly—that phrase “all became calm” suggests the event might not in fact matter so much. It doesn’t to Frédéric, who thinks only of himself: “It seemed to him that this death was but a beginning, and that an even greater misfortune was about to befall him.” (It doesn’t). Even Rosanette is hard to sympathize with: she wants them to embalm the child, a wish both grandiose and ignorant. As the narrator says with typical acerbity, “There were many reasons against it, the most cogent of which was that it was not feasible in the case of such a young child.” What I’m saying is, if you want pathos in your literature, as I’ve come to realize I do, then Flaubert is not your guy.

260px-Frankfurt_Am_Main-Carl_Morgenstern-Prospekt_von_Frankfurt_von_der_neuen_Brueckenmuehle_aus_gesehen-1828

I’ll end the way the novel does. Years pass. Frédéric gets older, but not wiser. France gets another monarch. Frédéric reconciles with Deslauriers: the latter had tried to revenge himself on his richer friend because of the lousy way Frédéric had always treated him—he marries Louise, who Frédéric had been on the point of deciding was the girl he should have loved, but (no surprise) the joke cuts more than one way: Louise quickly leaves Deslaurier for another man, so that even speaking of the falling out between the two as a breach that has to be reconciled is actually putting events too strongly. Anyway, the two friends, or whatever the hell they are, they’re not even really frenemies, meet up again and reminisce about an adventure from their school days. One Sunday in the summer of 1837 they slipped off to the local brothel. On the way they picked enormous bouquets of flowers from Madame Moreau’s garden, in the hopes of impressing the prostitutes. But when they arrive at the house things don’t go according to plan:

Frédéric presented his [bouquet], like a lover to his betrothed. But the heat, the fear of the unknown, a kind of remorse, and even the pleasure of seeing at a glance so many women at his disposal, affected him so powerfully that he went deathly pale and stood still, tongue-tied. They all laughed, delighted at his embarrassment. Thinking they were making fun of him, he fled. And as it was Frédéric who had the money, Deslauriers was obliged to follow him.

The last line is typical Flaubert, an extra little sting of bathetic deflation. It also summarizes Frédéric and Deslauriers’s relationship, in which money always gets in the way. (It’s like every other relationship in the book.) The scene is also emblematic of Frédéric’s inability to act: here he is, on the threshold of his desire, and he can’t pull the trigger. Worst of all, perhaps, we see how his narcissism and self-regard cause him to misread the situation. He thinks he’s being laughed at when in fact they’re laughing with him, or they would be if he let them.

Sentimental Education is about the hash we make of our lives when we’re so absorbed in ourselves that we miss the opportunity for community or fellow feeling with others. Think how differently things would have gone if he’d laughed along with them. But Flaubert isn’t writing a morality tale. Things can’t be other than the way they are. That’s what makes the whole enterprise so dispiriting. Telling the story to each other, Deslaurier and Frédéric conclude: “Those were the best days of our lives!” And you know what, they probably were. Isn’t that depressing. Almost as depressing as the complacency that besets so many of us—Flaubert would say, all of us—when we look back on our lives and think that regardless of all the vicissitudes life has thrown our way things have worked out for the best.

Any story we tell of our own lives—the very idea that our lives have a story—is bound to be narcissistic. Flaubert brilliantly arraigns the navel gazing of the Bildungsroman. But maybe a little narcissism isn’t so bad. Better than an irony that scorches everything in its path, anyway.