Slackened: Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks

It’s all there in the title: Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901). Impressive, then, that Thomas Mann—who wrote this book in his early 20s, which is really amazing, it does not feel like a young person’s book—keeps things as suspenseful as he does. Buddenbrooks is a page-turner, especially if you are someone whose response to growing up with the values of work, thrift, responsibility, and shame was to flee into hysteria (i.e. me).

Mann is the novelist of hysteria (see Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain for further examples). I mean hysteria in the Freudian sense, not the ordinary one of shrillness or lack of control. Freud defined hysteria as one of three kinds of neuroses (along with phobias and obsessions). Neuroses arise from the contradiction between what we unconsciously want and what we consciously know (through acculturation) we should not want. Neuroses are psychological conflicts. Every “normal” functioning person is neurotic to some extent; neuroses are not psychoses, Freud’s name for severe mental disturbances like schizophrenia in which the sense of a conscious self is gravely threatened or even absent. Neuroses aren’t for “crazy people”; they’re for us.

Neuroses make themselves felt in various symptoms. The hysteric’s symptoms are bodily, unlike those of the phobic or the obsessive; theirs, by contrast, are mental, for example, a compulsion to count to a certain number before doing something, or the need to berate one’s self after thinking something, as if thoughts were actions. The hysteric is plagued, above all, by anxieties over bodily integrity. Hysterical symptoms—to name just a few: otherwise inexplicable loss of voice, loss of feeling in limbs, phantom pains, the conviction that one is having a heart attack—are compromise formulations. They are ways of speaking that circumvent more straightforward but prohibited/dangerous speaking.

One of the aims of psychoanalysis or Freudian-inspired psychotherapy is to turn body into language. When we can tell a story to ourselves about ourselves—when we can acknowledge what previously felt shameful or unavowable—our hysterical symptoms disappear. You can say a lot of things against Freud, but you have to credit that he took hysterical symptoms seriously. Where other (mostly male) physicians said to these (mostly female) patients, “There is nothing wrong with you, snap out of it, stop malingering,” Freud said, “There is nothing wrong in the patient’s physical reality. But there is something wrong in their mental or psychic reality.” Distinguishing these two kinds of reality is perhaps the most consequential idea of psychoanalysis. Hysterical symptoms are real—a sign of great unhappiness, of desires so unavowable to the person and her society that they can only come out in damaging form.

Why am I talking about Freud so much? Mann loved his German intellectual tradition, and Freud is part of the background of his breakthrough book, though less obviously so than Schopenhauer (referenced directly), Wagner, and the Nietzsche who first adored and then repudiated Wagner. Mann’s later books would grapple with this tradition even more obviously: I think Doctor Faustus is the ultimate example, though I’ve never been brave enough to read it. (The musical sections of Buddenbrooks were quite enough for me.) Freud is the least overt of Mann’s intellectual inspirations in his debut novel, but the more intriguing for that, plus he’s the one who means the most to me.

Strikingly, the novel’s hysterics are all men (in the language of the period they would have been called neurasthenics, hysteria being then, as, alas, now, characterized as a “female malady”). Who are these men? They compose four generations of a grain merchant family in an unnamed north German city that everyone knows is Lübeck, in the years 1835 – 1877. Politics matters in Buddenbrooks, but it’s kept to the background—the failed revolution of 1848 is presented as a joke, the unification of Germany under Bismarck is important only for how it affects business and the changes it brings to state education. Instead, the novel foregrounds mental and physical health. Importantly, both are governed by rigid ideas of duty and propriety. (Buddenbrooks is the most Lutheran novel I know.) The first patriarch is Johann Jr.: that suffix denoting unbroken lineage, though the novel in fact begins with a significant change: newly wealthy, Johann and his ménage move into a home that used to belong to a powerful but now bankrupt merchant family, a scenario that will return when a more unscrupulous, energetic, and prosperous merchant eventually takes over the home from the disintegrated and dispersed Buddenbrooks. (Mann, never light with his symbolism, has the new occupant renovate the crumbling outbuildings that had once housed the Buddenbrook firm into a successful retail development. The only thing that never declines in this book is oligarchic capitalism.) Johann, Jr. of course never learns of these events: he unproblematically carries off his belief in the family’s probity and success—these being synonyms in the novel’s worldview—even cutting off his son from a first marriage because he disapproves of the young man’s way of life.

Johann, Jr.’s son by his second marriage, naturally also named Johann, but known to everyone as Jean, a nod to the elder generation’s Enlightenment-inspired Francophilia, is the most conventionally successful figure in the book. Together with his wife Elizabeth, he raises four children: Thomas, Christian, Klara, and Antoinette, known as Toni. As a leader of the community, Jean soothes the brief unrest of 1848 and thrives in business. He grooms Thomas to take over the firm, ignores the niggling reality that he has no idea what to make of “feckless” Christian, vaguely approves of but mostly ignores Klara’s piety, and pushes Toni into marriage with a promising businessman she does not particularly care for by reminding her of her duty to the family. He later regrets this decision, if not the beliefs behind it: the man proves a fraud, and Jean extricates Toni from the marriage (allowing Mann to showcase the northern German states’ comparatively liberal divorce laws), though at the cost of public shame Toni will spend the rest of her life combatting. Always preoccupied with his appearance—something that matters so much in the novel: it is paramount to these characters that they look presentable and decent—Jean dies of a stroke that fells him while he completes his morning toilette.

As the novel turns its attention to the third generation, it ramps up its theory that hysteria is the primary evidence for societal decline. Christian, who cannot settle to work, and might have been an actor or artist of some kind had he lived in a different family (he is a raconteur par excellence and either a good sport or a ne’er-do-well depending on your take), suffers life-long phantom pains that he talks about at length to anyone who will listen (always concluding that they can’t be described), before ending up in a sanatorium. (He’s “like someone delirious with fever … He has a regular mania for dragging up the most insignificant things from deep within him and talking about them—things that a reasonable man doesn’t even think about, doesn’t want to know about, for the very simple reason that he is too embarrassed to share them with anyone else.”) Klara, always frail and increasingly pious, marries a preacher from Riga; their brief marriage seems happy enough, but she dies of TB before having any children (worse, from the family’s point of view, the preacher keeps the dowry). Thomas, the “good son,” leads the family firm, works nonstop, becomes a macher (the high point of which is his election to Senator), and makes a good living, though never quite to his father’s heights. He encourages Toni to remarry to a Bavarian businessman, an amiable drunk from whom Toni recoils after she, almost at once, delivers a stillborn child and discovers her husband sexually assaulting the maid, leading her to a second divorce. Thomas’s own marriage, to a Dutch schoolfriend of Toni’s—the imperturbable and musical Gerda Arnoldsen, my favourite character, surely symbolically though not actually Jewish—is meant to assert his independence from his milieu (the Buddenbrooks are resolutely unmusical), but he is too in thrall to that world to know what to do with her. She cheats on him, if not with a lieutenant she plays duets with then with music itself.

Thomas doesn’t particularly care about his wife’s literal or metaphorical infidelity: he is preoccupied—obsessed, really—with surviving his responsibilities. Mann’s descriptions of the mask Thomas puts on when he goes out into the world, and the slackness that comes over his body and mind when he can be alone, are harrowing:

How almost unrecognizable his face became when he was alone. The muscles of his mouth and cheeks, usually so disciplined and obedient to his will, relaxed and slackened; the alert, prudent, kind, energetic look, which he had preserved for so long now only with great effort, fell away like a mask and reverted to a state of anguished weariness; his dull, somber eyes would fix on some object without seeing it, would redden and begin to water—and, lacking the courage to deceive even himself, he could hold fast to only one of the many heavy, confused, restless thoughts that filled his mind.

Thomas dies after a disastrous visit to the dentist (there are some terrible scenes in this book with the incompetent Dr. Brecht, who needs to talk himself into the terrors he inflicts on people’s mouths); he his only 48, but had become an old man, increasingly an object of scorn in the community.

Toni’s daughter, Erica, comes to an unhappy end, too: her own marriage ends in shame when her husband is imprisoned for insurance fraud (it is suggested that he has only done what others do all the time but has been made an example of because he is a parvenu). Thomas and Gerda’s only child—the family line’s increasing effeteness indicated by how few children are produced by the third generation—is at the center of the book’s final chapters. Hanno is a delicate child. His teeth, in particular, are always giving him trouble, causing fevers and having, excruciatingly, to be pulled. I take the novel’s depictions of bad teeth as a symbol of the family’s increasing inability to consume, to prey, to swallow—to be businessmen, in other words. Hanno loves music, though he’s no prodigy. What he loves is wallowing in neo-Wagnerian improvisation, a further indication of effete inability. Not only is he artistically inclined—a sure sign of decline, in this novel—but he cannot master that either. There are, however, no prodigies or geniuses in the book; the only “healthy” models of artistry it offers is to treat it as a joke, like a friend of Johann, Jr, who is no poet, but rather a versifier, good for a tasteful toast to a hostess. Poor Hanno is abruptly dispatched by typhoid, an all-too physical disease that nonetheless has a psychological component, for the feverish teen is happy to give up the fight and be taken into a beyond that he has always longed for.

At its end, the novel leaves us with its women—not Gerda (she glides back to Amsterdam to play music with the only man she has really ever loved, her father), but Toni and Erika, and some cousins, and a wonderful bit character, Theresa Weichbrodt, Toni’s former teacher who has remained a family friend, a retainer of sorts, all these years. This ending makes sense, because although the novel focuses on male characters I think it is really a novel about women—the most interesting characters are female, even though they are all minor. On the one hand, the novel denigrates femaleness—the men are increasingly effeminate and hysterical, and that’s a sign of their decline. But on the other, it almost unwillingly upholds femaleness—the women are the ones left standing, and even though their roles are limited, they are the ones who actually uphold the core Buddenbrook values of decency and duty.

There is of course an irony here, since those values have killed the male characters. Of course, women have plenty of experience of living under values that confine, oppress, even kill them; no wonder, then, that they survive, if not thrive. Buddenbrooks made me think about Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”—what happens when something you desire harms you, gets in the way of your flourishing. (Freud made a similar argument, but emphasized the individual over society; Berlant thinks cruel optimism is characteristic of neoliberal precarity, like the internship you want so badly even though it pays you nothing.) Mann’s characters live under the sway of an ideology of probity that both gives them their meaning in life but also kills them.

Mann—or at least his narrator—relishes the irony. In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag fulminated against the “obstreperous irony” of books like Buddenbrooks, which she described as impossible, even embarrassing to the contemporary (1960s) moment. This critique hit me hard when, as an impressionable Young Person, I fell under Sontag’s sway. I agreed, too, with her later claim that irony can lead to laughter so unbridled it leaves one gasping. Now, as a middle-aged reader, I have more time for Mann’s irony. But I’m still not sure what to do with it. It’s easy to see what Buddenbrooks is critiquing: the straightjacket of decorum; ideas of psychological, physical, and financial “health.” But what does the novel value? What is its critique for? When, at the end, the remaining characters wonder if they will be rewarded in the next life with the chance to see their lost loved ones, Theresa Weichbrodt, the former teacher, insists it will be so:

There she stood, victorious in the good fight that she had waged all her life against the onslaughts of reason. There she stood, hunchbacked and tiny, trembling with certainty—an inspired, scolding little prophet.

I can only read this as an at-best bemused dismissal of the woman—her victory against “the onslaughts of reason,” her physical smallness (hinting at fallibility or inconsequence), her similar metaphorical diminution. The “little prophet” can only scold, not thunder. But if the novel makes fun of this viewpoint, while also ending with it, what’s left? I see no Nietzschean transvaluation of values here, no indication that, since all values are contingent, we should abandon the very idea and simply see who and what succeeds. Similarly, returning to Freud, there is no position here that matches the analyst, the one whose task is to help the patient to health (the alleviation of physical suffering by getting to the psychological root of the problem) by helping them to see why they act as they do.

In short, there’s nobody to look to as an alternative point of view, no one who successfully challenges the Protestant merchant ethos. Toni’s second husband, the Bavarian, decides to quit business for a life of leisure, but his physical and emotional grotesqueness (he’s fat and ugly and a lech, if also kind, though I think the latter results more from laziness than genuine feeling) makes him hard to identify with. Toni’s first love, a working-class medical student named Morton Schwarzkopf, at first seems a viable candidate—I definitely wanted him to return and hoped for a late-in-life, gentle reconciliation with Toni—but Mann shrewdly denies this end: it would muck up his portrait of the family as locked into a way of life; there is no synthesis of classes here, no bringing in of new blood to revitalize the old. The novel leaves us at an impasse: the way of life it examines is as impossible as any alternative to it.

This is already too long, so I’ll only mention one of Mann’s most notable ways of representing that impasse lies in his use of leitmotifs, a nod to Wagner, presumably. Epithets and phrases are attached to characters—most often, used by characters themselves. There’s Morton’s phrase “I’ll just go sit back there on those stones,” his way of acknowledging he is not of Toni’s social class, but a kind of passive-aggressive way of marking his absence. There’s Toni’s term “silly goose,” which she describes herself always as having been.

I’ve a hunch these phrases are linked to another of the novel’s interests: pronunciation. Time and again, we are told how characters pronounce their words and expressions, often as indicators of social class, or provincial origin, or of modishness. Perhaps this interest is related to German unification/nationalism, as the novel is set in the decades when Germany becomes a nation and becomes a little more homogenous. But I’m really not sure what to do with this aspect of the novel. It does strike me, though, that the epithets or leitmotifs imply stasis—as if no one ever changes or learns anything. They project consistent identities. Yet this idea contradicts the theory of change, specifically decline and degeneration.

Maybe this contradiction fits a novel poised between realism, even naturalism, and modernism, which might be the kind of novel I like best. Reading Buddenbrooks I thought a few times of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a book published about ten years later. The description of Thomas and Toni’s mother—lingering, horrifying—reminded me of Gertrude Morel’s. As engaged as I was in Buddenbrooks, though, I think it’s a lesser novel that Sons and Lovers. Lawrence’s breakthrough is messier, no question, and its focus is narrower (in some ways, The Rainbow might be a more apt comparison). But it is consistently more interesting at the level of the sentence. (No slight against the translator, John E. Woods; he’s done fine work, except in turning Bavarian dialect into southern American English, that didn’t work for me.) Mann is more about the big picture, about ideas.

It was that philosophical sweep that captivated me the first time I read the book (in the Lowe-Porter translation). I was only 19 or 20; it was one of the longest, most serious books I’d ever read. I remember loving it, but other than the scene of Thomas’s death I remembered almost nothing about it. Thinking back on it now, though, I believe I was in thrall to the novel’s theories—sensitivity is a sign of degeneration; the failure to work hard and thriftily is a sign of moral failure; such failure will first appear through the body; a weak body is the sign of a weak soul. These beliefs were my family’s, too. Thirty years later, I’m still drawn to these claims, but better able to see what is so damaging about them.

Does the novel see it, though? Even after having spent some happy weeks with it, I can’t tell.

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.


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.


One of Our Small Eggs Will Not Hurt You: Emma, Volume I

Dolce Belezza has organized a readalong of Emma to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its publication on December 23, 1815.

I’m a notorious bailer on readalongs: they always sound so exciting, especially as they often legitimate my buying yet another book. Then the demands of life and my seemingly constitutive inability to follow a reading plan—which is pretty rich coming from someone who designs syllabi for a living—get in the way. But this one coincides with the end of the semester, so I’m crossing my fingers I’ll actually keep up with it.


Emma is divided into three volumes. Here are a few thoughts on the first.

I’ve read Emma before, quite a while ago now, thirteen years ago in fact. I know exactly because I read it in the weeks before I married my wife in August 2002. I don’t ever remember thinking it directly at the time, but now I fancy I must have made some unconscious connection between the weddings in Austen’s novels and my own. At any rate, I remember spending several pleasurable lazy days—of the kind available only to grad students, when you have almost nothing to do for years except of course for one big thing, a thing so terrifying it makes almost anything else seem a much better idea that must be pursued immediately—I remember several hot sticky air-conditioner-less days reading this novel on an old couch in the apartment that was about to become our apartment.

My memory of reading Emma is vivid. But my memory of Emma itself is not.

Maybe that’s because, as is clear to me now, Emma is a story about the failure of interpretation. It’s about missed clues and mistaken impressions. Which means it is made to be re-read even more than it is to be read.

It’s possible, of course, to see already on a first reading how closely the novel hews to its heroine’s point of view and that this point of view is dangerously misguided. It’s possible, in other words, already on a first go round to read against Emma rather than with her. But it’s impossible not to do so on a second.

That might seem a weird thing to say, since it’s not as though Austen is shy about Emma’s faults. Already on the first page, we read:

The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

Here the narrative voice is unusually distinct from Emma’s. It practically promises a comeuppance. We feel the full force of that famous Austen wit, gentle and forbearing but with a sting to it. “Real evils” isn’t just the pleasant exaggeration it might first seem. Emma has the power to do real harm, as we see takes on as a kind of protégé the young and naïve Harriet Smith and urges her to turn down a proposal from one Robert Martin, a man Emma deems beneath Harriet. For someone like Harriet, an illegitimate child of unknown parents, the loss of such a match, not least to someone as seemingly good-natured and besotted with her as Martin, is a serious loss. I say “seemingly’ not because I suspect he is in fact a bad guy but because I can’t remember the novel well enough to know if our opinion of him is going to change—and I’m always wary with Austen because our opinions of her characters are often forced to change. First impressions are usually wrong in Austen.

Emma has someone else in mind for Harriet, Mr. Elton, the unctuous and prepossessing local vicar. Emma is emboldened in her matchmaking by what she takes to have been her success at marrying her former governess, Miss Taylor, to a kindly, middle-aged widower, Mr. Weston. (Their marriage, and her leaving the Woodhouse establishment, much to Emma’s father’s mournful chagrin, is the book’s precipitating event.) It’s unclear whether Emma really had much to do with the success of the match, and so we should be suspicious of her efforts this time around. She’s easily able to get Harriet to fall for Elton, but it doesn’t take too long for us to realize—at least it didn’t take me long, this time around—that Elton cares for Emma herself, not Harriet. She devises all sorts of ploys to get the two of them together and never realizes they aren’t working.

For example, she allows herself to be persuaded to take up drawing again, in order to make a portrait of Harriet while Elton watches. She’d given up drawing, she says, when her attempt to draw her brother-in-law failed, before adding: “But for Harriet’s sake, or rather for my own, and as there are no husbands and wives in the case at present, I will break my resolution now.”

What follows is a classic instance of Austen’s irony:

Mr. Elton seemed very properly struck and delighted by the idea, and was repeating, “No husbands and wives in the case at present indeed, as you observe. Exactly so. No husbands and wives,” with so interesting a consciousness, that Emma began to consider whether she had not better leave them together at once. But as she wanted to be drawing, the declaration must wait a little longer.

I can’t decide whether the last line makes me like Emma more, or less. On the one hand, her selfishness—she wants to be drawing—is such that it gets in the way even of her plan. But on the other, her interest in the match isn’t purely mercenary, hasn’t consumed her entirely. What begins as mere stratagem becomes something she loses herself in. Here as elsewhere we see that figuring out how to understand Emma is our main task as readers.

If we don’t see these critiques of Emma the first time around—and maybe we do, they seem so obvious to me now, but I fear I missed them the first time—we are eventually helped by the novel to see that Emma is, in fact, misled about Elton. Her brother-in-law, the one who fussed about having his portrait done, tells her that Elton is behaving as though he is love with her. Emma brushes off the suggestion:

she walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment [her brother-in-law is a lawyer] are for ever falling into; and not very well pleased with her brother[-in-law] for imagining her blind and ignorant, and in want of counsel.

The joke of course is on Emma and Volume I ends with a lovely set piece at Christmastime, when the characters spend the evening with the Westons. It begins to snow and in all the haste of a hurried departure—everyone wanting to get home before the weather gets bad—Emma and Elton find themselves alone in a carriage. He wastes no time in proposing and each is equally amazed and hurt to find how the other has understood matters.

Austen is not always so overt in her narrative irony—and part of me wonders whether the passage about “the blunders which arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances” won’t later be subjected to further revision. That is, will we be led to read this passage in yet another way, in light of events yet to come? Will Emma prove to be a better interpreter of the world than this initial interpretation suggests? How subtly Austen’s works open up to reveal a vertiginous landscape of dizzying epistemological uncertainty!

I’ll offer just one more example of how destabilizing her prose can be. In the early scene in which Emma talks Harriet out of accepting Martin’s proposal, we read this heartbreaking response to the scorn Emma heaps on the young farmer (“I had no idea he could be so very clownish”):

“To be sure,” said Harriet, in a mortified voice, “he is not so genteel as a real gentleman.”

It’s that “mortified” that gets me. Mostly this is the so-called omniscient narrator, gently but devastatingly pointing out how terribly Emma is behaving. (Famously, Austen said of the book, “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”) But it’s also possible that we’re still getting Emma’s perspective here: that Emma recognizes—and, presumably, approves of—Harriet’s mortification. It might be nice to take our distance from a character who is behaving badly. But are we allowed to?

I’m looking forward to seeing how the novel answers this question.


Next time I’ll say more about some of the other characters, especially Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, who is one of the most delightful characters in English fiction and, I increasingly suspect, central to making this novel work. Tom wrote some wonderful stuff about him here.

Mr. Woodhouse is a hypochondriac, a fussbudget, a man so thoroughly convinced of the rightness of his way of living that he could be a monster if he weren’t so gentle, or so gently portrayed. His constitution is so delicate that he’s frightened to eat almost everything, and he fears for the constitutions of others. Here he is advising an old acquaintance what she should take for tea:

Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle [their cook] understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else—but you need not be afraid—they are very small, you see—one of our small eggs will not hurt you.

I’ll have more to say about how the novel portrays Woodhouse. But for now the important thing to note is his relationship to Emma. She dotes on him—but also disparages him a little, makes a little fun of him, all while humouring him or seeming to. She quietly makes sure her guests get proper-sized portions of grown-up food. This is important because it makes us see Emma as shrewd and, more importantly, kind. Emma’s kindness opens up the possibility that we might follow Austen in liking her.