Hope Coulter’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The sixth post is by Hope Coulter (@hopester99), who I’m lucky to work with. A fiction writer and poet, Hope directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation at Hendrix College.

2020 stole a lot of things from us. One thing it didn’t steal—the Tiffany box sitting in plain sight on the dresser, which the burglar miraculously forgot to swipe into his pillowcase—was reading. When the pandemic struck and life was suddenly curtailed to the home front, a number of factors that normally compete with reading in my waking day, such as daily commutes and shopping, disappeared. The news was one competitor for my attention that remained, but if I wrenched myself away from updates on the latest case numbers and chaos I could turn, with more time and greater relief than usual, to books. And so the weeks went by and I read: through nights where an uncanny stillness muted my neighborhood, in corners of the house (and the day) that were newly open for visitation, on dog walks with earbuds jammed in my ears.

I discovered several fiction writers last year who were new to me. Dorian had tipped me off to Paulette Jiles, whose gritty historical fiction is a delight. Mostly set in the U.S. Midsouth and West, her novels feature authentic dialogue, grainy characters, galloping plots, and accurately rendered settings (at least as far as my own knowledge of horses and birds can confirm). Her News of the World has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks that just came out. I started with that book and followed up with Simon the Fiddler, Enemy Women, The Color of Lightning, and Stormy Weather.

Another new pleasure was Maggie O’Farrell. I ran into her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, which may be my favorite—especially with the twist that the final section puts upon the whole. While I was devouring her Instructions for a Heatwave, set in London in 1976, I happened to hear an NPR interview of O’Farrell discussing her new book, Hamnet, which came out last year to lots of accolades: it’s a fictionalization of Shakespeare’s family life. I dipped into more O’Farrell through online samples and wasn’t as taken by them as I was with these three books, but I’ll probably try again with other works of hers.

Curtis Sittenfeld is a fiction writer a friend had mentioned in the context of her novel Rodham, about Hillary Clinton. At the time I didn’t follow up. Then late one night, when I was prowling the spotty “available now” shelves of my Libby app, embarrassingly like an addict knocking on doors for a fix, I came across Sittenfeld’s Eligible. The title rang a bell, and I remembered that a favorite podcaster, Liz Craft, had also touted this author. I saw that the book was an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and inwardly rolled my eyes, because I’m often not a fan of Austen adaptations, either books or movies (why not just go back and reread the real thing?). But I was desperate for a hit, and as soon as I plunged into the sample I was hooked. Eligible was my best 2020 read for sheer fun. Set in contemporary Cincinnati, the book reimagines the Bennet family in ways that are both clever and true to our times, and its fidelity to the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy should please even the most stringent of Jane devotees. It’s funny, raunchy, and thoughtful—a romp with depth. I wish I could have made myself enjoy it more slowly, but I couldn’t help racing through.

After that I turned to Sittenfeld’s story collection you think it: i’ll say it, and was underwhelmed. Still hopeful of reexperiencing the Eligible high, I turned to Rodham. Again, I was suspicious: was this book going to be a polemical feminist rant? (Well, kind of.) Was it going to misrepresent Arkansas and Arkansans? (To my surprise, it didn’t.) And the big question: would it shed light on my own complicated opinions of Hillary and Bill; could it embody these two individuals persuasively and give me new insight into their relationship? (Resoundingly, no.) This book receives my Dorothy Parker “not a book to be tossed aside lightly—it should be thrown with great force” Award for 2020. The first part was curiously engrossing, if uncomfortably so, as it nailed Hillary’s voice with cringeworthy persuasiveness and dramatized details about Bill and Hillary’s dating and sex life that only they should know. (Okay, I’ll admit I haven’t read either of their enormous memoirs, and maybe Sittenfeld drew her torrid-romance imagery from their own words—but I doubt it.) The minute that fictional Hillary breaks off with fictional Bill and returns to the East Coast for a solo career, the novel becomes a huge yawn, and I couldn’t make myself finish it. The book could contribute, if tediously, to such eternal questions as the line between fiction and nonfiction, the obligations of the author, whether it’s ethical (or even a good idea aesthetically) to render first-person fiction about a still-living person… but, warning: if you want to use this novel to flog such issues, you may just end up feeling icky.

Other stand-out fiction that I read this year, on the positive side, includes Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside; Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow; Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (yes! more about truculent Olive!);and Gail Honeyman’s haunting Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. I reread Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and—while waiting for the fifth in the series—re-listened to two of Robert Galbraith’s utterly satisfying Cormoran Strike books. Less happily, I buzzed through Carl Hiassen’s Squeeze Me, which is crummy even for a guilty-pleasure book, and finished off my last four books in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series with the absent-minded “why am I doing this” of someone swallowing stale potato chips. [Ed.–What?? Who could be unmoved by the last book in the series?]

At Hendrix, where Dorian and I are colleagues, I teach only one course a semester, because I also have administrative duties. As it happened, this year I taught the same course back-to-back in spring and fall: a tutorial on Irish short stories. The rereading I did for teaching was that wonderful kind of deep, slow reading that opens window after window into the text. My selection spanned from 1894 to 2017, from folk legends recast into stories by W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge to modern love fables by Lucy Caldwell and Sally Rooney. Along the way we read some dark jewels by James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, and Frank O’Connor; Roddy Doyle’s delicious “The Pram”; and Seumas O’Kelly’s one-hit wonder, “The Weaver’s Grave.” Discussing these works with the students was a rich experience, even in the online format that had so unexpectedly become a norm. I’ll be returning to these stories, and gladly, in future semesters.

In nonfiction, my reading year’s unexpected highlight was Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. As a 747 pilot for British Airways, Vanhoenacker wrote columns for a number of magazines and newspapers, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. In lyrical, exact prose he serves up a cockpit’s-eye view of what it’s like to fly these elegant machines around the globe. Much of the book is terrific description of cloud formations, land patterns, and celestial sights observed on his long flights; I plan to use it as a teaching model. There is also lots of information about the pilot life—what it’s like to cross vast time zones so routinely; how a long-distance crew prepares for flight; and how this long-distance flying affects pilots’ friendships and their outlook on the world. This book was especially good to read during a time when I longed for travel, and when its absence made me see it in a new light. In the long summer hours of 2020 as my husband and I sat on our deck, noticing the planes crossing the sky and speculating as to their destinations, Vanhoenacker’s perspective often came to mind.

Less ecstatically, 2020 prompted me to read on the troubling fronts of race and inequity. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a masterpiece, compellingly written and somber. It permanently shifted the way I view systemic racism in the United States. Natasha Trethewey’s memoir, Memorial Drive, is—true to her poet’s nature—much briefer, and evocative in its own way of the caste-based divide in this country. I also read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which gave me new understandings of the housing crisis and how deeply it’s enmeshed with other social problems. (I hope Biden and Harris have read it.)

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book has, as Rossini or somebody said about Wagner, wonderful moments and dreadful quarters of an hour. Orlean herself reads the audio version; when will authors learn that, no matter how skilled they are with the pen, they are not trained voice actors? It was only by turning the speed up to 1.5x that I managed to push through her slow, grating voice to the end. Still, the tome includes memorable anecdotes about the history of libraries and L.A. that make it worth the slog.

Early in the pandemic, The American Scholar published a list of recommended food writing from its archives. In our desperation to entertain ourselves my husband and I, like so many others, were lavishing new attention on cooking, so I thought it would be fun to try some of these cookery classics in my reading. Turned out I wasn’t in the mood for How To Cook a Wolf  by M.F.K. Fisher or The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. James and Kay Salter’s Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days had flashes of fun but, as can happen with food writing, the fussiness became downright shrill—This is how you make a martini! This and only this is what the cool people do with the chicken! By contrast, I absolutely loved Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: the story of how she became the New York Times food editor, complete with droll—and insightful—accounts of doing restaurant reviews in disguise.

Well, I’ll stop for now. Thanks, Dorian, for giving me the chance to share. It’s an honor to step into this venue: I’ve added so many recommendations to my to-read list from books mentioned here, both in the main blog and in the guest posts and comments. If any of y’all ever come to Little Rock, post-pandemic, let’s grab a drink and fill in the gaps. I want to hear more about what you think and what’s on your nightstand. The plague will be over and the question will still be germane: Read any good books lately?

Paul Wilson’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The second post is by Paul Wilson (@bibliopaul), one of the nicest folks on Book Twitter. (Which is saying something.) Paul lives with his wife in a small house in Colorado filled with boys, books and a Basset.

In spite of everything, 2020 turned out to be a great reading year for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to come across some books this year that will stick with me for a long time. Here are my favorite reads of 2020.

Some Tame Gazelle – Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym has become one of my favorite authors in recent years and her first novel, detailing the lives of two sisters in a small village in post-war England, was a perfect read amidst the chaos and uncertainty of 2020.

Sons And Lovers – D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence’s ability to capture the complicated tides and eddies of family lives and relationships is staggering. I read and admired Lady Chatterley’s Lover a few years ago, but this book is on a whole different level. I’m already contemplating which of his books I’ll read next. Perhaps The Rainbow? [Ed—yes!]

My Ántonia – Willa Cather

I wish I could travel back in time and tell my slacker high school self to actually read this instead of skimming the CliffsNotes version. Then again, given its wide lens on the cycles of nature and of human lives, maybe this is one of those books you only truly appreciate with age. [Ed–Makes sense.] I plan to read it often in the coming years and I’m sure I’ll discover something new every time.

The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley       

In the wrong hands, a child narrator can be disastrous. But when done well, as in The Go-Between, it can perfectly capture the magic, mystery and confusion of being young in a world you don’t fully understand. I’ve heard people rave about this book for years, and now it’s my turn to join the chorus. Don’t ignore it any longer.

The Mountain Lion – Jean Stafford

Speaking of stunning childhood narrators… A pair of siblings get a reprieve from their cloistered routines and protective mother when they spend a summer in the backcountry of Colorado. The descriptions of landscape and pitch perfect immersion into the tenderness and brutality of childhood blew me away. This book is devastating.

Weather – Jenny Offill

There’s always a mix of excitement and foreboding when one of my favorite authors comes out with a new book. For years now, I have recommended Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation as often as any other book I can think of, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from her follow up. Let’s just say I’m now more of an Offill evangelist than ever. Have you heard the good news?

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

Few books have made a larger impact on me than Susanna Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I still remember certain scenes and images I read 10+ years ago far more vividly than those from books I’ve read in the past few months. As with Offill, I was both thrilled and a bit queasy when I heard Clarke had a new one on the way. Again, I needn’t have worried. Piranesi is very much its own book, but it contains the magic, mystery, and spectacular settings that are everything I could have hoped for. It was definitely worth the wait.

The Unreality Of Memory – Elisa Gabbert

I’ve found myself reading more essays in recent years, and this is one of the best collections I’ve come across. Given the subject matter—“disaster culture, climate anxiety, and our mounting collective sense of doom”—I was afraid that 2020 might be the wrong time to pick this one up. Instead, it was strangely cathartic to stare directly into the sun, guided by Gabbert’s masterful hand.

Winter Morning Walks – Ted Kooser

I first came across Kooser through Braided Creek, a wonderful “conversation in poetry” between Kooser and author Jim Harrison that often left me feeling like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between friends. Winter Morning Walks is made up of 100 poems that Kooser sent to Harrison on postcards after Kooser developed cancer in the late 90s. Written and sent over the course of 12 months, these early morning ruminations are by turns elegiac, humorous, and contemplative. Accompanying Kooser during his year of doubt, fear, and hope made for perfect 2020 reading.

Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

Over the past 10 years, I’ve begun to collect a handful of treasured nature writers: Robert Macfarlane, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey, Rebecca Solnit. This year, I added Kathleen Jamie to the list. This collection displays an impressive range, focusing on everything from microscopic cellular landscapes to mammoth whale skeletons hanging in the rafters of museums. As with the other authors on my list, I plan to slowly parcel out Jamie’s remaining books to make them last, despite the strong temptation to gobble them up as quickly as I can. 

Hurricane Season – Fernanda Melchor

This is one of several books I read this year that felt like jumping into a raging river and holding on for dear life. Dark, grimy, violent and incredibly compulsive, it refuses to provide the reader with any relief, even once you’ve turned the last page.

Ulysses – James Joyce

As I get older, I am increasingly drawn toward what Roberto Bolaño describes as “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown.” Ulysses is all of those things and more. What can I say? It’s breathtaking. I highly recommend reading it while simultaneously listening to Jim Norton’s incredible narration.

Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellman

How can a book that has received so much attention and hype still deserve more? I have never read anything like it. Even after nearly 1,000 pages, I didn’t want to leave the narrator’s troubled, compulsive, and familiar head. She was a much-needed companion during the darkest parts of this year. The fact that I can’t stop thinking about this book. The fact that I may just read it again in 2021. The fact that you should, too.

In Search Of Lost Time – Marcel Proust

Like many others, I’ve spent years warily circling Proust’s masterpiece, simultaneously fascinated and intimidated. I should have started sooner. Spending the last few months making my way through the first four books of In Search Of Lost Time has been wonderfully immersive. As I make my way through the last two volumes, I find myself slowing down, savoring every word, reluctant to see it end.

“A Vast Invisible Web”: Tana French’s The Searcher

The Searcher is Tana French’s second stand-alone novel, and the first to be written in third person. Although I regularly mourn the waning of third-person narration, I was surprised by French’s choice, as so much of the magic of her previous seven books stems from their brilliant use of unreliable first-person.

I’m a huge fan of French’s; in my opinion, there’s no better writer in crime fiction today. I even love the books that most readers dislike, The Likeness (2008) and The Secret Place (2014). (No accident that these are the most female-centered of her novels.) I especially love The Secret Place, set largely in a girl’s school, with its dreamy terrors, though, if pressed, I’d choose Broken Harbour (2012), set in the Gothic ruins of the Celtic Tiger’s economic collapse, as my favourite French. (Or maybe The Trespasser. It’s hard!)

No surprise, then, I think French succeeds with close third-person narration as much as with first-person. But this isn’t just the fan in me talking. French has been careful in her decision. What sets her novels apart isn’t just her mastery of suspense—surprisingly rare in crime fiction—but her patient, intelligent consideration of friendship. Reading a French novel you are led to ask not only whodunnit but, more esoterically, why do you have the friends you have; what distinguishes relationships that are freely chosen from those mandated by expectations (family) or contingency (work); which comes first, selfhood or friendship; are you drawn to your friends, and they to you, because of who you are; or do you become who you are because of those friends?

To be sure many of French’s novels do center on work relationships, namely the ones formed between cops. (Her first six novels are set in the fictional Dublin Murder Squad.) But in French’s hands, these partnerships, even if they are initially formed arbitrarily (x gets assigned to work with y), take on an intense, hothouse quality. The characters spend as much time sussing out each other as they do the crime. French’s cops are more like friends—really, more like frenemies—than like colleagues.

Some people, I know, don’t care for French because her language, concerns, and structure all tend to excess. But I love how she queers the conventions of detective fiction. French is a particularly Irish writer, inhabiting that great tradition of writers who mimic only to destabilize English realism (Swift, Le Fanu, Wilde, Joyce, Bowen, Beckett, etc.). Like these illustrious compatriots, French is swoony, preposterous, Gothic; she is a burst of febrile invention in the stylistically staid world of crime writing, a genre that, however invested in social change, is realist to its bones. (I’m talking about how it describes the world, not whether it’s plausible, which, so often, it isn’t. Not a criticism, by the way.)

French’s previous novel, The Witch Elm (2018), wasn’t just French’s first stand-alone, it was literally about what it means to stand alone, a question it explored by considering vigilantism and by using the protagonist’s head trauma to question the very idea of a coherent self. Other crime novels have used concussed or neuro-challenged detectives—off the top of my head, I think of examples by Margery Allingham, Howard Engel, and Henning Mankell—but always to ask questions about reason (can the crime be solved by a detective who can’t think “normally”?) rather than about identity. Yet The Witch Elm’s narrator was still enmeshed in a social world; he had all sorts of people worrying about him (and worrying him: the people in his life choked him with their concern). As this description implies, the book was also written in first person, taking French’s genius for charming but dubious narrators to its greatest height. In this regard, The Witch Elm was of a piece with the rest of her books. Taken together they make a brilliant, paradoxical argument about narration: the best way to show someone’s connections to others is to tell their story in first-person.

The Searcher shows the reverse to be true as well: third-person shows isolation. Cal Hooper has retired, at age 48, from the Chicago police. (As someone of the same age, I was curious but also dubious about the financial logistics of this plan. But I digress.) Wanting to put the job behind him—or, rather, his mixed feelings about it; his inability to any longer believe the police are fundamentally useful (an idea more and more crime writers are understandably wrestling with these days; too bad this is the most cursory, least interesting part of the book)—not to mention his recent divorce, Cal has come to rural Ireland, where he’s bought a tumble-down cottage and devotes his days to restoring it.

Cal loves his new life—frying the good Irish bacon while blasting Steve Earle, feeling his body return from decades of sedentary work, marveling bemusedly at the changeable weather—but he also feels ill at ease. He doesn’t know the place, doesn’t know everyone’s back story, doesn’t understand what the locals are actually saying when they seem to be chatting pleasantly. A parliament of rooks watches skeptically over his yard. People stop talking when he enters the pub. More to the point, someone is watching him, he can just tell.

The someone turns out to be a thirteen-year-old named Trey Reddy, whose beloved older brother disappeared a few months back. Everyone knows the family is shiftless—father fucked off, mother overwhelmed, kids going to school only when they feel like it—so they assume Brendan lighted out for something better, maybe in the city. He’ll be back eventually, chastened no doubt. Trey knows differently, knows no one cares like Brendan does, knows this older brother wouldn’t leave without saying something or sending word. Trey wants Cal, the ex-cop to find his brother.

The ex-cop doesn’t want to, but gets pulled in against his better judgment. The truth turns out to be fairly simple, but also messy, leaving no one untouched, and it proves Cal’s early intuition about that his bucolic new home is a heaving mass of secrets. Like so many of French’s characters, he feels that the world as we know it only barely makes sense, its meaning a hair’s breadth from meaninglessness:

All of a sudden he has that sensation… an intense awareness of the spread of the dark countryside all around his house; a sense of being surrounded by a vast invisible web, where one wrong touch could shake things so far distant he hasn’t even spotted them.

Distant things—the syntax here can trip us up if we’re not careful—do get shaken, and people do get hurt (physically, not just emotionally: it’s a violent book). Their trust in each other, their ease with each other, their sense of being safe with each other—all are badly eroded. By the end French leaves us a glimmer of hope that some relationships might survive; that people need each other is never in doubt. That’s true even when the relationships on offer are harmful. One drunken night at the pub Cal thinks he might finally have been accepted by the locals, then realizes he’s being played in a way he can’t yet understand. But he so hungers for “the effortless rhythms of the talk snapping back and forth across the table” that he’s willing to take what he can get: “He may not know these men, but they know each other, and there’s comfort in being around that.”

Reading The Searcher I would occasionally stumble over Cal’s folksy, backwoods, aw shucks language: “So if I show up at your place and start visiting with your mama, you never saw me before.” Visiting, your mama—these Southernisms are explained away (he moved to Chicago from the Carolinas)—but that Cal would think of and to himself in the same way, as shown by the appearance of similar language in the free indirect discourse, seems a bit much. (“On his way out Cal has himself a nice long wander around the lane behind Francie Gannon’s fields.”) What I’m saying is that French has never written an American before, and it shows.

Or does it? As always, French is ahead of her readers. If we think she’s failed, then the joke’s on us. We’ve been too quick to reach for plausibility and realism. Cal’s southernisms, his whole good ol’ boy persona, are strategic, useful in lulling suspects into dismissing him. And they may not just be his disguise, they may be the novel’s too. Finishing the book, I got to thinking about the title, which of course has many possible referents: Cal, Trey, Brendan, the locals Cal finds himself among, and, not least, readers. So many searchers. But then why hasn’t French used the plural? I thought, of course, about a text that does, John Ford’s classic western, The Searchers (1956). And to be sure Cal is taken by the men down the pub as a kind of John Wayne, and fashions himself as one too. Cross-cultural encounters usually start with stereotypes: here, the locals make lots of hay about Americans as gun-toting zealots; in turn, they revel in their Irishness (“‘Sure, I’ve no need for that carry-on at my age,” Cal’s neighbour says when they banter over the fence, “‘What sins would I commit, an aul’ lad like me? I haven’t even got the broadband.’”) French, I think, is up to something here. She wrongfoots us with these clichés. What truths do they tell? What do they conceal? What happens when a Western is transplanted to western Ireland?

In Ford’s film, Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a confederate soldier drifting across Texas in the wake of the Civil War. On a visit to his brother’s homestead, his relatives are murdered in a Comanche raid. All except Ethan’s nieces, whose fate—they have been taken hostage—is even worse in Ethan’s eyes. Along with his adopted nephew (already challenging the idea that family is primarily biological), Ethan launches a quest to release them—which also means to redeem them—thereby restoring the “civilizing” function of white settlers, as symbolized by the houses that bookend the film. Famously, however, Ethan is uneasy in both, always framed in doorways, coming in only to leave again. Domesticating walls can’t contain him, not because he is a free spirit but because the civilization The Searchers pretends to uphold is predicated on the ineradicable violence he symbolizes and, like some vigilante Ancient Mariner, is enjoined to enact.

I wouldn’t say French’s novel is an homage or even a reworking of Ford’s film. A riposte maybe. But I definitely think she has Westerns on her mind. When Lena, the novel’s neatly deflected love interest, explains that the problem with rural Ireland is that young women leave for better things because their families won’t give them land, which leaves a landscape of bachelors, men who lash out because they’ve no young people around to show them that a changing world isn’t terrible. When Cal suggests that having kids makes you want to fight things, too, Lena replies:

That’s different. If you’ve kids, you’re always looking out into the world to see if anything needs fighting, because that’s where they’re headed; you’re not barricading yourself indoors and listening for the Indians to attack.

Lena is the most sensible person in the novel; she voices French’s rejection of the ethos of the Western. But French can’t escape the questions about our bonds to other people the genre poses. The solution isn’t for everyone to settle down and have lots of children, or even for women to be able to work the land as much as men do. It’s to imagine different kinds of relationships between the generations that exceed the familial. Which is where French is different than Ford. In the film, the relationship between Ethan and his surviving niece isn’t close, isn’t parental, but still familial. She is kin. In the novel, Cal and Trey’s relationship can be generative because it’s unnecessary, and even not quite socially sanctioned. (Cal is warned that people will talk—and, it is intimated, do more than talk—if they learn how much time he is spending with the child.) If Cal is a father figure to Trey the novel emphasizes the figure rather than the father.

Even though it contains French’s signature unsettling undercurrents of strong negative emotions, The Searcher is sweeter than The Searchers. In the end, I’m not completely sold on it; disappointingly, its style is less luxurious than usual for French. But it’s plenty suspenseful, and plenty smart, a fine addition to a wonderful oeuvre. It’s a good book about dogs, too, valuing them for what they are rather than sentimentalizing them. Which is fitting, for the affect between dogs and people is also neither biological nor, for the most part, useful—it is unearned and thus free, a gift that is just as powerful as the one that arises between Cal and Trey, the novel’s differently burdened but equally capable protagonists. Solitude is a fantasy, this worthwhile new novel teaches, and bad for you too. But the relationships our society legitimates aren’t always the remedy for that harm. It’s for a new kind of relationship—a new version of friendship—that The Searcher searches.

“We Know What We Know, We Had to Pay Dearly Enough for It”: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

A few weeks ago, during some pleasant days vacationing in Maine, I read Michael Hofmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. It was good to have time to devote to it, because the book is fairly demanding. Yet I wouldn’t say I was immersed in it—it’s not the kind of book to love, fall into, think about even when you’re not reading it. At least it wasn’t for me. But I doubt Döblin wouldn’t have wanted any of that. After all, he was a doctor, a specialist in neurology and psychiatry, and there is something of our conventional idea of medicine in his prose—it is detached, even Olympian, concerned with individuals but convinced that their functioning is a result of physiological and mental processes that exceed or evade individual consciousness or willpower.

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The novel’s plot is fairly simple. Franz Biberkopf is a pimp and small-time crook. He is sentimental, sometimes kind, shrewd yet naïve, always thuggish. The book begins as he is released from prison after serving a sentence for beating his former girlfriend to death. Frightened by his re-entry into the world, he is helped back on his feet by a man he happens to run into in the street, an Orthodox Jew who impresses Franz with his wisdom. Soon an old friend gets him a job selling shoelaces door-to-door. One of his customers, a wealthy widow, takes pity on him—he reminds her of her dead husband—and intimates she will take care of him but Franz can’t help but boast about his conquest to the friend, who proceeds to rob the woman. It is one of many betrayals in the novel. In response, Franz goes on a bender; eventually he rights himself enough to find work selling newspapers, but he’s barely making ends meet. His quest to go straight is further threatened when he comes into the orbit of a small-time but seductive mobster named Reinhold. Reinhold is a magnificent, despicable character, a man who hates women as much as he is drawn to them: he loses interest in each new girl after a week or two and arranges to pass them on to Franz. But Franz tires of the scheme—in his lumpish way, he likes the women, feels bad for them, doesn’t want to do Reinhold’s dirty work for him.

Reinhold is furious and takes revenge. He allows Franz into his band of crooks, and when a heist goes wrong takes the opportunity to push Franz out of the getaway car. Franz is run over and badly hurt: he survives, but loses an arm. After his lengthy recovery, he is brought back to life yet again by the crooks he’d been involved with before going to jail. They introduce him to Mitzi, a young girl newly arrived from the provinces, who goes onto the streets for him. So Franz is back where he started, once again a small-time pimp, though he’s chastened and knows he’s lucky to have the saintly Mitzi.

But fate won’t leave Franz alone, or he can’t leave well enough alone (for Döblin it’s the same thing): Franz won’t give up Reinhold (the novel doesn’t make much of this, but Rainer Werner Fassbinder emphasized the homoeroticism of this intense relationship in his gargantuan and compelling fifteen-hour television adaptation). Reinhold’s jealousy—which the novel figures as purely evil: unmotivated and unexplained—leads to a terrible denouement resulting (SPOILERS!) in Mitzi’s death and Franz’s psychological breakdown. (Reinhold murders her when she rejects his advances.) Eventually, though, Reinhold gets his comeuppance. This is cleverly handled: Reinhold gets himself arrested by pretending to be someone else, because he figures he is safest in jail, but once there he finally falls in love for real, with a boy in fact, to whom he tells everything, and when the kid is released he can’t help but talk about the mastermind he met inside and before long one of the little crook’s associates goes to the police to collect the reward and so Reinhold is arrested again, from within prison this time, and sentenced to ten years, not least on the strength of Franz’s testimony at trial.

Franz recovers from his breakdown—it’s at least his fourth time starting over—but the book is done with him: “Straight after the trial Biberkopf is offered a job as assistant porter in a medium-sized factory. He accepts. Beyond that there is nothing to report on his life.” Among its last lines we find this conclusion: “Biberkopf is a little worker. We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

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As Hofmann says in his excellent afterword, the novel has “good bones.” The repetitions, the peaks and valleys, the overall narrative arc are all satisfying. And there’s plenty of lurid excitement, B-movie type stuff. But it’s not an exciting book. (It’s nothing like Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, for example.) Events matter less than their telling. Think about that enigmatic last line: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” Who is “we”? The narrator? The narrator and the reader? Franz himself, thinking of himself in the plural? (That would be weird, but the narration routinely moves from omniscience into subjectivity within a single sentence. An example, chosen at random, describing Franz’s testimony at Reinhold’s trial: “That’s all they can get out of Biberkopf on the subject of Reinhold. Nothing about his arm, nothing about their falling out, their fight, I shouldn’t have done it, I should never have tangled with him.”)

Let’s assume the “we” refers to readers. How have we paid for what we’ve learned? Maybe by mistakenly thinking the plot is what matters, that this really is the story of a guy named Franz Biberkopf, a scoundrel who wants to go straight and eventually does. In fact, that story is just a way for the novel to indulge its more urgent fascination with life in Berlin. As Fassbinder put it, the language of the novel is a way to imitate the rhythm of the S-Bahn (commuter rail), which Döblin heard coming through his window.

For an example of what that might mean, look at this passage:

It was the second week of April in Berlin, the weather could be balmy at times, and, as the press unanimously proclaimed, the gorgeous Easter weather was bringing people out of doors. In Berlin at that time a Russian student, Alex Fränkel, shot his fiancée, the twenty-two-year-old arts and craft worker Vera Kaminskaya, in her digs. The same-aged au pair, Tatiana Sanftleben, who had been in on the suicide pact, got scared at the very last moment, and slipped off as her friend was already lying lifelessly on the floor. She ran into a police foot patrol, told them the terrible details of the past few months, and led the officials to the place where Vera and Alex lay dying. The serious crime squad was alerted, and murder detectives despatched to the site. Alex and Vera had wanted to marry, but their economic circumstances would not allow it.

In other news, the investigations over responsibility for the tram accident on Heerstrasse are still unconcluded. Eyewitnesses and the driver, one Redlich, are being questioned. Technical reports are not yet completed. Only when they have come in will it be possible to decide whether the catastrophe was due to human error (driver slow to apply the brakes) or a tragic combination of circumstances.

The stock exchange was largely quiet: in the open market, prices were a little firmer, in view of a recently published Reichsbank report that took a positive view of the disposal of 400 million in obligations and another 350 million in credit notes. In individual shares, as of 11 a.m. on 18 April, I. G. Farben traded over a narrow range from260.5 to 267, Siemens & Halske 297.5 to 299; Dessau Gas 202 to 203, Waldhof Cellulose 295. German Petroleum steady at 134.5.

To return to the tram accident on Heerstrasse, all the inured passengers were said to be improving in hospital.

There’s plenty of this roving-eye stuff in the novel (all fascinating to me, and lovely in its mimicry of the language of newspapers), but it’s never just “local colour.” Here, for example, the idea of “human error” or “tragic combination of circumstances” brings up the ideas of willpower and fate that the Franz story is also wrestling with. And the story of the murder-suicide pact—a little novel in itself—is a commentary on the difficulty of life for so many in Weimar-era Berlin.

In such passages the narration is the definition of omniscience. At others, however, it closely attaches itself to Franz’s perspective, even his stream of consciousness. But it regularly abandons that perspective, in the most abrupt manner, as in this passage:

In the night Franz wakes up and doesn’t get off to sleep again. It’s freezing. Cilly [another girlfriend] beside him is asleep and snoring. Why can he not sleep? The vegetable carts are trundling on their way to the market hall. I wouldn’t want to be a horse, not in this weather, at this hour. Stables is warm, I’ll be bound. My God, this woman can seep. Can she ever sleep. Not me. My toes are frozen, I can feel the itch and tickle. There’s something inside of him, his heart, his lungs, his inner self, it’s there and it’s being buffeted and bent, who by? It doesn’t know, the mystery thing, doesn’t, who by. All it can say for sure is that it’s not asleep.

Those last three sentences are so odd. I don’t think they are free indirect discourse; I don’t think they’re offering Franz’s perceptions in third person. Why would that be necessary? We just had them in first. I think this is third-person omniscience, but a different omniscience than in the tram accident and stock market passage.

The newsreel passages tell us everything. These other passages—typically centered on Franz—hint that they know everything but without letting us in on the secret. “There’s something inside of him”—this is at once certain and vague. What is the something? Is it analogous to willpower? What makes Franz do what he does? Are we supposed to learn anything from his fate?

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In this regard, it’s no surprise that the text regularly references stories from the Torah, especially Job and Abraham. They have the same kind of gnomic assurance. And they too are famously hard to interpret. Are these references meant to be analogies to or parables of Franz’s experience? Is he suffering for no reason? Has he been selected to perform a great sacrifice? Impossible to say. Unlike the stories from Torah, which are made to be interpreted (rabbinic Judaism is in some sense nothing but the history of those interpretations), the story of Franz Biberkopf doesn’t seem to want to be interpreted.

More than anything this detachment from the conventions of interpretation is what makes Berlin Alexanderplatz easy to admire but hard to love. Thinking about its author in relation to his contemporaries, Döblin is warmer than Musil, less intellectual, his ironies less bitter. But he’s nothing like Mann, whose 1929 Nobel Prize victory quickly eclipsed the publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz. I wonder how this book compares to Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, another German epic based on biblical stories. I bet they’re pretty different.

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Inasmuch as there is warmth or passion here, it’s in the novel’s depiction of the city. Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the great city novels. Maybe the greatest. (More interesting in its depiction than either Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway.) But it is not a love letter to Berlin. Nothing as kitschy as that. I don’t think it’s right to say that the city is a voracious machine, churning up all who enter into it (though the novel is fascinated by the construction of the subway, with lots of chewy descriptions of digging and earth-moving), unless of course we think of life itself—both animal and human—as a kind of machine, better, a kind of immense system. People aren’t simply pawns of that system—Döblin isn’t entirely determinist—but they aren’t in charge of themselves and the universe, either.

The best attitude to take to what Freud in another context called “narcissistic blows” to our anthropocentrism is the one incarnated in the famous Berliner Schnauze, literally, the Berlin snout, figuratively, the defiant, coarse, and clever slang of Berlin. That’s the language Franz and the others use all the time—heck, so does the narrator—and that’s what’s made the novel for so long seem untranslatable.

Hofmann’s solutions to this dilemma are admirable. He writes about this in his afterword, where he rightly notes “Döblin often has it in him to speak like his characters” (he’s not looking down on them, not offering their non-standard speech in distinction to his). Instead, the use of dialect “seems to be a function of intensity, but generally within reach of all.” Hofmann uses what he calls “the regional unspecific” to good effect, though the book does seem a little British sometimes. My favourite part of his comments concerns dropped letters: “I don’t like dropping letters and misspelling words in speech the way Dickens does, until I found the effect is entirely different if you just do it, without the rather self-congratulatory apostrophe, which is the perfect mark of bad faith.” (Ouch! I’ve been guilty of that!)

As Hofmann explains it, the book’s use of dialect is generous, and I appreciate the way that sentiment cleaves to some of the novel’s other expansive qualities. One of the ways the book is different for us than it was for Döblin and his first readers is that its invocation of the modern metropolis is now historical. In its suggestion that leftist movements are on the rise and National Socialism just a bad joke, we can glimpse how things might have been.

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The part of the book that moved me the most is an unwitting performance of this idea of the road not taken. At one point, the novel describes the movement of the # 4 tram as it leaves Rosenthalerplatz. At Lothringer Strasse, four people get on, “two elderly women, a worried-looking working man and a boy with a cap and ear-flaps.” The women are going to buy a girdle; the man needs to return a defective second-hand electric iron he bought for his boss. And the boy?

The lad, Max Rüst, will one day become a plumber, the father of seven little Rüsts, will work for Hallis & Co., installers and roofers, Grünau, at the age of fifty-two he will win a quarter-share of the Prussian State Lottery jackpot and retire, and then, in the midst of a case he is bringing against Hallis & Co., he will die at the age of fifty-five. His obituary will read: On 25 September, suddenly, from heart disease, my dearly beloved husband, our dear father, son, brother, brother-in-law and uncle Max Rüst, in his fifty-sixth year. This announcement is placed by the grieving widow, Marie Rüst, on behalf of all with deep grief. The rendering of thanks will go as follows: Being unable to acknowledge individually the many tokens of sympathy we have received, we extend thanks to all our relatives, friends, and fellow-tenants in Kleiststrasse 4 and our wider acquaintances. Especial thanks to Pastor Deinen for his words of comfort. – At present this Max Rüst is fourteen and on his way home from school, via the advice center for those hard of hearing, with impaired vision, experiencing difficulties of speech, dyspraxia and problems with concentration, where he has been a few times already, about his stammer, which seems to be getting better.

Exuent Max Rüst. His ordinary and yet, to me, pathos-laden life (that stammer! that ill-fated and perhaps ill-advised lawsuit!) might have been the focus of a different book, though it is unclear whether we are to take the same sense of fate countering an individual’s striving. Still, fate certainly has its way with Max, as of course it does with us all. This burst of narrative omniscience—reminiscent of similar moments in Woolf’s near-contemporaneous Jacob’s Room, another great city novel—suggests the triumph of determinism. But how much more moving it is for us to read this passage in light of what we know of German history. It is possible that Max Rüst might indeed have left all of his little Rüst descendents and died peaceably enough in the increasingly prosperous Federal Republic in 1968 (Kleiststrasse would have been in West Berlin). (Would Rüst have looked askance at the student demonstrations? I’m guessing yes.) But there would have been so many possibiilities in which he wouldn’t have made it to that end (deployed to the front, killed in an air raid, lost to the hatred and violence of the SS, either as victim or perpetrator).

“We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” I suggested earlier how we readers might have paid for it. But I didn’t say what we know. The terrible rise and legacy of fascism is something we know that the all-knowing narrator can’t. Maybe we wish we didn’t know it. Maybe the cost of reading Berlin Alexanderplatz today is to know the extraordinary viciousness that overwhelmed the garden-variety, even petty viciousness of the world it depicts.

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.

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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.