Friday, 31 October 2014

Concluding post on Sentimental Education

In his introduction of Sentimental Education, Robert Baldick wrote:
"The public still wants works which encourage and exalt its illusions, and consequently many readers are still bound to find Sentimental Education distasteful and even abhorrent. Politicians of every party loathe the book, since it shows up the politics of Right and Left, of the 20th century as much as of the 19th, with impartial ferocity and disgust; young people shy away from it, because it exposes the hollowness and fragility of their ideals; while women regard it with suspicion and dislike, on account of its insidious devaluation of the power of love..."
Such reactions are understandable- Madame Bovary, when hated, is hated for the same reasons. Who wants to find themselves in Emma Bovary, or Frédéric Moreau? Flaubert is not Tolstoy, who has affection and sympathy for all of his characters and who, in War and Peace as well as in his more tragic work Anna Karenina, makes one love life in all of its manifestations. The sadness and disappointment makes Flaubert closer in temperament to Turgenev, but Flaubert doesn't give Hussonnet, Deslauriers and Sénécal the kind of love that Turgenev has for Bazarov. Perhaps one may even argue that Dostoyevsky, in spite of his exploration of evil, at least believes in hope and redemption and free will, whereas no sense of hope or redemption can be found in Flaubert. It's nothing, nothing, nothing. He's a vivisectionist, and as he wanted to become, a demoraliser, cutting open his characters, in both novels, and putting them on display and presenting the horrible, cruel, naked reality, crushing all sentimental dreams and illusions. But if in Madame Bovary, the focus in on a few provincial people, a few philistines, such as Emma Bovary, Léon and Homais, in Sentimental Education, it's the whole generation and the whole society that Flaubert is ridiculing and feeling disgusted with. It's a book of disappointment, of emptiness, of inactive passion, of purposeless existence, of failed dreams, of crushed illusions, of the futility of life. 
2 years ago, after reading Madame Bovary, I distanced myself from Flaubert in spite of my immense admiration for the novel, and haven't read any other of his works till now. I admired him, esteemed him highly and held him in a respectful distance, but now I feel different, and love Sentimental Education, personally. Perhaps the 2 novels are different- both have irony, both are dissection of sentimentalism, philistinism and stupidity, but while the mockery in Madame Bovary seems harsh, cruel and fused with contempt, that in Sentimental Education is tinged with disappointment and profound sadness. Or maybe it's me that has changed- the past 2 years with some experiences of activism (for lack of a better word) have crushed some of my illusions, and though I don't generally see myself as a pessimist, my pessimism about the state of VN, about Viet people, about pro-democracy activists and bloggers, do help understand the sadness and despair of Flaubert, which I probably wouldn't have known, had I read Sentimental Education in 2009 or 2010, when I had just entered that world. A man fails to recognise great works but owns a newspaper about theatre and then uses it to spread slander as a revenge, a man takes his friend's legacy for granted and feels that his friend is entitled to give him money, a man speaks loudly of socialism and the masses and worker poets but, once having power, abuses it and sees no individual, a man has great expectations and aspirations but wanders through life aimlessly, political changes take place but only go with chaos and lead to nothing better...- Flaubert's attitude and tone is not arrogance or disdain but more like disillusionment. The novel is even sadder in its last chapters, when Madame Arnoux meets Frédéric again, then leaves, "and that was all"- they never belong to each other and yet we have a feeling that it is better that way, because their love, if pushed any further, could collapse like everything else. 
In the end Robert Baldick notes:
"... Yet for all of the hopes it kills and the illusions it destroys, Flaubert's novel is not a barren, dispiriting work [...] and any reader who is capable, as he was, of accepting both pleasant and unpleasant experiences as an inevitable part of life, and deriving an ironic pleasure from acquiescence in the human condition, will find Sentimental Education a work of profound, mature, satisfying beauty."
I agree. Sentimental Education may not be everyone's favourite, but it's indeed "a work of profound, mature, satisfying beauty". 

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