is well known to be one of Woody Allen's favourite books, and it explores one of Allen's favourite themes. Whether life is a tragedy or a comedy depends on hair-fine nuances. Melinda and Melinda
is probably the clearest example: the perspective constantly, and rather confusingly, shifts back and forward between comedy and tragedy. A bit later, he redid the idea in a more convincing way, as the linked pair Match Point
(the tragedy) and Scoop
In the same spirit, here's a linked pair of reviews. I wrote the tragic one first, but then felt that I really needed to balance it with a comic version.
O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.
I'm afraid it's not exactly a fun beach read. If L'Education Sentimentale
doesn't make you feel uneasy, you're either a remarkably secure person or you decided to quit before reaching the end. And Flaubert does a good job of sneaking up on you: for the first hundred pages or so, I felt it was one of those books where nothing was going to happen, and it wasn't until I was about halfway through that I really began to feel disquieted. He's good.
On the surface, it's unremarkable, except for the lovely prose. Frédéric is a stupid and shallow young man in 1840s France. After a chance meeting on a boat, he conceives a passion for Mme. Arnoux, a beautiful married woman. He manages to insinuate himself into her husband's social circle, and becomes friendly with him. After a while, M. Arnoux trusts young Frédéric enough that he introduces him to his mistress, the charming and scatterbrained Roseanette. Frédéric falls for her too, and then his romantic life becomes even more complicated. I'll try to avoid dropping any more spoilers, but I thought I should convince you that it's definitely not a book where nothing happens: as in Madame Bovary
, there's ample sex and violence.
So, why's it so disquieting? One way to explain is to compare with two other novels, which were written not long after and certainly, at least in part, were inspired by it. In Proust's Le Côté de Guermantes
, Marcel becomes as obsessed with the Duchesse de Guermantes as Frédéric does with Mme. Arnoux, but by the end of the novel he's got over her; we get a detailed account of how her charm gradually fades away, so that he can finally see her objectively. It's disappointing, but extremely rational. And in Maupassant's Bel-Ami
, Georges Duroy cleverly exploits his series of mistresses to become rich and successful; this time, you're shocked at how cold-blooded he is, but it's also rational.
I thought at several points that Frédéric was going to take one of these paths; he doesn't. The novel's extraordinary strength is to get inside his mind as he dithers between the various women he's involved with, and demonstrate how he simply isn't capable of any kind of rational thought whatsoever. He's with X, and Flaubert shows with his usual exactitude how blissfully in love he is with her. Then, a few pages later, he's with Y, and his protestations of eternal devotion don't come across as hypocritical: much worse, they're sincere! And, in the next chapter, with Z... well, you get the picture. It's horrifyingly well done.
In the middle of all this, the Revolution of 1848 breaks out. (By the way: if you're as ignorant about French history as I am, I strongly recommend getting an annotated edition. Flaubert assumes you know the story already, and keeps referring to people and events I'd never heard of - I was flipping to the endnotes like I was reading Infinite Jest
). I did wonder for a moment what the politics had to do with the main story; alas, that rapidly becomes clear too. Like the eponymous hero of the Rabbit
series, Frédéric is constitutionally incapable of seeing past the end of his own dick. The fact that France has been given a once-in-a-century chance to establish a fairer and more democratic government completely escapes him. There is a magnificent sequence where a major event has occurred, and people are shooting at each other in the streets; all Frédéric can think about is the fact that he's missed an important date with one of his loved ones. I was strongly reminded of the scene near the beginning of Shaun of the Dead
, where Shaun, who's just been dumped by his girlfriend, stumbles home in a daze while somehow managing not to notice that London is being invaded by flesh-eating zombies.
You will gather that L'Education Sentimentale
does not present a positive and uplifting view of human nature. If only it were ugly or hastily written, one could dismiss it. But no: as always with Flaubert, it's meticulously crafted and a delight to read. A lot of the time, it's even funny. You may occasionally want to fling it across the room; more often, you're going to react with a wry smile. He's witty and entertaining.
I started with a quote from Hamlet
, arguably one of the book's ancestors, and I'll conclude with one from Cat's Cradle
, probably a great-grandson, and also a very funny book. Here's Kurt Vonnegut on the same subject.
And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled 'What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experiences of the Past Million Years?'
It doesn't take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it:
______________________________________Comic review["Sex and the City" theme tune. CARRIE is lying across her bed typing industriously on her laptop]
I read that over 60% of all American men cheat on their partners. That's a lot of cheating. It's happened to me. It's happened to my best friends. It may have happened to you. And, the other day, I started wondering [the title comes up as she speaks the words]
When Men Cheat On Their Partners, What Are They Really Thinking?[Dissolve to a trendy Manhattan restaurant. CARRIE is sitting alone at a table set for four people, reading a paperback novel. Camera zooms in to show the title, "Sentimental Education"]
CARRIE: [turns a page, and shakes her head reflectively]
Jeez![CARRIE is so engrossed that she doesn't notice that CHARLOTTE, SAMANTHA and MIRANDA have arrived, and are looking at her curiously.]
CHARLOTTE: Good, isn't it?
CARRIE: [starts violently]
Uh... yes! So you've read it too? Don't tell me how it ends...
SAMANTHA: [checking to see how far CARRIE has got]
Oh, you're nearly finished. You know, this reminds me of something that happened to Charlotte and me a few years ago. [She gives CHARLOTTE a teasing look]
You don't mind?
Charlotte did mind, but Samantha steamrollered her.
SAMANTHA: [steamrollering her]
Come on, babe, all ancient history now! But we need some cocktails first. [To waiter]
This was during Charlotte's first marriage, a period she doesn't like to talk about. Her husband Jack was a lot older than her.[Montage. CHARLOTTE'S FIRST HUSBAND evidently doesn't take her seriously.]
Samantha hadn't yet discovered she had a talent for PR. She was wondering if she would make it as an actress.[Montage. SAMANTHA's movie roles don't require her to wear much.]
Samantha was also a close friend of Jack.[Montage. JACK and SAMANTHA are having noisy sex. Dissolve back to restaurant.]
SAMANTHA: [smiles and pats CHARLOTTE on the arm]
Of course, Charlotte and I didn't know each other yet.
Now Jack ran this publishing company. He had a cute intern called Fred. One day, Fred met Charlotte.[Dissolve back to the past. Montage. FRED, very young and innocent, meets CHARLOTTE. He's obviously smitten.]
Fred had never seen anyone so beautiful in his life. He immediately knew he could never love another woman. But how could he meet her again? [FRED looks sad and pensive, then suddenly brightens up.]
Fred needed to get friendly with Jack.[Montage. JACK is talking, FRED is hanging on his every word.]
Jack liked the attention. He started inviting Fred to his dinner parties.[Montage. Dinner party at JACK and CHARLOTTE's. FRED gazes raptly at CHARLOTTE, while she ignores him.]
Jack had really got to trust Fred. He started taking him to parties at Samantha's place too.[Montage. A much wilder party. FRED looks embarrassed, but is clearly eyeing up SAMANTHA]
Pretty soon, Fred had fallen for Samantha as well. Oh, and somewhere around here he went back to Wisconsin for a couple of months and managed to get engaged to the girl next door.[Montage. FRED is with the adoring GIRL-NEXT-DOOR, who's even younger and more innocent-looking than he is. Dissolve back to restaurant. MIRANDA is struggling to keep up with the story.]
MIRANDA: So, uh, let me see, he can only love Charlotte but he's got the hots for Samantha and he's engaged to the girl next door?[CHARLOTTE looks like she wants to sink through the floor. She takes a large sip of her cocktail. SAMANTHA is having fun.]
SAMANTHA: [to MIRANDA]
Don't worry, babe, it hasn't got complicated yet.
Fred made progress with Charlotte. She let him hold her hand while she told him about her problems. But that's all that happened.[Montage. FRED and CHARLOTTE gaze soulfully into each other's eyes, go for walks hand-in-hand, pick flowers, etc]
Obviously, Fred wanted more. He made a date with Charlotte at the New York apartment he'd just started renting. This was going to be it.[Montage. FRED, in an agony of suspense, is waiting outside the apartment block. He keeps looking at his watch.]
Unfortunately, the date was September 11, 2000.[Montage. The Twin Towers erupt in flames. People screaming in the streets. FRED is still looking at his watch as they stream past.]
Fred was so angry with Charlotte for not turning up. He went to see Samantha.[Montage. FRED and SAMANTHA are having sex. Dissolve back to restaurant.]
SAMANTHA: [elaborate shrug]
Well, I needed a fuck pretty bad.
Fred liked being with Samantha. But deep down, he never forgave her for making him betray his true love. He started seeing someone else, the wife of a rich banker.[Montage. FRED is having sex with RICH BANKER WIFE. Back to restaurant.]
MIRANDA: [completely lost]
So, he's sleeping with you and
the banker's wife because he can't be with his true love? And what's with the fiancée?
SAMANTHA: [large sip of cocktail]
That's it, babe. He thought it was my fault, and the banker's wife's fault. And maybe the fiancée's fault too, but I was never quite sure about that. Of course, it all ended in tears.[Montage. SEVERAL WOMEN are yelling at FRED, throwing things, etc]
SAMANTHA: [back in restaurant]
Your friend Stanford told Charlotte and me we should read Sentimental Education. He was right. It's just uncanny. Flaubert is a bit of an asshole, but he sure spills the beans on how men think when they cheat. It helped. [putting an arm around CHARLOTTE]
And somehow, Charlotte and I ended up friends. Sorry babe. [She drains her glass. CHARLOTTE drains hers and hugs her back. There are tears in her eyes.]
I swear, I'd become a lesbian if I didn't like cock so much. And I wish I'd read Flaubert earlier.[Theme music, credits]