Gustave Flaubert's (1821 to 1880) Madame Bovary is on everyone's list of best novels ever written, including mine. I last read it in the first part of 2009, just before I began my blog. I have read and posted on his novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a very strange book and for sure not a first Flaubert, as well as on one of his short stories "The Dance of Death". To me Madame Bovary is an ice cold work of perfection in which one can only stand in awe. I think you can enjoy and get a lot of pleasure out of reading Sentimental Education without feeling humans are but foolish insects in the eye of the master.
I first read Flaubert's Sentimental Education about four years ago. Ford Madox Ford famously said one could not consider yourself an educated person until you had read it fourteen times. OK I guess I will never make that level but I will read it again in a 2014 or so , I hope. In very well done introduction to the Oxford Classics edition Parmee flirts with the idea of saying Sentimental Education is better than War and Peace . I really liked Sentimental Education but I think one does not just like Madame Bovary any more than one would like the Taj Mahal or Guernica.
Here are some of the things I like about this book. I like the character development of the central figure, Frederic Moreau. The work is really full of great descriptions of life in Paris. I enjoyed the accounts of political turmoil. The food sounds great and there are some interesting romances along the way. Some people, including Henry James, see this as a huge step down from Madame Bovary. Aside from the fact that almost every novel is a huge step down from Madame Bovary I think one should first read it then this work. The characters in Sentimental Education are very self absorbed and the development of the education of Frederic is slow. I liked the novel a lot as a whole but I loved the last chapter when we flash to Frederic as an older man, still pursuing a life of pleasure. It was a lot of fun to hear of his visit in company of one of his close friends to a brothel and how it ruined their reputations when word got out. This to me is a deeply ironic commentary on a society in which all women seem to sell themselves to the highest bidder and men seek wealth to buy women.
I hope to read Madame Bovary in the highly regarded Lydia Davis translation next year.
The Reading Life