Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Book Reviews

Flaubert’s Antisentimental Sex

Romantic but not sentimental.

Joshua Hren

Portrait of Gustave Flaubert by Dariush Radpour (b. 1945); Fototeca Gilardi/Bridgeman Images.

In a passage that could have been written yesterday—and has in fact been freshly translated by Raymond MacKenzie, who has also translated the work of Stendhal and Balzac—Gustave Flaubert’s 1869 novel Sentimental Education gives us history with an evenhanded irony that weighs the wages of all ideologies and finds them wanting. In the “year of revolution,” 1848, during a radical uprising that penetrates the palaces of French politics, we encounter what many today would call an insurrection, wherein a man

with a black beard sat on the throne, his shirt half open, clearly thinking this was hilarious, grinning stupidly like an ape. Others scrambled up onto the platform to take his place.

“There’s the great myth!” said Hussonnet. “There you see it—the sovereign People!” The throne was picked up, rocking as it passed from one pair of hands to another all across the room.

“Damn! Look at it sway! The ship of state, pitching around on a stormy sea! Look at it dance—it’s doing the cancan!”

They had carried it over to a window, and while the crowd hissed and booed, they threw it out.

MacKenzie’s new translation grants us the chance to read American political tumult—from the January 6 Capitol riots to the toppling of statues—as unexceptional. Show me a political program, the novel seems to say, whose strategies are scrubbed of the libido dominandi. Reading the novel alongside The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, also newly released and edited by the estimable Francis Steegmuller, renders this judgment even more convincing.

One December morning, Flaubert writes, the protagonist of Sentimental Education, Frédéric Moreau, chanced upon a political demonstration. The police made “the pavement ring with the sound of their heavy boots,” and “everyone seemed to have a question on their lips.” The protest reached its peak when the mob “booed [and] hissed the guardians of public order” to the point that the police “began to pale.” When a small youth laughed in his face, an officer shoved him so forcefully that he fell back five feet, landing in front of a wine shop. Enter Dussardier, “a kind of Hercules” who instinctively leapt upon the policeman and delivered a round of blows, then shook himself sober as he was arrested. This act of violence commences an ironic series of reversals that turn Dussardier into a kind of human Molotov cocktail hurled by Flaubert in protest against modern mediocrity.

Frédéric and his law school friends follow Dussardier to jail, where they invite him into a fictional game that will win him an easy release: With a wink to the tough, out of the officers’ sight, they treat him as if he were a fellow law student. They expect gratitude from the worker Dussardier, but, cognizant of the consequence of class, he experiences “a certain shame at having been raised in social status to law student, with the likes of these two with their soft white hands.” By the time the future lawyers take their leave of him, he bursts into sobs, asking “How can this be?…for me—for me?” His initial mortification before the amateur radicals who would save him becomes a refrain that reaches its crescendo in one of the novel’s most moving scenes.

For when Frédéric’s clique invites Dussardier to partake—as a privilege—of their freewheeling habits, the worker resists their laissez-faire economy of eros. The young men engage in a ribald contest to see who can outdo the others in describing their favorite female body parts and types. Although Pellerin resists with a decadent farce (“He preferred tigers,” we are told), only Dussardier protests, stating, like a French Bartleby the Scrivener, “I prefer not to.” When asked whether his taste inclines to blondes or brunettes, he doesn’t reply. Not satisfied by this negation, the friends press him to proclaim his preference. Blushing, he says, “‘Well, all right! As for me, I’d like to love one woman, the same woman, for my whole life.’” And here the farcical commodification of tigers and hair, breasts and whores, is devastated by the ethical dynamite that explodes the room’s convivial mood.

Later, after an orgiastic evening, overcome by a raging erotic thirst that chokes his desire for just one woman, Frédéric has a dream in which a merry-go-round display of body parts recalls the drawing room braggadocio of his peers: “the bare shoulders of the Fishwife, the breasts of the Stevedore, the calves of the Polish Girl, the hairdo of the Savage Woman,” until, the dream turning to nightmare, a courtesan of his acquaintance, Rosanette, appears atop him, “digging open his entrails with her golden spurs.” As literary theorist Peter Brooks puts it in Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris, that final flourish of fatal spurs brings “to the facsimile eros of the ball the underlying reality of death.”

Given the novel’s repeated reminders of the enervating ends of cheap sex, we would do well to heed Kafka’s insight that Flaubert found in family life a kind of flourishing he himself failed to seek. After visiting a family with many children, Flaubert remarked, “Ils sont dans le vrai” (“They are in the right”). Frédéric betrays a deep wish for a married woman—albeit in a manner that is veiled and disordered—through his drawn-out pursuit of the married Madame Arnoux. At first sight, at the novel’s start, she is “like an apparition,” set against the blue sky (the Marian overtones are obvious), and for most of the novel Frédéric hovers platonically around her family until he becomes a kind of pathetic fixture. When, after years of living like a “parasite” feeding on domestic life, Frédéric believes he has finally coaxed Madame Arnoux into a rented-room rendezvous, he prepares for this summit “with as much devotion as someone decorating an altar,” strewing the place with heather and imitation lace.

But mortal flesh puts a crimp in their pleasures: Madame Arnoux must stay home with her son, who has comes down with a terrifying cough of the kind associated with consumption. The grotesque sounds exploding from his chest resemble “the barking of cheap mechanical dogs,” and as he continues to writhe, the hours blur and the doctor arrives and departs until finally the boy vomits, disgorging “something strange,” resembling “a tube of parchment.” Remembering Frédéric and their disrupted affair, Madame Arnoux interprets the near-death disruption as a providential warning. “With all her strength she sent up her soul to the heavens, offering it to God as a burnt offering, the sacrifice of her first passion.”

Frédéric, for his part, is so furious at her failure to appear that he leads the courtesan Rosanette to his readied altar. Motivated by “a refinement of the hatred he felt, and to insult the memory of Madame Arnoux,” this rendezvous reveals a cruel streak in Frédéric even as he feigns fidelity to Rosanette. Through orchestrated irony, the implications of Frédéric’s deed are made evident. As he pursues Rosanette’s rented pleasures, as the new regime of liberated desire replaces the ancien régime of marriage, he hears a noise, “sounding like the crackling a large piece of silk makes when it’s torn in two. It was the fusillade on the Boulevard des Capucines.” In his despair, Frédéric takes delight in the idea that “they must be killing off a few bourgeois.”

Although Flaubert typically makes scarce any hint of a moralizing aside, in a rare commentary the narrator breaks in to remark that “there are situations in which a man, even the least cruel, has become so detached from others that he could watch the destruction of the entire human race without so much as batting an eye.” The thread that binds political and private violence dangles between that piece of silk torn in two: Frédéric’s reduction of violence to aesthetic pleasure is as abhorrent as that of the soldiers who opened fire in 1848 on the crowd shouting against the royalist minister Guizot outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. No “few bourgeois” were killed, but dozens of demonstrators, and a call for a change of ministers morphed into a full-scale revolution that did away with an entire political order.

As The Letters of Gustave Flaubert makes plain, Flaubert’s own disposition toward sex swung from morbid monasticism to prayerful supplications of his mistresses’ favors. Recollecting his “idea of entering a monastery” to Louise Colet, he confided his sense that “there comes a moment when one needs to make oneself suffer, needs to loathe one’s flesh, to fling mud in its face, so hideous does it seem. Without my love of form, I would perhaps have been a great mystic.” Some fifteen years later, while at work on Sentimental Education, he confessed to George Sand his self-imposed abstinence (“I had to restrain myself from giving you little kisses”), but clarified, quickly, that he did not mean to honor the sexual mores of Christianity: If “one would have to curse the flesh, like Catholics…. God knows where that leads!”

For many, the perversions of artists have made the word artiste a synonym for moral depravity. The letters of Flaubert and James Joyce—whose literary works provoked obscenity trials—are filled with so much warped sexuality that it doesn’t take a bourgeois psyche to turn away disgusted. Even Flaubert’s monogamous commitment to art is marked by a tonsure of torture: “I love my work with a love that is frantic and perverted, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratches his belly.” But Flaubert registered reality’s frequencies with a kind of Herculean attention, one that transcended his own sins and opinions: “I do not want my book to contain a single subjective reaction, nor a single reflection by the author.”

Georges Sand took her friend to task for his efforts to portray things as they are. Given that Sentimental Education “has been a misunderstood book,” she said (indicating that she has told him this “repeatedly”), she argued that “there should have been a short preface, or, here and there, an expression of judgment, even if only a well-chosen adjective to condemn a wrong, to characterize a defect.” Flaubert fought back, appealing to the revolutionary rights of literary realism: “As for revealing my private opinion of the people I bring on stage, no, no! a thousand times no! I do not recognize my right to do so. If the reader doesn’t draw from a book the moral it implies, either the reader is an imbecile or the book is false because it lacks exactitude. For the moment a thing is True, it is good.”

In a letter to his brother Stanislaus, James Joyce referred to himself as “the foolish author of a wise book.” The wisdom of Sentimental Education emerges on account of the artist’s self-transcendent articulation of the real. In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera corroborates Joyce’s sentiment and Flaubert’s sensibility, arguing that “every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors.” This wisdom is worked out in MacKenzie’s new translation of Sentimental Education, which rings out the scales of Flaubert’s antisentimental art.