Sunday, August 23, 2009

Gustave Flaubert: L'Education sentimentale (novel)

Sydämen oppivuodet. FR 1870. Translated into Finnish by J.A. Hollo, Helsinki: WSOY 1958. I read this classic novel of disillusionment for the first time, having found a copy in perfect condition at the Hietalahti Square flea market for one Euro. I read it in Finnish as my French is not good enough. I found J.A. Hollo's translation very good, refined yet natural. I agree that L'Education sentimentale is one of the greatest novels of all time. Flaubert's last published novel was an influential work in the development of literature from Balzac Les Illusions perdues to Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Today, it still feels timeless and bitterly felt. Writing does not get better than this.

For a man of the cinema one fruitful line of interpretation is the one started by the young Georg Lukács in his Theorie des Romans (1916). For Lukács, L'Education sentimentale was the central work of "the romanticism of disillusionment". For Lukács, writing before he had become familiar with Proust and Joyce, the novel was the perfect form for the concept of time, and he comments on L'Education sentimentale: "In the unmitigated desolation of its matter it is the only novel that attains true epic objectivity and, through it, the positiveness and affirmative energy of an accomplished form. This victory is rendered possible by time." "Time brings order into the chaos of men's lives and gives it the semblance of a spontaneously flowering, organic entity". "Beyond events, beyond psychology, time gives them the essential quality of their existence." "The atmosphere of thus being borne upon the unique and unrepeatable stream of life cancels out the accidental nature of their experiences and the isolated nature of the events recounted." "Time makes the failure of all endeavours seem less desolate". "And memory transforms the continual struggle into a process which is full of mystery and interest and yet is tied with indestructible threads to the present, the unexplained instant." "And so, by a strange and melancholy paradox, the moment of failure is the moment of value; the comprehending and experiencing of life's refusals is the source from which the fullness of life seems to flow. What is depicted is the total absence of any fulfilment of meaning, yet the work attains the rich and rounded fullness of a true totality of life." "Herein lies the essentially epic quality of memory. In the drama (and the epic) the past either does not exist or is completely present". "Only in the novel and in certain epic forms resembling the novel does memory occur as a creative force affecting the object and transforming it".

Inspired by Lukács, Arnold Hauser wrote magisterial pages on Flaubert in the chapter "The Second Empire" in his The Social History of Art (1951): "Flaubert writes himself free from romanticism". Hauser stresses F's "complete renunciation of the melodramatic, adventurous, and, in fact, of even the merely thrilling plot; the fondness for describing the monotony, flatness and lack of variety of everyday life; the avoidance of all extremes in the moulding of his characters, the refusal to lay any emphasis on the good or bad in them; the forgoing of all theses, propaganda, moral lessons". Emile Zola called L'Education sentimentale the modern novel par excellence. It is an "historical" novel, a novel in which the hero is time, in a double sense. Firstly, time appears in it as the element which conditions and gives life to the characters, and then as the principle by which they are worn out, destroyed and devoured. Creative time was discovered by romanticism. Corrupting time, which undermines life and hollows man out, was discovered in the fight against romanticism. F: it is "not the great disasters but the small ones of which one has to be afraid". That we perish slowly with our faded hopes and ambitions is the saddest fact of our existence. This gradual, imperceptible, irresistible pining away, this silent undermining of life, which does not even produce the startling bang of the great, imposing catastrophe, is the experience around which L'Education sentimentale and practically the whole modern novel revolves.

"The novel develops its formal principle from the idea of the corrosive effects of time, just as tragedy derives the basis of its form from the idea of the timeless fate which destroys man with one fell blow. And as fate possesses a superhuman greatness and a metaphysical power in tragedy, so time attains an inordinate, almost mythical dimension in the novel."

In L'Education sentimentale "F. discovers the constant presence of passing and past time in our life".

"He is the first to realize that, with their relation to time, things also change their meaning and value - they can become significant and important for us only because they form a part of our past - and that their value in this function is absolutely independent of their effective content and objective bearings. This revaluation of the past, and the consolation that lies in the fact that time, which buries us and the ruins of our life, 'leaves buds and traces of the lost meaning everywhere', is, however, still an expression of the romantic feeling that the present, that every present, is barren and without significance, and that even the past was lacking all value and importance so long as it was the present."

"That is, in fact, the meaning of the final pages of L'Education sentimentale, which contain the key to the whole novel and to F's whole conception of time. That is the reason why the author singles out an episode from his hero's past life at random, and calls it the best he probably ever had from life. The absolute nothingness of this experience, its complete triviality and emptiness, means that there is always one link missing in the chain of our existence, and that every detail of our life is replete with the melancholy of objective purposelessness and a purely subjective significance."

The words of Lukács are prophetic because he did not yet know Proust. Hauser, obviously, has read Flaubert through Proust. He writes also as a social philosopher of "the film age", influenced also by the thoughts of Béla Balázs and Siegfried Kracauer (although Kracauer published his Theory of Film later).

Flaubert is essentially relevant for the cinema, but the films "based on" his novels have never done justice to him. The inner world of Madame Bovary is absent from the many films based on it. "Madame Bovary c'est moi" is missing.

IMDb lists three adaptations of L'Education sentimentale. Of these, I have seen parts of Marcel Cravenne's L'Education sentimentale (TV series, FR 1973), with Jean-Pierre Léaud (Frédéric Moreau), Francoise Fabian (Madame Arnoux), and Catherine Rouvel (Rosanette); I remember this as a quality production with inspired casting. There has been also Sentimental Education 1-4 (TV series, GB 1970). Alexandre Astruc has also directed a L'Education sentimentale (FR/IT 1962) with Jean-Claude Brialy (Frédéric Moreau) and Dawn Addams (Madame Dambreuse). Brialy one can imagine as being perfect for the role.

But the true relevance of Flaubert can hardly be found in films like them. L'Education sentimentale is in-built in the great works of Ophuls, Mizoguchi, Welles, Visconti, Bergman, Losey, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Erice... even Woody Allen.

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