Sunday, August 8, 2010

Unsentimentally Uneducated

When I finished up graduate school and my postdoc, and actually started working at a real job, I began to have a 401(K). When learning about how to invest the money in my 401(K) I would read in financial magazines and articles that stocks were the best investment for the long term, because over the long haul they had a return of 10% a year. And every time I read that it blew me away. Not because I thought that stocks must be pretty amazing things, but because I thought these guys writing these articles must be total idiots. Is there some law of science that says stocks must return 10% a year? Can one write an equation that proves that stock returns always revert to the mean, and that mean is 10% a year? No, of course not. Whoever came up with the "stocks return 10% a year" maxim had decided that historical events and trends of the 20th century would continue forever, and there would never be any sort of instabilities in our economic and/or political systems that would change the way businesses operate and prevent stocks from returning any more or less than 10% a year, over the long run. Reading "A Sentimental Education" should remind the reader that things are not always as stable over the long run as we would like to believe. Because as I see it, and I am an expert in 19th century French literature because I have a PhD in biochemistry, there are two main themes in this book. The first is a very cynical view of how trivial, irrational, unthoughtful, and downright ridiculous many peoples' lives are. And the second is how peoples' lives are affected by, and caught up in history. It's easy for us today, I think, to lose sight of that second theme, as our government and society have been relatively stable, at least in my lifetime. But this was not the case in France around the year 1848, when the novel takes place. In 1848 the monarchy of King Louis-Philippe was overthrown, and the Second Republic was formed. The year was full of all types of rebellion and political turmoil, and at the end of the year Louis Napoleon was elected president. A couple of years later he ended the republic in a coup and became Emperor Napoleon III. It is against all this turmoil that the action (if it can be called that) of the novel takes place, and the characters' lives are all impacted by current events. Indeed, I was fortunate that my edition of the book had footnotes explaining what all the historical references were about, since events of the French revolution of 1848 are not all that well known to most modern readers, myself included.

Anyway, it is against this backdrop that the main character of this novel, Frederic Moreau, lives his dithering life. This guy, the novel's hero, is someone you want to meet in person so you can kick him in the pants. He doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, and frankly never seems to quite figure it out. He starts out as a law student, then wants to be an artist, and later on a politician, etc. etc. but he doesn't seem to have much ambition or aptitude for anything. He manages to inherit a fortune, but blows a big chunk of it on his romantic affairs, and at the end of the novel is solidly middle class. He hangs out with people who have strong convictions about the political events, and he listens to all of them rant and rave, but he seems to comprehend little of it, and really doesn't care all that much when it comes down to it. Of course, his friends who espouse their ideas are all pretty much buffoons anyway, and many of them don't really know what they're talking about. Here's a passage which perfectly illustrates Frederic's interest in politics. He decides that he will try to run to be a member of the Constituent Assembly (the legislature):

"It was time to hurl oneself into the fray and perhaps help events along; he was also greatly attracted to the clothes which, it was said, the Deputies would be having. He could already see himself wearing a tricolour sash and a waistcoat with lapels."

That characterization is both darkly cynical and hilariously funny, and this dichotomy pervades the novel. The characters lives and motivations are all trivial, banal, and/or venal.

But the centerpiece of the novel is not just the revolution and the politics, it's the love life of Frederic Moreau. At the beginning of the novel Frederic falls in love with Madame Arnoux, the wife of a man who runs an art magazine. Of course, he doesn't have the balls to act on this. He befriends the husband, and gets to know Madame after being invited to their house and insinuating himself into their lives. But it takes a long time before he can profess his love to Mrs. Arnoux, and when he does they don't get very far. She loves him too, but is a God-fearing woman and doesn't pursue the affair, although one has the feeling that if Frederic pressed the issue he would have gotten into bed with her. But he doesn't because he's always indecisive, fearful, and dithering. He starts an affair with Arnoux's mistress, a woman named Rosanette. They become more attached, and Frederic seems to love her, at times, but then gets distracted again by Madame Arnoux. Near the end of the novel he has an affair with a third woman, Madame Dambreuse, a high-society figure married to a very wealthy man. After the husband dies, he agrees to marry her, even though he's still seeing Rosanette, who has just had his baby. Oh, and then there's the daughter of the man who lives next to his mother in his rural hometown, and that daughter is obsessed with Frederic. He thinks about marrying her too. So there's lots of intrigue, and jumping from bed to bed, and stringing people along, and betraying people, and tiring of lovers, etc. And in the end Frederic misplays all of his hands and ends up alone. I guess that's a hazard of juggling...all the balls can come crashing to the floor. In a way he seeks an idealized romance, and can't deal with the faults of real of human beings. And most importantly he can't even see how his own faults affect his relationships and their outcomes. It never even occurs to him to think about this. Too bad for him that therapy hadn't been invented yet.

In the movie "Manhattan", Woody Allen's character famously compiles a list of things that make life worth living. One of them is Flaubert's "A Sentimental Education". Is this book really that good? Upon finishing it my impression was that it is both hilariously funny and deeply disturbing and cynical in the way it points out the foibles and shallowness of most peoples' lives. People don't end up living happily ever after in this book, but you can see that coming from the beginning. Everyone is ridiculous. Everyone is flawed. Everyone is doomed. Which reminds me of a line from They Might be Giants: "Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful". Maybe they, and Woody, were right.


SocrMom78 said...

Wow. What a fantastic review! I will have to read this one!

Viktoria said...

"I am an expert in 19th century French literature because I have a PhD in biochemistry"

I trust you.