Gustav Flaubert, known in the entire literate world as the author of Madame Bovary and not much beyond that, had a good deal to say about much else. Though hardly read today, his Sentimental Education, which was greeted at the time with bafflement and hostility, has been praised since by dozens of major western writers. Emile Zola was one of the few of Flaubert’s contemporaries to favorably review it,  saying it avoided the “dramatic and novelistic” and that “it never lied.” When Baudelaire called it a “tour de force;” Flaubert said he had gotten “into the secret heart of my work.”  Georges Sand, one of Flaubert’s closest friends, of course praised it. 

Franz Kafka confessed to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, that Sentimental Education “has been as dear to me as are only two or three people.”  Ford Madox Ford, the British novelist, claimed that one “had to read it fourteen times,” as he had, to fully appreciate it. Ernest Hemingway wrote William Faulkner that Flaubert was “our most respected, honored master.” Mario Vargas Llosa, Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Marcel Proust all praised his work. Add social theorists such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Paul Sartre whose enormous psychoanalytic-dialectical study of Flaubert The Family Idiot appeared  in 1971 and you have a sense of the depth and range of the admiration in which he is held.

Ω 

Although Madame Bovary was not Flaubert’s first novel it was the one that brought him fame, and notoriety. Published in 1856, court appearances for obscenity and the “corruption of public morals” quickly followed, turning Madame Bovary into a best-seller and Flaubert’s next novel anxiously awaited.  Salammbó appeared in 1862, with more lurid scenes, of sex and war.  Reverting to the earlier Walter Scott genre of historical novel, it was set in the long-ago and far-away Carthage of the Second Punic war, 241-238 BCE. It too was an enormous best seller driven by expectations and titillation, though not raising the ire Madame Bovary had because, well, after all, the characters were not French, and such behavior might be expected of others.

With Sentimental Education in 1869, Flaubert returned his focus to France and to history and society of not so long before –from 1840 through the Revolutions of 1848 to be exact.  The twenty-six year old Flaubert had been a participant-observer of those risings in Paris. The novel, however, was received with “bafflement and hostility.” Henry James, the well-known American-British author and critic said it was an enormous step down from Madame Bovary, which he had loved;  it was “like masticating ashes and sawdust.”

What was the problem?

Was it what it was about? Or, how the story was told?

Continue reading »