I finished Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education (1869) last week, and boy is it good. I found it hard going at the start, mostly because the author seemed to treating his protagonist with such derision, but after a few hours with the book there was no turning back. For the oceans of ink that have already been spilled over this book, I need add nothing but another hearty endorsement. What a wicked wit was Gustave Flaubert… I can’t recall ever having such a shock in reading a novel as the marriage proposal that materializes in part III, and Frédéric Moreau’s hilarious response. Were one to judge from this classic, one might well believe Robert Burton’s claim in The Anatomy of Melancholy that, “in France, upon small acquaintance, it is usual to court other men’s wives, to come to their houses, and accompany them arm in arm in the streets, without imputation.” Pair this one with Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” (1888).
“The band had left. They dragged the piano out of the hall into the drawing-room, Vatnaz sat down at it, and to the accompaniment of the Choirboy’s Basque drum, launched into a wild country dance, hitting the keys like a horse stamping its hooves and lurching to and fro in time with the music. The Marshal carried Frédéric off, Hussonet turned a cartwheel, the Stevedore was twisting and jerking like a clown, while the Clown pretended to be an orang-utan and the Native Woman held her arms out sideways and imitated the pitching and tossing of a ship. In the end, everyone stopped, exhausted. Somebody opened a window.
Daylight streamed in and the cool of the morning. There was an exclamation of surprise and then silence.”
– Gustave Flaubert, A Sentimental Education (1869; p. 138), trans. Douglas Parmée