Read an Excerpt
From Claudie Bernard’s Introduction to Sentimental Education
Flaubert’s most typical posture was of bitter irony. In his correspondence, he admitted that he laughed at everything—facts, people, feelings, and even those matters dearest to his heart, as a method to test them. His sarcasm did not spare current events. In March 1848 he told his mistress Louise Colet:
You ask my opinion about all that has just been done. Well! It is all quite droll. . . . I profoundly delight in the contemplation of all the flattened ambitions. I don’t know if the new form of government and the social state that will come of it will be favorable to Art..
His mockery denounced all ideological as well as esthetic clichés—all the discourses that speak through us without our control. He compiled a spicy Dictionnaire des idées reçues (1913; Dictionary of Received Ideas). And his last and unfinished book, Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881), an encyclopedic satire of contemporary practices and knowledge, ends up with the two false scholars returning to their original jobs, that of copyists.
Flaubert’s major preoccupation transcended any school; he called it “style,” in the larger sense of artistic creation. Style for him was as much behind the words as in the words, as much the soul as the flesh of a work. It was not contingent on a topic: “There are neither beautiful nor ugly subjects, and one could almost establish as an axiom, if one adopts the point of view of pure Art, that there is no subject at all, style being in itself an absolute way of seeing things.” He toyed with the notion of composing “a book about nothing, a book without any exterior attachment, which would hold together by the internal force of its style, like the earth holds up in the air without being supported; a book that would have almost no topic, or at least whose topic would be almost invisible, if that is possible.”
While Baudelaire searched for the flowers, the beauty of evil, Flaubert assigned himself the task of extracting the beauty of the mediocre, the ordeal of resuscitating ancient Carthage in Salammbô (1862), and the challenge of following two idiots, Bouvard and Pécuchet. A recluse in his house at Croisset, in Normandy, like the saints he liked to describe, he experienced the “throes of style”: the anxiety of cutting all banalities, the painful pursuit of the proper word, the trial of oral recitation, and the endless corrections and accumulated drafts. The final manuscript of Sentimental Education is 500 pages long, but the first drafts comprise no less than 2,350 sheets written front and back.