Flaubert: In the World, Out of Time

Sorry about the infrequent postings lately. I’ve started a new job this week and things have been pretty hectic.

The last time we talked we were discussing the flâneur as a literary figure. The flâneur embodies a mobile point of view. He is the opposite of the distracted viewer. His devotion to seeing is so complete that he has, in effect, a kind of double vision. He is an investigator, but he knows that he cannot fully plumb the depths of mysteries. He is a connoisseur of fine things, yet he also knows their essential emptiness, because he is empty too. The flâneur can empathize equally well with people and objects. He is the perfect novelist.

In many ways the modernist novel begins with this scene from Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education

There was firing from every window overlooking the square; bullets whistled through the air; the fountain had been pierced, and the water, mingling with blood, spread in puddles on the ground. People slipped in the mud on clothes, shakos, and weapons; Frederic felt something soft under his foot; it was the hand of a sergeant in a grey overcoat who was lying face down in the gutter. Fresh groups of workers kept coming up, driving the fighters toward the guard-house. The firing became more rapid. The wine-merchants’ shops were open, and every now and then somebody would go in to smoke a pipe or drink a glass of beer, before returning to the fight. A stray dog started howling. This raised a laugh.

The novel’s hero Frederic is on his way to meet his mistress for their first assignation. All his romantic yearnings have culminated in this day. Unfortunately for Frederic, he scheduled his tryst on the day the July Revolution broke out, and he’s extremely irritated that the mayhem is preventing him from reaching his mistress.

The telling detail here is the lifeless hand upon which Frederic steps. This detail ruptures the procession of details both innocuous and telling. The dead sergeant’s hand is one of those small details that carries the full force of the real. Frederic may be a dreamy fool, but there’s really a war going on.

Flaubert was the first novelist who allowed his characters to walk around simply observing things. The early chapters in A Sentimental Education contain several observational sketches as Frederic walks around Paris.

Besides the primacy of vision in his fiction, what makes Flaubert so modern is his way of handling details. On a per page basis Balzac probably stuffed more observed details into his novels than Flaubert. However, Balzac was content merely to accumulate details. His novels are great department stores, poems of display. His characters are fish swimming in an early capitalist sea, propelled forward by pure, insatiable desire.

Flaubert’s novels are chapter after chapter of little boutiques. His details aren’t simply seen; they are processed by a mind attracted, but not irresistibly so, by the thinginess of the world. The minds of Flaubert’s characters feel older than the worlds they inhabit. Like the flâneur, the last incarnation of the 18th-century dandy, his characters’ attitudes are out of date. Frederic, for instance, seems out of place in the country, where nothing ever changes, and the city, where everything seems to have changed all at once.

Frederic, the old flâneur, outlives his ideals, yet doesn’t live quite long enough for his irony to coalesce into a way of being. He’s too late for Romanticism, too early for Modernism. 

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