Thursday, 26 February 2015

Blessed are those who are found studious of Literature & Humane & polite accomplishments: on the life of William Blake




Back in August 2013 I took a few books with me for a two-week vacation up north, before returning to start a novel. I took the time to makes necessary preliminaries to become reasonably cognizant with certain knowledges outside the bookworm’s usual interests. So at night, after coming back from one of the many river beaches around me, high up in lost vales, and eating a great barbecue, I’d sit down taking notes from Jonathon Keats’ Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age, which seemed like the ideal book to read considering I intended to write about an art forger. But during the day, stretched on riverbanks, I enjoyed myself with Eugénio de Andrade’s poems and Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake. The poetry, albeit good, did not have a lasting importance; but Gilchrist, over the coming months, unexpectedly penetrated my novel as I saw the possibilities in my two protagonists, scourges of modern painting and almost fanatical proponents of the Old Masters, taking Blake as a role-model, the epitome of the Artist before the Impressionists inflicted upon the world the evils of Modernism. So when one of them starts hallucinating conversations with classic painters in the final part, obviously Blake had to show up for a brief chat.

I never planned this. When I read Gilchrist I had recently finished The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, which had baffled me the farther away I moved from his conventional poetry into the hermetic Prophetic Books. Although they left me in a nebulous state I pledged myself to read up on Blake, therefore I compiled essays and autobiographies. It made sense to start at the beginning so I read the first major biography, penned by Gilchrist (and completed by his wife, Anne, a Walt Whitman scholar) in 1863. Prior to him Blake appeared in other people’s memoirs, as a passing topic, but no one had ever attempted a systematic study of his life before. Blake has as much substance as Socrates, he mainly exists insofar as a bunch of people claim he did, because he left behind very little in terms of non-poetical writing: a few letters, marginalia, a notebook and an exhibition catalogue constitute the totality of himself in his own words. Beyond them we just have other people’s impressions to go by and stitch a semblance of existence. Gilchrist took up the challenge and created a work of reference scholars still use to this day. He had the benefit of actually interviewing people who met and socialized with Blake; that however doesn’t mean modern exegesis hasn’t superseded certain opinions and interpretations; too much reliance on others made him at times credulous and distorted Blake’s views, especially regarding his radical, unorthodox religious beliefs that didn’t sit well with some of Gilchrist’s sources. We Blake fans also had to abdicate of some great anecdotes: it saddens me to report that Will and Kate did not prance around naked in their London apartment back garden, under a giant tree, nor did they invite visitors to shed their garments to Adam-and-Eve with them. Gilchrist’s book also deserves gratitude for having started to dismantle the 18th and 19th centuries’ consensus on Blake’s madness, showing instead a remarkable, lively, kind artist with an original sensibility. Besides that, Gilchrist wrote in that elegant Victorian style that made a list of groceries into a small literary artifact, and one can enjoy it as literature in its own right.

G. E. Bentley Jr. writes an opposite style, paying no attention to beauty and nice turn of phrases, always concise and to the point, but his 2001 biography, The Stranger from Paradise, constituted an even of the same magnitude. This book represents the culmination of a lifetime of research. In 1969 Bentley published the Blake Records, collecting every source about him; in 1988 he updated it with a supplement; he had a vast knowledge of the scholarship, and so this book remains the most up-to-date biography. It doesn’t radically change Gilchrist’s presentation of the poet and engraver, it adds to it, corrects a few mistakes, dispels some myths, but the same extraordinary individual shines through his prose. He especially rewards the reader in the minor details: who doesn’t like to know that Blake, a small man, measured 5’5’’ (making him exactly 10 cm shorter than me), had fiery red hair (perhaps the reason why some wackos tried to prove he was Irish), had blue or grey eyes, and that by 1815 his eyesight already required spectacles to draw and engrave?

The Stranger from Paradise can captivate even those who don’t understand or like most of his poetry. Like Bentley writes, “There are many who love the man not only beyond his powerful designs and exquisite poetry but in spite of them. There is little evidence that his youthful disciples understood or even read his poetry, but they came to the House of the Interpreter as to a shrine; the artist Samuel Palmer used to kiss the bell-pull when he came to Blake’s ‘enchanted rooms.’” Like me, befuddled readers can enjoy his life because of its uniqueness and humanity.

Blake was born in London in 1557, to James and Catherine Blake, owners of a haberdashery shop a few minutes from St. James church where they baptized the baby. Built by Sir Christopher Wren after the 1667 fire, the priest bathed Blake in a baptismal basin carved by sculptor Grinling Gibbons with an ominous design representing The Tree of Life with Eve offering Adam the apple. We don’t know a lot about the household: his mother was a widow when she married James, who got by supplying the local parish’s workhouse and school of industry with goods. Besides the shop they had two stories to themselves, which teemed with Blake’s older and younger siblings. Perhaps they let rooms to lodgers. Blake’s father passed away in 1884, leaving the shop to James, Blake’s older brother. Blake’s mother, who passed away in 1890, encouraged him to make drawings to which he added his own verses and which she hung up in her bedroom. Besides these pleasures he also enjoyed a good ramble to London’s outskirts, when fields of pasture still surrounded it, where he saw some of his earliest visions.

The parents raised their children in the “Dissenting tradition of private devotion and private Bible reading rather than public catechism and public worship.” The Dissenters constituted a series of sects that spun off from the Anglican Church circa the 17th century. Wary of the ways of the world, or the Beast, Blake did not attend public school since Dissenters mistrusted education outside their sect, and Blake forever criticised official schooling, although not the joy of learning and self-improvement. He likely learned reading and writing from his mother (although he retained deficiencies throughout his life, as his unpredictable spelling shows). Although no records indicate which creed or church they belonged to, the Blakes believed all truths existed in the Bible and that “the proper interpreter of that truth is the individual conscience, not the priest or the church.” Extreme Dissent received the name of Enthusiasm, I think synonymous with fanaticism; although Bentley doesn’t suggest it, etymologically enthused means “filled by God,” a good name for someone who considered the spiritual world more real than the material world. Acquaintances of Blake tell us that he considered Atonement a “horrible doctrine,” did not think God omnipotent, judged Jesus Christ wrong for allowing to be crucified, said that each man was God, and since he didn’t the world held no real power over the individual, “henceforth every man may converse with God & be a King & Priest in his own house.” Regarding the Bible itself he said: “The Gospel is Forgiveness of Sins & has No Moral Precepts[;] these belong to Plato & Seneca & Nero.” Blake lived by most of these beliefs throughout his life, always minding his own business and not intruding on others’. He also rejected the world, its vanities and believed in visions and miracles. He did not vote nor attend churches. Following the Dissenting tradition, he believed pious gathering made any place holy rather than a church making a gathering holy; intention altered a place’s purpose; what was holy stemmed from the individual and circumvented official mandates. Bentley links this to the Conventicle Act of 1664, which restricted the gathering of new Dissenting sects. To bypass this interference the sectarians started meeting at public alehouses, in backrooms where they held religious ceremonies, with ale and a warm fire, singing and debating like you couldn’t in cold, sad-looking churches.

Blake started having his famous visions during childhood: he saw God looking through at the age of 4, which scared the child to tears; sighted Prophet Ezekiel in a ramble outside London; and around the age of 8 or 10 he marvelled at “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” This tasked his parents, who beat him for telling lies. But for him reporting his visions constituted an ordinary events, like meeting a mailman and, apparently he didn’t understand how weird that made him look to others; just about everyone who crossed paths with him left anecdotes of his bizarre conversations about angels and spirits. In his letters Blake himself relates that when his favourite brother, Robert, passed away his spirit continued to communicate with him; in fact he revealed to Blake in a dream the technique that allowed him to create his Illuminated Books.

But more about that tomorrow.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

So will the Reign of Reason cheerfully dispose of any allegations of Paradise: looking for meaning in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon




I haven’t stopped thinking about genre since I read Inherent Vice; the detective novel should naturally claim it; but that doesn’t resolve that genre’s conflict with another genre: the picaresque novel. In Mason & Dixon I noticed the picaresque even more clearly. Just to make it clear, by picaresque I mean 16th century Spanish novels like Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler, characterized by flat, unchanging characters, a realistic setting tending towards the sordid and sensational, a loose, broken up narrative that moved from one episode to another without logic, at the whim of the writer’s feverish imagination, and without resolution, in fact the author on saying his farewells sometimes invited others to continue the adventures of the protagonist. Miguel de Cervantes, when he wrote Don Quixote, didn’t do anything more complex than mash the chivalry romance with picaresque tropes. And it worked so well the picaresque seeped into the 18th English novel through it, for instance Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Cervantes’ translator Tobias Smollett. I guess we could also add Voltaire’s Candide to the list of notables, a hyper-version that condenses into less than 100 pages the breakneck intensity of the genre, full of globetrotting, earthquakes, wars, hangings and rapes. Too weird to live, too rare to die, the picaresque got shunned during the novel’s most humorless century – the 19th century one – before returning revitalized. Save for currently forgotten James Cabell Branch, I don’t know many writers who used the genre last century’s first half; but in 1960 John Barth published The Sot-Weed Factor and since then the picaresque has become a mainstay of contemporary literature, driving some reviewers hysterical about its overreliance. Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon’s faux-18th century novel, doesn’t leave out any of its famous features. But I think the picaresque works really well for my tentative theory about Pynchon’s oeuvre. It seems to me Pynchon cares a lot about memory and forgetting, how people remember, preserve and relate facts, how they build history. When I wrote about Inherent Vice I used as an example of the process of inherent vice the fading of Polaroid pictures and how they suggested the ‘60s own inability to keep memories of themselves. In Mason & Dixon the word memory shows up a lot too and the novel comes into shape as a rather shapeless tale where fact, history, hearsay and fantasy mingle. For all its outer differences, I think both novels start from the same premise: the impossibility of relating a historical period. For that reason I’ve come to see Inherent Vice as a battle between two genres. The picaresque moves in a straight line without accumulating details since only momentum matters – the next adventure, danger, escape, disguise – characters show up and disappear in a heartbeat, the ending obeys more to a necessity to eventually end than narrative logic. The picaresque induces forgetfulness, although details abound they don’t reoccur, don’t accumulate meaningfully, and unless we keep extensive marginalia after a while we no longer remember the name of a character who showed up 50 pages ago and what made the protagonist suddenly relocate to North Africa from Italy 3 chapters ago, and frankly we won’t even care to go back and check why. Not so with the detective novel: it moves, not so much in circle but in a downward spiral, slowly narrowing down a fixed point: the detective’s action keep returning him to the crime, eyewitnesses dispensed chapters before become important later on because they may have told lies or omitted information, details pile up and get reinterpreted again and again; the detective novel obsesses over the past, it fights forgetting. Much of the fun of Inherent Vice comes precisely from turning the detective into a drug-addled hippie whose fried brain cannot retain anything for long and constantly drifts into vagaries.

Mason & Dixon shows this conflict between remembrance and oblivion by simply letting the picaresque run its course: characters show up for one chapter and fade forever; an interrupted joke gets mentioned 100 pages later; the protagonists bump into a character not seen for 300 pages; you read a word or expression and you have the impression you saw it earlier, and perhaps it even matters, but you don’t remember where because you probably didn’t keep marginalia since it didn’t strike you as vital at the time. And did I mention the novel has 773 pages? Furthermore, the narrator doesn’t have the most reliable of recollections, but describes himself as “an untrustworthy Remembrancer for whom the few events yet rattling within a broken memory must provide the only Comfort now remaining to him.” In 1886 Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke arrives in Philadelphia for Charles Mason’s funeral and lodges with his family; a clergy of unusual ideas, perhaps not a religious man at all but merely an identity he adopted decades earlier after the authorities arrested him for publishing political pamphlets, he earns his status as guest by entertaining two nephews, Pitt and Pliny, who ask him a “Tale about America.” So the raconteur regales them with a tale about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon and the famous survey line they made dividing the borders between Maryland and Pennsylvania, and North and South two. The story that follows contains several narrators, tales-within-tales, the Reverend’s personal writings, stupid songs, stanzas of a fictional epic poem called The Pennsylvaniad, parallel narratives that fuse with the main one, lots of episodes Cherrycoke can’t have witnessed and only knows from hearsay, and at one point, when Cherrycoke mentions some not yet discovered letters that Mason may have sent to an astronomer called Neville Maskelyne, his listeners urge him “Make something up then, - Munchausen would.”

Trying to fit the whole narrative into a short summary can only lead to failure and embarrassment since I would leave too much out. Bu amongst many things it contains an homage to the titular characters, a caustic vision of the birth of America, a criticism of the Enlightenment and an elegy for the magical world it supplanted.

I don’t have much to say about the protagonists. I have the impression they constitute two semi-ciphers, individuals about whom history has recorded very little, and Pynchon gives them broad outlines, along the lines of the more famous pair of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: astronomer Mason remains meditative and melancholy throughout the novel, mourning a wife called Rebekah; surveyor Dixon, younger than him, a former Quaker, enjoys women, alcohol and jokes, and behaves himself rashly and passionately. They remain fixed to these few traits and Pynchon doesn’t dwell on their inner lives; like in the picaresque, action replaces introspection; this makes them a bit wooden and the events pass through them rather than impact them. Remarkably Pynchon succeeded in moving me 60 pages from the end when I had given up caring about them, and the duo’s final, despondent years full of nostalgia and a feeling of missed, unlived life affected me when I least expected it.

But Pynchon pursues other interests than psychological realism. The birth of the USA coincidences with the furor of the Enlightenment and he takes both on to show their inherent vices. The book’s many men of science indeed display optimism, new venues of knowledge have opened up for them. In 1668 Isaac Newton had invented the first telescope and suddenly the universe became closer, more measurable. “All of these and more, making it super-remarkable, that thro’ the magick of Celestial Trigonometry, - to which you could certainly be applying yourselves, - and such measurements may yet be taken, - as if the Telescope, in mysterious Wise, were transporting us safely thro’ all the dangers of the awesome Gulf of Sky, out to the Object we wish to examine.” But if I’ve read this complex novel correctly, it suggests that the pragmatic application of Reason, i.e. technology, can only lead to more tools of oppression. “For the first time real,” a character says, “Money is finding its way even into Astronomy, - Public Funds paying for entire Expeditions.” This includes the Royal Academy’s prize for whoever solves the problem of ascertaining longitude in the sea, a knowledge necessary for transoceanic voyages, which facilitates conquest, empire-making and the circulation of goods. Maskelyne, a minor character, also shows the growing relationship between science and capital. Becoming Astronomer Royal, he includes among his tasks “publishing his Almanack and doing his bit for global Trade.” This almanac permitted to calculate the longitude in the sea using the moon. Then we have a tale one Captain Zhang tells Mason and Dixon about two court astronomers in ancient China who used their knowledge to foresee eclipses to “answer to the Market, day upon day unending, for ‘tis the inscrutable Power we serve, an invisible-Handed god without Mercy.” In the novel science and technology don’t have neutral statuses, they don’t come into existence pure for men to corrupt them; men expand them exactly to serve very specific selfish goals, in the most ordinary ways; in a more ridiculous scene when a grieving Mason goes to a hanging to chap up women; while having a drink with one she mentions a new trap-door that failed to open, leading her to rail about “These frightful Machines! Shall our Deaths now, as well as our Lives, be rul’d by the Philosophers, and their Army of Mechanicks?” When Mason reveals himself as a man of science, she immediately loses interest in him. Technology even changes literature. Somewhere the text says that “Enormous Flights of Ducks and Geese and Pigeons darken the sky. The terrible mass’d beat of their Wings is the Roar of some great Engine above…” This simile couldn’t have existed before the engine’s invention, but now that it exists it can turn into a figure of speech, it can act as ostranenie and make the reader see an ordinary landscape in a whole new way. The characters’ reaction to technology may seem exaggerated, like everything else in the novel, but it shows how it has begun to seep into the fabric of society, sometimes tearing it apart. It brings changes in social hierarchy. “Reason, or any Vocation to it, - the Pursuit of the Sciences, - these are the hope of the Young, the new Music their Families cannot follow, occasionally not even listen to.” Hydraulic looms lead to new wealthy individuals who begin to replace the landed aristocracy, the Nabobs, without however leading to a better, freer, fairer world. I don’t know if Pynchon fears or hates technology; I think people usually do, and he just chooses periods of transition when it comes to the fore and brings massive changes which activate man’s natural conservativeness. “Is this not the Age of Metamorphosis, with any turn of Fortune a possibility?” Perhaps, but that also means many new frightening uncertainties become possible. In this sense, the absurd conspiracies that pervade the author’s novels, rather than played for laughs, strike me as people’s realistic reactions to changing worlds that displace the assumptions they grew up with; the belief in vast occult powers set in motion to ruin our personal lives constitutes a coping device to restore some order to a world that has stopped making sense, although it only ever made sense thanks to ignoring many of its irrationalities.

Pynchon, however, doesn’t let us forget the irrational; he collects them, thrives on them, expands them. Mason’s mourning leads him to imagine that Rebekah’s spirit continues present, and his adherence to reason constantly struggles with his need to believe in something spiritual. The world of spirits, anyway, remains separated from the physical world by only a tenuous line, and superstition and ritual continues to shape men’s lives. “Kepler said,” explains Maskelyne, “that Astrology is Astronomy’s wanton little sister, who goes out and sells herself that Astronomy may keep her Virtue.” And superstition still permeates behavior. Dixon still speaks the language of augurs and luck –  “we’re Men of Science. To huz must all days run alike, the same number of identical Seconds, each proceeding in but tone Direction, irreclaimable…? If we would have Omens, why let us recall that the Astronomer’s Symbol for Friday is also the planet Venus herself, - a good Omen, surely…?” – whereas the boat they sail in continues to abide by ancient traditions. “You’ll note how very Scientifick we are here, Gentlemen. Yet ancient Beliefs will persist.” Even passing through the Equator assumes magical contours and a seaman describes it as the “Ritual of Crossing Over,” no stranger than people in our era still talking about “the four corners of the Earth.” Irrationalities, superseded knowledge remain incrusted in language, we can’t escape them. Situations frequently arise from characters failing to distinguish abstract, linguistic concepts from physical realities: for instance, the 11 days “lost” when England adopted the Gregorian Calendar; or how the Jesuits changed China’s degrees in a circle from 365.25 to the European 360, leading Captain Zhang to speculate, “And what may that slender Blade of Planetary Surface they took away, not be concealing? Twenty-one minute of Clock-Time, and eleven Million Square Miles, - anything may be hiding in there, more than your Herodotus, aye nor immortal Munchausen, might ever have dreamt. The Fountain of Youth, the Seven Cities of Gold, the Other Eden, the Canyons of black Obsidian, the eight Immortals, the Victory over Death, the Defeat of the Wrathful Deities? Histories ever Secret.” Sure, we sophisticated 21st century denizens may smirk at this confusion over abstract signs like degrees and actual physical space, but as recently as 1931 Alfred Korzybski had to remember our rational era that “the map is not the territory.” And then Robert Anton Wilson had to repeat it in his 1983 Prometheus Rising because it hadn’t sunk into people’s heads. And just to make sure he said it again in his 1990 Quantum Psychology. Nothing indicates things have improved much since the Jesuits. And I haven’t even mentioned all the fantastic stuff! Maskelyne shows Mason a magical Ear that transmits what he says into it to Dixon, many miles away. In London, before sailing to Sumatra, the duo meets the Learned English Dog. “I may be preternatural,” it tells them, “but I am not supernatural. ‘Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf? There is ever an explanation at hand, and no such thing as a Talking Dog – Talking Dogs belong with Dragons and Unicorns. What there are, however, are Provisions for Survival in a World less fantastick.” And of course, the chattering clocks, the Golem, and the mechanical duck that falls in love with a chef. At every turn Pynchon dilutes the rational claims of the 18th century with follies and nonsense, “… for the times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.” Actually trigonometry, a science mentioned lots of times in the novel, permits precisely to calculate the distances of stars, but by this the novel just means that we’ve entered a world where even science fails.

And yet the apparent randomness of all these supernatural events and creatures serves, I think, to heighten the arrogance of a science that pats itself on the back for great progresses while around it cruelty, enslavement, murder and injustice thrive, not just unchecked, but expanded by science. Let’s take the talking clocks, for instance; at first the scene just sounds like good fun, a surreal moment. But clocks, automata and machines in the 18th century became science’s banners. “This machine imagery,” explains Mary Midgley in The Myths We Live By, “became entrenched at the dawn of modern science because in the seventeenth century scientists were fascinated, as well they might be, by the ingenious clockwork automata of the day.  They naturally hoped to extend this clockwork model, which – for a time – worked well for the solar system, to cover the whole knowledge, and, as the Industrial Revolution went on, that hope seemed more and more natural.” This metaphor worked even for humans. “Descartes established the assumption that, since physical particles moved on the model of machines, the things made out of them, including human bodies, must do that too.” And in the case of clocks they came to illustrate the structure of the actual Universe. “In the case of clockwork, Descartes, Newton, and the eighteenth-century mechanists managed to shape a powerful vision that displayed the whole material world as one vast clock, claiming that the right way to understand any part of it was simply to find its ‘mechanism,’ that is, the part of the machine that drove it.” In the novel, however, it soon turns into an instrument of oppression. “Soon, during an interrogation, someone will wish to note the precise time that each question is ask’d, or action taken, by a clock with two hands, - not because anyone will review it, - perhaps to intimidate the subject with the most advanc’d mechanical Device of its time, certainly because Minute-Scal’d Accuracy is possible by now, and there is room for Minutes to be enter’d in the Records.”

Talk about the invisible reoccurs throughout the novel. A theme too rich to exhaust, I think one of its many iterations involves the conflict between science’s opening of new knowledge and the blindness that continues to impair human relations. A scientist may wax poetics about the telescope: “All of these and more, making it super-remarkable, that thro’ the magick of Celestial Trigonometry, - to which you could certainly be applying yourselves, - and such measurements may yet be taken, - as if the Telescope, in mysterious Wise, were transporting us safely thro’ all the dangers of the awesome Gulf of Sky, out to the Object we wish to examine.” But although so much of the Universe now stands revealed, men continue strangers to each other. Living in an age of despotic monarchs, arrested for his political ideas, Cherrycoke serves his sentence aboard a ship, where he meets the protagonists en route to modern-day Sumatra to observe the Transit of Venus. “I set sail upon an Engine of Destruction, in the hope that Eastward yet might dwell something of Peace and Godhead, which British Civilization, in venturing Westward, had left behind.” Throughout the novel imagery of confinement abounds: slavery, borderlines, a captive woman’s narrative, and the ship itself. “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” When Mason and Dixon arrive in Cape Town the Dutch’s enslavement of natives horrifies them; Mason in particular becomes part of a foiled scheme to impregnate a slave because babies with fairer skin fetched higher prices in the market. Speaking of Cape Town, the surveyors sense in it “a Collective Ghost of more than household scale, - the Wrongs committed Daily against the Slaves, petty and grave ones alike, going unrecorded, charm’d invisible to history, invisible yet possessing Mass, and Velocity, able not only to rattle Chains but to break them as well.” Funny how the shroud the horror of slavery in superstitious language of ghosts and the traditional rattling of chains that become the slaves’, giving it the appearance of a primitive practice when it fact it exists all around them, as natural as the stars, practiced without contradiction of an age that imagines itself wiser, more sophisticated, rational and humane. And if their peers can’t see the deceitfulness of the Noble Savage myth, Mason and Dixon do: “It may content us, as unhappy grown Englishmen, to think that somewhere in the World, Innocence may yet abide, - yet ‘tis not among these people. All is struggle, - and all but occasionally in vain.” In the American colonies they find cruelty and slavery again, not to mention Indian massacres. Rather than showing it as an exceptional nation, the book makes the nascent country look like a continuation of Europe, absorbing its old faults and inventing a few new ones. No sooner does Dixon arrive to London, “one of the great Cities of Christendom,” than he watches a hanging, a grim spectacle that attracts amused mobs.

In America the great European struggles for freedom get reenacted, making the New World a mere continuation of the Old World. “The Dispute did not end with Cromwell, nor Restoration, - nor William Orange, nor Hanovers, - if English Soil has seen its last arm’d encounters, then the fighting-ground is now remov’d to America, - yet another use for the damn’d Place.” The cause of political strife remains always the same: “Small numbers of people go on telling much larger numbers what to do with their precious Lives, - among these Multitudes, all but a few go on allowing them to do so. The British in India encourage the teeming population they rule to teem as much as they like, whilst taking their land for themselves, and the restricting the parts of if the People will be permitted to teem upon.” But by the time Cherrycoke narrates his tale, the USA has already failed its earlier hopes and promises: “the word Liberty, so unreflectively sacred to us today, was taken in those Times to encompass even the darkest of Men’s rights, - to injure whomever we might wish.” After all in the years while Mason and Dixon travel across their line, they witness corruption, bloodshed, wars between rival religious sects, the rise of the litigation frenzy. “You don’t know what I see back in this Country,” an arms dealer called LeSpark says to Dixon. “Bribes, Impersonations, Land Fraud, Scalp-stealing, Ginseng Diversions. Each Day brings Spectacle ever more disheartening. You there are but Boys out upon a Frolick.” Cherrycoke alludes to the infamous small-pox-infected blankets given to natives; Mason notes that Europeans committed the “first mortal acts of Savagery in America;” and Dixon prophetically asks, “Is this what America’s going to be like?” More often than not the characters speak in anachronistic ways, voicing ideas resonate with our times; for instance when an arrogant Republican calls Dixon a serf for taking wages and promises that America will teach the rest of the world without bosses, one can’t help reading in it the USA’s insistence in meddling with other nations’ affairs. And yet we didn’t have to wait for Pynchon for this revisionist vision of America; it’s as old as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” If "Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire," Pynchon makes it clear who triumphed.

Conquest and empire-making exists but in the margins of the novel, but everywhere control, limits and frontiers make themselves visible. In England the surveyors ignore a business boom to come to America. “Enclosures all over the County, and North Yorkshire, - eeh! Fences, Hedges, Ditches ordinary and Ha-Ha Style, all to be laid out… I could have stay’d home and had m’self a fine Living…?” The America they meet when they arrive so far has avoided these confinements, which prompts one of the novel’s most philosophical passages. “There is a love of complexity, here in America, Shelby declares, - pure Space waits the Surveyor, - no previous Lines, no fences, no streets to constrain polygony however extravagant, - especially in Maryland, where, encourag’d by the Re-Survey Laws, warranted properties may possess hundreds of sides, - their angles pushing outward and inward, - all Sides zigging and zagging, going ahead and doubling back, making Loops inside Loops, - in America, ‘twas ever, Poh! to Simple Quadrilaterals.” A Republican, anxious for America’s independence from England, even foretells the obsoleteness of the duo’s work, “for in the world that is to come, all boundaries shall be eras’d.” Alas this free, unbounded world does not last for Mason and Dixon set about opening lines through it. The novel doesn’t have a nice opinion of land surveys and its practitioners. At one point a character suggests their work as an “Agent of Darkness,” and somewhere else someone advances the hypothesis that “Men of Sciences may be but the simple Tools of others, with no more ideas of what they are about, than a Hammer knows of a House.” The Visto, or corridor they open to lay out their line, attracts civilization “as the Visto soon is lin’d with Inns and Shops, Stables, Games of Skill, Theatrickals, Pleasure-Gardens… a Promenade, - nay, Mall, - eighty Miles long.” And again anachronistically a character predicts the consequences of tracing a line that will separate peoples and mentalities. “To rule forever it is necessary only to create, among the people one would rule, what we call… Bad History. Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People, - to create thus a Distinction betwixt ‘em, - ‘tis the first stroke. – All else will follow as if predestin’d, unto War and Devastation.” To sum up, their work becomes another tool of oppression, like the almanacs that derive their knowledge from the stars and assist the building of empires. God, in fact, gets described as the first surveyor when he split the waters and the sky. “All else after that, in all History, is but Sub-Division.” This may sound less crazy (or not) when we conceived William Blake agreeing with this opinion. Brought up in the Dissenting tradition, Blake detested all forms of government and religious institutions and defended the supremacy of unchained imagination; although he does not rile against surveyors, he did detest compasses and their forms:

“They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclo’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle…
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased…”
(Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 1793)

And he portrayed Newton as a compass-wielding giant:


Which strikes a few similarities with the embodiment of Reason and Law (negative words for Blake), the divine Urizen:


An enthusiastic defender of all liberties and an enemy of all sorts of tyrannies, political and conventional, he championed the French Revolution, before it descended into Terror, and put America’s War of Independence into poem, proclaiming that “Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.” Blake of course knew better and his visions did not extend to the tone of sadness and pessimism that he infused his engravings and verses with. His ability to see angels and speak to biblical prophets made him wiser, not more naïve.

Blake believed the path to Paradise lay through the Imagination, salvation existed in us and not in outside factors. Pynchon, in turn, suggests that cruelty, tyranny and enslavement stem from human nature and perhaps nothing can change it. For all his criticism of America as a dream gone wrong, he sets it as part of a mankind that never knew how to behave differently, hard-wired like that. When the nephews ask Reverend Cherrycoke for a tale about America, they specify with crime and violence, and grow excited when he tells them that it begins with a hanging. Nature follows its bloody instincts. “One reason Humans remain young so long, compar’d to other Creatures, is that the young are useful in many ways, among them in providing daily, by way of the evil Creatures and Slaughter they love, a Denial of the Mortality clamorous enough to allow their Elders release, if only for moments at a time, from Its Claims upon the Attention.” Even the Learnèd English Dog acts by instinct. “The Learnèd D., drawn by the smell of Blood in the Cock-Pit, tries to act nonchalant, but what can they expect of him? How is he expected to supposed to ignore this pure Edge of blood-love?” Mason  may think that Europeans brought savagery to America and an indignant Dixon may punch a man whipping a slave, but the wise Captain Zhang thinks that “Slavery is very old upon these shores, - there is no Innocence upon the Practice anywhere, neither among the Indian nor the Spanish nor in the behavior of the rest of the Christendom, if it comes to that.”

The only place left remains Utopia, the Blakean Paradise that exists only in the Imagination. But even that relief science has taken away. In Cape Town Mason observes that slaves give importance to their dreams while the Europeans ignore theirs. Science, by bringing the stars closer and killing their poetry, by exploring the world, finding new territories and expanding civilization, make it difficult for men to continue to believe in a secret geography of hope and bliss. “Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream? – in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow’d Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever ‘tis not yet mapp’d, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen, - serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may not yet be true, - Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ’s Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur’d and tied in, back into the Net-Work of points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments, - winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderland one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.” It doesn’t take a lot for man to corrupt wonder. As soon as sailors get wind of the talking dog they conspire to kidnap him and take him to an island in the Eastern seas where the dog could dazzle the savages into worship. “Long life to Kings!” cry the sailors.

The novel presents a curious paradox: the Ancient World of magic and miracles lived in an unchanging present, without any notion of social progress, but dreamt of the Future, that is, the Afterlife, some other dimension richer and more real than this place of suffering; then comes the Age of Reason, living only for progress and science, obsessed with destroying to rebuild more efficiently, believing itself capable of turning the present into Paradise. But apart from really great PR, the Enlightenment fell short of expectations and created as many new problems as it helped to solve old ones: atomic bombs, bacteriological warfare, the surveillance state. “So will the Reign of Reason cheerfully dispose of any allegations of Paradise.” Do I exaggerate, perhaps? Probably, but slavery and war, massacres and greed, oppression and misuse of technology long after the 18th century optimism faded into its own untenable utopia. Now we’re left with a world that can neither have the old ignorance of the unknown to dream of better worlds, nor can it continue to believe in science to deliver all panaceas. The Age of Reason, I guess the novel says, may have improved the world materially but spiritually, and perhaps imaginatively, left it impoverished. “Why mayn’t there be Oracles, for us, in our time? Gate-ways to Futurity? That can’t all have died with the ancient Peoples.”

Or it may just be an inconsequential, immature novel about talking clocks, stupid song lyrics, lots of booze and salacious jokes with poorly-written characters that spells the death of good literature, like James Wood worries.

Some people like to talk about an implicit contract between writer and reader; apparently each party has a series of rights and duties regarding the other, whatever. I’ve read two novels by Thomas Pynchon so far and I haven’t seen anything resembling a contract yet. I’m not sure he likes them.  I don’t think he writes to expectations, but the way he damn pleases. If anything he asks the writer some indulgence, without promise of recompenses in return. I continue to have minor problems with his writing, but I suppose I can indulge him a third novel.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

And he ran along on the tips of his slippers with the air of a sleepwalker and swift as a tiger: reading Gustave Flaubert




On the 15th of September, 1840, about six o’clock in the morning, inside a boat, a young lout called Fréderic Moreau fell in love with a married woman called Madame Arnoux, her extraordinary beauty compensating the lack of any other enthralling features. He loved; he was not loved; and this joyless state of affairs went on for more than eight years, until he got caught up in the 1848 revolution that started France’s Second Republic; having nothing better to do, and still unloved, he idled about until the republic crumbled and gave way to the Second Empire in 1852; but Cupid continued to miss, and the lout travelled; then came back, many years later, met his old flame again and was unloved still, although by this time even the feature of beauty had been subtracted from her. He was still the same, however, since he never had any to lose.

I feel like I have so little to add about Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education; Henry James has said everything. "Here the form and method are the same as in Madame Bovary; the studied skill, the science, the accumulation of material, are even more striking; but the book is in a single word a dead one. Madame Bovary was spontaneous and sincere; but to read its successor is, to the finer sense, like masticating ashes and sawdust. L'Education Sentimentale is elaborately and massively dreary. That a novel should have a certain charm seems to us the most rudimentary of principles, and there is no more charm in this laborious monument to a treacherous ideal than there is interest in a heap of gravel." This conjures so cogently and eloquently my impression of reading this novel, even though I should find James’ skewering suspect; his novels have offended my palate with a taste of ashes and sawdust several times too.

Very well, any plot can be reduced to the point of insignificance; we all know it’s how it’s told that matters, not what’s told. But for my money Flaubert’s telling here doesn’t impress very much either. For some 450 quite anodyne pages the novel plods and stretches on, repeats itself and lingers, and turns back upon itself. And yet I have the horrifying suspicion Flaubert intended this effect all along, which either constitutes a sign of dementia or a proof of unique courage. What makes it so difficult to attack this novel is that it’s clearly about stasis, inertia and failure, so Flaubert clearly found a way of connecting form and content seamlessly, always a cause for rejoicing; the downside of that is that, well, it’s inert and static and conduces to prolonged tedium. What to do when the novel triumphs by boring you?

Perhaps the solution is to ignore all that and focus on the good bits. Flaubert never relinquishes certain qualities: characterization, humour and beautiful writing.

Madame Bovary benefits from the force of its characters; Emma is a woman who wants to have an adultery, she’s put that goal in her mind as the adventure that will save her from banality; and there are enough suitors around her equally eager to help her. It’s a happy novel, in a way, because everyone gets what they want, for a while. But in this novel no one wants anything; they dream of things but won’t lift a finger for them. In the early pages we see the complacent, self-satisfied world Fréderic inhabits and can’t escape from. As the boat sails along the river, he peers out at the files of attractive buildings on its banks. “More than one spectator longed, on beholding those attractive residences which looked so peaceful, to be the owner of one of them, and to dwell there till the end of his days with a good billiard-table, a sailing-boat, a woman or some other such dream.” Everyone longs for something; the protagonist wants love; others want money, political power and status. Having just matriculated at law school, he too is making plans for the future. “Fréderic was thinking about the room he would occupy in Paris, about the plan of a drama, subjects for pictures, future passions. He found that the happiness merited by the excellence of his soul was slow in arriving.” He’s dissatisfied; he’ll remain dissatisfied forever. Aboard the vessel he meets Jacques Arnoux, a man like him and illustrative of the novel’s atmosphere: cordial, elegant, amusing, but easily bored and distracted. Showing up on deck he captures the attention of the passengers with his good spirits, “[b]ut getting tired, no doubt, of their society, he moved away and installed himself further along.” This is an important theme: no one manages to keep his attention focused on one thing for too long. So we have tiredness, tedium, and ADHD before anyone diagnosed it. Fréderic meets him and they chat; Arnoux is vacationing in order to recharge from all his affairs. “He expressed his delight at having got away from business.” This is ironic, by the way, since he spends the entire novel slave to business, or rather, to the attempt at building a business that will improve his fortune and status; but he fails, indebts himself, tries to serve political tendencies, jumps from business to business, fails some more and eventually runs away from creditors, dashing Fréderic’s hopes of ever turning his wife into his mistress. He’s still a long way from knowing that, though; when he meets Madame Arnoux it’s all fascination, obsession, Wertherin pangs. “What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past? He longed to become familiar with the furniture of her apartment, all the dresses that she had worn, the people whom she visited; and the desire of physical possession itself yielded to a deeper yearning, a painful curiosity that knew no bounds.” There’s pain, there’s fear he’ll never meet her again. “He felt jealous of the inventor of those things which appeared to interest her so much. The more he contemplated her, the more he felt that there were yawning abysses between them. He was reflecting that he should very soon lose sight of her irrevocably, without having extracted a few words from her, without leaving her with even a memory.” And yet by the end of chapter 3 we read that “his great passion for Madame Arnoux was beginning to die out.” Inconsistency, impulsivity, that’s how Flaubert’s characters work; their minds change from one sentence to another, and the author captures the minutia of each change, the shifts in consciousness, the tiny jolts of psychological realism that warm James Wood’s heart.

The boat ride takes him to Nogent-sur-Seine, where his mother resides. There we meet another character of importance, his best friend Deslauriers. They both want to accomplish amazing things. “His ambition was to be, one day, the Walter Scott of France. Deslauriers dreamed of formulating a vast system of philosophy, which might have the most far-reaching applications.” As for Deslauriers, he wants a role in politics, in shaping society: “A new ’89 is on the way. People are tired of constitutions, charters, subtleties, lies! Ah, if I had a newspaper, or a platform, how I would stir all that up! But to undertake anything whatever, you need money! What a curse it is to be a tavern-keeper’s son, and to waste one’s youth in quest of bread!” He’s a materialistic counterpoint to Fréderic’s idealism, and recommends, “A last piece of advice: pass your examinations! It’s always a good thing to have a handle to your name.” He’s not much into romance, and even considers his friend’s infatuation “a final aberration of adolescence.” As for the protagonist, he’ll study, he’ll also hobble through desires of being an artist, but be that as it may he’s pretty certain he’ll need love to accomplish that. “Love is the feeding-ground, and, as it were, the atmosphere of genius. Extraordinary emotions produce sublime works.” I’m tempted to say this novel proves they don’t, but let’s move on.

The two dream of living together in Paris, but Deslauriers moves to Troyes to become a clerk at an attorney’s office. “Fréderic hung his head. This was the first of his dreams which had crumbled into dust.” Deslauriers, via his political ambitions, serves to bring Fréderic closer to a cadre of would-be revolutionaries and republicans who are going to muck everything up come 1848, but he also acts as a foil, since Fréderic is always getting into situations where he has to choose between love and friendship. For instance when he does return to Paris intending to lodge at Fréderic’s house. “In the rear of this apartment were a bedroom and a closet. The idea occurred to his mind to put up Deslauriers there. But how could he receive her, her, his future mistress? The presence of a friend would be an obstacle.” Another factor he brings up: money; Deslauriers has lots of projects and plans, but he never has money to execute them, and their friendship suffers when Fréderic fails to lend him any. Money is also a problem for him, but thank to one of those 19th century literature inheritances he becomes well-off and behaves accordingly:

   He had scarcely grasped his good fortune in his hands when people tried to take it from him. He announced his express determination to live in Paris.
   “To do what?”
   “Nothing!”
   Madame Moreau, astonished at his manner, asked what he intended to become of him.
   “A minister!” was Fréderic’s reply.

When he moves to Paris he remembers Madame Arnoux, ingratiates himself with Arnoux, starts attending aristocratic dinners and going out with other louts like him. Basically Flaubert paints in as vast a canvas as it allows him to ridicule the entire society.

Misery and unhappiness follows Fréderic, and obviously he’s sensitive to those who show off their happiness. This is his going to a restaurant where he meets with other students. “Those around him were students like himself. They talked about their professors, and about their mistresses. Much he cared about professors! Had he a mistress? To avoid being witness of their enjoyment, he came as late as possible.” More disappointments: through Arnoux’s business, L’Art Industriel, “a hybrid establishment, wherein the functions of an art journal and a picture show were combined,” he discovers that artists are not what he thinks they are. “L’Art Industriel, situated in a central position in Paris, was a convenient place of resort, a neutral ground wherein rivalries elbowed each other familiarly. On this day could be seen Anténor Braive, who painted portraits of kings; Jules Burrieu, whose sketches were beginning to popularize the wars in Algeria; the caricaturist Sombaz, the sculptor Vourdat, and others, and not a single one of them corresponded with the student’s preconceived ideas. Their manners were simple, their talk free and easy. The mystic Lovarias told an obscene story, and the inventor of the Oriental landscape, the famous Dittmer, wore a knitted vest under his waistcoat, and went home on the bus.”

Oh, no, he takes the bus! He commutes! That’s so bourgeois!

Amongst Arnoux’s coterie we find the painter Pellerin, a remarkable creation in itself: a painter who doesn’t paint, as inert with his brush as the rest of his society with its ambitions and desires; there should be a whole novel about him. “Pellerin read every work on aesthetics, in order to find out the true theory of the Beautiful, convinced that, when he had discovered it, he would produce masterpieces. He surrounded himself with every imaginable auxiliary – drawings, plaster casts, models, engravings, and he kept searching about, eating his heart out; he blamed the weather, his nerves, his studio, went out into the street to find inspiration there, quivered with delight at the thought that he had caught it, then abandoned the work in which he was engaged, and dreamed of another which should be finer. Thud, tormented by the desire for glory and wasting his days in discussions, believing in a thousand fooleries, in systems, in criticism, in the importance of a regulation or a reform in the domain of Art, he had at fifty as yet turned out nothing save mere sketches.” We should be thankful for his lofty considerations, for whatever refusal they contain to partake of Arnoux’s contribution to mediocrity: “His object was to emancipate the fine arts, to get the sublime at a cheap rate. Over every industry associated with Parisian luxury he exercised an influence which proved fortunate with respect to little things, but fatal with respect to great things. With his mania for pandering to public opinion, he made clever artists swerve from their true path, corrupted the strong, exhausted the weak, and got distinction for those of mediocre talent; he controlled their fates with the assistance of his connections and of his magazine.” This so disgusts Fréderic, still fooling himself with a fantasy about becoming an artist, that “Madame Arnoux herself was as if diminished by the vulgarity of her husband.”

It would be erroneous to say that Fréderic is an idealist; he’s really bipolar: he has abrupt mood swings and is always in flux, one day he longs for important careers in politics, the other he just wants the love of a woman. This is the time when he thought he wanted to be an artist, and how he arrived at that decision. “He asked himself seriously whether he would be a great painter or a great poet – and he decided in favour of painting, for the exigencies of this profession would bring his into contact with Madame Arnoux. So, then, he had found his vocation!” Amazing, his vocation is in accordance to what will facilitate his love life! Some people can have their cake and eat it too! But Madame Arnoux, the opposite of the fiery Emma, is a respectable housewife who looks after her children and piously serves her husband, elegantly defusing all his attempts at courting her. “He envied pianists for their talents and soldiers for their scars. He longed for a dangerous illness, hoping in this way to make her take an interest in him.”

When he’s not trying to woo her he’s struggling with the “need of giving up this sort of life,” but fails again and again; although failing is perhaps too strong a word; he’d have to try to change in order to fail at that; this desire to become a different person is just one of the many wishes fighting for space inside his dream-filled, ADHD-troubled mind. By page 268 not much has yet changed, and we’re told that “he was firmly resolved (whatever he might do) on changing his mode of life, that is to say, to lose his heart no more in fruitless passions.” And by 382: “Political verbiage and good living blunted his moral sense. Mediocre as these persons appeared to him, he was proud to know them, and inwardly longed for bourgeois respectability.” The novel is a carrousel: no matter how many turns it takes, it always ends up in the same place. The whole novel takes place at parties and restaurants, amidst idle chatting about economy, art, politics; conversations lose their uniqueness as they morph into the previous ones that were identical and just as forgettable. And like I wrote before, I think this is Flaubert’s intention, which is quite clever in itself: deliberately give the reader page upon page of pap that he will have no interest in storing in his memory, to show the vapidity of this society. It’s a neat technique, but it still demands that he write pap.

But notwithstanding the drudgery of so much of the novel, there are diamonds here and there. Flaubert was a writer of exceptional descriptive powers. Here’s how he describes Sénécal, who grows from a political boor to exerting tremendous influence during the revolution. “An austere Republican, he suspected that there was something corrupt in every form of elegance, and the more so as he had no needs and was inflexible in his integrity.” Flaubert of course liked elegance, he cared about aesthetics above all else, and he saw democracy, with its masses ruling things, as a great threat to elegance and beauty. Sénécal believes in a society “which was to be more omnipotent, absolute, infallible, and divine than the Grand Lama and the Nebuchadnezzars,” and some of the most acidic pages concern the unraveling of the Republic in all its pettiness, meanness, arrivisme and stupidity.

I also loved this lampooning of literature. “The principal contemporary writers were to be found there. It was impossible to speak about their works, for Hussonnet immediately began relating anecdotes with reference to their personal characteristics, criticizing their faces, their morals, their dress, glorifying fifth-rate intellects and disparaging those of the first, and all the while making it clear that he deplored modern decadence. Any village ditty contained in itself alone more poetry than all the lyric poets of the nineteenth century; Balzac was overrated, Byron discredited, Hugo knew nothing about the stage, etc.” This is so modern! It’s like reading a condensed version of the formula for writing book reviews acceptable by Portuguese newspapers!

And then there’s always the careful, original language that Flaubert uses. There’s nothing beautiful in the novel; everything is sordid or pathetic or ridiculous; not even Madame Arnoux is smarter or more interesting than her environment, she’s no Emma Bovary, passionate and full of will; she’s bourgeois down to the fabric of her underwear. But Fréderic loves her, and that love transforms her. Or better yet, language transforms her. There are descriptions that ring with, forgive me the cliché, lyricism. Some of them are, yes, poetic. There are descriptions of happiness and joie de vivre that remind of Nabokov. His metaphors are always fresh, unexpected and precise. This is him describing the boat along the river: “At last, the vessel set out; and the two banks of the river, stocked with warehouses, timberyards and manufacturers, slipped past like two huge ribbons unrolled.” This one takes place at a party after someone talks about revolution: “All the other women remained silent, filled with a vague terror, as if they had heard the noise of bullets.” And when the revolution starts, here’s the incredible oxymoron used to simultaneously describe Fréderic’s usual lack of will and the impetuosity with which he jumps into every rash idea that crosses his mind for a moment. “In his hand he held a long military musket, and he ran along on the tips of his slippers with the air of a sleepwalker and swift as a tiger.” This sentence almost encapsulates the entire novel.

There was another reason I like reading Sentimental Education. When everyone was voting for me to read it, some people mentioned the connection with Eça de Queiroz, one of my favourite novelists. Heavily influenced by the Realists, Eça was in fact the introducer of Flaubert in Portugal, via a public lecture that brought down a government (more on that one day), and the most important figure in liberating the Portuguese novel from the prison of Romantic aesthetics inside which it had been doing time for decades now. Comparisons have been made between the two, books have been written on the similarities between Madame Bovary and Cousin Bazilio (a novel I need to re-read this year). Sentimental Education certainly expands the net of borrowings (before Eça’s consecration as Portugal’s greatest novelist ever!, detractors called it plagiarism): Pellerin is so clearly Camilo Cerrão, a painter full of theories who is always changing styles and pines for the Renaissance Maecenas, in The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers; the duel between Cisy and Fréderic no doubt served as a model for a similar one in O Conde d’Abranhos; and Fréderic’s amorous misadventures and attempts at being someone and failing sound a lot like the troubles of Carlos da Maia, from The Maias. The difference – the essential difference to me – is that Eça gives a lot of life and comedy to these bits and pieces he finds in Flaubert. Cerrão isn’t just a painter in search of a theory of beauty; he’s borderline lunatic in his fascination for the past, demanding to be treated by his clients the way Popes treated men like Raphael and Titian, and finding Art impossible in Democracy. Cisy may be cowardly, but he at least shows up to uphold his honour in a duel; the Count of Abranhos is so craven he informs the police of the duel in order for it to be stopped, such an indecent breach of protocol that even his seconds turn on him and literally force him to duel. And Carlos may just be a lazy loser in Fréderic’s tradition, but Eça was a natural born comedian and there’s never a dull moment with him. Although I think Eça did everything Flaubert did better than him – and had a few tricks of his own the Frenchman did not – it was still worth reading this novel just to gain a better understanding of Flaubert’s relationship with one of my favourite novelists.

In the end I wouldn’t say Sentimental Education is a bad novel; I think its weaknesses are premeditated effects necessary for the themes Flaubert wanted to develop, which means they’re not weaknesses at all. Even so I think it’s a dour, lifeless novel, like the society its characters inhabit, full of great if brief moments to reward the patient reader, and definitely a notch below the riveting Madame Bovary.