As with so many other things, my devotion to Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education can be blamed on Samuel R. Delany.
In various interviews and essays, Delany has praised the book, and in “Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student” he went so far as to assert that, “In the canon of great nineteenth-century European novels, the most pyrotechnically structured is Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale.” Flaubert clearly affected the way Delany has conceived of some of his own fiction, and so when I was working on a study of his early novels, I read many of the books that Delany said he had been reading or thinking about at the time.
I was not able to give the books the contemplation they deserved, and so I did not connect with them deeply, but I returned to A Sentimental Education last spring as I was designing a university course on global literature. Because global literature is too big a topic to fit into any one class, I organized the syllabus around the theme of “revolutions.” Since the upheavals of 1848 are central to A Sentimental Education, it seemed like a good choice, but I needed to spend more time with the book to make sure it would be something I could get excited about teaching, given that a nearly 500-page novel is not something that can be rushed through in an undergraduate course, so we’d be living with it for a while.
I reread A Sentimental Education while watching news stories about what came to be called the “Arab Spring,” the series of revolutions, uprisings, and protests that swept through the Middle East throughout the first half of this year. As I found myself thinking about the characters and events in Flaubert’s novel, all sorts of questions about the dynamics of revolution entered my mind, and suddenly a book published in 1869 felt not just relevant, but vital.
We recently finished reading the novel in class, and we did so while the revolutionary civil war in Libya came to an end (or the end of a first stage) and in the United States the Occupy Wall Street movement gained traction. It was suddenly impossible for us to consider the book purely as a literary or historical artifact; whatever we said about the characters’ responses to their situations, or Flaubert’s methods of portraying those situations and responses, felt like a first draft for an op-ed article.
Delany and other critics have pointed out that science fiction is more about the present than the future. Its extrapolations are made from current knowledge, current assumptions, current dreams. Some old science fiction made startlingly accurate predictions, but such stories are few and far between, and their predictions show only that the seeds for the future lie in the past.
As every historian knows, though, relics of the past can also be powerful mirrors (however foggy) of the future. I often suggest for students to read old books as they would read science fiction, because the world of the book is one different enough from our own that we must be especially alert to the subtle cues revealing why things are the way they are. Once you start thinking about the represented world of the text that way, you become aware of the systems and hierarchies that structure not only the novel, but the universe it portrays. Thinking about such representations may then lead to thinking about the systems and hierarchies of the reader’s own world and experience.
Such a way of thinking is a comfortable one for science fiction readers, and the great number of SF readers who are also passionate about politics and history shows the affinity of these ways of thinking, for they are all concerned with the systems that structure worlds.
Such a way of reading is one that well equips readers to work with a wide variety of types of fiction, but reading “good” fiction often gets boiled down to a narrow sort of psychologizing, one that limits our ability to understand what literature is and can be. Too often, we approach fiction the way a Method actor approaches a role, seeking out the characters’ motivations and obstacles. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there is something very wrong with it being the only or even primary method, either for acting or for reading.
Looking at the motivations and obstacles for the protagonist of A Sentimental Education, Frédéric Moreau, is a legitimate starting place, but it doesn’t get you very far, and if you stop there you will have missed just about everything that is worthwhile in the book, all of which has to do with the relations between the book’s parts, its narration, its sly and shifting cynicism, its remarkable evocations of the physical world, and much more. (Just listing its virtues feels reductive! This is truly a book that can’t be summarized and must be experienced.) Frédéric isn’t complex in his motivations, and his obstacles are pretty obvious—he thinks Madame Arnoux is the great love of his life, and she, during most of the book, disagrees. Frédéric has no other convictions, nothing he believes as deeply, nothing that he will sacrifice everything else for. He is so shallow as to be hollow. This has led some critics over the years to say that when it comes to Frédéric, there is, as Gertrude Stein said of her childhood home in California, no there there. It’s true of the rest of the book’s populace, too. The deeper you look into them, the less you see. Almost every person in the novel is more type than character. We can certainly speculate about their dimensions beyond the attributes that are presented through the narration, but the fact is, if your single criterion for great literature is that it is full of psychological complexity, then A Sentimental Education is not great literature.
But that’s not true. A Sentimental Education is one of the greatest novels ever written. Its riches and depths are vast, but they lie beyond individual psychology. A definition of “great literature” that isn’t expansive enough to include A Sentimental Education is an inadequate definition. Such a definition is worse than useless—it is harmful, because it encourages bad habits of reading.
There are perennial, and perennially frustrating, arguments among SF fans about whether our beloved books count as Literature, whether SF is better than fiction that is more focused on representing our current reality, etc. My tastes are too eclectic to find such arguments interesting or productive anymore, but I think there is a valuable discussion to be had about the ways of reading that best help readers understand both the worlds in texts and the worlds outside them. Which texts will most fully respond to such ways of reading probably depends as much on the reader as the words. We are not just who we are, but where and when we are. For me, reading A Sentimental Education slowly during a time when revolutions were springing up around the world was a very different, and more fulfilling, experience than reading it quickly during a time when the world didn’t feel as united in its chaos. That has at least as much to do with me as it does with Flaubert, but the genius of Flaubert was to create a book that could, over a hundred years later and in a different language, feel vivid and contemporary—more than that: feel necessary.
I don’t discount the value of ephemera, the kitsch and comfort that we need in particular moments but that may not have the resilience to withstand any tests of time. Life is too varied for us to limit our art to only that which will speak across many years and geographies. The immediate, the local, the forgettable all have their place.
But no science fiction fan wants only the immediate, local, and forgettable. We like to think across times and spaces. Why limit ourselves only to those books that have the proper props? I believe we should claim such great works of time-space connection as A Sentimental Education to be among our brethren.