Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Novels for other times or our times

Every couple of years I take a run at L'Education Sentimentale. My French is good enough that it doesn't make sense to read Flaubert in translation, but not so good that it's actually easy, so I usually run out of steam before I get too far. My dad lent me a new edition with the promise of better notes, so I'm at it again. This book has always had an allure. Things like a Woody Allen movie listing it among some essential things, or Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot. We'll see how far I get this time.

Even a handful of chapters is enough to bring some ideas to mind. One of them is the way this book and so many other 19th century novels turn on economics. More precisely, on the precariousness of people's personal financial security and way the lack of money gets in the way of characters realizing the life to which they aspire. L'Education Sentimentale (at least these early chapters) is filled with material on how much money the characters have, how much they spend, what they can count on or hope for, and the things they have to do if they are to make money. Of course, Flaubert's Frederic Moreau is a fool, committed to living as an artist, not to making art. L'Education Sentimentale, at least as much of it as I've gotten through, is heavily comedic.

Flaubert was not unique in this. Novels throughout the 19th century, as least up through Edith Wharton, turned on the drama of the precarious situation most people lived in--needing money to keep themselves out of a state of wretched deprivation, but usually finding it very hard to make any. The main form of security comes from inherited wealth, and if you don't have it you are often SOL.

The centrality of economic precariousness as a dramatic engine seems appropriate today. Every conversation is about the economy, about how bad it is and how bad it's going to get, the cuts that are coming. By and large I don't find people in a state of despair or panic, a gallows humor prevails. But there is also a serious undercurrent to the conversations, about how to hold on for months and years, and about what one can do if the economy collapses in a fundamental way. It is easy to fear that it will become as rare in our society for people to be able to provide themselves a comfortable living as it apparently was in the 19th century. Will ruin loom again as the most likey outcome for dreamy people?

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