Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Aimless Reading: The F's, Part 13 (Gustave Flaubert)

Flaubert, Gustave
Sentimental Education

Purchased at Talking Leaves Books for a graduate seminar with Samuel R. Delany in 1998. I wrote a fairly detailed description of the course in an earlier post on Delaney, which you can read here.

It was a 5-week class literally bookended with readings of Sentimental Education. We read it to begin the class, then wrote a paper. We read one, possibly two things in the interim, and then read Sentimental Education a second time and wrote a second paper. I don't think I have ever read the same book twice in such a short span of time before, but it was a useful experience.

Having re-read The Great Gatsby over the past few days, I re-discovered the pleasure of returning to a book for a second or third or fourth time. I think it is especially useful when a certain period of time has elapsed between readings because it requires you to confront the images you constructed the first time your read and the ones that you have constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed in your memory during the intervening years.

These images do not necessarily need to be reconciled to the text before you, but must be refashioned in response to the current reading. I noticed in the re-reading of Gatsby that my images of Gatsby's mansion and of the general landscape described in the book did not change much in the re-reading, but that my understanding of the characters changed a great deal. Their problems and struggles seem less remote to me now, less like people who's troubles pertain to a distant future in which I might one day encounter them and more like recognizable beings drawn from my own life's experience.

I am not sure I felt the same thing reading Flaubert twice in five weeks, but I do recall that reading it cold, without context, was very different than reading it a second time. Having read Marx's 18th Brumaire and various little historical tidbits about the revolutions of 1848 created a richer experience the second time around.

It also made me want to learn to read French, which, alas, I have yet to do.

For some reason, this grim passage stayed with me:

He shivered, seized with an icy melancholy, is if he had caught a glimpse of whole worlds of misery and despair, a charcoal stove beside a trestle-bed, and the corpses at the mortuary in their leather aprons, with the cold tap-water running over their hair.

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