A sepulchral chill in the soul. Although published in 1869, Sentimental Education now reads as the first major novel of the 20th century. Flaubert managed to draw a portrait of a secular metropolitan world that was new in his time, but has become the subs

Sentimental Education

Gustave Flaubert; translated by Robert Baldick <em>Penguin Classics, 479pp,

Was there ever a greater pessimist than Gustave Flaubert? Here he is, still only in his mid- teens, expressing his contempt for the allegedly great progress made by humanity in the 19th century:

What a sad and strange period is ours, towards what ocean is this torrent of iniquities flowing? . . . We tried everything and were starting to deny everything, devoid of hope - and then a strange greed seized us, there is an immense disquiet gnawing away at us, there is a sense of emptiness in the crowd. We feel all around us a sepulchral chill in the soul; and humanity started to set machines in motion, and seeing the gold pouring from them it exclaimed: 'This is God!'

Long before Nietzsche made the subject his own, Flaubert sensed the new outbreak of self-delusion across western Europe - the advent of pseudo-religions called science and progress following the death of God. But life still had to be lived, and Flaubert seems to have realised quickly that to live is inevitably to hope and to desire, and to succumb, in the process, to at least some of the deceptions of one's own time.

Certainly, the young Flaubert seems to have put much of his energy and passion into daydreams borrowed from the Romantics. Scorning the bourgeois individual, the mean and timid calculator of self-interest whom the French revolution had enthroned, Flaubert yearned for the exotic and voluptuous pleasures of the Orient; he sought heroism and moral purity in the age of antiquity.

These fantasies of both extreme piety and licentiousness dictated both his early travels - to the Near East - and his writings (The Temptation of St Antony). And perhaps they would have made him an interesting minor writer in the Byronic mould, had he not begun, out of a disgust and disillusionment too deep for anything but art, to see them as a commonplace and sinister malady. It was the disabused Romantic in Flaubert that wrote his two great novels, Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education; and his vision matured only after the European revolutions of 1848, whose failure crushed the lingering hopes of many Romantics.

The emotions of educated Europeans in the mid-19th century may be as remote from us as the passions aroused by 9/11 will no doubt seem to the inhabitants of the next century. But, for Flaubert and many of his contemporaries, the utopian aspirations of the 18th-century rationalists that the French revolution had briefly expressed, before degenerating into terror and anarchy, had finally been destroyed in 1848. Traditional beliefs and authorities had been overthrown, several new nation states had appeared, universal suffrage and education had been introduced, but universal happiness or peace still appeared out of reach. Rather, the much-hated class of the bourgeoisie had become more powerful; it had appropriated the slogans of democracy, equality and progress; it spoke in the name of the people and the nation and would soon lead Europe into its most destructive wars.

Flaubert lived through the violent events of 1848 and saw closely the selfishness and brutality of all its participants: the nobility, the middle class, the working classes and the peasants. He wrote in Sentimental Education:

Equality asserted itself triumphantly: an equality of brute beasts, a common level of bloody atrocities; for the fanaticism of the rich counterbalanced the frenzy of the poor, the aristocracy shared the fury of the rabble, and the cotton nightcap was just as savage as the red bonnet.

As Flaubert saw it, men had overthrown older gods only to prostrate themselves afresh before the new holy trinity of sex, money and power. The bourgeois now tainted everything, even the desire to escape from this world.

In 1851, the same year Flaubert returned from the Middle East, and three years after these abortive revolutions, he began to write about a bored provincial housewife, a reader of romantic novels, who is driven to suicide by her longing, only half-fulfilled, for a life elsewhere. "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," Flaubert once said of his most famous creation. But he finally exorcised his youthful Romanticism, and gave the fullest expression to his disenchantment with the modern age, in the novel he published in 1869.

Living in the provinces, Emma Bovary dreams of Paris as "the immense kingdom of pleasure and passion". The very name, which she repeats softly to herself, rings in her ears "like a great cathedral bell". Her most extravagant fantasies of sex and wealth are set in the city. For Sentimental Education, Flaubert turned Paris of the 1840s into the main setting, and exposed a wide range of people - students, journalists, courtesans, artists, bankers, political agitators - to the temptations of which Emma had only dreamt.

Flaubert wished his novel to be "the moral history, or rather the sentimental history, of the men of my generation". Accordingly, he denied a complex self-consciousness and sense of purpose to Frederic Moreau, his primary protagonist. Frederic dreams a great deal; but nothing comes of his grand plans for success in art, business, journalism and politics. His shallow love affairs peter out; he never even consummates his only sincere love, for an older woman (apparently based on Flaubert's youthful infatuation with a married woman). Even worse, he has no way of understanding his situation, his place in the world. The poverty of his inner life is matched by the cliches in which he often expresses his most private longings. A creature of random desires and impulses, he drifts from one person to another, from one day to the next. The years pass and he simply accumulates experience and grows old without becoming any bit wiser.

Frederic's friends, most of them intellectuals manques like himself, show even less ability to rise above their petty desires and circumstances. There is the journalist with a craving for political power, the socialist agitator who turns into a brutal policeman, the artist who has more theories at hand than talent, and the conservative banker who manages to be both republican and monarchist. As in Madame Bovary, Flaubert made his characters speak in cliches borrowed from journalism, politics, advertising and romantic fiction.

Flaubert had an acute insight into the "instinctive adoration of force" into which the most idealistic of men could lapse. He saw socialism as a slogan hiding a strong tendency towards despotism, or at least a reverence for centralised authority. But he was no more enamoured of free-market democracy. We meet in his novel all "the stock characters of the political comedy" who fill up the op-ed pages of our newspapers: "the old stagers of the left centre, the paladins of the right, the veterans of the Middle Way"; and Frederic's political voltes-face remind one of the radicals of our own time who turn bewilderingly into courtiers to the rich and the powerful. Verbiage and good food begin to dull his sense of morality: "However mediocre these people might seem to him, he felt proud to know them and inwardly longed to enjoy their esteem."

But above all, the novel is a magnificent testimony to Flaubert's art. Early in the book, Frederic has been spending some months in the country when he learns that he has inherited his uncle's wealth. Delighted, he throws open the window of his house: "Snow had fallen; the roofs were white; and he even recognised a washtub in the yard which he had tripped over the evening before."

How vividly does the image capture the fragility of Frederic's private excitement amidst an indifferent world, and his distracted state in previous weeks. The long passages set in the forest of Fontainebleau show Flaubert's matchless ability to evoke his characters' inner lives through descriptions of landscape. Then there is his great, melancholy sense of time. He sensed, much before Proust, that the individual self has no integrity and exists only in fragments scattered across time. Thus, he presents Frederic's life as a series of isolated moments, with a specific mood or act standing in for whole weeks, months, even years: "He used to get up very late and look out of the window at the waggoners' carts going past. The first six months were particularly horrible."

Towards the end, Flaubert's narrative both leaps across, and illuminates, a void of 16 years with a few poetically precise sentences, carefully placed at the beginning of a chapter.

He travelled the world.

He tasted the melancholy of packet ships, the chill of waking under canvas, the boredom of landscapes and monuments, the bitterness of broken friendship.

The melancholy, tedium and bitterness can prove too much. In Sentimental Education, Flaubert made no attempt to flatter or divert his audience, and indeed seems to want to linger on his readers' vulgar fascination with money and power. The reader looking for a gripping yarn about other people is confronted with his own imprecise longings and incoherent self. Not surprisingly, the novel, when it first appeared, was a critical and commercial failure, and it has subsequently enjoyed a cult rather than a popular following. Many writers, for instance, consider it a more mature novel than Madame Bovary. Ford Madox Ford claimed to have read it 14 times. In his film Manhattan, Woody Allen put it in a shortlist of things worth living for.

To read it now is to discover how Flaubert, out of obsessive hatred of his bourgeois peers and their holy creed of self-interest, managed to draw a comprehensive portrait of the secular, metropolitan realm that was new in his time and now forms the substance of our life and dreams: the world of fast communications, big industry, mass media and commodified art. Flaubert foresaw, less self-consciously than the modernists and existentialists of the 20th century, the fragmentation and inauthenticity of individual experience in the highly organised societies coming into being, the world dominated if not ruled by mendacious politicians, speculators and corporate-owned media increasingly compromised by their proximity to power.

Although published in 1869, Sentimental Education now reads as the first major novel of the 20th century, in its vivid presentiment of the brave new world in which powerless human beings will be kept pointlessly busy, led around by mass-manufactured fantasies of freedom and happiness, up to the point when they do not know who they are or what purpose they have served and, furthermore, do not care.

This is an edited version of a piece that will appear live on www.penguinclassics.co.uk. A Sentimental Education, revised with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Wall, will be published by Penguin Classics on 26 February (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The new serfs