Friday, March 30, 2007

The Fall and Fall of Jacques Arnoux

A few weeks ago I put up some posts about famous literary bankrupts (link). I missed one of the most important. That would be Jacques Arnoux, whose steady descent forms one of the framing narratives in l’Education Sentimentale, by Gustav Flaubert.

It’s easy to see why Arnoux is important, and at the same time easy to overlook. The novel builds a social history of Paris in the middle of the 19th Century, around the life of Frédéric Moreau, the young man who drifts through it all without learning much of anything. Arnoux, as an entrepreneur, sometimes an industrialist, apparently sometimes a scoundrel, is a marvelous instrument through which Flaubert can explore and understand Paris in his time. But Arnoux is also the husband of Marie Arnoux the great, though unrequited, love of Moreau’s life—“he had never,” we are told on page 18, “seen anything to compare with her splendid dark skin, her ravishing figure, or her delicate, translucent fingers.”

So Arnoux is with us from beginning to end. But we never see him from inside: he is always an obstacle to Frédéric and a mystery, at least to Frédéric, if not at last to the reader. We see him from the first page of the book almost to the last, but always indirectly, never from inside his own mind.

We see Arnoux first of all the publisher of L’Art Industriel, Boulevard Montmartre, “a hybrid establishment, comprising both an art magazine and a picture shop.” It’s as vaguely glamorous, if somewhat louche enterprise which does, at least, permit him the luxury of a young and delectable wife. In time we learn he is no longer in the arts, but is rather a manufacturer of “pottery”—and also, for whatever it may be worth, a serial and systematic philanderer. In time we discover that the “pottery” business is an enterprise marginal at best, scarcely worthy of the name. A bit of stock manipulation, a chiseling loan, help to flesh out a not very edifying portrait. At last we see Arnoux on the lam, fleeing with indecent haste from his creditors, so exigent that he leaves his household furnishing behind.

All of this rings true, yet none of it is spelled out in detail, because we see only what Frédéric sees; if we understand more, that is to our credit (or, perhaps, to Flaubert’s) and Frédéric has nothing to do with it. It all comes to as climax in the auction house:

He recognized straight away the two sets of shelves which had been in the office of L’Art Industriel, her work-table and all her other pieces of furniture. Piled up at the far end, in order of height, they formed a slope stretching form the floor to the windows, while on the other three sides of the room, her carpets and curtains hung on the walls. Underneath, there were rows of seats on which old men were dozing. On the left, behind a sort of counter, the auctioneer, wearing a white cravat, was casually brandishing as little hammer.

Gustav Flaubert, Sentimental Education 406
(Robert Baldick Trans,, Penguin Classics ed. (1964)

Frédéric never does get to bed the fair Madam Arnoux. It is not entirely clear why; it is not as if her husband paid even five minutes’ fidelity to her. But on this issue, as on so many others, we are left as clueless as Frédéric himself.

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