Monday, November 28, 2011

"The tragedy of nobody in particular, but of the poor human race itself"

Reviewing Ulysses:
At his worst he recalls Flaubert at his worst - in L’Education Sentimentale.
What on earth did Wilson have against Sentimental Education?

That was July 1922 - Wilson did rather well laying hands on a copy of the book under review (published on Groundhog Day, Joyce's birthday) - but at least by 1938, in The Triple Thinkers, Wilson's opinion had improved: Flaubert's book is now "one of his most remarkable books" and "rather underestimated." He doesn't add, "by my younger self."

Tho he does say later in the essay that it "is likely, if we read it in youth, to prove baffling and even repellent." (Evidently.) Here Wilson gets it right:
... Flaubert's novel plants deep in our mind an idea which we never quite get rid of: the suspicion that our middle-class society of manufacturers, businessmen and bankers, of people who live on or deal in investments, so far from being redeemed by its culture, has ended by cheapening and invalidating all the departments of culture, political, scientific, artistic and religious, as well as corrupting and weakening the ordinary human relations: love, friendship, and loyalty to cause - till the whole civilization seems to dwindle.
If that sounds to you like a treatment that's been done before, I would respectfully submit that Flaubert did it first, and perhaps best.

... The title of Wilson's book in fact comes from an aside in a letter to Louise Colet: "what is an artist if he is not a triple thinker?"


  1. Curious what you think of The Triple Thinkers.

    I came to it after I'd read a lot of Wilson. To The Finland Station and Patriotic Gore are favorites of mine, and then I read a lot of later essays. With two books, I ran up on a stump: Triple Thinkers and that one about upstate New York. I just couldn't get engaged about upstate New York. With the other, though, I could never decide whether I'd so assimilated his views second hand that there was no news there, or whether it just hadn't aged that well. But it did not seem to have the strength and vividness of the two big ones that were the first I'd read.

    For a while, you could readily find nice small hardcover editions of his books in used bookstores; I picked up a couple at Choctaw Books in Jackson, and others in New Orleans in the used books in the Quarter, I think mainly at Decatur Books.

  2. Yah, the writers of yesteryear have an afterlife of a few decades in the secondhand shops, before their paperbacks crumble and their hardcovers mildew. NYRB reprinted To the Finland Station, which I need to read.

    Haven't read Triple, though I did reread the Flaubert essay (good) and try to reread the famous essay on James (truncated by Google). A lot of Wilson probably has become the conventional wisdom - I'm thinking of Axel's Castle in particular.

    Instead of that Metaphysical Club book, I wish Louis Menand had written a study of Wilson, Trilling, and the other critics of their period -- he was interested in them when I was at CUNY.