November, by Gustave Flaubert

A review by Alan Nicoll

After reading to page 42, I described Flaubert's November as a profound outpouring of romantic feelings, and provided the following sample:

"In proportion to the ecstasies and exaltations I had known, I withdrew into myself and suffered. For a long time now my heart has been arid; no new thing may enter it, and it is as empty as the tombs in which the dead have rotted away. I held the sun in hatred. I was infuriated by the murmur of the river, by the prospect of the woods; nothing seemed so futile as the country. Everything grew somber and stale, and I lived in a perpetual twilight." (p. 42)

This is pretty typical, and won't be to everyone's taste. He's not always so pessimistic; much of it is longing for woman: love and/or sex. It's generally quite abstract and passionate. At first I was put off by the abstraction and vagueness, but as I read further I began enjoying the poetry.

This is a very unusual work. It has no plot worth mentioning and virtually no "characterization." It is almost nothing more than a statement of a certain kind of extreme romantic longing. To briefly summarize: an unnamed young man tells of his longing for love, his agonies of loneliness. He then tells of going to a prostitute, named Marie. Marie tells him of her empty life and her longing for love. Then the book ends under "another hand," who tells of having found the preceding manuscript, and tells the improbable fate of the young man that wrote it.

I think I like this book a lot: for its poetry, its extremes of joy and despair, its moodiness and cynicism. I like Marie, though she is little more than a symbol, an idealized fantasy Woman.

What I don't like about this book is the self pity of the young man, his increasing apathy and pig-headed and practically inexcusable misery. But again, he can hardly be taken to represent a real human being, though his type certainly exists, and indeed, I identified with him closely, and recalled my own distraught young manhood as being not very unlike his. Perhaps that's what I find disturbing about him; he is too much like me as I was.

By all means read this book. I've no doubt that many readers will give up in disgust after ten or twenty pages, but a few will come to treasure it as a unique expression of unfulfilled poetic longings. It deserves to be tasted, at least.