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November is not a novella everyone would enjoy reading.  This is not due a lack in quality, of which there is plenty, but because of the text’s subject matter and the stances taken by the author on complex issues all humans struggle with.  While many people have read Madame Bovary and believe they are familiar with Flaubert’s tendency to depict a dark side of life, from my perspective,  Flaubert uses the voice of an individual who is more depressed and saturnine than Emma Bovary to narrate this text.  In less than 100 pages, the narrator describes a lifetime of morose and negative experiences and emotions as a result of the inability to comprehend and accept the purpose of his existence. His views concerning memories, youth,  love, and suicide reflect questions all people ask, often times refusing to allow the answers consume them.

The first lines of the novella set the reader up for what will follow with the depiction of seasons used to portray a life as it cycles through the years.  “I love the autumn-that melancholy season that suits memories so well. When the trees have lost their leaves, when the sky at sunset still preserves the russet hue that fills with gold the withered grass, it is sweet to watch the final fading of the fires that until recently burnt within you .” The narrator’s bitterness in reflecting about his regrets and wasted time are revealed with elegant description of sights, sounds, and smells. These factors inspire him to analyze the past and future through the lens of a man who can only envision what he has lost to time. In a sad, but poetic manner, the reader is introduced to thoughts of memories gone by.  Even the young he says can be, “weighed down by the thought of ideas, passions, days of anger, days of grief, heartbeats of hope, heart-rending anguish.”

There are several reasons the narrator cannot escape his sorrow that relate to his own assessments about life. HIs style of writing could be found in a memoir or epistolary; thoughts flow as if in a stream of consciousness, sometimes unorganized. He is a person who has always been fascinated with learning and experiencing, and this has left him increasingly unsatisfied.  Similar to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin, this character’s expectations for unlimited learning and experiences hinder his personal  growth.  Although he seeks to learn and contribute as much as he can, he soon realizes that it is impossible to be original. He can’t stand the idea of never being able to produce something innovative or leave his mark on the world. There is a refusal to be satiated connected to feelings of boredom, anger, and angst.  He decides there is no real purpose for living, which leads him to deeply consider the notions of suicide and death. “I was born longing to die,”  he writes.

The insertion by the author of the tale about the narrator’s first and only love within the recording of his own life story and reminiscences is masterful.  In the process of uncovering his unmatched passion for a whore, an explanation of his regrets is given.  “I would never be able to grasp it again, that other loves might come along, but that they would never resemble this one; this first perfume had been savored, those sounds had faded, I desired my desire and longed to have my joy back again.” He is certain will never remember anything better than her love. The reader is inspired to ponder whether memories are accurate depictions of the past, or he is mistaken for always reverting back to things made better only in his mind.

He spends his entire life concerned with what he is missing without trying to fill the void. To him, life is suffering , and he can only be spared by death.  Then, his communication with the reader abruptly comes to a stop.  In the last few pages of the text, a new narrator appears.  The new narrator informs the reader, “The manuscript stops here, but I knew the author.”  What follows tells how the author lived the remainder of his life: unhappy, alone, and  waiting to die.  There is also a moment when it is implied that the original narrator did not truly suffer until the end of his life.  Of course, the reader is now familiar with the accounts of a soul who has been tortured by his thoughts since he was a child.  By including an observer’s opinion of the narrator’s past, Flaubert offers a final question:  What does it mean to suffer?

The narrator always lived with an optimistic perspective.  In conveying his own idea that he had never been happy, and was, perhaps, incapable of happiness, the narrator makes the reader think:  Is it true that some people are destined to suffer, or at least perceive a level of suffering they deem intolerable? Or, did this character create his own troubles?  The answer to that also depends upon perspective.  In any case, the story is compelling and though-provoking, and its themes travel through time.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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