Friday, February 12, 2010

Tales From A Master

How can I even think about writing a review of a work by the author of “Madame Bovary”, one of the great novels of Western literature and certainly one of my personal favorites. So I won't qualify this as a review – just some passing comments on Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert.

First of all, despite their length, these three pieces are not short stories in the modern sense. The first, “A Simple Heart”, tells the story of Félicité, a faithful servant who devotes her life to her mistress, her mistress's daughter and her parrot. When the beloved parrot Loulou dies, she has him stuffed and continues to revere him, even believing in her later years that he is the Holy Ghost. I know, it sounds goofy, but Flaubert tells the tale simply, without sentimentality, but also without condescension.

The second tale. “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller”, was inspired, according to Margaret Drabble's helpful foreword, by stained glass windows of the saint in Rouen cathedral. The tale was drawn from a medieval story, and like many of the stories of saints I remember from my childhood, first Julian was very, very bad (brutally killing lots of animals) and then he was very, very good (befriending a leper).

The third, entitled “Herodias”, also has a religious theme. This time it's the story of John the Baptist's death. The final climactic scene is familiar to most of us – Salome,Herod's stepdaughter (egged on by her mother Herodias), dances for Herod at his birthday celebration and then demands John's head. But Flaubert's version focuses Herod and his myriad of problems; the demands of the Rome,  the angry tribes outside his walls, as well as his prisoner John the Baptist, who is revered by some in his household but reviled by others

All three tales are told in the concise, unadorned language for which Flaubert is so famous. For example, after the violent scene of the beheading in “Herodias”, the story ends with this: “The three of them took the head of Iaokanann and set off for Galilee. As it was very heavy, they took turns carrying it”. I admired the polished, jewel-like precision of each of these unusual stories.

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