Gustave Flaubert was brought to trial for gross immorality, alleging that his novel, 'Madame Bovary', was criminal. He narrowly escaped conviction, and went on to write powerful literature, of which 'Three tales' is considered to among his finest work.
In "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier", the young Julian is pre-destined to become a saint from birth, based upon visions witnessed by both his parents, and the two treat him as such, delicately, making sure he has the proper education and spiritual nourishment. Yet after an innocent run-in with a mouse during church, he becomes quite a little demon when it comes to the treatment of animals. His cruelty increases day by day, until one afternoon while on a hunt, he slaughters an entire valley of deer but is cursed by the one remaining stag and his life changes forever.
The stark and bloody imagery seemed a bit contrary to what I would expect from the someone destined to be a saint. I had a difficult time accepting his sainthood when it finally arrived.
"Herodias" is a re-telling of the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod at the request of Salomé. I found this tale very confusing thanks to too many characters and encountered much difficulty trying to keep the story straight in my head. And oddly enough, the title character, Herodias, was hardly seen as was her daughter Salomé.
He writes sparsely, and well, but it felt more like a technical exercise than anything else. These stories, oddly given their subject matter, seemed to lack heart. "A Simple Heart" was a rush through an average servant's life but it left little room for contemplation. "Saint Julian" I enjoyed the most as Flaubert's fleeting style actually suited this sort of pseudo-medieval tale. "Herodias" was probably the weakest, requiring too much historical knowledge and, again, lacking some soul.
Flaubert's voice, via Curtis, was a familiar one: exacting in its choice of details, spare but not minimalist, precise. That's the Flaubert I've always read about, so I think Curtis got it about right. You never feel like the translator has taken the prose where it didn't want to go, or that he's getting between the reader and writer.
That said, "Three Tales" was a mixed pleasure, at best. It's very Christian, for one, in a way I never expected from the man who said "epater le bourgeoisie." Flaubert's devotion and evident sincerity was a surprise. It worked well enough in the first two stories -- "A Simple Heart" was a sweet and never condescending study of a good heart, effortless and nicely drawn. Likewise, "Julian the Hospitaler" is a straightforward story, lacking in irony and simply affecting.
The final story, "Herodias," was a disappointment. There's not much story there, nor observation. I couldn't understand the point of the story, nor why Flaubert thought it worth telling. I attributed it to religious feeling, nothing more.
The three stories are set in reverse chronological order: the early 19th century, the Middle Ages, and during the height of the Roman Empire. The first two represent spectacular examples of Flaubert at his best as a realist writing a story with not the minutest detail omitted. The Introduction, written by Howard Curtis, advises the reader to “think of each sentence less as an element of a smooth narrative sequence than as a description of a separate image in a shooting script” (xvi). Excellent advice for the reader unfamiliar with this master of 19th century realism and naturalism.
I thoroughly and completely enjoyed the first two stories. “A Simple Heart” tells an enchanting story of Félicité who spends her life in service to others. Acting as a nurse to her employer’s young daughter, she has developed a close relationship with the child when she is whisked away to a convent for her education. “In the mornings, out of habit, Félicité would go into Virginie’s room and look at the walls. She missed combing her hair, lacing her ankle boots, tucking her up in bed, seeing her lovely face at all times, holding her hand when they went out together. In her idleness, she tried to take up lace-making, but she broke the threads with her heavy fingers. She could not put her mind to anything. She had not been sleeping well, and she felt ‘drained,’ as she put it” (16). Curtis could have had this sentence in mind when he wrote the Introduction.
The second story was an interesting hagiography of Julian the Hospitaller. I thought Flaubert represented the middle ages well. The last story I found confusing and difficult to follow. It seemed written in a different voice than the other two, as if Flaubert tried to imitate writers from that period. I much preferred the voices of the first two stories.
Nevertheless excellent examples of Flaubert in his last years – still at the height of his powers. 4 stars.
The second tale, "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller," is a retelling of the legendary Saint's life. Flaubert is in a completely different mode here; he is comfortable in the quick and magical progression typical of medieval tales. Flaubert's eye for detail makes some of the scenes more horrific and as such more effective. In particular, the scenes of carnage while hunting and the scene with the leper are particularly well drawn.
The final tale, "Herodias," is a retelling of the story of John the Baptist's execution. Here, Flaubert delves into the emotions of religious fervor and political intrigue. He focuses not on Herodias or John, but on Herod. He portrays Herod as caught between competing forces: Rome and the tribes outside his kingdom; his wife and the proconsul; pharisees, essenes, and the fledgling movement spawned by Jesus. All of these competing voices make the story a bit disjointed at times, but once again Flaubert's realism lends a detached feel to the entire story.
Margaret Drabble's introduction to the volume is useful in how she ties the "Three Tales" into Flaubert's career and surroundings. The cathedral at Rouen, for example, has a series of stained glass windows depicting Saint Julian's story, and it also has a statue of the beheading of John the Baptist. Such details help bring the stories into greater clarity, though I recommend reading the introduction last if you have never read the stories, so as to be able to come to the stories fresh.
The foreward by Margaret Drabble is unfortunately not as sleek and enticing as the physcial book. Bloated by breathless superlatives, the 5-page essay presents information that feels like it could have easily been pared down to 2 or 3 pages.
In contrast, the introduction by the volume's translator Howard Curtis is a much more straight-forward and informative history of the tales. That sparse, stylish approach carries over into the translated text, which seems appropriate for Flaubert.
However, as always, Hesperus have constructed a very handsome edition of a classic work and Margaret Drabble has provided an excellent introduction.
The Hesperus press edition is a wonderful presentation of these short works. I will certainly search out more from this publisher. It's a well-translated piece with a really thoughtful and enlightening introduction by Margaret Drabble that added to the reading of these pieces without over-analysing them. I would definitely recommend both the stories and this published edition.
The first tale is "A Simple Heart." The title speaks for itself. The story is about a woman who loves completely, selflessly and without hesitation. At first glance, she seems worthy of pity and appears to be a bit nuts. She's actually content and isn't really crazy even though she speaks to a dead, stuffed parrot that she comes to believe is the Holy Ghost. In this tale, Flaubert has a way of rendering the common beautiful-- whether he's describing things like the weather and sounds of a village or the life of a common, illiterate peasant.
"The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller" is about a wealthy man who loses everything, spends the rest of his life making penance and is finally willing to give all that he has for another. The story has a lot to say about human madness and passion. Not quite sure what I think of it yet.
The third tale, "Herodias" didn't work for me on any level. It is sort of anti-Semitic; it is choppy and difficult to follow, and is not interesting in any way. Plot-wise it is about Roman and Jewish politics and the killing of John the Baptist. I love history. I love religious history. I love historical fiction. This piece fails for me on all levels. It does, however, have one of my favorite sentences from all three tales: "So he stretched his arms toward Zion, rose to his full height and, with his head thrown back and his fists clenched, laid a curse on it, believing that words had real power." p. 69.
Curtis and Drabble made nice contributions to the foreword and introduction respectively. Both comment on the power of Flaubert's use of language or his literary style. For them, as they describe Flaubert sometimes laboring for a week at a time to finish just one sentence, "words had real power." The trademark Hesperus binding, thick paperback cover and sturdy pages will help this book hold up through multiple readings, but the stories themselves might fail to stand the test of time if Flaubert hadn't also written "Madame Bovary."
"A Simple Heart" is great, the tale of an utterly selfless servant girl. Flaubert covers her life in the most straightforward way possible; he doesn't dwell on psychological speculations, but just says what happens and lets us draw our own conclusions. His method can seem artless, but of course this isn't such an easy trick, and the final effect is anything but simple. I'm reminded of a comment Robert Bresson made about film: "You must leave the spectator free. And at the same time you must make yourself loved by him. You must make him love the way in which you render things." As with Bresson's films, "A Simple Heart" ends with a transformation, something like a miracle, which you accept because what has gone before has made you love the storyteller's way of rendering things. The comparison shouldn't be taken too far, of course: unlike Bresson, Flaubert makes everything completely natural and believable. "A Simple Heart" recalls "Madame Bovary" in its style, setting and quality.
The other two stories were inspired by art in Rouen Cathedral. "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller" is myth-like; its vengeful animals and fairy tale-esque ending couldn't be called naturalistic. But the story has a clear and uncluttered trajectory, and the way of telling it is familiarly striaghtforward in style; I liked it very much. I'm not so sure about the last of the trio, "Herodias". Dealing with the beheading of John the Baptist (it was apparently an influence on Oscar Wilde's "Salome") I thought the biblical surface was somewhat over the top, a little King Vidor; I gather "Salammbô" (which I've not read) is similar in this respect but to my mind it doesn't show Flaubert at his best. Still, the other two stories - "A Simple Heart" especially - have something magical to them.
I haven't compared Howard Curtis's translation for this Hesperus edition with others, but it seems very good, unobtrusive and simple; nothing in it jars. Curtis also provides an introduction, and there's a foreword by Margaret Drabble. Physically the book is very pleasing, with nice paper, nice type, and a suitably unflashy cover.
The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier tells the story of how a young man who loved to kill animals for pleasure eventually became a saint. After having killed a mouse as a child, Julian, the son of noble parents develops a taste for killing and takes to hunting with a vengeance. He loves to massacre large quantities of animals without a shadow of remorse. One day, after an especially bloody carnage wherein he massacres an entire valley of deer, he starts having qualms about his favourite hobby, but his reservations dissipate instantly when he spies a family of deer and can't resist killing off the fawn and his mother. When he fails to kill the stag, the animal curses him with the promise that Julian will end up killing both his mother and father. Terrorized that the curse might come true, Julian flees from the parental home, but will he manage to escape his destiny? A great story about redemption, but for animal lovers like me, the scenes of carnage were difficult to stomach, though in retrospect, necessary to tell the story. ★★★★
Hérodias is the retelling of the beheading of St-John the Baptist. I wasn't particularly fond of the religious aspects of the story, but as a historical piece is was interesting, especially with the description of the party Hérodias holds for her new husband Herod Antipas, when guests make themselves vomit between courses so they can continue stuffing their faces; leave it to the Romans to benefit from all the advantages of bulimia without the guilt. Then Salomé arrives on the scene and uses her charms to have John's head served on a platter. Lovely. Very well told, but not my favourite story. ★★★
This edition features a high-profile guest foreword by Margaret Drabble, as well as an introduction by translator Howard Curtis. Both writers emphasize the fact that these short stories are a distillation of Flaubert's craft and amongst his best works.
The collection opens with "A Simple Heart", a blow-by-blow description of the life and hardships of humble Normandy servant Felicite. The detached, sphinx-like third person narration is tantalisingly ambiguous - are we meant to feel sorry for the protagonist? Contemptuous at her ignorance? Angry at her too easy resignation in the face of adversity? Or should we admire her humility and loyalty? Much is made of Felicite's quasi-blasphemous mental association between the Holy Ghost and her stuffed parrot. Said parrot makes a final appearance in the final pages, when Flaubert abandons the matter-of-fact storytelling in favour of a glimpse of the dying protagonist's ecstatic visions. What are we make of this? It is unlikely that the secularist Flaubert wanted us to take these mystic passages at face value - on the other hand, the heightened language suggests that rather than demented ravings of a gullible old woman, these "visions" give Felicite a hard-earned dignity at the moment of death.
Certainly, for an anti-clerical agnostic, Flaubert's tales show a strange fascination with religion. "Saint Julian the Hospitaller" is a retelling of the medieval legend of the patron saint of hunters in which Flaubert resorts to Gothic tropes for heightened effect - dark forests, rambling castles, talking animals and last but not least a curse which haunts Julian. "Herodias" is an account of the beheading of St John. An excuse to indulge in Salammbô-style exoticism, the colourfully-described orgies would influence later writers including Oscar Wilde.
This Hesperus classics edition is highly recommended, particularly for Howard Curtis's idiomatic translation, which was nominated for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.