Book Review

Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert

Photo on 31-10-2013 at 16.55 #4

I found myself a copy of Flaubert’s 1877 short story collection Three Tales in order to read ‘Herodias’, his piece about the last few days of John the Baptist. I did this because I’m interested in John the Baptist. Accuse me of whatever you like. I’m not ashamed.

‘Herodias’ is the final tale in the book and, being a pedant, I felt obliged to read the two that proceeded it first. These were ‘A Simple Heart’ and ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’. The opener, and the longest of the three, details the life of a serving woman. She is not a complicated character, nothing expressly extraordinary happens to her: she falls in love but it fails, she moves away and goes into service, she gets on well with her mistress, one of whose children dies young, she has a nephew who dies at sea, she gets a pet parrot, it dies, she watches the decline and death of her employer, then she too succumbs to the call of the other side. That’s the plot, this rural, domestic life, the switching and sharing of love. The parrot, as she dies, becomes to her the symbol of the holy spirit, and her religious development, the movement of faith to the centre of her life, is key too. This, I suppose, is the linking theme of the book, the shared idea – belief, and how it has the power to utterly alter existence: both for better and for worse. In this story, though, the purity of a selfless life is beautifully evoked, it is a charming portrait of a person and a time that is gone.

‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’ is loosely based on a stained glass window in Rouen Cathedral. It’s about a wealthy young man who kills too many animals, is cursed by a mystical stag, runs away, the curse comes true, he devotes his life to helping the wretched, to the point where he becomes wretched himself. In the final scene he strips naked and presses his body against the withered flesh of a leper*. Who turns out to be Jesus in disguise. I enjoyed this one less, to be honest it felt to me like one of the incredibly dull Breton lais I had to read in the first year of my undergraduate degree, but better. But good. I liked the Gothic, romantic, themes, I liked the listing of hunting victories more than I would normally have expected to, but I felt that there was very little in it as a piece that I could really relate to. I’ve never lived in a French castle, hunted anything, believed myself destined to commit a heinous act, I’ve never had a spiritual enlightenment, done anything selfless et cetera et cetera et cetera. I liked it more than I would have expected, but I will almost certainly never read it again.

The final tale, though, I thought was excellent. About Herod Antipas and his mixed feelings regarding his imprisonment of John the Baptist. About Antipas’ marital problems, about his political problems, about his ideological problems, about his fear of invasion, rebellion, replacement… It includes a detailed imagining of Roman bureaucracy, it includes a great angry sermon by an enRAGEd J the B, it has some great descriptions of Biblical glamour, it has an impressively sensuous Salome dance scene, and it gives me a lot of interesting ideas to explore about the period. I felt the ending was very rapid, but that wasn’t necessarily the point of the story. The point of the story was fallibility, was Antipas’ weaknesses and his unwillingness to act on his own.

I enjoyed this slim volume and will almost certainly rectify the shameful situation of my never having read Madame Bovary as soon as possible. Great stuff.

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*Is that un-PC? Should I be using “leprosy sufferer”?

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