Friday, January 22, 2010

Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is, arguably, the best 19th century novel, and I am a big fan. I teach it nearly every semester so I can read it again and again. This volume contains a most interesting Foreword by Margaret Drabble, another of my favorite novelists.

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.

--Chiron, 1/18/10

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