Having been thinking rather a lot last week about the Bennett vs Woolf debate on how to render character in fiction, it was interesting then to happen to pick up Flaubert’s Three Tales, which seems to belong so unapologetically to Bennett’s school of thought. (Incidentally, on Tuesday it was our two year wedding anniversary, and at the lovely grand restaurant where we went for dinner, guess what was on the menu? None other than Omelette Arnold Bennett!)
Flaubert is a great writer of things. My overwhelming feeling on reading Madame Bovary was one of intense claustrophobia. Emma Bovary has so much stuff everywhere and of course it is her love of pretty things that in part causes her downfall, as she gets more and more in debt to the horrid merchant and moneylender Lheureux. The pages of Flaubert’s Three Tales are just as populated with things, and I couldn’t help but think of Woolf’s saying that he was ‘sidling sedately towards’ his characters, rather than letting their voices sing out.
Three Tales is Flaubert’s final completed work and it was written as one entity, rather than being various short stories subsequently collected together. It is a puzzling little book. The first story is ‘A Simple Heart’, which is relatively well-known and very good. It is the story of Félicité, a faithful and naïve maid, who devotes her life to those who are thoroughly undeserving of her saintlike goodness. It is all very sad and pure and worthy (to the point, I’m afraid of almost being a little dull), until good old Félicité develops a completely dotty attachment to a parrot! Talk about a twist in the tale. I adored these pages about her relationship with the parrot, who eventually has his chain removed and is ‘allowed to wander all over the house’:
When he came down the stairs, he would position the curved part of his beak on the step in front of him and then raise first his right foot, followed by his left. Félicité was always worried that these weird acrobatics would make the parrot giddy.
As someone who has become alarmingly obsessed with the ‘weird acrobatics’ of her pet tortoise, I can truly empathise. Then Félicité has a revelation:
When she went to church, she would sit gazing at the picture of the Holy Spirit and it struck her that it looked rather like her parrot.
Religious fervour is given a whole new, rather idiosyncratic, dynamic.
The parrot is a unique addition to the story, giving it a peculiar mixture of humour and pathos. Poor Félicité – so weirdly obsessed with her parrot; Félicité, who has nothing else to live for, no one else to show her any affection … and yet we can’t help but laugh at the eccentricity of it. The parrot must have struck Julian Barnes as the most enjoyable thing in this story too, as he went on to write the Booker-shortlisted Flaubert’s Parrot, which now I feel I must read. It has left me wondering how many parrots squawk through literature’s pages – off the top of my head, I can think of Bombafu, the parrot in Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, who whistles to his own destruction, and of course Long John Silver’s in Treasure Island. Surely there was one in one of the Swallows and Amazons? Any further suggestions curiously received below please!
Enough about parrots… The second story in Three Tales, ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’, has the feel of religion fused with myth that you find in something like ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Young Julian develops an inexplicable blood lust and goes out hunting, wreaking absolute carnage. Then a great stag comes up to him and ‘uttered this thrice-repeated warning:’
“Beware! Beware! Beware! A curse lies upon you! One day, O savage heart, you will kill your father and your mother!”
Julian is so upset by this, and by a subsequent near miss when he pierces his mother’s bonnet with his javelin, thinking it was a stork, that he flees home and becomes a great warrior. Only one has a feeling that, like in the Greek tragedies, his fate will have an unexpected means of catching up with him…
The third tale is ‘Herodias’, which is a very Flaubertian reworking of the Biblical tale of Salome and John the Baptist. It is full of incidental detail like the oddly practical final line:
Because the head was very heavy, they took it in turns to carry it.
I was left puzzling over what ties the stories together, other than Flaubert’s minute attention to all the objects. What could simple Félicité and her parrot have in common with warrior Julian and manipulative Herodias?
Perhaps Flaubert is making a point that stories lie dormant in every nook and cranny – in the quiet existence of a maid, in the pages of the Bible and in the ‘stained-glass window in a church near to where I was born’, on which the story of Saint Julian is displayed. Perhaps it is a humanising of religion – Félicité seeing the Holy Spirit in her parrot, just as Flaubert sees the human story behind the panes of glass or that of Saint John the Baptist.
Perhaps Flaubert is filling in all the surface details that literally realises these stories – makes them real rather than mythical. And perhaps we Woolfians should give credit where it’s due. I vaguely knew the story of John the Baptist, but I’d never thought of King Herod looking out on the landscape of Palestine and seeing:
The lingering morning mists parted to reveal the outline of the Dead Sea. The sun rose behind Machaerus, spreading a red glow across the landscape and gradually lighting up the sandy sea shore, the hills and the desert and, away in the distance, the rugged grey contours of the mountains of Judaea. In the middle distance, Engedi appeared as a long black line, while further off was the round dome of Mount Hebron. He could see Eshcol with its pomegranates, Sorek with its vines, Karmel with its fields of sesame and the huge square Tower of Antonia rising above the city of Jerusalem.
Setting the story so precisely in a landscape, just as with ‘Saint Julian’, we learn that each of the castle windowsills had ‘a painted earthenware flowerpot planted with either basil or heliotrope’, makes it easy to visualise, and so brings the story to life. Perhaps Flaubert is sidling sedately up to his characters, and perhaps we don’t quite get a feel for who they are and what they think in the way that we do with Woolf, but we do at least see the world they inhabit in exquisite detail, and there is for sure something to be said for that.
No doubt a greater mind than mine will have picked over these Three Tales and pulled out all sorts of fascinating ideas. Please do enlighten me for I have to say, while they were good, I think Madame Bovary wins hands down. Fitting really, given that Emily’s Walking Book Club this coming Sunday will be discussing Someone at a Distance, which is in part Dorothy Whipple’s 1950s reimagining of Madame Bovary.