Posts Tagged ‘Gustave Flaubert’

Three Tales

October 28, 2013

Three Tales by FlaubertHaving 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.

Felicite sleeping with parrot by Hockney

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Someone at a Distance

October 15, 2012

‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, famously and quite magnificently, in Howards End. ‘If only we didn’t all connect’ seems to be the sentiment of Dorothy Whipple’s rather less famous Someone at a Distance.

In Howards End various characters recognise a common bond with others outside their immediate social circle. There is Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast, for instance, and Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox, whose bond is symbolised in their mutual appreciation of the house of the title, Howards End.

Someone at a Distance is also about how we are all connected, how our actions radiate out and touch others, strangers, with their effect. Towards the end of the novel, Whipple writes the following:

He had never heard of the Norths, far away in England. He would have been amazed at the suggestion that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking-up of that family. He had no idea that it was, in great measure, because of him that the man he had seen on the pavement in front of the Hotel de l’Ecu that afternoon had lost everything he cared about.

Whereas Forster encourages connection, causing his readers to frown upon Henry Wilcox for refusing to help Leonard Bast, for Whipple this connection is full of menace.

Someone at a Distance focuses on the North family, who live a life of post-war domestic bliss. Avery commutes from their village to his London office at a small publishing house, while Ellen devotes every moment of her life to making a happy home, rushing around cooking, gardening, filling hot water bottles. They have two children – Hugh, who is in the army, and Anne who is at boarding school and loves her horse to pieces. Nearby, lives Avery’s mother, cantankerous ‘old Mrs North’.

At first, I wondered if this would be a kind of Mariana novel – about an improbably rosy domestic life, where everyone larks around laughing in the sunshine, calling each other ‘darling’. We are treated to rather a lot of scenes like this:

Anne North had spent the first day of the summer holidays lying blissfully in the garden under the cherry tree because it had been too hot to do anything else. But after supper it was cool enough to do as she always did on her first day at home, which was to go out on Roma, the mare, with her father wobbling along on the old bicycle, never used for any other purpose, beside her.

But it’s not long before a stranger disrupts the happy scene. Louise Lanier, a dangerous and determined young lady from a small town in France, moves in to be old Mrs North’s companion. Recovering from heartbreak, she is bored of her provincial life in France and can’t bring herself to accept her fate to marry the local chemist. She has come to England to put this off for a little while, and, one suspects, to wreak havoc.

Louise is a 1950s Emma Bovary, a comparison which Whipple makes explicit:

The only character in literature for whom she felt profound sympathy, with whom she felt affinity even, was Emma Bovary. No one, she often said to herself, understands better than I do why she did as she did. It was the excruciating boredom of provincial life.

The scene is set for Louise to make a play for Avery. But Whipple is a fine mistress of suspense. She draws it out, sending Louise back to France for a while, letting us breathe a sigh of relief, before making her return, while we gnaw our nails in dread. A strange, unnerving few months unfold where Louise doesn’t quite destroy the domestic bliss of the Norths, but rattles it, like a child testing a toy’s sturdiness before hurling it to the ground. How much will it take, how much can it stand, Whipple seems to be asking, how long before Avery will fall?

The moment when Ellen and Anne discover Avery and Louise’s affair is one of the most heart-stopping moments in literature. I read it holding my breath, so painful is it, so shocking, so perfectly does Whipple capture the horror. Anne and Ellen are walking down to buy sweets from the village shop, when Ellen remembers she has left letters for the post behind. They go back to get them.

They arrived together at the open french windows of the sitting-room.

On the sofa was Avery with Louise.

As Ellen and Anne stood staring at them, their smiles died slowly, so that all the blood had drained away from their faces while they were still almost smiling.

The embrace endured. It should have had no witness.

Suddenly aware, Avery looked up. No one moved. The little clock ticked. A petal fell from a rose in a vase. Her head hanging back, her mouth open, Louise opened her eyes.

What should last only a moment stretches on for an eternity. There is time for their smiles to die ‘slowly’, for the embrace to ‘endure’. Time beats on, ‘the little clock ticked’, and yet ‘no one moved’, they are motionless victims of this slow agonising death, until, in a hideous pose of ecstasy, Louise opens her eyes.

What has Ellen done to deserve this? Why has Louise decided to ruin the lives of the North family? ‘Only connect’ is the answer. Ellen suffers thanks to Louise’s heartbreak at the hands of a young Frenchman, who Ellen has never met. What a terrifying, alarming consequence of this connection. ‘Someone at a distance’ – a very great distance – can profoundly change your life, and not for the better.

Having this idea of a complex, far-reaching web of connection at the heart of the novel gives meaning to its rather rambling structure. I wondered for a while why Whipple chose to leap from an English village to a French one, from one big house to another, from Anne’s school to Avery’s office and from Louise’s parents’ kitchen to her ex-lover’s salon. Why is it there is such an enormous cast of characters, who are all made so lifelike? This web, these connections and their consequences make it all make sense. Whipple needs all these characters, all these places, to point out that they are all connected, everything links together, everyone is at risk from the rippling actions of another.

I decided to read Someone at a Distance having heard Nicola Beauman, of Persephone Books give a very inspiring talk. I came away with a list of authors I felt I absolutely had to read and top of that list was Dorothy Whipple. (Poor lady having such an extraordinary name, forcing the inescapable recollection of delicious Walnut Whip chocolates.)

The only thing I’d heard of Dorothy Whipple, before this talk, was that Virago – notoriously – refused to republish her. As Carmen Callil explained to the Guardian, a few years ago:

We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: “Below the Whipple line.”

I have to say that Virago, on this rare occasion, were wrong. Whipple is a tremendous storyteller. Not only does she achieve the feat of keeping you utterly gripped by something so quiet and interior, but she uses language so skilfully. One of her tricks of which I grew particularly fond was her habit of using metaphors perfectly suited to each character. For instance, Ellen loves gardening, so she gets the following:

There was something fruitful about this scheme, thought Ellen later. It kept budding and branching all the time.

Whereas, for the two gossiping cleaning ladies:

They wrung every drop of interest out of the topic, as if it had been one of the floor-cloths they also shared at Netherfold. They wrung it out and left it. Later they would pick it up again, soak it in their mutual interest and pass it from one to the other as before.

It’s a clever touch.

Someone at a Distance is a brilliant novel. I wonder if Forster ever read it. I think he would have welcomed this rejoinder to his ‘only connect’, which shows its horribly dark and threatening flipside. He would certainly have appreciated Whipple’s rendering of the vulnerability of English domesticity. Really it a gem of a novel – thank you Persephone Books for rescuing it from obscurity.