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'Three Tales' Review

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Three Tales, Penguin

Three Tales

Gustave Flaubert was a literary perfectionist who spent year after year crafting a relatively small number of extraordinary novels, but even though it was his first published novel, Madame Bovary, that made him famous (or infamous), it was his last finished book, Three Tales, that in his lifetime was his best-received work.
Time has elevated Madame Bovary to its rightful place as one of the finest of all prose narratives, while his other novels form an oeuvre that in retrospect both defines and outshines his era, and Three Tales is now far less known than A Sentimental Education or Salammbô, which is probably a fairly just reversal of fortune. But the collection is nonetheless a masterpiece and is essential reading for anyone at all interested in Flaubert—and could even serve as a quick primer for a reader who’s never encountered Flaubert’s shimmering mastery.
A Simple Heart

The most widely known of the Three Tales is the celebrated “A Simple Heart,” which Flaubert wrote as a response to his friend and fellow novelist George Sand’s view that his writing too often conveyed the more negative or depressing aspects of humanity. Flaubert interrupted work on his (subsequently unfinished) last novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, to write “A Simple Heart,” but Sand died before he completed the tale (Flaubert was so shaken that he broke down at her funeral), and perhaps it was this loss that ironically made him color the loving mood of this strange and beautiful narrative with some of his most funereal hues.

The story encapsulates the life of a naive and faithful servant named Félicité who devotes her existence to the service of people wholly unworthy of her, including not just her mistress’ family, but her own relatives. Félicité’s life is unenviable, but her spirit and her faith in the goodness of life rarely waver, which in some ways makes her a much more fortunate soul than anyone else in her life. Félicité may possess a simple heart, but she’s no Dostoyevskian holy fool, however (Flaubert and his friend Ivan Turgenev made great fun of Dostoyevsky’s inane pieties).
As her peculiar mind degenerates with age, Félicité develops a grotesque spiritual relationship with a pet parrot that Flaubert devotee (and fan of holy fools) Flannery O’Connor would certainly interpret (and imitate) as grace through transfiguration, but Flaubert isn’t writing a simple salvation tale or hagiography. Félicité receives the holy spirit that’s already inside of her inner self, and even though her parrot serves as a kind of word-made-flesh embodiment of her relationship to the divine, it’s through her own particular grace that she lives and dies.

The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller

In the collection’s second tale, “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller,” Flaubert does take up the subject of hagiography, but his extrapolation of the varying medieval accounts (in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend and in a window-narrative of the Rouen cathedral, among others), he takes the story to such outlandish extents that it startles the reader into seeing just how outlandish the story is in the first place. Flaubert doesn’t seem to be making fun of religious legends or beliefs, exactly; it’s more like he’s freely exploring the utterly fantastical reaches of the religious imagination and urge.
In Flaubert's version of the legend, Julian’s path to sainthood seems to be the result of a kind of madness—a very specific kind of madness, but one whose monomania seems to be shared by many of the medieval saints. As a youth, Flaubert’s Julian kills a mouse that’s gnawing away at his ability to enjoy a church service, and then he gradually develops an insatiable bloodlust that leads him to become a nearly genocidal hunter. At the end of a particularly harrowing free-for-all, a great talking stag (who also appears in the confused and conflated legends of several other saints, most notably Eustace and Hubert) curses Julian and tells him that he’ll end up murdering his own parents.

After accidentally almost killing his mother, Julian flees home in terror and becomes a soldier of fortune, which leads him to vast human slaughter and to incredible riches and fame. Naturally, an Oedipean twist of fate leads him to kill his parents and then to renounce all killing and to devote himself to human service. The tale’s intensity doesn’t end there, though. Julian becomes a tireless ferryman, rowing any passenger or load for free and submitting himself to any degradation or abuse. This is the stuff of nearly all hagiography, but Flaubert’s account is relentless (and relentlessly beautiful), and when Julian encounters a horrific leper and takes step after gruesome step to aid the man’s suffering, he reaches an apotheosis that’s as breathtaking as anything Flaubert ever wrote.

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