Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Review: Three Short Works by Gustave Flaubert

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I know Gustave Flaubert from Madame Bovary, which I enjoyed very much. However, I had always harboured some resentment towards him, as he seems to imply in this book that reading too many novels has caused his protagonist to get above herself, and, in fact, that this was at the root of her downfall. Since I have read many novels, many of them at quite a tender age, and I have yet to massively overspend on ribbon and bonnets, I considered his hypothesis to be disproven.
The Three Short Works are, in order, the life story of an outwardly unimportant old lady; a dialogue between Satan and Death; and a retelling of the legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller.
The Satanic dialogue is a prose poem, and is not to my taste, suggesting to me the kind of thing Jim Morrison might sing if he was lead singer of The Cure.
I got that one out of the way quickly, to tell you that the other two stories are utterly, utterly brilliant, and no, I am not exaggerating. The basic tale of St Julian is a standard medieval fable, which could be summarised in all its particulars in a paragraph. However, in Flaubert's hands, it is a masterpiece of descriptive power, and at times, quite unsettling. The portrait of Julian as a sadistic young man, whose desire to kill seems almost psychotic, leads, with the inevitability of destiny, to disaster, and eventual redemption.
I save the best till last, however. Entitled 'A Simple Soul' it exemplifies William Blake's claim to be able to see the world in a grain of sand. I will not spoil it for you by describing it here, but within its five chapters it contains an emotional punch that comes from nowhere and takes your breath away.
This is a solo project of David Barnes, and his reading style is the perfect complement to the material. He reads in an absolutely 'straight' manner, allowing the writing to speak for itself. This is especially important, in my opinion, for the conclusion to 'A Simple Soul'. To me, it seems to be highly ambiguous, begging the question of whether the author expects us to laugh or cry. David's reading offers no clues to his own opinion, leaving the delicious uncertainty intact for the listener to ponder, and, thus doing a great service to the text.

Next: 'The Art of War' by Sun Tzu


Kristin said...

You know, I read some of Madame Bovary, and had a real hard time with it. I couldn't connect or relate with any of the characters, and really hated Madame Bovary.

ChrisHughes said...

Can I suggest a modern retelling of the story, as a graphic novel? Written and illustrated by Posy Simmonds, who is something of a cult figure in the UK, it is called 'Gemma Bovary', and is on amazon.com.
The thing I liked about the (original) book was his relentless attack on the false pretensions of Madame Bovary. (Forcing her husband to go up in the world, and causing a man's death in the process, etc) She even has her perfect, fiction-inspired death scene ruined, when, as she tries to have a picture-book goodbye with her daughter, she vomits up black bile all over her white sheets.
The author kind of reminding us of the unpleasant underbelly of life.
Wow - I just reread the above and realise I sound like a gothic ghoul. It's not true! I LIKE sunshine!!!

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