A thousand years ago when I was a young man, I read Madame Bovary, Salammbo, and A Sentimental Journey. But it was not until I picked up Three Tales a few days ago that I remembered how truly great writer Gustave Flaubert was. The last work published in Flaubert’s lifetime, Three Tales packs more punch page-for-page than most short stories I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them.
On the surface, the three tales could not be more different. A Simple Heart describes the tragic life of a simple servant woman in 19th-century France. The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitalier is an original and epic account of the 4th-century saint famous for aiding travelers and the sick. The final installment, Herodias, is a piece of historical fiction centered on Herod Antipas, culminating in the beheading of John the Baptist.
One theme that holds the tales together is faith. Felicity, the heroine of A Simple Heart, has a great deal of it, despite her complete lack of theological understanding and despite the misery, loneliness, and terrible twists of fate that befall her. St. Julian runs the gamut, moving from no faith to an almost supernaturally strong faith. Herod and his entire, despicable entourage, fully focused on the world, have no faith, and stand in stark contrast to John, who is of course the herald of Jesus Christ.
I admire Flaubert’s fiction for the same reasons I love Baroque music — great creativity expressed in a meticulously constructed framework, attention to detail, economy, powerful and meaningful points, and a lot of moving parts. Flaubert piles on the details (accurate and carefully researched), painting a vivid picture of every setting, character, and situation. Not a word is wasted. And despite the detail and methodical telling, the reader can sense Flaubert is always getting at something very large and very important – although he is not heavy-handed enough to make what that is obvious.
If you’ve never read Flaubert, Three Tales is an excellent place to start. It’s short and easy to read, with fascinating characters, settings, and plots. You’ll have a hard time forgetting any of these stories, especially the middle one.