Saturday, April 7, 2012

Fiction Review: Gustave Flaubert, "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller"

Flaubert's short story reimagines a medieval legend with the classical elements of the tragic flaw, reversal of fortune, and epic setpieces, and its message of faith may be the author's most profound.

Gustave Flaubert's "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller" is part of the Three Tales collection. This review refers to the A. J. Krailsheimer translation, published by Oxford University Press. The book can be ordered from Powell's Books. To go to its page on the Powell's website, click here.

Gustave Flaubert’s “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller,” the second story in his Three Tales collection (1877), is a retelling of the story related in a stained-glass-window picture sequence in Rouen Cathedral. Flaubert makes it his own, though. Apart from the considerable revisions to the plot, he gives it the benefit of his incomparable eye for detail with both the characters and settings. He also proves a master of the epic setpiece; the climactic sections of each of the story’s three parts are unsurpassed as spectacle.

The story of Saint Julian resembles the Greek legend of Oedipus. The major difference is that incest doesn’t play a role. Julian is a young noble who, upon hearing a prophecy that he shall murder his parents, flees his home to thwart this destiny. He builds a grand life for himself in another kingdom. Years later, his parents, who have searched for him far and wide, arrive at his doorstep. He is away on a hunt, but his wife welcomes them and puts them up for the night in her and Julian’s bed. When Julian comes home, he mistakes the sleeping pair for his wife and another man. Believing himself a cuckold, he murders his parents in a rage. After discovering the truth, he renounces his worldly possessions and devotes himself to penitence and good works. After his extraordinarily selfless behavior towards a leper, he is redeemed and ascends to heaven.

Flaubert’s changes to the Rouen narrative are numerous. The most noteworthy is probably the handling of Julian’s wife. In the original story, she is the widow of the lord he serves after fleeing his homeland. She also remains with Julian after he murders his parents and joins him in his good works. Flaubert makes her the daughter of the lord’s concubine, and after the parents’ murder, she never sees Julian again. Julian’s good deeds in Flaubert are restricted to his being a volunteer ferryman and his aid of the leper. The original story has him building a hospital, where he and his wife care for the sick. Flaubert also omits the Devil’s efforts to tempt Julian after he is redeemed.

However, Flaubert’s expansions of the original narrative are far more significant. The central prophecy is complicated by an opposing one: after Julian’s birth, his mother is told that he will become a saint. Suspense over how the prophecies will be reconciled adds a great deal of narrative tension. The acuity of Flaubert’s understanding of psychology is also on display. When Julian first hears the prophecy of his parents’ murder, he dismisses it. He only changes his mind and flees after he just misses killing the two in a pair of accidents. Flaubert recognizes that it is not enough to just hear the prophecy; it must be reinforced to sink in.

Most importantly, though, Flaubert makes the story play by the rules of classical narrative. It’s not sufficient for Julian’s woes to be the whim of fate. Flaubert gives the character a tragic flaw: an incontinent bloodlust towards animals. Flaubert makes it clear how it is at odds with Julian’s virtue and piety from the start. His first act of viciousness is when he bludgeons a mouse to death on the chapel altar. Julian’s indifference to the ugliness and borderline sacrilege of his behavior is made apparent with that first act as well; he treats it as a minor matter to just clean up the blood. His bloodlust serves as the catalyst for the prophecy of the parents’ murder; a stag curses Julian with his dying words after Julian mortally wounds him, his mate, and their suckling fawn. Julian’s bloodlust is also key to his murder of his parents. His inability to make a single kill during the preceding hunt leaves him so inflamed that he is violence without caution when he discovers them in his bed. As Flaubert writes before he enters the room, “Blood lust possessed him again; failing animals, he would have liked to slaughter men.” Julian’s flaw brings the prophecy down on him and, moreover, has him fulfill it.

The hunts that climax with the prophecy and the murders are awesomely horrifying. In the first, Julian massacres every animal he encounters in the wood. Flaubert writes, “But Julian never wearied of slaughter, successively drawing his crossbow, unsheathing his sword, stabbing with his cutlass, heedless and oblivious of everything.” The most analogous scene in literature is probably in The Iliad, with Achilles’ rampage against the Trojans following the death of Patroclus. And even that may pale in comparison. The second hunt may be even more terrifying for its irony. No matter how hard he tries, Julian cannot land a net, arrow, or cutting blow on an animal. Wolves, bears, birds, bulls, snakes, boars, squirrels, hyenas, wild cats—they gather round him and give chase. Julian is made to know the fear he has inflicted on their brethren.

However, the set piece that ends with Julian’s redemption carries the most impact. It reaches more profound emotions that horror at one’s violence or fear for one’s safety. It dramatizes the struggle to do good at all costs, and it is, by turns, epic and intimate. The effort to ferry the leper across the river is a battle against nature itself, with Julian facing hailstones, gale-force winds, and waves likened to mountains. The temptation is always there to give up, but Julian does not relent. In the story’s words, “realizing a momentous issue was at stake, a command not to be disobeyed, he took up the oars again.” The challenges of the river in some ways pale to what comes next. Julian takes the diseased passenger into his hut. He gives the leper food, only to see afterward that “the table, the bowl, and the knife handle bore the same spots as were to be seen on his [the leper’s] body.” Julian allows the man to sleep in his bed and even embraces him to keep him warm. The awareness of disease and possible infection is repeatedly reinforced. And Flaubert brings the scene to as worthy a climax as he did with the other two set pieces: Julian’s consummate selflessness redeems him.

Flaubert structures the story as a series of reversals. A young man who has it all abandons it for exile in the face of a curse brought on by his own viciousness. He regains prosperity only to abandon it again after the curse’s fulfillment. And then, when he has nothing but his capacity to give—and does not falter in it—he gains more than he ever had. It’s a story of faith that in some ways exceeds “A Simple Heart,” its predecessor in Flaubert’s Three Tales collection. Faith can do more than see one through the challenges of life; it can atone for one’s greatest flaws and the crimes that are borne of them. “Saint Julian” lacks the poetic artfulness of “A Simple Heart,” but its message may be more profound.

Reviews of other fiction by Gustave Flaubert:

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