Gustave Flaubert’s “Trois Contes” (Three Tales): A seminar in Hanoi

“The French Literature in Vietnam” seminar series continued with its 3rd meeting, at the French Culture center L’Espace, November 25, 2015. This time, the guest speakers and audience engaged in Gustave Flaubert’s “Trois Contes” (Three Tales).

Four distinguished guest speakers took the lead.

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From left to right: Mr. Phạm Xuân Nguyên, Madame Lê Hồng Sâm, Dr. Trần Hinh, Dr. Phùng Ngọc Kiên.

Madame Lê Hồng Sâm, translator and former professor of French Literature, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Madame Sâm spent her childhood immersing in the French literary world in Colonial Vietnam, during the 1930s. She was the teacher and mentor of the other three speakers in this event.

Mr. Phạm Xuân Nguyên, current president of the Hanoi Literary Circle. A well-known literary critic and translator, he translated many important works from French, Russian, and English into Vietnamese.

Dr. Trần Hinh, head of the Aesthetics Studies Program, Literature Faculty, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Mr. Hinh has been teaching at the university since 1976, (co-) writing literature textbooks for secondary and college students in the country.

Dr. Phùng Ngọc Kiên acquired a Master in Comparative Literature at Université Marseille (France, 2006) and a Ph.D in French Literature at Université Paris – Diderot (2013). He is specialized in the 19-20th French Literature, with his Ph.D particularly on Gustave Flaubert.

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To begin the seminar, the speakers defined “conte” (a tale) means, as compared to “nouvelle” (novella/ news) and “récit”(a narrative). “Récit” can be translated as “narrative”, i.e. telling stories, memoirs, novel, historical fiction, fable, etc.  “Nouvelle” is either a piece of news or novella. “Conte” is a tale, similar to a fable, recounting the past or legends. Tales are short texts, containing supernatural elements (e.g, the enchanted items, talking animals, transformation, etc.)

The seminar went on discussing individual tales from each speaker’s perspective.

“Three Tales” is a fascinating work, rich with Christian allegories. Each tale was written in approximately six months, published in 1877 during Flaubert’s later career. If you have read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, “Trois Contes” will surprise you because it is very different from Flaubert’s satiric, hyper-realistic style.

The first tale is “A simple heart”, about a poor uneducated housemaid named Felicité, who lived a simple, unexamined life. She had suffered great losses, but continued to her last breath to love unconditionally, despite receiving little or mistreatment in return. Felicité had no husband, no children. Her only love married a wealthy woman to avoid conscription. As a servant, she devoted her life to her mistress’s daughter; when that daughter died, she redirected her love to the Caribbean parrot named Loulou. She died peacefully besides her beloved parrot, which appeared at the end like an incarnation of the Holy Spirit.

The second tale is “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier”. It evokes the Oedipus story in Greek literature, in which a king killed his own father and mother. The tale is vivid with details about nature, sometimes with horrific description of Julian’s great cruelty towards animals, culminating in a massacre of a valley of deer and his Oedipus curse. The tale ends with Julian ascending to heaven after having lived a life of servitude and helped a leper (who turned out to be an angel, a messenger of God).

For Christians and those familiar with the Christian Bible, the third tale “Herodias” is indeed very familiar. It retells the death of John the Baptist in the Book of Matthew, New Testament. John the Baptist criticized King Herod of Galilee for marrying his brother’s wife – Herodias. Herodias, considering this utmost insolence, concocted John the Baptist’s beheading. The tale ends with John’s disciples awaiting their Messiah.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) is truly a meticulous author – something visible in his prose and syntax; his style seems to be ahead of his time, closer to the 20th century modernism. Indeed, Madame Lê Hồng Sâm compared Flaubert to an alchemist pursuing stylistic perfection, inventing “gueuloir” – a tradition to re-read the sentences in a loud voice to seek and eliminate repetitions. Hugo, Kundera, Kafka all respected and said great things about Flaubert, though he was not as prolific as Honoré de Balzac or Émile Zola.

Part of the seminar focused on Flaubert’s literary circle, particularly his friendship with George Sand (1804-1876). Flaubert’s longtime correspondent and influential friend, George Sand (famously quoted, “There is only one happiness in life, to love and to be loved”). Sand had been in romantic relationships with the pianist Frédéric Chopin and the writer Alfred de Musset. George Sand’s passionate life might have influenced Flaubert in “A Simple Heart”. However, the impact of her unconventional, rebellious, dynamic life and sexuality on Flaubert were not discussed in the seminar.

One question was whether Flaubert implied satire in his three tales, particularly in “A Simple Heart”. The speakers agreed that Flaubert hinted no satire or criticism of the church, despite the elements of contrast (i.e. the protagonist’s name Felicité vs. her unhappy losses, her misplaced worship of the parrot). However, they do suggest his melancholy and disillusionment with the Roman Catholic Church at the time.

You can go to this website, choose a format and download the free eBook: http://manybooks.net/authors/flaubert.html

“Trois contes” is accessible in Vietnamese translation- “Ba truyện kể” (2015), published by Nhã Nam. This classic work is short but well-worth reading. I highly recommend.

Overall, “Trois Contes” and the seminar gave me a good introduction to Flaubert – a French author not yet popular in Vietnam. I was happy, though travelling there in a rainy winter evening cost me a soaked pair of shoes. 🙂

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