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French Forum 28.1 (2003) 137-139
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Olds, Marshall C. Au pays des perroquets. Féerie théâtrale et narration chez Flaubert. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001. 263 pp.
The relationship between the dramatic and the narrative suggested in the title of this study refers not to the presence of theatrical elements in Flaubert's novels and stories, an aspect of the work that has already [End Page 137] been analyzed, but rather to the connection between the little known theatrical writings that Flaubert undertook between 1861 and 1863, and the narrative parts of his œuvre. Professor Olds' intriguing hypothesis is that the link between these two apparently disparate parts of the work can best be understood by a consideration of Félicité's parrot.
The best known of the plays written during this period, Le Château des cœurs, was a collaborative effort undertaken with Louis Bouilhet and Charles d'Osmoy. Until recently, the nature of Flaubert's contribution was unknown. However, in 1991 and 1993, the Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen acquired several manuscripts that showed precisely what Flaubert had brought to the project and revealed the presence of a second theatrical project on which Flaubert was working alone. It was this acquisition that gave Professor Olds the tools with which to undertake his enlightening study.
The first of this study's three sections examines Flaubert's writing for the theater. The author maintains that from very early on, Flaubert had a revolutionary vision of a modern fantastic that would feature a pronounced typology of characters and an "ambulatory" form made up of a sequence of "tableaux." These tableaux would narrate a fantastic parable, one based on contemporary scientific speculation, in particular on ideas advanced by Swedenborg and Mesmer. Flaubert wished to present thought as something external and objective, in a certain sense independent of the characters.
The second part of the study traces the evolution of Flaubert's obsession with "la féerie théâtrale" and its narrative possibilities. In this regard, the changes he made to the original version of La Tentation de Saint Antoine are particularly relevant, since the definitive version, while less theatrical, is much closer to "la féerie," placing more emphasis on the external reality of Saint Anthony's hallucinations. Clearly, Flaubert was attempting a synthesis. The evidence for theatre's influence becomes explicit in the unfinished Bouvard et Pécuchet where psychologically-based realism has been abandoned in favor of a burlesque theatricality. Here, the forms elaborated during the theatrical period are exploited, revealing an author who is attempting to find a form midway between "le roman des personnages et le théâtre fantastique" (98).
The study's third part deals first with the pre-1861 works, then with "Un Cœur simple," which, along with the other stories of Trois [End Page 138] Contes, testifies to Flaubert's continuing preoccupation with the problems he explored in the theater. In order to explain why Flaubert turned for inspiration to a form as far removed from realism as "le féerique," Olds examines first Madame Bovary, then Salammbô, seeing in their differences a parallel with the changes marked by successive versions of La Tentation. The ironic stance adopted by Flaubert in Madame Bovary is cast aside, and in the frequently compared couples, Salammbô—"Hérodias" and La Tentation de Saint-Antoine (1874)—"Saint Julien l'Hospitalier," the world of the mind is not subordinated to the "real" world, and no ironic gap separates them. However, "Hérodias" and "Saint Julien" recount tales set during periods when a unitary vision was conceivable, whereas "Un Cœur simple," a tale of blind religious devotion set in an increasingly secular nineteenth-century France, poses problems. This is where Flaubert's experimentation with "la féerie" bears fruit. Olds points out that critics have tended to fall into one of two camps with regard to this story, those who insist on a "spiritual reading" and those who read it as pure irony. Contending that there is a semantic void in the story's final sentence...