Tuesday, August 2, 2016

through the very fact of his existence - one of Flaubert's saints

As much as Eça de Queirós’s Saint Christopher puzzled me – why did he write this? what is it? – I knew one thing that it was: an imitation of Gustave Flaubert’s short hagiography “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller” (1877), one of the Trois Contes.

Flaubert’s Julian is another medieval saint who has a series of picaresque adventures.  Julian is born to nobility, while Christopher is born to peasants.  Christopher pursues good works ought of a boundless sense of charity while Julian is atoning for a curse.  Both stories end with the saint working as a poor ferryman; both culminate in a final sacrifice, the character’s death, from carrying Christ across the river.

Flaubert’s story is short, twenty of thirty pages, so Eça has lots of room for expansion.  But he pretty well loots Flaubert:

Long rain-spouts, representing dragons with yawning jaws, directed the water towards the cistern, and on each window-sill of the castle a basil or a heliotrope bush bloomed, in painted flower-pots.  (Flaubert)

At the corners of the house, tall, thin-winged dragons turned their wide-open gullets toward the courtyard.  The rainwater would pour through them into the gutters of the cistern.  The lantern of a servant passing through the terrace lit up the thick row of pumpkins set out on the parapet to dry in the sun.  (Eça, 3-4)

Lots of touches like this.  Eça is the great imitator of Flaubert, an imitator of great originality.

I have never really understood Flaubert’s religious fiction.  Luckily, he says, in the last line of the story, why he wrote “The Legend of Julian”:

And this is the story of Saint Julian the Hospitaller, as it is given on the stained-glass window of a church in my birthplace.

Not a word of either quotation about the rain-spouts is necessary to tell the lives of these saints, but Flaubert is trying, with the tools he has, to recreate the beauties of the stained glass that he had admired for as long as he could remember.

The hagiography must have also had a special appeal to Flaubert because it is a genre of great cruelty.  Julian becomes addicted to hunting at a young age, and a frightening, bizarre hunting scene, in which masses of animals seem to approach Julian to be killed, is the source of his curse:

… after he had slain them all, other deer, other stags, other badgers, other peacocks, and jays, blackbirds, foxes, porcupines, polecats, and lynxes, appeared; in fact, a host of beasts that grew more and more numerous with every step he took.  Trembling, and with a look of appeal in their eyes, they gathered around Julian, but he did not stop slaying them; and so intent was he on stretching his bow, drawing his sword and whipping out his knife, that he had little thought for aught else.  He knew that he was hunting in some country since an indefinite time, through the very fact of his existence, as everything seemed to occur with the ease one experiences in dreams.

Quite strange, that last sentence.  Sainthood, for Flaubert, is a frightening condition.  None of this hunting business is actually in the Rouen Cathedral stained glass, as far as I can see.

I read the version of the story in The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, third edition, presumably translated by someone; don’t know who.

That’s enough saints for a while.  Like I know from saints.


  1. I started to comment on this here, but it became too long; I might have to post something on my blog to reply fully. I used to research medieval hagiography, and the trope of the hermit st was my field. It's a fascinating area: Giles, Blaise, Hubert, Eustace are the central figures in the 'hunter and hermit' stories, possibly arising from folktales of the Wild Man, the Green Man, and then the 'hairy anchorite'. Julian's legend is descended from these - and of course includes the Oedipus myth of the prediction (by yet another hunted deer, which miraculously turns to address hunter Julian) that he'll murder his own parents...Flaubert and EdeQ are perhaps attracted by the perverse psychology and polarity of themes (sacred v secular, holy v pagan, etc) that they deal with elsewhere in their fiction. I don't know how you find the time to range over such diverse material by so many authors so quickly, tom. And you probe them with an unerringly perceptiveness.

  2. Oh, real expertise, that's great. Flaubert really plays up the Celtic side of the story, as does Eça. His Saint Christopher is something of a Green Man.

    The Flaubert story is only 20 pages! And what choice did I have, as I was reading the Eça novel and thinking, again and again, "wait, where have I read this before?"