Five Stories from Flaubert

Bouquet of Flowers, 1845

THE COOK’S LESSON

Today I have learned a great lesson; our cook was my teacher. She is twenty-five years old and she’s French. I discovered that she does not know that Louis-Philippe is no longer king of France and we now have a republic. And yet it has been five years since he left the throne. She said the fact that he is no longer king simply does not interest her in the least – those were her words.

And I think of myself as an intelligent man! But compared to her I’m an imbecile.

THE VISIT TO THE DENTIST

Last week I went to the dentist, thinking he was going to pull my tooth. He said it would be better to wait and see if the pain subsided.

Well, the pain did not subside – I was in agony and running a fever. So yesterday I went to have it pulled. On my way to see him, I had to cross the old marketplace where they used to execute people, not so long ago. I remembered that when I was only six or seven years old, returning home from school one day, I crossed the square after an execution had taken place. The guillotine was there. I saw fresh blood on the paving stones. They were carrying away the basket.

Last night I thought about how I had entered the square on my way to the dentist dreading what was about to happen to me, and how, in the same way, those people condemned to death also used to enter that square dreading what was about to happen to them – though it was worse for them.

When I fell asleep I dreamed about the guillotine; the strange thing was that my little niece, who sleeps downstairs, also dreamed about a guillotine, though I hadn’t said anything to her about it. I wonder if thoughts are fluid, and flow downward, from one person to another, within the same house.

THE COACHMAN AND THE WORM

A former servant of ours, a pathetic fellow, is now the driver of a hackney cab – you’ll probably remember how he married the daughter of that porter who was awarded a prestigious prize at the same time that his wife was being sentenced to penal servitude for theft, whereas he, the porter, was actually the thief. In any case, this unfortunate man Tolet, our former servant, has, or thinks he has, a tapeworm inside him. He talks about it as though it were a living person who communicates with him and tells him what it wants, and when Tolet is talking to you, the word he always refers to this creature inside him. Sometimes Tolet has a sudden urge and attributes it to the tapeworm: “He wants it,” he says – and right away Tolet obeys. Lately he wanted to eat some fresh white rolls; another time he had to have some white wine, but the next day he was outraged because he wasn’t given red.

The poor man has by now lowered himself, in his own eyes, to the same level as the tapeworm; they are equals waging a fierce battle for dominance. He said to my sister-in-law lately, “That creature has it in for me; it’s a battle of wills, you see; he’s forcing me to do what he likes. But I’ll have my revenge. Only one of us will be left alive.” Well, the man is the one who will be left alive, or, rather, not for long, because, in order to kill the worm and be rid of it, he recently swallowed a bottle of vitriol and is at this very moment dying. I wonder if you can see the true depths of this story.

What a strange thing it is – the human brain!

THE CHAIRS

Louis has been in the church in Mantes looking at the chairs. He has been looking at them very closely. He wants to learn as much as he can about the people from looking at their chairs, he says. He started with the chair of a woman he calls Madame Fricotte. Maybe her name was written on the back of the chair. She must be very stout, he says – the seat of the chair has a deep hollow in it, and the prayer stool has been reinforced in a couple of places. Her husband may be a notary, because the prayer stool is upholstered in red velvet with brass tacks. Or, he thinks, the woman may be a widow, because there is no chair belonging to Monsieur Fricotte – unless he’s an atheist. In fact, perhaps Madame Fricotte, if she is a widow, is looking for another husband, since the back of her chair is heavily stained with hair dye.

POUCHET’S WIFE

Tomorrow I will be going into Rouen for a funeral. Madame Pouchet, the wife of a doctor, died the day before yesterday in the street. She was on horseback, riding with her husband; she had a stroke and fell from the horse. I’ve been told I don’t have much compassion for other people, but in this case I am very sad. Pouchet is a good man, though completely deaf and by nature not very cheerful. He doesn’t see patients, but works in zoology. His wife was a pretty Englishwoman with a pleasant manner, who helped him a good deal in his work. She made drawings for him and read his proofs; they went on trips together; she was a real companion. He loved her very much and will be devastated by his loss. Louis lives across the street from them. He happened to see the carriage that brought her home, and her son lifting her out; there was a handkerchief over her face. Just as she was being carried like that into the house, feet first, an errand boy came up. He was delivering a large bouquet of flowers she had ordered that morning. O Shakespeare!

Lydia Davis, adapted from letters Flaubert wrote to his lover Louise Colet while he was working on Madame Bovary [1850-56]
Paris Review, Fall 2010

Daguerreotype: Bouquet of flowers, 1845

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