"The Dance of Death" by Gustave Flaubert (1838, 12 pages)
Recently I decided I wanted to read more short stories. For me Dailylit.com is a great way to do this. They have maybe 200 classic short stories on line to select from (all free). They will send you in e mail or RSS about 2 to 5 minutes (by their estimates most will read faster) worth of a work. You will get the next installment next day or you can request it be sent at once. If you do not like the work once you get into it you just cancel. As a perhaps negative, the translated works are in older now in the public domain editions. You can also read lots of books here but personally I do not really want to read longer works in my PC but the short story versions work fine. (Dailylit.com -there are many read on line type web pages, of course-is especially valuable for readers in places where there basically are no public libraries).
Gustave Flaubert (1821 to 1880) published his most famous work, Madame Bovary in 1857 at age 37. When I saw I could read a work of Flaubert's at age 17 I was intrigued. "Dance of Death" (translator not given) is almost a prose poem. It is in part the lament of death over the cruel task God has given him. Death engages in a dialog with Satan. Death suggested Satan has the more enviable lot as his work will one day be done and he will have rest. Nero then joins the conversation as one of the finest minions of Satan. "Dance of Death" does read like the work of a very bookish young man in love with his own intelligence and beginning to feel his creative powers. You can feel that he no doubt enjoyed the possible shocking effect of this story in Catholic France in the 1830s. (As I read the laments of Death over his role in the world I was brought to mind that Death is the narrator of The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, one of the very first books I blogged on when I began The Reading Life in July of last year)
The tone of the work and the topics seem to most resemble Salammbô, (1862- set in Carthage in the 3rd century BC.) In "The Dance of Death" you can also begin to see the erotic elements that will emerge in Flaubert's work. Here is an interesting section of the conversation between Death and Satan
I must be everywhere. The precious metals flow, the diamonds glitter, and men's names resound at my command. I whisper in the ears of women, of poets, and of statesmen, words of love, of glory, of ambition. With Messalina and Nero, at Paris and at Babylon, within the self-same moment do I dwell. Let a new island be discovered, I fly to it ere man can set foot there; though it be but a rock encircled by the sea, I am there in advance of men who will dispute for its possession. I lounge, at the same instant, on a courtesan's couch and on the perfumed beds of emperors. Hatred and envy, pride and wrath, pour from my lips in simultaneous utterance. By night and day I work. While men ate burning Christians, I luxuriate voluptuously in baths perfumed with roses; I race in chariots; yield to deep despair; or boast aloud in pride.
In this we can see the perhaps overly florid prose of a young writer and of a young man imaging an exotic world of women, places, and sins he can only see, so far in his life, in his mind. "Dance of Death" is worth the 10 or 20 minutes of your time to read it. It will let you see a great artist trying to feel his power. It is in part a curiosity read just to see what the author of Madame Bovary (a lead contender for best novel ever and a very strong bid for best French novel) could write at 17, 20 years before Madame Bovary. Dailylit.com also has Flaubert's Three Tales on line. The three short stories in this work are mature masterpieces and should be your second Flaubert.