I recently read and posted on Emile Zola's (1840 to 1902-Paris) Nana for the Classics Circuit. As soon as I saw that Book Bath and Thyme For Tea were hosting an event dedicated to French culture, Paris in July, I knew I wanted to participate. A few months ago I began to overcome a life time aversion to the short story so I decided I would read and post on a couple of short stories by canon status French authors for the event. I enjoyed Nana (some who read it find it takes a very harsh a view of people) and my favorite on line reading web page Dailylit.com had "The Death of Oliver Bescaille" one of Zola's short stories on line so I decided to read it. Dailylit.com does not normally give either the translator or date published information on its choicies and I was unable to find this information in a quick search. My guess on the publication date is from 1864 to 1880.
Oliver Bescaille, the central figure and narrator of "The Death of Oliver Bescaille" suffers from syncope. Victims of this disease blackout so deeply that they are often thought to be dead but they can be in fact aware of what is going on around them. At the time of the story (set in Paris) this disease was unclassified by doctors and when Oliver has an attack the doctor called by his wife pronounced him dead. Oliver can hear and see everything that is going on but his eyes appear glazed over and he cannot move or speak and his body feels cold.
It was on a Saturday, at six in the morning, that I died after a three days' illness. My wife was searching a trunk for some linen, and when she rose and turned she saw me rigid, with open eyes and silent pulses. She ran to me, fancying that I had fainted, touched my hands and bent over me. Then she suddenly grew alarmed, burst into tears and stammered: "My God, my God! He is dead!"
I heard everything, but the sounds seemed to come from a great distance. My left eye still detected a faint glimmer, a whitish light in which all objects melted, but my right eye was quite bereft of sight. It was the coma of my whole being, as if a thunderbolt had struck me. My will was annihilated; not a fiber of flesh obeyed my bidding. And yet amid the impotency of my inert limbs my thoughts subsisted, sluggish and lazy, still perfectly clear.
Oliver is left in the parlor in this condition for several days. He hears what all those who come to pay their respects say about him, good and otherwise. Oliver was basically a decent husband and father, no big accomplishments but no major faults either. In a few days Oliver is taking to the cemetery and placed in the family tomb. He comes out of his attack and is able to open the tomb door and after escaping it he closes the door behind him. Oliver realizes he is now a free man, of sorts. He begins to roam the city of Paris dressing in rags as befits the living dead. A year or so passes and he returns to his old place of residence to see how his family is doing. What happens then is much the point and interest of the story so I will not spoil it.
"The Death of Oliver Bescaille" is worth reading for a sample of the work of Zola. It is a well plotted and thought out tale if not a first rank example of the short story. I hope to post on a short story by Guy Du Maupassant next week.