Since literature began no one has ever undertaken anything so absurd. (Flaubert, in an 1858 letter, on the writing of Salammbô).*
Salammbô is Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 historical novel about Carthage in the 3rd century BC. The venal, money-grubbing Carthaginians refuse to pay the mercenaries they employed in the First Punic War. The mercenaries wage war on Carthage for three years, and are eventually destroyed.
I knew, and know, almost nothing about this war, or about ancient Carthage. Few do; few did. Flaubert chose the subject for just this reason: readers have no strong associations with historical Carthage. They don’t see anything. A novel set in ancient Rome or classical Sparta or Cleopatra’s Alexandria is already contaminated by art and historians and literature. Carthage is a blank.
Flaubert thus had enormous freedom. He used this freedom to load himself down with information, to impose enormous constraints on himself. He pillaged hundreds of volumes of history and archaeology and abandoned an early version of the novel after an 1858 trip to Tunisia. Flaubert needed the constraints to create the world of the novel. In this way, I’m not sure that Salammbô is so different than most conscientious historical novels. Flaubert did not want freedom. He wanted power.
The reader is at Flaubert’s mercy. When we read a story, we fill it’s world in however we can. Some readers are presumably better at this than others, but we all do it. Clothes, faces, architecture, trees, gestures – great fiction writers are adept at giving us the right hooks on which we can hang all of the less essential pieces of the fictional world.
Salammbô, plunges the reader into the middle of a foreign and bizarre world, damaging his ability to imagine its world, forcing us to rely exclusively on Flaubert. We obviously still bring our own resources, some mishmash of the Bible and movies about Cleopatra and mysteries set in Rome, but Flaubert then continually disorients the reader’s assumptions with incongruent names, customs, and details. For example:
It was a huge lion with his four limbs fastened to a cross like a criminal. His huge muzzle fell upon his breast, and his two fore-paws, half-hidden beneath the abundance of his mane, were spread out wide like the wings of a bird. His ribs stood severally out beneath his distended skin; his hind legs, which were nailed against each other, were raised somewhat, and the black blood, flowing through his hair, had collected in stalactites at the end of his tail, which hung down perfectly straight along the cross. (Ch. II)
The illustration, which Flaubert would have hated, is from a 1928 edition. The crucified lions are presumably something that he found in a book. The great touch that Flaubert adds is at the end, his gruesome imagining of the smallest details of this terrible scene. The lions run through the entire novel, a theme much like the horse motif in Madame Bovary. Near the end of the novel, we in fact return to this scene from the beginning. It’s a magnificent piece of architecture, this book.
Another example, less grisly. The clothing of Salammbô, our heroine, is always described in detail. It is never quite what I expect – peacock headdresses, hair powder made of “violet sand.” I loved this accessory:
She had as ear-rings two little sapphire scales, each supporting a hollow pearl filled with liquid scent. A little drop would fall every moment through the holes in the pearl and moisten her naked shoulder. Matho watched it fall. (Ch. XI)
Those are nice ear-rings, huh? A page later, Conan detects hints of “honey, pepper, incense roses, with another odour still.” Again, for all I know, Flaubert actually saw these in a museum in Egypt or Rome.
The later equivalents of this technique, where the names and geography, the background and foreground, are all so disorientingly foreign and weird are in fantasy fiction. Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels. Edgar Rice Burroughs books about John Carter of Mars. The Book of Ptath by A. E. van Vogt (I think – I’m looking at a copy I know I read and remember nothing, but, of course, random weirdness is hard to remember). These were all writers who were also pushing back against their own readers. Don’t just fill in the scenery with the usual pseudo-medieval knights and wizards stuff. Pay attention – this is weird, this is cool, this is new.
It’s very strange to think of Gustave Flaubert as a key influence on the pulp fantasy novel. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Well, if the reader sees it, it’s there, which is just what Flaubert did not want.
* Flaubert to Ernest Feydau, Oct. 1858, Selected Letters, Penguin Classics, 1997, tr. Geoffrey Wall, p. 263.