Next they uncovered a large bronze tub on a camel: it belonged to the Suffet, who had it for bathing in during his journey; for he had taken all manner of precautions, even going so far as to bring caged weasels from Hecatompylos, which were burnt alive to make his ptisan.
At this point, near the end of the second chapter of Salammbô, I set the book down. A contemplative pause was in order. Had I made a mistake? I was reading an old translation, J. S. Chartres, 1886 – maybe it was a horrible botch. I wanted to be fair to Gustave Flaubert – certainly a botch. What did that sloppy translator do to Flaubert’s pain-staking mots justes?
Ensuite on découvrit sur un chameau une grande cuve de bronze : c'était au Suffète pour se donner des bains pendant la route ; car il avait pris toutes sortes de précautions, jusqu'à emporter, dans des cages, des belettes d'Hécatompyle que l'on brûlait vivantes pour faire sa tisane.
I’ve copied the passage from the curious mediterranees.net,* led there by French Wikipedia, and will not vouch for the transcription. Any advice from readers of French is appreciated, but the weasels from Hecatompylos are right there. Burnt alive, tisane, bronze tub, etc. The archaic “ptisan” is an irritant, but perhaps it was not archaic in 1886.
Flaubert’s practice was not to read but to “bellow” his prose aloud to make sure it sounded exactly as it should (see Bookphilia on David Mitchell, search for “garden”). Please, bellow that French sentence. Ah, come on, do it! In the same paragraph, I find more marvels – “brushes, perfumes, and antimony pencils for painting the eyes,” “fishes preserved in honey,” “melted goose-fat covered in snow and chopped straw.”
The fact is, and I love the irony, that Salammbô is in bad taste. Gustave Flaubert – bad taste! But what I really mean is that it is packed with signifiers of bad taste, elements that I have learned signal bad writing, particularly in historical or fantasy novels. Over-indulged Orientalism. Long lists of archaic proper names. Pythons wrapped around semi-nude priestesses. One of the leading characters, the leader of the rebellious mercenaries, Matho, is very much like, very very much like, Conan the Barbarian.
In Chapter V, Matho and his crafty Greek sidekick have infiltrated Carthage in order to steal the mystical zaïmph which will cause the downfall of the city. Yes, the zaïmph, a jewel-encrusted veil. Much of the plot of the novel as such hinges on who possesses the zaïmph. The chapter ends with Matho, one of many super-strong characters in 19th century French novels, opening one of the massive gates to the city by pulling on its huge chain.
Then when he was outside he took the great zaïmph from his neck, and raised it as high as possible above his head. The material, upborne by the sea breeze, shone in the sunlight with its colours, its gems, and the figures of its gods. Matho bore it thus across the whole plain as far as the soldiers’ tents, and the people on the walls watched the fortune of Carthage depart.
If I came across the weasel tea and so on in a Surrealist novel, or in Lautréamont’s Maldoror, I’m not sure I would bat an eye, not more than two or three bats, anyway. Weirdness among weirdness, nonsense among nonsense. Wonderful, why I else would I read Maldoror? Why, then, is Flaubert any different? I need a conceptual framework for Salammbô. I’ve got three days left to construct it. Salammbô is a historical novel, but it is not, for example, Walter Scott but more beautifully written, Alessandro Manzoni aestheticized.** On Scott’s terms, or Manzoni’s, Salammbô is a disaster. Forget them. Forget good taste. They’re just impediments to Salammbô. I need Baudelaire, Gautier, and, unfortunately, Sade.
* mediterranees.net houses several illustrated editions of Salammbô, from which I will liberally borrow. Flaubert, whose art was so based on verbal representation of the visual, was adamantly, angrily opposed to illustrations.
** See Manzoni’s little book On the Historical Novel (1850), or, even better, read the enormously innovative yet conventionally successful The Betrothed (1827), one of the great novels of the 19th century. It goes on the Books That Should Be Read More list.