Friday, February 4, 2011

Blessed be the god of bookshops! - the stupid Salammbô

This time, I can promise you, the flag of Art for Art’s sake will be boldly displayed!  Because this book proves nothing, it says nothing.  It is neither historical nor satirical nor comical.  On the other hand it may well be stupid.  (Flaubert to Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, July 3, 1860)*

One should be wary of relying too much on an author’s understanding of his own work, but when Flaubert is right, he’s right.  What does one do with such a stupid book as Salammbô?  I had to fight past the exoticism, the archaic vocabulary, the grotesqueries.  What else?  The absence of a stable point of view, the absurd central characters (although the psychology of the mobs and armies is actually quite insightful), the nonsense of the part of the plot not drawn from history.

I had a couple of points of entry.  First, as I worked my way into the imaginary world, I became genuinely interested in the historical plot:  the war, the battles, the generalship.  Flaubert’s battlefield scenes are clear, logical, easy to understand without a map, but also richly detailed, cinematic.  By that last word, I mean that the fundamentally visual Flaubert uses techniques analogous to jump cuts, panning shots, jittery handheld cameras, a mix of panoramic and soldier’s-eye views that I found dramatic and effective.  By that last word, I mean that I turned the pages with easy pleasure, which was not true everywhere in the novel.  Readers who hate battle scenes should avoid Salammbô.

The interest in the story became inseparable from the violence.  As the novel ends, the chapters achieve ever greater effects of horror.  As the pattern became clear, the tension grew.  What catastrophic nightmare will Flaubert come up with this time?  He can’t top (or, maybe, bottom) that, can he?  Oh no, he can – aaaahh!  The last third of the book is intense, in terms of forward motion, and cruelty.

So, the second point of entry.  I was reading Salammbô in the same way I read Les Chants de Maldoror or Mademoiselle du Maupin, other bizarrely imaginative, ethically dubious books.  The gorgeous sexual fantasia of Maupin is, at least, in no way cruel, but Maldoror is at least as bad as Salammbô.  Because Maldoror is more like a prose poem (read: incoherent), it is easier to read on an episodic, imagistic basis.  Salammbô, in the disguise of a historical novel, fooled me, for a time, into thinking it had something else to say.  Perhaps it does.  But perhaps even its nihilism is meaningless.  It proves nothing, says nothing.  Perhaps Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education and the poignant A Simple Heart, Flaubert’s “realistic” books, are written along the exact same principles.  I am not prepared to actually argue that point – it is, rather, a formless fear.

Flaubert and Saint-Beuve had a curious public exchange about the merits of Salammbô.  Defending, the novel Flaubert admits to six defects, some hilariously trivial (“5. The Aqueduct”), but one truly keen:  “1. The pedestal is too big for the statue.”**  The pedestal is the history, the architecture, the jewelry, the zaïmph, the strange words and siege machines and sacrifices to Moloch.  The statue is what would normally be considered the novel – plot, meaning, and characters, particularly the heroine, Salammbô – “there ought to have been another hundred pages exclusively about Salammbô.”  Moloch preserve us from that!  Salammbô is one of the most finely-crafted pedestals in the history of the novel.

No matter; that book was written for a very small number of readers and it happens that the public has taken to it.  Blessed be the god of bookshops!†

Not For Everyone.  By no means.

* Selected Letters, tr. Geoffrey Wall, Penguin Classics, 1997, p. 282.

** Reply to Saint-Beuve, December 23-4, 1862, p. 297.

† To Laure Maupassant, December 8, 1962, p. 288. Laure is Guy de Maupassant’s mother; Guy is twelve at this point.


  1. I am not sure that even the nihilism is meaningless. For Flaubert, more descriptive than prescriptive -- he had a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature, and maybe especially French nature. Pointing this out, rolling in it, forcing others to see the truth as he saw it -- well, beauty is truth, truth beauty? Even crucified lions?

  2. Good - I think that's a good direction to push the argument.

    Flaubert is not, I don't know, Jarry or someone like that. He's not a practical joker. Salammbô is not some elaborate gag. He spent six years on this exquisitely well-crafted nightmare. He did not really believe that it meant nothing and said nothing.

    So, yes, we have to push for meaning. For example, the reader must acknowledge the destructive impulse in people, in the world.

    Or, the reader must find the beauty in horror. These are perhaps variations on what you're saying.

    Or, and I think I'm closer to this one, the ugly can become beautiful once it is as well-written as I, Gustave Flaubert, write it! The aesthetic and ethical argument are actually the same.

  3. Almost a year after this post, but just ran across a wonderful comment by Joseph Roth, complaining about writing a historical novel (in my most recent post--thought you'd like it):

    "I’ve found in the material a way of expressing myself directly. And I’m in the worst pickle: I despise the low modes of the historical novelist, and become lyrical, in the way of the novelist. It’s difficult, but it tempts me, perhaps in the same way it seemed tempting once to write a Salammbô."

  4. That's pretty good - a temptation, but one to avoid.

    Those Roth letters have been rich. Unsurprisingly.