Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Weasel tea and the Quest for the Zaïmph - the bad taste of Salammbô

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.


  1. I've never read it all, but I'm pretty sure Salammbo is just rubbish, isn't it? (But then, it's my opinion that all Flaubert is rubbish - so far at least - perhaps with the exception of the Dictionary of Received Opinion (or whatever it's called)). - The only bit I remember is where they crucify some lions.

  2. Frankly, this sounds like a book I might love. Weasel tea! This is one of the accepted Greats, running amok with a kris in his teeth, possibly literally.

    By the way, I bellowed that excerpt, since I was at home waiting for a dentist's appointment, and it sounded perfectly marvelous.

  3. What, rubbish? Crazy talk! I'm with James Wood - all hail King Flaubert!

    However, one logical result of where I think my argument is going is: Flaubert is rubbish.

    I'll put up the lions tomorrow. There's some first-rate transcending of good taste. The lion theme runs through the whole book, like the horse theme in Madame Bovary.

    A kris - oh no, impossible. The kris is from southeast Asia. That's exactly the kind of detail Flaubert gets exactly, obsessively correct in this book.

    I'd love to read a critic tell me exactly what Flaubert was accomplishing with his bellowing. I have an idea - that David Mitchell reading I linked has to be part of it - but I'm missing something, and the critics I have skimmed over have been no help.

  4. I will second The Betrothed for the 'more read' list. Which sounds like a good reason to put it in my to be re-read list.

  5. Oh, darn, no kris. Well, is it possible he's writing a book for Emma Bovary to read, and turn out as badly as she did? (I am full of ideas.) (Or of something.)

  6. I'll discuss French vs. English later, but for now: of course Salammbo is rubbish, as is La Tentation..., but it is wonderfully-done rubbish. It was because Flaubert had the same fondness for vulgarity and cheap display as Emma Bovary that he could portray her so convincingly.

  7. See, Jenny, you're on to something. Roger's right.

    The funny thing is that the most prominent real life Emma Bovary, devouring this actual exotic romance, was the Empress of France.

    I picked Manzoni as an example for a couple of reasons. First, it's another historical novel that violates a number of conventional "good writing" rules - it has an odd, episodic structure, and it's pretty explicitly a Catholic apologetic. Second, part of its importance rests on specific matters of the Italian language that are incommunicable in translation. Yet it functions perfectly as a reg'lar ol' novel.

  8. I have wanted to read Salammbô, for some time bow-If the information in Frederick Brown's biography of Flaubert is accurate Flaubert had a strong preoccupation with brothels and a great detailed knowledge of them (why do I mention this you ask)-not elegant places one could take visiting Russian Noblemen but the worse kind of in terrible taste places-he did a tour of Egypt (then seen as the mysterious Orient-))focusing on the brothels-my point is I think there is meant to be a sexual connection with deliberate bad taste-Salammbo combines religion and prositution into one focus with women as temple prostitutes and wives as boring Emma Bovary-

    I stick with Amateur Reader and FMF-no mistakes no accidents in Flaubert-

  9. Actually, the sex in Salammbô is muted. There's almost none, and it's always in the far background. I was a little surprised. Salammbô, the title character, is in no way a temple prostitute - she's chaste.