Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Summarizing 3/5ths of Faust II - any proper ghost has to be classical

Two key themes in Faust II: the ongoing Renaissance project of the merger of Classical and medieval culture, and sperm.

Act I begins with Faust “couched on grass and flowers, fatigued, restless,” presumably recovering from Margaret’s tragic or comic fate at the end of Faust I.  Some spirits, including Shakespeare’s Ariel, enjoy the pastoral landscape, but Faust is more into the mountains and cataracts, and feels “a vigorous resolve / to strive henceforth towards being’s highest form” (I, “A Pleasant Landscape”).  That doesn’t last long, though, since soon, as part of a tedious magical masque to entertain the emperor, Faust falls in love with a vision of Helen.  You know, from the Trojan War, that Helen, long dead, if real in any way.

MEPHISTOPHELES (hoisting FAUST on his shoulder).

That’s life for you!  To be encumbered with a fool

can’t even help the devil in the end.

In Act II, Mephistopheles and Faust return to his university office for some still relevant academic satire, and more importantly the creation of the Homunculus.  An alchemist has been plugging away at Paracelsus’s little critter, but has failed until the arrival of the devil who adds something to the mix.  A clue was provided to me by the Argumentative Old Git, who points to Tristram Shandy (1759), where “Homunculi” are simply spermatozoa; see Tristram suggesting to the Catholic Church that “after the ceremony of marriage, and before that of consummation” they “baptiz[e] all the HOMUNCULI at once, slapdash, by injection” (I.xx.), for the sake of efficiency.

Anyway the Homunculus is born, a perfect Renaissance creature, a fusion of classical and medieval learning, and thus a representative figure for Faust II.

HOMUNCULUS

Born in a later, fog-bound age,

to a chaotic world of monkery and knighthood,

how can your northern eyes be anything but blinkered –

you only feel at home where gloom prevails…

So he whisks everyone off to the Classical Walpurgisnacht.  Where the crazy Walpurgisnacht in Faust I was northern and (anti-)Christian, full of witches and devils and gnomes, the crazier new scene brings on the monsters from Greek mythology, griffins and sphinxes and cranes of Ibycus:

Romantic spectres are the only ones you know,

but any proper ghost has to be classical.  (II, “Laboratory”)

Mephistopheles, eminently northern, is freaked out (“I had no trouble handling Northern witches, / but these strange phantoms leave me ill at ease,” II, “Classical Walpurgisnacht”) although he adapts well enough, helped especially by the monsters that look like naked ladies.

Meanwhile the Homunculus falls in love with a sea nymph and is – well, this is an obscure passage – it is likely that he dies during sex (“I almost can hear the loud groans of its travails. / He’ll shatter his vial on her glittering throne” – what smut!), possibly leading to the rebirth of Helen, who washes up on a beach at the beginning of Act III.

After working through an elaborate parody of Euripides, with Faust and Helen marrying and producing Lord Byron, the great embodied reconciliation of North and South, medieval and classical, Christian and pagan, into what we would call Romanticism but Goethe thinks of as modern, up to the minute.  Byron, as we know, dies young, the pseudo-Helen vanishes, and the last two acts get out of Greece and wrap up Faust’s story (Act IV dull, Act V sublimely nuts).  In a surprising twist, the Euripidean chorus of Trojan women, rather than return to Hades, stays in Greece to drink wine (“last year’s wineskins must be emptied”).

Strange stuff.  I suppose the great problem for some general “us,” readers today, even the few who will bother with Faust, is that the mapping and combining of the great Western traditions, Classical and medieval, northern and southern, is now a pretty abstract intellectual subject.  Renaissance history, art history.  We live in the fusion but are so far from the originals.  It was alive for Goethe, who is engaged in what now looks like a great summary.  He’s wrapping it up.  Faust II is the end of the line, not a new beginning.

Act III, for example, Helen to Byron, is a magnificent poem, but is completely intellectualized.  The end of the play, I should say, when Mephistopheles and his troupe of little devils battle the angels and cherubs, armed with rose petals and cute rear ends, for the soul of Faust, is an extraordinary thing.  Mephistopheles is often an entertaining ironist.  The grotesque invention of  the Homunculus and the Classical Walpurgisnacht is fun.  But Faust II is, for such a high-spirited work, a text to study.


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Let us make a vital effort! - a start on Goethe's Faust - one of the most delightfully urbane moments in all of German literature

For years I considered doing some kind of big reread of the major works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a giant of a writer, but a distant one.  Never happened, but The Argumentative Old Git and I recently chewed on Goethe’s final masterpiece, the result of sixty (!) years of off-and-on writing, the second part of Faust (1832).  I revisited Faust I (1808) as well, all in the Stuart Atkins translation.

I meant to write this up a couple of weeks ago, but I was distracted by a little vacation to see the migrating Sandhill cranes.

THE CRANES OF IBYCUS

Murderous shouts and dying moans,

flap of wings that beat in terror!...

Let us make a vital effort!

Swear to hate this scum forever!

Trumpeting, the CRANES disperse in the air.  (Faust II, Act II, ll. 7660-1, 7674-5)

Exactly what I saw on the Platte River.

Faust I functions more or less like a real play, however odd it is.  Herr Professor Doktor Faust trades his soul to the devil, or a devil, the ironist Mephistopheles, in exchange for power and knowledge, but once in possession of power spends his time chasing cute girls.  Marlowe’s Faust spends all of Act IV playing pranks on random people, but what Goethe’s Faust really wants, it turns out is a girlfriend, specifically the innocent Margaret, who he impregnates and accidentally, tricked by Mephistopheles, abandons.  As Randy Newman summarizes the story in the liner notes to Randy Newman’s Faust (1995):

In South Bend, Margaret has Henry [Faust]’s child, and crazed with grief and shame, drowns it in a creek.  This is the comic high point of Goethe’s original play, and one of the most delightfully urbane moments in all of German literature.  (liner notes, p. 3)

A digression: Linda Ronstadt’s recording of Margaret’s prison song, “Sandman’s Coming,” is extraordinarily beautiful.  Her voice if of course perfect, but it’s really the dynamics, the phrasing.

The operas and musicals are all based on Goethe’s great innovation, the Margaret story.  Faust II is mostly ignored, largely because it is insane, an unperformable nightmare, that has of course now been performed many times by various brilliant theater people.

Late in his long career, Goethe, nominally some kind of Classicist, became loose with form.  The novel Wilhelm Meister’s Year of Wandering (1821) and the final part of his autobiography Poetry and Truth (1833) at times feel like – I think in fact are – rummagings through Goethe’s papers, unpublished scraps that will never find another home, so why not put them here.  The essential Goetheness supplies the form, perhaps.  Faust II is more coherent on a high level, but within acts and scenes has a similar ragbag quality.  It is a bit of an omnibook, with Goethe tossing in everything he knows, and he knew everything.  The cranes of Ibycus, that is, as classical references goes, an obscure one, although there was a Schiller poem on the cranes several decades earlier.

Grotesque, overstuffed, outrageous, obscure.  Often static, painterly.  Atkins diligently notes the paintings that serve as references for scene after scene.  Almost no characters as most of us understand the term, sarcastic, frustrated Mephistopheles, yes, but Faust, in the second part, no.  Lots of openly symbolic and allegorical speaking parts – Fear and Care and An Olive Branch Bearing Fruit, that sort of thing.

In German, both parts of Faust, and Goethe more generally, have contributed numerous phrases and lines to the language, much like Shakespeare in English, but all of that is totally lost on me.  The best translator cannot translate a culture.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?  Barely readable.  Tomorrow, a couple of scenes, some text.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Josephine Tey, Aldo Leopold, and Pär Lagerkvist, a library roundup - supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized


Three books I recently read that need to go back to the library.  They are contemporaries, which is, I think, a coincidence.

The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey (1948), the 11th best mystery according to the old British Crime Writers poll but only the 81st best for the Mystery Writers of America (both lists visible here).  For much of the novel, it is as much a comedy of manners as a mystery, written in an exemplar of the ordinary literary prose of its time:

In the patch of sunlight was his tea-tray; and it was typical of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet that tea was no affair of a japanned tin tray and a kitchen cup.  At 3:50 exactly on every working day Miss Tuff bore into his office a lacquer tray covered with a fair whole cloth and bearing a cup of tea in a blue-patterned china, and, on a plate to match, two biscuits, petit-beurre on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, digestive Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  (pp. 1-2)

The Franchise Affair has almost no puzzle aspects whatsoever and only the urgency that seems natural to the events of the moment.  Kinda relaxed, really.  No phoney-baloney fake page-turner climaxes at the end of the chapters.  The Golden Age was, apparently, over.

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold (1949), a year with the inhabitants (trees, birds, little critters) of a recovering Wisconsin farm (“our predecessor, the bootlegger, who hated this farm, skinned it of its residual fertility, burned its farmhouse, threw it back in to the lap of the County (with delinquent taxes to boot), and then disappeared among the landless anonymities of the Great Depression,” “February”), along with some additional essays and a long polemical piece advocating what now look like standard conservation practices,  standard in part because of the (eventual, hard-fought) success of Leopold’s arguments.

Not just the concept but the prose is heavily dependent on, what else?, Walden, especially the “Economy” chapter:

The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized.  To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.  (“January”)

Leopold witnesses the dance of the timberdoodles; he eulogizes the passenger pigeon; he bands chickadees.  The manifesto ends with “The Land Ethic” but begins with a “Conservation Esthetic,” which by itself says a lot about why this book is as good as it is.

Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist (1950, tr. Alan Blair).  Somewhere as a kid I picked up the idea that there was literature and then there was the really serious stuff, the books about God and death and so on, for example the re-tellings of what I knew as “Bible stories,” brought up to date, historically and existentially.  

For example, Barabbas, which has a serious cover and a serious author’s name and a serious subject.  Christ died to save us, but for Barabbas the bandit, saved from crucifixion by the execution of Jesus, this was literally and immediately the case.  This is a solid basis for a Novel of Doubt and Faith.

Lagerkvist’s treatment is short (140 pages), not fussily historicized or smothered in research, and plainly written (here, Jesus has just been entombed):

He [Barabbas] walked up to the tomb and stood there for a while.  But he did not pray, for he was an evil-doer and his prayer would not have been accepted, especially as his crime was not expiated.  Besides, he did not know the dead man.  He stood there for a moment, all the same. (10)

Lagerkvist lets the subject matter do the emotional work, which it does, I thought.

The Vintage paperback, reproducing the first English edition, includes two French prefaces, one by André Gide which is a barrel of laughs:

The Swedish language has given us, and is still giving, works of such outstanding value, that knowledge of it will soon form part of the equipment of any man calling himself well-educated.  We need to be in the position to appreciate the important part likely to be played by Sweden in the Concert of Europe. (xiii)

Pure, high-level, litbiz kitsch.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

More philosophical Balzac - magic powers and opera criticism

Of the six Balzac “Philosophical Studies” I read, three are fantasy stories with supernatural elements and three are about art.  The category could cover anything, really, but Balzac meant those.

They all share Balzac’s loving verbal construction of places.  His Paris is one I can walk around in.  “The scene changed again, he realized, to the corner of rue de l’Orangerie and rue des Récollets…” (“Melmoth Reconciled”), just around the corner from my last Paris hotel, the one with all the bird decorations, the one right by where Heinrich Heine spent his sad last years paralyzed in his sickbed.  When the busted-flat protagonist of The Wild Ass’s Skin is going to jump into the Seine, he has to pick a specific bridge, and has to walk to it by a plausible route.

Don’t worry, on the way to the bridge he by whim, or to experience just a bit more life, wanders into an antique store and acquires a magical wishing skin.  Also cursed, obviously.  The antique store description goes on for pages, junk and treasures piled up in long paragraphs.

The French title of the novel is La Peau de Chagrin (1831, 240 pp.), which could be The Skin of Chagrin or The Skin of Shagreen – it’s a double cognate!  But the French pun is impossible in English, and who knows what “shagreen” is, and anyways those titles are terrible.  Maybe The Chagrin Skin.  No, that’s worse.  The wild ass’s skin is also a skin of sadness because as we all know, I hope, you should never mess with wish-granting magic.

The Wild Ass’s Skin has a terrific dueling scene at the end.  More advice: do not demand a duel from a guy with a magical wishing skin.

The “philosophical” core of the novel, and the story, really, is the cursed man’s attempt to set up a life where he never, even moment to moment, wishes for anything, allowing him to avoid the wishing skin.  Balzac subscribed to some kind of idea of “vitalism,” in which life is not just lived but “used up” somehow.  The Wild Ass’s Skin is a literalization of that idea.

The Wild Ass’s Skin is easy to recommend.  If I am reading the websites correctly, Penguin Classics only has seven Balzac titles in print now, and Oxford World’s Classics only has three (!), but both have The Wild Ass’s Skin.

“Melmoth réconcilié” (“Melmoth Reconciled,” 1835, 40 pp.) also features magical wishes.  The Melmoth in the title is the same as in Charles Maturin’s great nested-story fantasy novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820 – so, today, a blatant copyright violation).  Melmoth made a deal with the devil, gaining superpowers and long life in exchange for damnation – unless! – he can find someone else to take on the powers and curse.  Which he never can, because everyone else in the world is too pure, which seems unlikely.  Balzac laughs and has Melmoth pawn off his damnation on another sucker, an embezzler who then wanders Paris having nightmarish adventures and eventually sells the whole package off to someone else, after which the Devil’s Pact is formalized for sale on the stock exchange where it circulates widely, explaining a lot.  An eminently Balzacian ending.

In 1836 or so, Balzac became deeply interested in opera, and wrote a pair of stories, one even published in a music journal, about opera:

“Gambara” (1837, 60 pp.), built around Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831)

“Massimilla Doni” (1837, 80 pp.), about Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto (1818)

And when I say “about,” I mean that each story contains a long summary and musical description of each opera, delivered by characters, but still, music criticism, at length.  Tedious.  “Gambara” has a story in which a cynic exploits an alcoholic composer in order to sleep with his wife – very Balzacian – but “Massimilla Doni” barely has a story at all.  It’s interest, if the Rossini talk is not doing it for you, is in the descriptions of Venice and its palace and opera houses.  Balzac loves the vibrant Italian audiences.  He tosses in a “Frenchman,” not part of the story at all, just to have a French foil for the opera talk.

Maybe a more devoted opera lover would get more out of these, or perhaps the discourse would just seem archaic.  I don’t know.  I am quick to argue that when Balzac writes about painting he is also writing about writing, about his own art, but these opera stories seemed more direct: outpourings of enthusiastic amateur love of opera.

Boy, these are even more like pure note-taking than usual.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Balzac's "Philosophical Studies" - it will be necessary to defend THE CHURCH

Balzac retroactively organized the pieces of his evolving “Human Comedy” into big categories, some obvious, like “Scenes from Parisian Life,” some more obscure, like the largest group, “Scenes from Private Life,” which includes the extremely Parisian Le père Goriot (1835), so don’t ask me.  I never took Balzac’s organization seriously, and in France his books are published on their own.  So I thought I would take a look, specifically at Volume 15 of an 1870 edition of the Complete Works of H. de Balzac containing the second part of the “Philosophical Studies,” which could mean anything.

I read the book until I was tired of it, which covered six texts, ranging from 20 pages to 240.  Three I had previously read in English; three were new to me, Numbers 41 to 43 of my progress through the 92 novels and stories Human Comedy.

The counting, by the way, is a joke going back to the beginning of Wuthering Expectations, mocking a tic critics have picked up when writing about Balzac.  He wrote an enormous amount in a fairly short time (twenty years for his mature works), certainly, but for what other author do we fetishize the number of “novels and stories,” as if those were comparable.  Elizabeth Bowen, checking quickly, wrote 89 novels and stories (10 novels, 79 stories), almost as many as Balzac.  But who would ever think to say that means anything?

Let’s see what I learned.

“Jésus-Christ en Flandre” (“Jesus Christ in Flanders,” 1831, 20 pp.)

I’d always wondered about that title.  A boat full of passengers almost founders in a storm off the coast of Ostend, but luckily Jesus Christ is on board.  He saves the faithful poor but not the faithless rich.  Christ’s footprints in the sand were, “the attestation of the last visit Jesus had made to the earth.”  That was in 1793.  In 1831, the narrator visits the chapel on the site and concludes that after the 1830 July Revolution “it will be necessary to defend THE CHURCH” (emphasis Balzac’s).

In the largest part of Balzac’s work, it would be impossible to know that France has a religion at all.  Religion is completely absent.  In at least two stories, better stories than this one, “An Incident in the Reign of Terror” (1830) and “The Atheist’s Mass” (1836), the personal meaning of the Mass is explored, but with some distance (see that last title).  I was surprised to see such a direct religious expression by Balzac.

Two pages and one long paragraph are given to a detailed description of the chapel, including organ music that agitates the narrator’s spirit.  These carefully described settings are common features of this set of stories.  They are a big part of Balzac’s “realism,” something he picked up from Walter Scott and developed into a major part of his art. 

“Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu” (“The Unknown Masterpiece,” 1831, 30 pp.)

For example, it is an artist’s studio that gets the treatment in this unusual story, a favorite of both Cézanne and Picasso.  The painter Frenhofer has been obsessively working on a single painting, his masterpiece, unseen by anyone.  A plot involving the young Poussin (we are in the early 17th century) and his smoking hot model girlfriend leads to the completion of the painting, which is revealed to be “a chaos of colors, tones, and vague shadings,” with “a delicious foot, a living foot” in the corner.  Frenhofer has spent, as Poussin and I suppose Balzac see it, ten mad years not making but obliterating a masterpiece.

Or, as Cézanne, Picasso, and many more recent readers see it, Frenhofer has invented Modernist painting a couple of hundred years too early.  I wrote similarly about “The Unknown Masterpiece” ages ago.  I have not, since then, come across another text with such a mismatch between how it presumably looked to its first readers and how it looks now.

I’ll save the other four for tomorrow.  The bits of translated text above are all my fault.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Flaubert's aesthetics vis The Temptation of Saint Anthony - “He believes, like a brute, in the reality of things” - not quite!

I suggested to The Argumentative Old Git that Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony has a lot in common with Goethe’s Faust, Pt. II, and the result is a pop-up readalong of Goethe’s “play,” or whatever it is.  Join us, on Twitter, or wherever.  We are reading it next week, writing whenever.  The goal is to make both head and tail of it.  Both head and tail.  Don’t let books boss you around, right?

Young Flaubert read aloud his first version of Saint Anthony to his friends, who were bored and appalled, but made a brilliant suggestion, so good that Flaubert took it:  write, his friend said, a Balzac novel.  Write about the people and places around you right now, and use the form of the novel.

Some relevant commentary by Flaubert’s friends can be found in this old post, based heavily on Francis Steegmuller’s Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1950).  In this new one, I predict I will repeat much of what is in the old one, but not as well, so, there we go.

The friend’s insight was two-fold: first, the constraint of form is good, and second, Flaubert was making some formal conceptual innovations that were independent of content, so it did not matter at all what Flaubert was actually writing about.  These innovations involved the deliberate construction of an elaborate pattern of motifs, images, words, and ideas, that form a deeper but somewhat hidden novel.  The pattern itself is a work of beauty, or perhaps the work needed to see it makes it so.  This is all quite Schopenhauer-like.  The artist is looking behind the veil of reality, or even creating the marvelous thing behind the veil.

I’ve just read Temptation once, so what do I know.  A problem with hidden patterns is that they are hard to see, especially once through when I have no idea what I should be looking for.  Most novels are read once, not studied, and Madame Bovary and Bely’s Petersburg and Nabokov’s Pnin are mostly read as the meaningful novels they certainly are, and the niggling question of “What is the deal with all these squirrel?” is not pursued.  Which is fine.  Again, that is the insight of Flaubert’s friends.

Searchable texts make it easier to pursue the patterns.  I quoted a passage yesterday that ends with a seemingly arbitrary sycamore, but that one is definitely something more, I think an anchor Anthony uses to return to reality, although at least one of these references baffles me.  I also have suspicions about the word “bluish” (“bleuâtre”).  And there are likely more words, or images not so closely tied to words.  Here is where translators get into trouble; here is where the mot had better be juste, or the whole thing vanishes.

And to see more than a hint of this the first time through a book, and then with my level of French, please.

“He believes, like a brute, in the reality of things,” says one of the devil figures* in Temptation (end of Ch, 4), but the devils in the book never quite understand Saint Anthony.  Anthony, like Flaubert, believes in the reality of things and the reality behind the reality.  I had been puzzled about Flaubert’s attraction to the subject of Saint Anthony in part because Flaubert has no religion.  But he has a metaphysics. 

Saint Anthony ends with a parade of animals (for example, “The Beasts of the Sea”) and plants and minerals, and Anthony just looks at them.

He lies down on his stomach, leans on his elbows; and holding his breath, he looks.

He sounds like an Epicurean more than a Catholic:

“O happiness! happiness! I have seen life born, I have seen movement begin….  I want to fly, swim, bark, roar, bellow…  I want to have wings, a shell, bark…, to snuggle up** with all the forms, to penetrate each atom, to descend to the bottom of matter – to be matter!”

Flaubert returns to Saint Anthony again and again because it is a vehicle for the purest expression of his aesthetic ideas, not actually abstract art, but as close as he can achieve with the imperfect medium of words, so deeply flawed because they always drag in something other than the pure thing itself.

 *  Apollonius, who we saw last week raising the dead in The Circus of Dr. Lao.

 **  Surely not, although I like it.  Curl up?  “me blottir sur toutes les formes”

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Flaubert's Saint Anthony - all together these horizontal and perpendicular lines, indefinably multiplied, would resemble a monstrous skeleton

American and Irish fantasies last week; French this week, beginning with the Gustave Flaubert’s semi-novel, his obsessive folly, La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1874).

Saint Anthony, in his Egyptian desert hermitage, is tormented by loneliness, lust and either a series of demons or his own hallucinations.  Or both, they could be both; this is a fantasy; why I am imposing rules.  Few of the temptations are in any way tempting.  By the end of the novel he feels better.  Or I should say “anti-novel,” since there is not much of what anyone would expect in a novel.  Prose poem, maybe.  Screenplay treatment.  I don’t know.

Saint Anthony is so lonely at the beginning of the book that he wishes he had a jackal for a friend:

One alone remained, which held itself on its hind legs, its body half-bent and head to the side, in a pose full of defiance.

“How nice it is!  I would like to pass my hand over its back, gently.”

Anthony whistled for it to come over.  The jackal disappeared.  (Ch. 1, all translations mine)

In every old French edition that I have seen, including the one I read, Anthony’s speech is identified not by quotations marks but by larger type.  Speech is in large type, description in small type.  Heck if I am going to try to reproduce that.

The long Chapter 4 is a Walpurgisnacht of early Christianity, with a series of heresiarchs and lunatics dancing across the stage, shouting slogans at Anthony.  This chapter is deadly:

                                ANTHONY

What, then, is the Word? Who was Jesus?

                                THE VALENTINIANS

He was the husband of repented Acharamoth [or “the repented husband” – this is Gnosticism, so who knows]

                                THE SETHANIANS

He was Shem, son of Noah!

                                THE THEODOTIANS

He was Melchisedech!

                                THE CERINTHIANS

He was nothing but a man!

Quite a lot of the stuff in this chapter is Gnosticism, actually.  Anthony is not tempted in the sense that his orthodox Christian faith is in doubt.  He is only tempted to argue.  A little of this kind of thing feels like a lot, and Saint Anthony has a lot.

A reader of other works by Flaubert may wonder if these excerpts have anything to do with the famous “mot juste,” the exact word that caused Flaubert so much anguish.  Maybe it sound more perfect in French.  “C’était Sem, fils de Noé”; “Ce n’était rien qu’un homme.”  Can you hear it?  Maybe this is the wrong kind of passage.  Here is a beautiful fig tree:

And Anthony saw clearly above the bamboo a forest of bluish-gray columns.  They are tree trunks coming from a single trunk.  From each of the branches descend other branches which sink into the ground, and all together these horizontal and perpendicular lines, indefinably multiplied, would resemble a monstrous skeleton, if it did not have, here and there, a little fig, with a blackish leaf, like that of the sycamore.

If my French is ever good enough to hear how Flaubert’s mots are any more justes than those of any number of his French contemporaries, I will feel I have learned some French.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony is in form, more than anything else, a series of tableaux, or a masque.  Representational figures parade through the scene, whether they are heretics or vanquished Greek and Roman gods or varieties of animals.  I watch them along with the Saint, who occasionally comments.

Why on earth did Flaubert write this?  He wrote three versions before publishing one of them.  I think I will save that question for tomorrow.

The French of Saint Anthony was surprisingly straightforward, but as I have noted before, Flaubert’s prose is often, against his reputation, awfully plain.  Even the more baroque parts of Saint Anthony were more difficult because of words I would have had to look up in English, like “des barques thalamèges” – boats like that one up above.  Flaubert has a poet’s love of old words and names.  But otherwise his French is clear.