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:


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.


  1. Man, that does not sound like my kind of novel. But this would make a great stage direction: "Enter a series of heresiarchs and lunatics dancing across the stage, shouting slogans."

    Also, "A little of this kind of thing feels like a lot" applies to a fair amount of Proust.

  2. You would find interesting old words. But otherwise, this is a book for people studying the creativity of Gustave Flaubert.

    I am a Proust heretic, apparently, in thinking that with Proust, it is all downhill from "Combray" and the texts written around the same time. But what a height, that beginning (and, oddly, end).

    1. Yes, the beginning and end are great, but there are a lot of... longueurs... in between.