Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert (1881)

How happy they felt when they awoke next morning! Bouvard smoked a pipe, and Pécuchet took a pinch of snuff, which they declared to be the best they had ever had in their whole lives. Then they went to the window to observe the landscape. (Chapter 2)

Bouvard and Pécuchet was Flaubert’s last work, left unfinished at his death in 1880. However, the first ten chapters seemed complete enough to be published one year after his death, in 1881, and subsequent editions have included the notes found with the manuscript which indicate how the book was intended to be concluded.

These completed ten chapters make up some 260 pages in my Penguin paperback edition and the notes suggest there would only have been one or two further chapters i.e. we have almost all the intended text, and certainly enough material to form a judgement.

The plot

Briefly, Bouvard and Pécuchet are two humble copy-clerks, aged 47, who work in offices in different parts of Paris. One hot summer day in 1838 they happen to sit at the same public bench and notice that they’ve both written their names in the rims of their hats. They quickly find out they have other things in common, lots of other things, the kind of work they do, the things they like, the subjects they like discussing, everything. They take to meeting once a week for dinner and then more often. They fantasise about putting their schemes and ideas into practice, travelling the world, exploring, discovering.

Then Bouvard’s uncle dies – except his ‘uncle’ is in fact his natural father who sired him out of wedlock and ignored him most of his adult life. To make amends for his neglect, his uncle/dad leaves him a fortune. Bouvard and Pécuchet decide to pack in their jobs and go to Live in the Country, Close to the Land, Working the Soil, getting Back to Nature.

So they buy a farm in Normandy, and chapter two is a long, encyclopedic and deeply researched account of how they fail at absolutely everything they turn their hands to. For the book is meant to be a comedy – admittedly a rather dry comedy – and its subject is the irremediable stupidity of the two protagonists, and the blundering obtuseness of the world they live in. Flaubert wrote to one correspondent, as he laboured long and slowly over what he hoped would be his masterpiece, that he intended its sub-title to be: ‘The Encyclopedia of Human Stupidity.’

In many ways Bouvard and Pécuchet is more of a fable than a novel, in the lack of real plot or progression and the laboured making of a fairly straightforward ‘moral’ or point.

It certainly shows the triumph of the schematic, diagram-making Flaubert over the story-teller. Writing it became an obsession with Flaubert, who claimed to have read over 1,500 books in his research for it.

Having now read all of Flaubert’s works I am a bit bored by the repeated claims that he read x number of books to research each of them. Flaubert is famous for the crafting of his style, but pretty much all of that disappears in translation. What you are left with, especially in the historical works, is great sheets of facts and names, like the almost flat surfaces of a carved frieze, as carefully and intricately designed and, often, as lifeless.

In this final book Flaubert’s obsession with facts and research reached new peaks. He first created an overall schema of human knowledge for his incompetent duo to investigate, and then set about filling in each ‘section’ with a pulverising wealth of pedantic detail. As is shown by a summary of the chapters:

Structure (with dates)

Chapter 1. First meeting and birth of their friendship. Bouvard’s inheritance (1838–41)

Chapter 2. Travel to the Normandy village of Chavignolles. Agriculture – landscape gardening, market gardening, crops (March 1841 – autumn 1842)

Chapter 3. Study of chemistry, anatomy, medicine, biology, geology.

Chapter 4. Archaeology, architecture, history (they attempt to write a biography of the Duc d’Angoulême). They set up their own ‘museum of curiosities’, and invite locals to come and visit -uniformly unimpressed.

Chapter 5. Literature, drama, grammar and aesthetics. At one point they take to declaiming great plays in front of their servants and puzzled locals.

Chapter 6. Politics – The events in this chapter coincide with the ‘revolution’ of 1848, the overthrow of King Louis Philippe, the establishment of the Second Republic, the reaction against it, and election of Louis Napoleon, first as president, and then his military coup in 1851. Different from preceding chapters, it shows the psychological impact of these events on the diverse cast of villagers, educated or peasant.

Chapter 7. Love – the hapless duo fall in love – Pécuchet with the local widow, Madame Bordin, and Bouvard with their serving girl, Mélie -and are both bitterly disappointed: Madame Bourdin turns out to be after Pécuchet’s property, and Mélie gives Bouvard the clap.

Chapter 8. Gymnastics and keeping fit, occultism (table turning), using magnetism as a cure (till the local doctor bans them from seeing his patients), spiritualism, Swedenborgism, magic, divination, theology. A lengthy investigation of philosophy leads them to despise all systems and eventually to contemplate suicide. They’re hanging nooses from the ceiling when the bell rings for the Christmas service. They attend and feel a great surge of redemption.

Chapter 9. Religion – lengthy chapter recapitulating all the arguments for and against, in conversation with the abbé, and local notables. After exploring, discussing and experiencing every type of Christian belief from rationalist to mystical, they emerge (as usual) disillusioned. At first they repel the locals for the eccentric fervour of their sudden piety, and then alienate everyone as their questioning of Christianity becomes more subversive. The local aristocrat’s sister has taken in two orphans – Victor and Victorine – who, however, have proved to be tearaways. Accompanying the servant tasked with taking them off to the local orphanage, our heroes are moved by the orphans’ plight and decide to take them in and raise them themselves.

Chapter 10. Education. Bouvard and Pécuchet apply all known theories of pedagogy to the two troublesome teenagers, who prove completely resistant. Victor becomes violent, Victorine develops a penchant for kissing boys. The pair try to dun into the children everything they have learned about physiology, chemistry, astrology, grammar and so on but, because they never understood these subjects themselves, they make a hash of trying to teach the kids, who keep asking awkward questions which expose our pair’s ignorance. Fail.

Right up to the end Bouvard and Pécuchet continue to practice their mad enthusiasms on the locals, trying out phrenology and irritating the barber whose shop they ask to use; telling the farmers how to apply chemistry to their land; angering the old farmer Gouy who has returned to make a success of their farm; criticising the gamekeeper, Sorel, for his brutality; terminally alienating the abbé for their apostasy from Catholicism; and so on.

Eventually Bouvard and Pécuchet’s oddness, immorality and irreligion have alienated pretty much the entire local community. The completed portion of the text ends as the pair are taken to court and tried for insulting the gamekeeper, who had caught a poacher. Bouvard and Pécuchet try to defend the poacher with a motley of half-cocked philosophical and political theory.

From Flaubert’s notes we can work out that in the final chapters the desperate duo narrowly escape being sent to prison by their exasperated neighbours, before eventually abandoning their Quest for Knowledge altogether. They decide to return to being simple copyests, copying out into a vast super-encyclopedia the contents of all the books they’ve gathered in the course of their adventures.

Apparently, Part Two of the book was intended to consist of this vast Copy of World Knowledge which the bumbling pair had cobbled together – of which the Dictionary of Received Opinion was to form a small part.

As they’re such good friends, Bouvard and Pécuchet’s final act was intended to be ordering a special desk-for-two, designed so that they can do their work sitting next to each other.

Satire or schema?

Flaubert’s aim is obviously to satirise 18th and 19th century attempts to catalogue, classify, list, and record all of scientific and historical knowledge. The trouble is that this aim coincides all-too-well to his own habits as an omnivorous reader-and-regurgitator. On every page of Bouvard and Pécuchet you have the feeling that you’re reading a the fleshing out of a static schema rather than a fictional text – what one of Flaubert’s most famous fans, Julian Barnes, describes as ‘a vomitorium of pre-digested book learning.’

His procedure is to list in pedantic detail all the learning about a particular subject, and then painstakingly show his hapless duo misunderstanding it and (if it has any practical application) screwing it up.

Here’s an extended example of the pair following all the best technical advice and then making a mess of market gardening – an excerpt which gives a good flavour of the book’s relentless approach.

Pécuchet was disgusted with gardening, and a few days later he remarked:

‘We ought to give ourselves up exclusively to tree culture – not for pleasure, but as a speculation. A pear which is the product of three soils is sometimes sold in the capital for five or six francs. Gardeners make out of apricots twenty-five thousand livres in the year! At St. Petersburg, during the winter, grapes are sold at a napoleon per grape. It is a beautiful industry, you must admit! And what does it cost? Attention, manuring, and a fresh touch of the pruning-knife.’

It excited Bouvard’s imagination so much that they sought immediately in their books for a nomenclature for purchasable plants, and, having selected names which appeared to them wonderful, they applied to a nurseryman from Falaise, who busied himself in supplying them with three hundred stalks, which he wanted to get rid of. They got a lock-smith for the props, an iron-worker for the fasteners, and a carpenter for the rests. The forms of the trees were designed beforehand. Pieces of lath on the wall represented candelabra. Two posts at the ends of the plat-bands supported steel threads in a horizontal position; and in the orchard, hoops indicated the structure of vases, cone-shaped switches that of pyramids, so well that, in arriving in the midst of them, you imagined you saw pieces of some unknown machinery or the framework of a pyrotechnic apparatus.

The holes having been dug, they cut the ends of all the roots, good or bad, and buried them in a compost. Six months later the plants were dead. Fresh orders to the nurseryman, and fresh plantings in still deeper holes. But the rain softening the soil, the grafts buried themselves in the ground of their own accord, and the trees sprouted out.

When spring had come, Pécuchet set about the pruning of pear trees. He did not cut down the shoots, spared the superfluous side branches, and, persisting in trying to lay the ‘duchesses’ out in a square when they ought to go in a string on one side, he broke them or tore them down invariably. As for the peach trees, he got mixed up with over-mother branches, under-mother branches, and second-under-mother branches. The empty and the full always presented themselves when they were not wanted, and it was impossible to obtain on an espalier a perfect rectangle, with six branches to the right and six to the left, not including the two principal ones, the whole forming a fine bit of herringbone work.

Bouvard tried to manage the apricot trees, but they rebelled. He lowered their stems nearly to a level with the ground; none of them shot up again. The cherry trees, in which he had made notches, produced gum.

At first, they cut very long, which destroyed the principal buds, and then very short, which led to excessive branching; and they often hesitated, not knowing how to distinguish between buds of trees and buds of flowers. They were delighted to have flowers, but when they recognised their mistake, they tore off three fourths of them to strengthen the remainder.

They talked incessantly about ‘sap’ and ‘cambium’, ‘paling up’, ‘breaking down’, and ‘blinding of an eye’. In the middle of their dining-room they had in a frame the list of their young growths, as if they were pupils, with a number which was repeated in the garden on a little piece of wood, at the foot of the tree. Out of bed at dawn, they kept working till nightfall with their twigs carried in their belts. In the cold mornings of spring, Bouvard wore his knitted vest under his blouse, and Pécuchet his old frock-coat under his packcloth wrapper; and the people passing by the open fence heard them coughing in the damp atmosphere.

Sometimes Pécuchet took his manual from his pocket and studied a paragraph of it standing up with his grafting-tool near him in the attitude of the gardener who decorated the frontispiece of the book. This resemblance flattered him exceedingly, and made him entertain more esteem for the author.

Bouvard was continually perched on a high ladder before the pyramids. One day he was seized with dizziness, and, not daring to come down farther, he called on Pécuchet to come and help him.

At length pears made their appearance, and there were plums in the orchard. Then they made use of all the devices which had been recommended to them against the birds. But the bits of glass made dazzling reflections, the clapper of the wind-mill woke them during the night, and the sparrows perched on the scarecrow. They made a second, and even a third scarecrow, varying the dress, but none of them worked.

But they still hoped for plenty of fruit. Pécuchet had just mentioned it to Bouvard, when there was a crack of thunder and rain started to fall – a heavy and violent downpour. The wind at intervals shook the entire surface of the espalier. The props gave way one after the other, and the unfortunate distaff-shaped trees, swaying under the storm, smashed their pears against one another.

Pécuchet, surprised by the shower, had taken refuge in the hut. Bouvard stuck to the kitchen. They saw splinters of wood, branches, and slates whirling in front of them; and the sailors’ wives on the sea-shore ten leagues away, gazing out at the sea, had not eyes more wistful or hearts more anxious. Then, suddenly, the supports and wooden bars of espaliers facing one another, together with the rail-work, toppled down into the garden beds.

What a picture when they went to inspect the scene! The cherries and plums covered the grass, amid the dissolving hailstones. The Passe Colmars were destroyed, as well as the Besi des Vétérans and the Triomphes de Jordoigne. Of the apples, there were barely left even a few Bon Papas; and a dozen Tetons de Venus, the entire crop of peaches, rolled round in the pools of water by the side of the box trees, which had been torn up by the roots. (Chapter two)

The whole book follows this pattern. The dim duo get excited by a new topic – anatomy, chemistry, philosophy – order up as many textbooks as possible (which Flaubert names and summarises with loving care) – and then proceed to misunderstand, misapply and misuse everything they’ve read, failing at everything they turn their hands to, again and again.

So, for example, the chapter on science refers to textbooks by Regnault, Girardin, Alexandre Lauth, the Dictionary of Medical Sciences, the treatises of Richerand and Adelon, the Manual of Health by Francois Raspail, the Manual of Hygiene by Dr Morin, Becquerel’s treatise, Bégin and Lévy on diet. That’s 11 textbooks quoted and summarised in 15 pages, about one every page and a half; elsewhere the ratio is much denser. Hundreds of them.

Futility

Again and again, they generalise from their own inability to really understand a subject that it must the subject which is at fault:

History

To judge impartially they would have to read all the histories, all the memoirs, all the newspapers, and all the manuscript documents, for the least omission might cause an error, which might lead to others and so on ad infinitum. They abandoned the subject.

Grammar

They concluded that syntax is a fantasy and grammar an illusion.

Aesthetics

‘All these people who compose books of rhetoric, poetics and aesthetics seem complete idiots to me.’ (Bouvard)

Politics

‘Progress – what a farce! Politics – what a filthy mess!’ (Bouvard)

Divination

Their search never revealed anything, and each time they were extremely crestfallen.

Philosophy

They both confessed that they were tired of philosophers. So many systems only confuse you. Metaphysics is useless.

As you can see, the ‘novel’ can easily be read as an opportunity for Flaubert to express his own pessimism and universal disgust via the mouths of his dumb duo.

Epistemology

Epistemology is ‘the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope’. For intellectual critics the book amounts to a sustained critique of humans’ ability to know anything. Although they buy all the books on whichever is their latest fad, although they study them carefully and make copious notes, when Bouvard and Pécuchet come to apply this ‘knowledge’ it relentlessly ends in failure. Which suggests that people don’t – and can’t – learn.

1. The tradition of learned wit This scorn for knowledge places the book firmly in the long line of fictions of ‘learnèd wit’ i.e. the tradition of satires on the university-based, book learning of their times which attacked the arcane beliefs of medieval scholars (Rabelais), the conventions of chivalry (Don Quixote), the new 18th century fashion for ‘science’ and ‘experiments’ (Swift) or blind belief in Optimist (Candide).

Like this tradition, Flaubert ridicules knowledge and science, but the great difference is that he does it in a naturalistic style. Whereas the tradition of ‘learnèd wit’ from the later Middle Ages to the 18th century rejoiced in arcane language, out-of-the-way literary references and so on, Flaubert replaces the paraphernalia of quotes from the Bible, classical myths and abstruse theology with modern-day textbooks, guides and pamphlets, presenting the great wealth of current knowledge in a completely deadpan, serious way. (Except for the chapters about philosophy or religion which, by definition, deal with abstruse theology and Biblical quotes).

But such a crudely dismissive attitude to current scientific and cultural knowledge raises an elementary problem which is that a lot of it isn’t risible.

2. People do learn Because in agriculture, physics, chemistry, archaeology, even in the arts, there have been huge, enormous, world-changing strides since Flaubert was doing his slavish research in the 1870s. Sure, in every age lots of people are dim and/or uneducated; but in the last 140 years amazing advances have taken place on all the fronts of human enquiry and knowledge.

Thus the fundamental aim of the book – to imply that human knowledge is useless and the quest for it pointless – is wrong. There have been huge strides in, for example, agriculture. Today we can feed populations undreamed of in Flaubert’s time. In other words, his dismissal of all human knowledge seems glib and superficial, itself wilful and ignorant.

Thus I found it difficult to accept, to buy into, the book’s fundamental premise, and this made it hard to read or enjoy. Instead of someone saying something sharp and insightful about the world or human nature, it feels like an ungainly selection of very out-of-date information, assembled in the name of an untenable premise.

Its strengths

1. Narrative energy Well, there isn’t much, since in each chapter Bouvard and Pécuchet do much the same thing, namely research a topic and fail to understand or apply it. There is a sort of energy created by the narrative scaffold whereby Flaubert manoeuvres them towards each a new subject – the involvement of other characters, in particular – and the events which supposedly spark interest in each new subject though I for one found a lot of them flimsy and contrived. And then there is a sort of interest in finding out what new humiliations the author has in store for his chumps, though many times the disquisition on a particular subject ends with no particular pay-off before they set off on a new subject.

2. Episodic Because Bouvard and Pécuchet are continually abandoning each of their projects, each chapter does open with a sense of novelty (and mild hope for something new) – a bit like watching the latest episode of a long-running sitcom in which you can be confident a set of well-known characters will get themselves into a new pickle within a familiar set of conventions.

But on the down side, each of the chapters is not only long, but exhaustively long and often quite draining to read. Oscar Wilde said that a man who sets out to exhaust his subject invariably ends up by exhausting his listeners, and I think this is more true of Flaubert than any other major writer.

Cast and comedy

It would be incorrect to say the book only features the odd couple. Other characters weave in and out and by the end we’ve probably been introduced to thirty or so characters.

When they decide to buy some land in Normandy (near the village of Chavignolles) it comes with a house and a farm. The farmer, Old Gouy, has been farming it for years, along with his wife. Bouvard and Pécuchet criticise old Gouy so much that he quits, and that’s the start of the several years they spend putting into practice their book learning with such disastrous results. In the manor house they inherit an old housekeeper, Madame Germaine, whose main role is to complain about every request. Later on they acquire a wandering carpenter and his teenage help, Mélie. Late in the book Germaine quits and is replaced by a useless hunchback, Marcel.

Chavignolles supplies a surprisingly varied cast of rural characters, including:

  • Madame Bordin, a middle aged lady who very gently flirts with Bouvard
  • the Abbé Jeufroy, who they exhaust with their enquiries about theology
  • the lawyer, Monsieur Marescot
  • Monsiruer Girbal, superintendent of taxes
  • Captain Heurtaux, a local landowner
  • Beljambe, the innkeeper
  • Langlois, the grocer
  • Monsieur Foureau, the mayor
  • the local landowner, to whom everyone defers, the Comte de Faverges
  • Larsonneur, a local antiquary they write to about their discoveries

There are experts they correspond with, the gamekeeper, Sorel, who brings in a little burst of other characters in the final chapter. This cast turns out to be quite large enough to supply some quite comic scenes, a bit like Last of the Summer Wine, but in French.

With the result that there are quite a few ‘crowd’ scenes: Take the scene in chapter three where the couple accost the abbé in the road and start quizzing him about the Creation, enumerating all the arguments against the Biblical story which they have just read in their latest book. The abbé is joined by his assistant, then the mayor passing by, and then the Comte, so that by the time our duo exclaim that man is descended from apes there is enough of a crowd to respond with exclamations of horror and outrage, reported with deadpan irony by Flaubert.

Or when the couple hold a dinner party for all the worthies of the village to show off their home-grown food (which proves to be inedible) and then proudly display their garden, landscaped according to the latest principles (which the guest find ugly and disturbing).

Or the scene where our couple proudly show invited guests round their ‘museum of curiosities’, filled with interesting historical and geological curios – which is in fact an emporium of broken rubbish and random rocks, the locals treating our heroes with politeness and behind their backs muttering that they’re mad.

So there are scenes of group comedy as well as quite a few moments of out and out absurdity.

On the principle that inflammation can be prevented by lowering temperatures, they treated a woman suffering from meningitis by hanging her from the ceiling in her chair and pushing her to and fro – until her husband arrived and threw them out. (Chapter three)

If at some moments, the relentlessness of their obtuseness, and the inevitability of their failure in every enterprise they undertake, can be rather depressing; at other moments, when they pat each other on the back, take a pull on their pipes, order up a new set of textbooks, and so on, you can’t help liking them.

Details

All the above criticisms see the text at a distance, extracting generalisations about themes and character.

There’s a separate strand or level where Flaubert scores, and that is in the precision of his imagination. Flaubert became famous for the painstaking care he took with his style, agonising for a day about where to place a comma in a sentence etc but, alas, most of this painstaking work is lost in translation.

What is not lost is the clarity of the details he imagines. His ability to zero in and include just the right amount of, particularly visual, detail, is displayed throughout the book.

In the kitchen, bundles of hemp hung from the ceiling. Three old guns stood in a row over the upper part of the chimney-piece. A dresser loaded with flowered crockery occupied the space in the middle of the wall, and the window-panes with their green bottle-glass cast a pallid light over the tin and copper utensils. (Chapter two)

There are many moments like this, scattered among the more turgid reams of technical knowledge, moments when Flaubert conceives a scene and paints it in very visual terms.

The harvest was just over, and the dark masses of the stacks in the middle of the fields rose up against the tender blue of the night sky. Nothing was astir about the farms. Even the crickets were quiet. The fields were all wrapped in sleep.

The pair digested while they inhaled the breeze which blew refreshingly against their cheeks.

Above, the sky was covered with stars; some shone in clusters, others in a row or alone, at great distances from each other. A zone of luminous dust, extending from north to south, parted above their heads. Between these bright patches were vast empty spaces, and the firmament looked like an azure sea dotted with archipelagos and islets. (Chapter three)

Although, to be honest, having struggled through to the end, there are far fewer scenes of acute visual precision than in, say, Madame Bovary. Reviewing all his novels I think Bovary has more of these painted scenes than any of the others, which is one reason why it remains his best book.

Failed purpose

In fact, there is a glaring central issue with the book. Flaubert wrote to numerous friends that he hoped the book would shame the human race, amounted to a great roar of disgust and so on and so forth, but in this respect it is a complete failure. The twentieth century came along and dwarfed anything Flaubert could have imagined. Now when we look back at the tradition of Books Disgusted by Human Existence it might include Kafka, Celine, Camus, Sartre – the existentialist tradition, as well as countless twentieth century novels made ‘scandalous’ by their sexual explicitness or violence.

Seen in the light of these traditions, Bouvard and Pécuchet barely registers. Nobody reads his book in order to be ‘disgusted with humanity’. In fact, Bouvard and Pécuchet has ended up having exactly the opposite effect of what he intended. A modern reader finds it a sweet and gentle novel of rural France and its quaint characters. If you skim over the tedious expositions of mid-nineteenth century phrenology or geology or aesthetics, you are left with a series of comic scenes:

  • Pécuchet hiding in a ditch overhearing the colloquy between the local tough Gorjou and his married mistress
  • the villagers peeking through holes in the fence to watch the couple ludicrously act out scenes from French classical plays
  • the lofty condescension of the local aristocrat, as the pair show him round their ramshackle collection of local curios
  • the irritation of the barber who gives them a corner of his shop to practice ‘phrenology’ in, only for it to become packed out with credulous peasants
  • the ridiculousness of the pair trying to argue the gamekeeper out of shooting animals by invoking the pantheistic philosophy of Spinoza

In fact, if Bouvard and Pécuchet has any value, it is as precisely the opposite of a searing, devastating, world-shaking monster of bourgeois-bating satire – and instead as a gentle, humorous portrait of rural French life and its cast of harmless buffoons.

Brief summary

Its complete lack of psychological development or anything resembling a conventional ‘plot’ – the monotonous effect of the pair’s relentless failures – and the long passages of dusty book learning which are transcribed purely to bring out their contradictions and futility – make Bouvard and Pécuchet in many ways a difficult book to read.

The (occasional) precision of Flaubert’s visual imagination, the (occasional) comic scenes – especially involving exasperated members of the local community – and the warmth of the relationship between the hapless pair – just about make it worth reading.

If I was recommending Flaubert’s books to a friend who hadn’t read them I think I would order them thus:

  • Madame Bovary – the best written, most sensual and pictorial, and the most compelling plot
  • Sentimental Education – for all the flaws of the central character, portrays the social and political life of Paris through an important period in its history
  • Three Tales – short and very readable products of his mature style
  • Salammbô – a richly atmospheric and grisly, though dry and often melodramatic historical novel
  • Bouvard and Pécuchet – difficult, often deadly boring
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony – very hard to read

The movie

The French made a movie of it.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

A Dictionary of Received Ideas by Gustave Flaubert

Bouvard et Pécuchet

Gustave Flaubert died in 1880 while still working on his last book, Bouvard and Pécuchet. This tells the adventures of two petit bourgeois dunces, born and raised in Paris, where they work as respectable clerks, who meet and realise they share the same, second-hand, trite and clichéd ideas, and the same dim-witted insatiable curiosity, about everything.

Deciding they are The Best of Friends, they set off on a series of adventures designed to highlight not only their own stupidity, but the stupidity of much so-called ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’. So Bouvard and Pécuchet is less a novel than a fable, standing in a long line of books which satirise book learning, which includes Rabelais, Don Quixote, Jonathan Swift and Tristram Shandy.

Except that whereas those books were dominated by what’s been called ‘learnèd wit’ i.e. satires on the university-based, book learning of their times, with a great deal of effort spent ridiculing the arcane beliefs of medieval scholars (Rabelais), or the conventions of chivalry (Don Quixote) or the new fashion for ‘science’ and ‘experiments’ (Swift) – Bouvard and Pécuchet is determinedly modern and realistic in style.

In a letter Flaubert wrote that the novel is:

‘a kind of encyclopedia made into a farce… I am planning a thing in which I give vent to my anger… I shall vomit over my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me…’

One element of the book is the way its two hopeless protagonists interpret everything in a relentlessly middle-brow way, failing to understand the finer points of every intellectual or practical effort they turn their hands to, but rewriting them, as it were, into their own personal language of clichés and stereotypes. And all the while they cheer themselves up with the irritatingly vacuous catch phrases and platitudes beloved of their type and class.

A Dictionary of Stupidity

This explains why, alongside researching and writing the novel, Flaubert also had a project to collect together all the most clichéd, stupid, vapid truisms, the most wretched commonplaces and inanities, the most hackneyed, trite and pitiful platitudes of his age.

He used some of these in the novel, attributing them to his earnestly second-rate characters. But over the course of decades, he built up quite a collection in its own right. He began sorting them into alphabetical order and found himself creating what he initially called a Dictionary of Stupidity and then toned down into ‘A Dictionary of Received Ideas’.

It is a list of the unthinking slogans and clichés which people prattle out in conversation, the same old opinions you read in the press, the empty formulas politicians make in speeches, the dreary subjects you endure at awful dinner parties. Received opinion, fashionable platitudes, accepted ideas.

As it grew, Flaubert seems to have planned to make the Dictionary of Stupidity form volume two of the completed Bouvard and Pécuchet but died before his plans could be finalised. It was only published in French in 1913, and had to wait till 1954 to be translated into English.

The Dictionary is usually published as an appendix to the larger novel, but Penguin had the bright idea back in the 1990s of publishing it as a stand-alone booklet which I picked up at the time (it seems to be out of print now).

Funny

What’s surprising is how funny it is. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Much funnier that Bouvard and Pécuchet (which is occasionally touching but isn’t, frankly, very funny at all).

This is partly because it is so compressed and pithy. Given half a chance Flaubert will write you a whole page about agricultural techniques or medieval siege machinery or Biblical ointments or whatever pedantic facts he’s come across in his immense background reading and which can be squeezed into one of his long narratives.

But all this verbiage is absent in the Dictionary. Its prose is incredibly compressed. It gives just the most commonplace interpretations of each subject in all their glorious banality. Frequently Flaubert places next to each other two completely contradictory views, both of which are in common circulation, to highlight how unthinkingly stupid we so often are.

I found it helps to imagine some of the phrases being spoken out loud by either a bluff colonel or a delicate maiden aunt (as appropriate).

Examples

ABROAD – Enthusiasm for everything foreign, sign of progressive thinking. Contempt for everything un-French, sign of patriotism.

ACCIDENT – Always ‘deplorable’ or ‘unfortunate’ (as though anyone would find cause to rejoice in misfortune).

AGE, THE PRESENT AGE – Always denounce vigorously.

AMBITION – Always describe as ‘insane’ except when it is ‘noble’.

ANIMALS – If only they could talk. Some of them are more intelligent than humans!

ANTIQUES – All forgeries.

ARCHITECTS – All imbeciles.

ARISTOCRACY – Treat with contempt. Regard with envy.

AUTHOR – Advisable to know a few authors. No need to remember their names.

And so on. In its way, The Dictionary is as much a portrait of the age as Sentimental Education. Sure a lot of it is dated. But the real eye-opener is how many of these clichés of the bourgeois mind, circa 1880, are still clichés of the bourgeois mind in 2018.

BEETHOVEN – Don’t pronounce Beet-hoven. Praise the legato.

TOYS – Should always be educational.

TRAVELLER – Always ‘intrepid’.

WALLS – Good phrase to use in an official speech: ‘Gentlemen, within these very walls…’

WATCH – The only decent ones are made in Switzerland.

WIT – Always ‘sparkling’. Brevity the soul of.

WORKER – Honest and reliable. Except when he’s rioting.

Flaubert wrote that ‘after reading the book, the reader should be afraid to talk, for fear of using one of the phrases in it’ and realising what a mug he is – a splendid ambition. We could do with more silence.

SEALED – Always ‘hermetically’.

PIKESTAFF – Plain as a.

KORAN – Book by Mohammed. Exclusively about repressing women.

INTERVAL – Always too long.

ILLEGIBLE – A doctor’s signature ought to be illegible. So should any official signature. Shows that you are overwhelmingly busy.

GREEK – Anything you don’t understand. ‘It’s all Greek to me.’

A perfect book to dip into for a few minutes and find yourself chortling, then laughing out loud.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert (1877)

I’ve got the old 1961 Penguin translation by Robert Baldick. It has no notes but a handy nine-page introduction in which Baldick places the Tales in the context of Flaubert’s life and work.

Born in 1821, Flaubert spent his whole adult life living off a small private income in the remote Normandy village of Croisset and devoting his life to literature. But he was far from successful. His first novel, Madame Bovary (1857), was prosecuted for immorality and sold and misunderstood as a salacious scandal. His historical novel. Salammbô (1862), was condemned by critics as tedious, by the clergy as pagan and by archaeologists as inaccurate. The book he considered his masterpiece and laboured over longest, Sentimental Education (1869) was greeted with critical abuse and criticised for its cynical immorality (readers confusing Flaubert’s unflinching depiction of bourgeois immorality with endorsement). His religious fantasia, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), was greeted with blank incomprehension and mostly ignored. It is, as I can testify, difficult to read through to the end. And his one and only play, The Candidate (1874), was taken off after four disastrous performances.

The 1870s were a hard time for the middle-aged author. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the Prussians occupied his house in Croisset, humiliatingly, and made Flaubert run errands for them. As the decade progressed a number of his best friends died, and his much-loved mother passed away in 1872.  In 1875 the husband of his beloved niece (Flaubert never married or had children) was threatened with bankruptcy and so Flaubert sold a number of his properties to raise money to save him, even considering selling up his beloved house in Croisset.

In other words the mid-1870s found Flaubert at a financial, emotional and artistic low point. And yet he not only wrote these three short tales relatively quickly but, when they were published, the volume turned out to be his most critically acclaimed and popular book. In fact, it turned out to be the last book he published during his lifetime.

The three tales in this short volume are A Simple Heart, Saint Julian the Hospitator and Hérodias. It’s not difficult to see them as recapitulating, in compressed form, the styles and settings of his previous novels: A Simple Heart is set in the same rural Normandy as Madame Bovary; Herodias is set in the barbaric and exotic ancient world of Salammbô; Saint Julian the Hospitator is a medieval folk story which echoes the early medieval setting of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

A Simple Heart

Also known as Le perroquet (the Parrot) in French, this is the story of a servant girl named Felicité. Brought up in poverty, her parents die, she is brusquely wooed by a neighbourhood lad, who wins her heart but then marries another, rich, woman. Devastated, Felicité leaves the farm where she lives and walks to the nearest town, Pont-l’Évèque, where she gets a job with the first woman she speaks to, a widow, Madame Aubain.

The story describes Felicité’s fifty years of loyal service to the widow, particularly in bringing up the widow’s two small children, Paul and Virginie. Paul becomes a difficult adolescent and young man, perpetually getting into debt. Virginie is a frail little girl whose poor health necessitates several trips to the seaside, vividly described.

One day Felicité bumps into her sister, married with two children of her own. Realising she’s in a comfortable position, the sister encourages her children to visit Felicité and sponge off her at every opportunity. Felicité, in her simplicity, dotes on her nephew, Victor, who grows into a strapping young man and sets off to sea. Felicité makes the long hard journey to Le Havre to wave him off.

Later she is given a letter telling her that Victor died on the sea voyage. Yellow fever, then overbled by zealous doctors. Then Madame Aubain’s daughter, Virginie, catches pneumonia and dies. Grief for the poor little girl brings mistress and servant together into a new sympathy.

A neighbouring aristocrat, who was once posted as a diplomat to America and brought back with him a coloured servant and a parrot, makes a few social calls to Madame Aubain, because she has a certain status in the neighbourhood, on one occasion bringing the parrot to show off to all and sundry.

Felicité is enchanted by the parrot and tells everyone about it. This reaches the ears of the wife of the diplomat. When he is posted to a new job, he is only too happy to dump the parrot on this simple woman, seeing that it is noisy, dirty and temperamental.

Felicité tends the parrot with love, through summer and winter. When her mistress, Madame Aubain, dies, the parrot becomes a talisman for all the losses in her life – Madame, Victor, Virginie.

Eventually, the parrot also dies and she has it stuffed. On Madame Aubain’s death her son, Paul, and his greedy wife, had come to strip the house of all its valuables. They threatened to sell it but never quite manage to and so Felicité lives on, in increasing poverty, as the house crumbles around her, and the rain and wind get in, with the cage holding the dead parrot hung on the wall, as she grows old, deaf, lame, tended by a kindly neighbour.

Finally, one spring, come the weeks of the annual Corpus Christi festival, where temporary altars are erected around the town. One is set up just outside Felicité’s derelict house. Over the freezing winter, sleeping in a wet bed, she has contracted her final illness. As the neighbour tends her, Felicité hears the sound of the bells celebrating mass at the altar outside, her eyes open for one last time and she has a vision of the Holy Ghost as a huge green parrot, its wings open to welcome her to heaven – and dies.

Flaubert wrote to friends that the story was not intended in any way to be satirical or ironic, but as a straightforward depiction of a good woman, a good, heart and a good life. I grew up in a small village near a convent which was also a nursing home where very elderly patients were tended by the nuns. The nuns used to totter up to the village shop where I worked. My mother took us to visit the old ladies, lying quietly in rows of beds in the oak-panelled ward. I recognise the atmosphere of simple, feminine goodness. Goodness is simple, after all. Don’t hurt others.

Flaubert’s style is pared back to the bone. There are no metaphors or similes. Events are told in a brisk, no-nonsense prose. As with his other books, it is the descriptions I like most, the word paintings. Here is a description of winter.

On either side of the road stretched an endless succession of apple trees, all stripped of their leaves, and there was ice in the ditches. Dogs were barking around the farms; and Felicité, with her hands tucked under her mantle, her little black sabots and her basket, walked briskly along the middle of the road. (p.48)

Simple. Vivid.

Saint Julian the Hospitator

The medieval legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator (or Hospitalier) is portrayed in a stained glass window in Rouen cathedral, which Flaubert saw as a boy. In the 1840s he mentioned to friends the idea of writing about it, and he tucked away details about medieval hunting, weapons and castles from his omnivorous reading, for this purpose.

The story has all the fairy tale quality of a medieval legend. At Julian’s birth he is predicted to do great things. His father is told that he will marry into the family of a great emperor, while his mother is told he will be a saint.

But early on Julian displays violent tendencies. As a boy he kills a mouse which irritates him by appearing in the castle chapel. Then he stones a pigeon. His father introduces him to hunting and he takes to it with devilish enthusiasm, amassing an armoury of weapons, hunting dogs, and going out every day to massacre as much wildlife as possible, climaxing in his pointless massacre of an entire valley of deer. A stag approaches him with a doe and fawn and Julian shoots dead all of them. With his dying breath, the stag curses Julian, predicting that he will kill his own parents.

Soon afterwards Julian is wangling a heavy swords down from its fixture on the wall and drops it, narrowly missing his father. Then, on a misty day, he throws a javelin at what he takes to be the wings of a passing swan but are in fact the tails of the elaborate medieval head-dress worn by his mother. It pins the head dress to the castle wall while his mother shrieks and faints. Terrified at what might happen next, Julian flees the castle.

Julian enlists with a passing troop of soldiers of fortune, experiences hunger, thirst and battle, soon he commands a great army. Meanwhile, the emperor of Occitania is defeated by the Caliph of Cordoba and thrown in prison. Julian leads his army to the rescue, defeating the Caliph (and cutting his head off) before liberating the Emperor. Julian turns down all the rewards he’s offered until the Emperor produces his beautiful young daughter, at which Julian agrees to marry her and accept a nice castle.

The couple live together in happiness, but Julian categorically refuses to go on any hunts or kill any wildlife – still haunted by fear of the curse. Until one day, under the influence of his wife’s incessant nagging, he finally gives in and takes up his rusty weapons and goes for a hunt.

This turns into a strange visionary adventure. He finds himself wandering into a magical valley where the spirits of all the animals he’s ever killed surround him. Again and again he tries to shoot things but the weapons don’t work, or the animals dodge out the way.

Frustrated at his inability to kill anything, bewildered and upset by his vision of the spirits of the dead, Julian returns to the castle, and climbs the stairs to his bedroom, hoping his beautiful wife will calm him.

But leaning over their bed in the dawn light he strokes her face only to feel a long beard – and realises there are two bodies in the bed, a man and a woman. She has betrayed him! All his pent-up frustration makes him see red and in a frenzy he stabs his wife and her lover to death.

Then turns to see… his wife standing in the doorway holding a torch!!

She explains that while he was away hunting an old married couple came to the castle. Tired and dirty, it was his mother and father who had been seeking him all across Europe ever since he ran away from home. Touched by their story, his wife gave them dinner and then their own bed to sleep in.

So Julian has just murdered his own parents – exactly as foretold.

Next morning, Julian hands her instructions to perform a state funeral for his parents, wills her all his properties and possessions, then leaves. He wanders the world, begging like a monk, performing numerous good deeds. Eventually he comes to a wide river on the bank of which is a derelict boat, and it crosses his mind to repair it and to become a ferryman: it is a simple, practical good deed. So he repairs the boat, builds a hut, and lives off the donations given him by grateful travellers.

One day a figure calls from the other side of the river and, when Julian arrives, he discovers a hideously disfigured leper. Nonetheless, Julian rows him across. The leper is hungry. Julian gives him food. The leper is tired. Julian offers him his bed. The leper is cold. Julian offers him his clothes. The leper is still cold and asks for body warmth. Despite the obvious risk that he will contract this appalling disease, Julian hugs the leper to warm him up.

At which point the leper’s eyes take on the brightness of stars, his hair spreads out like the rays of the sun, and his breath smells like roses. Julian experiences superhuman joy as he is borne up to heaven by none other than Jesus Christ himself.

**********

Baldick’s introduction points out that Flaubert, as usual, made copious notes about all the factual aspects of the story, especially medieval hunting. And, as so often, this is regurgitated into paragraphs which read like extracts from an encyclopedia:

His father made up a pack of hounds for him. There were twenty-four  greyhounds of Barbary, speedier than gazelles, but liable to get out of temper; seventeen couples of Breton dogs, great barkers, with broad chests and russet coats flecked with white. For wild-boar hunting and perilous doublings, there were forty boarhounds as hairy as bears.

The red mastiffs of Tartary, almost as large as donkeys, with broad backs and straight legs, were destined for the pursuit of the wild bull. The black coats of the spaniels shone like satin; the barking of the setters equalled that of the beagles. In a special enclosure were eight growling bloodhounds that tugged at their chains and rolled their eyes, and these dogs leaped at men’s throats and were not afraid even of lions.

But in a work like this it doesn’t much matter, since a lot of medieval literature is exactly as encyclopedic and factual as this (think of Gawayne and the Green Knight with its highly factual accounts not only of three hunts, but of how the kills from each chase were gutted and prepared for table). The oddity of the factual interludes among the fairy-tale story actually make sense in a tale like this.

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d'Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d’Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Hérodias

Hérodias is another of Flaubert’s bracing fantasias of the evocative place names, wild landscapes and barbaric behaviour of the ancient world.

The sun, rising behind Machaerus, spread a rosy flush over the sky, lighting up the stony shores, the hills, and the desert, and illumining the distant mountains of Judea, rugged and grey in the early dawn. Engedi, the central point of the group, threw a deep black shadow; Hebron, in the background, was round-topped like a dome; Eschol had her pomegranates, Sorek her vineyards, Carmel her fields of sesame; and the tower of Antonia, with its enormous cube, dominated Jerusalem.

This time it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Part one establishes the uneasy relationship between the Jewish king of Palestine, Herod Antipas, and the forces which surround him:

  • his main military enemies are the Parthians to the east
  • the native inhabitants of the land, the Arabs, pass in voiceless but ominous caravans of camels
  • the Roman Empire has conquered Palestine and allowed Herod and other members of his family to ‘rule’ different parts of it, under their ultimate control; Herod is permanently fearful that the Romans are planning to replace him
  • he has to cope with the endlessly squabbling factions among the Jewish religious leaders, particularly the two main groups – the Sadducees and Pharisees

Above all, he struggles to control his haughty wife, Herodias. She was married to Herod’s half-brother and rival, Herod II, who has been imprisoned by the Romans. Herodias divorced him and has married Herod Antipas – in flagrant breach of all Jewish marriage law, prompting vicious criticism from religious leaders.

Now, as they stand looking out from the battlements of their hilltop fortress, Herodias tries to arouse her husband, but he is indifferent to her charms. Instead he gazes at a nubile, dark-haired serving girl hanging washing down in the town below the fort. Herodias notices and is angered.

But she has a deeper grounds for anger with her husband. Herod has imprisoned Jokanaan, the religious fanatic who the Latins call John the Baptist – but refuses to execute him, despite the fact that he waged a campaign of insults against her. Here’s an example of his anti-Herodias vituperation:

‘Ah! Is it thou, Jezebel? Thou hast captured thy lord’s heart with the tinkling of thy feet. Thou didst neigh to him like a mare. Thou didst prepare thy bed on the mountain top, in order to accomplish thy sacrifices! The Lord shall take from thee thy sparkling jewels, thy purple robes and fine linen; the bracelets from thine arms, the anklets from thy feet; the golden ornaments that dangle upon thy brow, thy mirrors of polished silver, thy fans of ostrich plumes, thy shoes with their heels of mother-of-pearl, that serve to increase thy stature; thy glittering diamonds, the scent of thy hair, the tint of thy nails – all the artifices of thy coquetry shall disappear, and missiles shall be found wherewith to stone the adulteress!’

(Note Flaubert’s lifelong addiction to exclamation marks at the end of every sentence spoken by his historical characters.)

In part two the Roman governor Vitellius, arrives. We are given, as you’d expect with Flaubert, factually precise descriptions of his armed guard and their uniforms and weapons, as a well as a comic description of his greedy fat son, Aulus.

It is Herod’s birthday and food is being brought up to the citadel in for a feast, alongside a throng of guests including leaders of the local Sadducees and Pharisees. Flaubert conveys the dirt and confusion of a first-century Palestine castle.

Unfortunately, Vitellius wants to see every aspect of Antipas’s mountain-top fortress and is surprised by what he finds. He is suspicious of the caves full of weapons, and the fine herd of a hundred snow white horses – is Herod planning some kind of rebellion? Sweating with anxiety, Herod assures him these are all for defence in case the Jews rebel.

Then Vitellius is astonished when, upon ordering Herod to open up his prison cells, he discovers the one in which the filthy dirty Jokanaan is kept. As daylight enters his deep dungeon, the Baptist starts up prophesying the overthrow of Herod, the day of Judgement to come, and the start of an era of milk and honey i.e. the advent of Jesus — though none of his listeners, of course, understand him.

Jokanaan then catches sight of Herodias among the throng and launches into another long diatribe against her filthy incest (divorcing her first husband to marry his half-brother).

The third and final part of the story describes in detail Herod Antipas’s birthday feast (which features ox kidneys, dormice, wild-ass stew, Syrian sheep’s tails and nightingales), attended by Vitellius, fat Aulus who has picked up a pretty slave boy in the kitchens, and the various worthies from Antipas’s kingdom.

Conversation turns to the latest news, rumours of the miracles and wonders worked by various magi and fakirs around Palestine.

The comfortable well-educated audience laugh at these stories of miracle-working peasants, but are surprised when one of the guests, a certain Jacob, stands up to proclaim that Jesus is the true Messiah. He knows because Jesus cured his daughter of a fatal illness.

Vitellius asks what a messiah is. The learned Jews present explain how it cannot be so, since the Messiah will, according to the scriptures, be a) a son of David and b) preceded by Elias.

But Elias has come, claims Jacob: and his name is Jokanaan!

At this dramatic moment, the fat proconsul’s son, Aulus is violently sick and all gather round to offer their help and advice. When he is quite finished throwing up, Aulus drinks some refreshing iced water and returns to guzzling . Flaubert does a good job of conveying the rich mix of religions and beliefs swirling among the guests, who include German pagans, Romans, Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Platonists, followers of Mithras, of the god Azia and so on.

The conversation degenerates into a drunken argument. The Pharisees are so infuriated with Roman impiety that they smash up their plates, while Vitellius gets cross that his Galilan interpreter refuses to translate to the Jews his increasingly offensive remarks.

Herod Antipas is trying to calm Vitellius down by showing him a rare medal with Tiberius’s face on it which Herodias gave to him for precisely this purpose, when Herodias herself dramatically pulls back the panels of the golden balcony and appears among slaves carrying torches.

The male guests are just taking in this surprising and inappropriate appearance of a woman at an all-male feast when, at the other end of the hall, a beautiful young girl appears and starts dancing to the music of a flute and castanets. It is Herodias’s daughter, Salomé.

The graceful dancer appeared transported with the very delirium of love and passion. She danced like the priestesses of India, like the Nubians of the cataracts, or like the Bacchantes of Lydia. She whirled about like a flower blown by the tempest. The jewels in her ears sparkled, her swift movements made the colours of her draperies appear to run into one another. Her arms, her feet, her clothing even, seemed to emit streams of magnetism, that set the spectators’ blood on fire.

Suffice to say that Salomé inflames them all with her youthful, athletic and erotic dancing, and especially Herod, who has never seen her before (Herodias having had her raised far from court for precisely this reason).

Herod is entranced, bewitched. When she dances up to him he offers her anything, his wealth, his throne, in return for her favours. Salome dances round him and laughs: ‘I want the head of… Jokanaan.’

Herod is horrified but then – realises that executing the Baptist might actually help him. It will show Vitellius that he can be decisive, it will please the Sadducees and Pharisees by sticking up for orthodox religion and, of course, it will placate his difficult wife.

So he orders his executioner to go and do the deed. This man returns in terror claiming Jokanaan is protected by a dragon, at which the entire company yells abuse at him. So the poor man goes back and this time carries out the task – returning with Jokanaan’s decapitated head held up by the hair.

Herod places it on a silver salver from the feast table and hands it to Salomé, who smiles and laughs and Antipas realises that she is the beautiful black-haired young woman he had glimpsed on a town rooftop back at the start of the story.

The tray and head are passed round among the guests who each react differently, a comic moment coming when the drunk, dazed eyes of Aulus look at the blank, dead eyes of the Baptist. The feast ends. The candles are quenched. The guests depart, leaving Herod alone staring at the head.

Off in a corner, the Essene, a minor figure who has been loitering in the background for most of the story, quietly prays for the soul of the Baptist. Two messengers from Galilee arrive and are shown to him. We don’t learn the message they bring but the implication is that they bring news of Jesus.

Herod finally stands and walks out the feast room. The two messengers and the Essene, clearly believes in Jesus and in Jokanaan’s prophetic role, pick up his bloody head and carry it off with them.

Then the three, taking with them the head of John the Baptist, set out upon the road to Galilee; and as the burden was heavy, each man bore it awhile in turn.

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

It is easy to see the thread connecting the sensual sadism of Salammbô with much the same themes embodied in the story of Salomé. Given that the depiction of heterosexual sex in fiction at this time was illegal, any hints at homosexuality ditto, and lesbianism wasn’t even acknowledged – one way of looking at the late-nineteenth century obsession with Salomé is that its setting in the remote historical past, allowed the expression of ‘transgressive’ images of sexuality which were simply impossible if set anywhere remotely contemporary (as Flaubert had found out to his cost when the relatively tame Madame Bovary was prosecuted for immorality).

Another interpretation might see it as sensationalist titillation for its own sake, as sexist soft porn.

But as always with Flaubert, the interest is as much or more in the deadpan delivery of the story, in the minutely itemised details of clothes and places, languages and customs, than in the actual plot.

This explains why Salomé’s dance and John’s beheading occur only on the last two pages of this thirty-five page story. The interest isn’t really in this grotesque (or plain tacky) deed itself: it is the careful build-up of background detail which the text is really interested in.

Christianity

And it’s easy to overlook the simple fact that all three stories are about Christianity. Flaubert, as a cynical modern man, was not a practicing Catholic. But maybe his imagination was.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes – outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony a.k.a Anthony the Great (c. 251 – 356) was a Christian monk and visionary who reacted against the increasing acceptance and normalisation of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire by becoming, first an ascetic, and then rejecting social life altogether by going to live in the Egyptian desert, to fast and pray by himself, relying only on gifts of food from pilgrims and local villagers.

Rumours and legends spread about his simple life and holiness, and soon he gained a following. He is known to posterity because his contemporary, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote a long biography of him. For many years Anthony was credited as the founded of monasticism i.e. the idea that holy men should go and live in isolation from society, ideally in remote locations, to live simple lives and praise God – though modern scholars now know he was part of a widespread movement of religious puritans away from urban centres, which predated and accompanied him.

Athanasius’s biography describes how Anthony was tempted by the devil and by demons who appeared in numerous disguises, trying to seduce him with food and the pleasures of the flesh or, more subtly, trying to lure him into some of the heretical beliefs with which his age abounded.

Continually elaborated in the retelling, embellished with demons, naked women and weird monsters, the legend of the ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ went on to become a familiar subject in western art, inspiring lovingly grotesque depictions by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Mathias Grünewald.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (1501)

In more modern times the Temptation was painted by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and was the subject of a symphony by the German composer Paul Hindemith (1934).

And it inspired this prose fantasia by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1874.

The mundane and the fantastic in Flaubert

As I’ve read through Flaubert I’ve realised his output can be very simply divided into two categories: the contemporary realist works (Madame Bovary, The Sentimental Education) and the exuberant historical fantasias (Salammbô, The Temptation of Saint Anthony).

In other words, alongside his painstaking attention to the detail of contemporary life, Flaubert was also fascinated and inspired by a wide range of historical and fantastical subjects. He had a long-running interest in the ancient world of the Mediterranean (an interest fuelled by his visits to Tunisia and Egypt) and a lifelong fascination with religion, all religions, ranging as far afield as Buddhism and Hinduism.

It is as if all the uncontrolled sexual, sadistic, fantastical and philosophical fantasies which Flaubert kept completely bottled up when creating the painstaking ‘realist’ novels, just had to erupt somewhere else – in the sustained cruelty of Salammbô and into the extended philosophical and psychological fantasia of Saint Anthony.

The problem of ‘evil’ in 19th century literature (i.e. it is boring)

Flaubert wrote three completely different versions of the Temptation (1849, 1856 and this one).

The long introduction to the Penguin paperback edition by Kitty Mrosovsky compares how the images and ideas changed in the three versions. She then goes on to quote the opinions of later French writers and critics, from Baudelaire through Valéry, from Sartre to Michel Foucault.

What becomes clear is that if you write about God and the devil, heaven and hell, being and nothingness, sex and sin, any number of critics will be able to impose their own critical schemas and obsessions on your text, and it can be turned into a Symbolist, Freudian, Modernist, Existentialist or Structuralist masterpiece, depending on which critic you’re reading.

In other words, modern texts on this kind of subject often turn out to be strangely empty.

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Personally, I find the history of the late Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity and the efflorescence of its countless heresies, absolutely riveting. By contrast I often find the way secular ‘modern’ writers use this era and these ideas to spool out endless ruminations about the meaning of life, unutterably boring. Why?

I think the reason I like the history of the actual heresies – all those gnostics and Arians, the Adamites, Marcionians, Nicolaitans, Paternians, Archonites and so on – is that they are interesting in themselves, and they really mattered. There were riots, insurrections, people fought to the death about these beliefs and – arguably – the weakness of the Church in North Africa after centuries of bitter sectarian fighting made it easy for militant Islam to sweep across the region in the 7th century. This was of world-historical importance.

And the arcane Christological heresies of the 3rd or 4th centuries AD are interesting in themselves as thought-provoking explorations of the potential of Christian theology – was Christ a man? or a God? or half-man and half-God? Which half was which? Did God speak through him or were his words his own? Has the Son existed for all time, like God, or was he created at some later date i.e. is he equal to, or inferior to, God the Father? How can they be part of the same Substance when Jesus continually refers to ‘his Father’ as a distinct entity? And how does the Holy Spirit fit into each of these scenarios?

1. The long line of 19th century non-believing poets and writers who tackled issues of ‘sin’ and ‘damnation’ and ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ – from Byron via Baudelaire to Rimbaud and beyond – were just playing at being ‘damned poets’. There is no sense of risk in their work. The absolutely worst thing they could conceive of in their fictions, was suicide (which, when all is said and done, is just a personal psychological disorder), or murdering someone (just the one person) the subject of Dostoyevsky’s 500-page-long Crime and Punishment. Even the primevally wicked Mr Hyde only in fact murders one person. The worst thing most of these writers did, in practice, was sleep around and get drunk a lot.

In a sense the twentieth century made much 19th century literature redundant. The First World War went a long way towards (and then the Second World War, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, completed the work of) redefining forever the meaning of evil, despair, horror.

Agonising over one person’s soul seems, well, rather paltry in the light of the world we live in. (This is the reason I find the novels of Graham Greene, and their enormous obsession with the sinfulness or damnation of just one person, rather ludicrous.)

2. Also, no-one believes in Christianity any more. Not in a literal hell and damnation, not like they used to. In the Middle Ages the idea of damnation really mattered, psychologically: in Chaucer and Dante it is a real place, with real fire, and real demons skewering your tortured body. By the nineteenth century, in the hands of a dilettante like Byron, it is a fashion accessory, part of the pose of tormented genius.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

The Temptation is divided into seven parts. It is written as if a play, with prose instructions describing the setting and goings-on (Opening words: ‘The setting is Thebaid, high on a mountain…’) while the dialogue of the ‘characters’ is given in dramatic format- the name, a colon, the speech.

It starts with Anthony outside his primitive hut in the desert at nightfall, and he proceeds to have a bewildering series of visions, some of which transport him to cities and palaces, where he encounters emperors and queens, and all manner of famous individuals such as the Queen of Sheba, Helen of Troy, the Buddha, the Greek gods and so on.

Right from the start Anthony – surprisingly – bemoans his lot, hates being alone, wonders whether he shouldn’t have followed another vocation, grumbles and complains in what – to be honest – is Flaubert’s awful, stagey dialogue.

Another day! another day gone!… What solitude! what weariness!… Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!… Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery!… What shame for me! Alas! poor Anthony!… It is my own fault! I allow myself to be caught in every snare! No man could be more imbecile, more infamous!…

Since he doesn’t really do anything, we only know Anthony through his speech and his speech is hammy Victorian melodrama. As with the dialogue in Salammbô, every sentence seems to end in an exclamation mark but, paradoxically, the more exclamation marks he uses, the less dramatic (or interesting) the speech becomes, the more tiresome and simple-minded.

I found it impossible to take Anthony seriously as a character.

He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.

In fact, given the extravagant cast of characters, there is also surprisingly little drama, hardly any sense of conflict or threat, in the whole work. Anthony remains the same miserable moaner all the way through. There is no change or development, no sense of critical encounters or turning points or sudden revelations.

As I’ve read through Flaubert’s works I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of Set Piece Scenes in his fiction. In a sense the Temptation is a reductio ad absurdam of this approach: it consists of nothing but an apparently endless series of set-piece encounters and scenes. This accounts for the highly static impression it makes on the reader.

One critic compares the entire book to the panoramas created by magic lanterns in the mid-nineteenth century. These enchanted their simpler audiences by projecting a series of images onto a flat wall. You can envisage the entire book as just such a series of slides.

The Temptation Of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck

The Temptation of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck (1650)

Part one – Human frailty

We find Saint Anthony in front of his hut in the desert as the sun sets. The entire book takes place in the space of this one night, from dusk to dawn.

Anthony is moaning about his lot in life and wonders why he didn’t do almost anything else, become a soldier or a teacher. Almost continually his thoughts are interrupted by wolves prowling just outside the light of his torch, or by birds, by strange noises.

Personally, I found almost all the scenes involving Anthony off-putting because he comes across as so wet and feeble. As in Salammbô and the realist novels, I often found the quiet, descriptive passages the most enjoyable, the ones where Flaubert uses his extensive background reading in the period to depict ordinary life of the time. Here he is imagining the life of your ordinary Alexandrian merchant.

The merchants of Alexandria sail upon the river Canopus on holidays, and drink wine in the chalices of lotus-flowers, to a music of tambourines which makes the taverns along the shore tremble! Beyond, trees, made cone-shaped by pruning, protect the quiet farms against the wind of the south. The roof of the lofty house leans upon thin colonettes placed as closely together as the laths of a lattice; and through their interspaces the master, reclining upon his long couch, beholds his plains stretching about him – the hunter among the wheat-fields – the winepress where the vintage is being converted into wine, the oxen treading out the wheat. His children play upon the floor around him; his wife bends down to kiss him.

Anthony sees this vision because he himself is lonely and hungry. The local villagers used to come and give him food, now they’ve stopped. Anthony reminisces about his days back in the city, as a trainee monk, when he was invited by Athanasius to join a set piece debate against the Arians (a very popular type of Christian heresy). Then he sees visions -‘ a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple, a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing’, then he faints.

Part two – the Seven Deadly Sins

Out of the darkness comes the Devil, like a huge vampire bat, and under its wings are suckling the Seven Deadly Sins. It is a disappointment, then, that this ominous creature doesn’t speak. Instead Anthony hallucinates that his mat is a boat, rocking on a river, floating past the temple of Serapis.

Papyrus-leaves and the red flowers of the nymphæa, larger than the body of a man, bend over him. He is lying at the bottom of the boat; one oar at the stem, drags in the water. From time to time, a lukewarm wind blows; and the slender reeds rub one against the other, and rustle. Then the sobbing of the wavelets becomes indistinct. A heavy drowsiness falls upon him. He dreams that he is a Solitary of Egypt.

I like passages like this, clips or little scenelets of vivid description. When Anthony wakes the Devil has, apparently, disappeared – very disappointing. Anthony finds a husk of bread and his jug empty and this prompts a vivid hallucination of a great banqueting table set for a feast, replete with intoxicating sights and smells.

Then many things appear which he has never seen before – black hashes, jellies, the colour of gold, ragouts in which mushrooms float like nenuphars upon ponds, dishes of whipped cream light as clouds.

It was only the notes which explained to me that what now follows is a sequence in which Anthony hallucinates each of the Seven Deadly Sins in turn. This one represented the Sin of Gluttony. As in a hallucination the food morphs into lips and then into one loaf on a table which now stretches to right in front of his face. He pushes it away and it vanishes.

Then Anthony stumbles over something underfoot, which turns into money, lots of money, a crown, precious jewels.

As water streams overflowing from the basin of a fountain, so diamonds, carbuncles, and sapphires, all mingled with broad pieces of gold bearing the effigies of Kings, overflow from the cup in never ceasing streams, to form a glittering hillock upon the sand…

It is the Sin of Avarice. As he throws himself upon the pile it vanishes. He trembles in the knowledge that, had he died in the middle of succumbing to any of these temptations, he would have gone to hell.

Now the scene completely changes and Anthony thinks he sees a panoramic overview of the city of Alexandria. In style this is identical to the numerous panoramic overviews of Carthage which Flaubert gave us in Salammbô. He sees crowds of vengeful monks pouring through the streets, seeking out their heretical opponents, the Arians, and then Anthony suddenly sees himself to be one of them, bursting into the houses of the heretics, burning their books, torturing and eviscerating them, wading up to his knees in the heretics’ blood!

And the blood gushes to the ceilings, falls back upon the walls like sheets of rain, streams from the trunks of decapitated corpses, fills the aqueducts, forms huge red pools upon the ground. Anthony is up to his knees in it. He wades in it; he sucks up the blood-spray on his lips; he is thrilled with joy as he feels it upon his limbs, under his hair-tunic which is soaked through with it.

This is the Sin of Wrath.

Next the scene morphs to a Roman city (which I deduce is the newish capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople) and Anthony finds himself ushered through countless rooms in a grand palace, past armed guards to arrive in the presence of the Emperor. This painted, dazzling personage treats him as an equal, discusses politics and religion with him and places his imperial diadem on Anthony’s brow. He is taken out into the balcony overlooking the Hippodrome where the great chariot races are held, walking past prison cells in which are imprisoned his theological enemies, the Arians, grovelling and begging hur hur hur. The Sin of Pride.

Then the scene morphs into the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon 600 BC, a long banqueting table, and crawling in the dirt all the kings Nebuchadnezzar has defeated, whose hands and feet have been cut off. A little way off sit the king’s brothers, all of whom have been blinded. As in Salammbô the reader becomes aware of Flaubert’s oppressive interest in sadism and cruelty. Anthony enters the mind of the king of kings and is immediately drenched in feelings of lust and cruelty. He climbs on the table and bellows like a bull and then…

Comes to himself. He is alone in front of his hut. He picks up his whip and flagellates himself, enjoying the pain, the tearing of his rebellious flesh, whereupon…

He sees men riding on onagers (a kind of Asiatic wild ass) and then a procession of camels and horses and then a white elephant with a golden net and waving peacock feathers, which bears the Queen of Sheba. The elephant kneels, the queen slides down its trunk onto a precious carpet laid out by her slaves and she greets Anthony. As with Salammbô, there is in these scenes an excess of description over psychology or character.

Her robe of gold brocade, regularly divided by furbelows of pearls, of jet, and of sapphires, sheaths her figure closely with its tight-fitting bodice, set off by coloured designs representing the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

She wears very high pattens – one of which is black, and sprinkled with silver stars, with a moon crescent; the other, which is white, is sprinkled with a spray of gold, with a golden sun in the middle. Her wide sleeves, decorated with emeralds and bird-plumes, leave exposed her little round bare arms, clasped at the wrist by ebony bracelets; and her hands, loaded with precious rings, are terminated by nails so sharply pointed that the ends of her fingers seem almost like needles.

A chain of dead gold, passing under her chin, is caught up on either side of her face, and spirally coiled about her coiffure, whence, redescending, it grazes her shoulders and is attached upon her bosom to a diamond scorpion, which protrudes a jewelled tongue between her breasts. Two immense blond pearls depend heavily from her ears. The borders of her eyelids are painted black.

And she claims they have been searching the wilderness for him and, now they have found him, she will marry him and worship him and anoint him and caress him. There is a great deal of Miltonic description of the riches and luxuries from far-flung exotic places which she can offer him, but then it focuses down to the pleasure of her body, which sums up a whole world of desire. The Sin of Lust.

I am not a woman: I am a world!

But Anthony stands firm and after flirting with him some more, she turns on her heel, remounts her elephant and departs along with all her servants, laughing, mocking him.

Part three – Hilarion (11 pages)

A small child appears. Going up to him Anthony recognises the face of his one-time disciple, Hilarion, long since departed for Palestine. This phantasmal Hilarion sets about systematically undermining Anthony’s faith:

  • he criticises Anthony’s teacher, Athanasius, pointing out his theological errors
  • he says Anthony’s mortification is pointless since many heretics do just the same
  • Jesus went cheerfully about his ministry, mixing with people, talking, teaching, unlike misanthropic Anthony
  • when Anthony points to the Scriptures as the basis of faith, Hilarion immediately rattles off a list of the inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts of Jesus
The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

Part four – the Heresiarchs and the circus victims (60 pages)

The heresiarchs Hilarion ushers Anthony into a vast basilica full of people who turn out to be a collection of all the founders of heresies, all the rival theologians and preachers and mystic, the Gnostics and neo-Platonics and religious thinkers, of his time. This is quite a long list and, as most of them only get a sentence or so designed to baffle and demoralise Anthony, it is very difficult from Flaubert’s text alone to properly understand their deviant beliefs.

After all these years I still recommend Paul Johnson’s excellent History of Christianity (1977), whose long second chapter is devoted to a detailed exposition of the Christian heresies which exploded around the Mediterranean and caused outrage, riots and even wars (when different candidates for emperor adopted opposing theologies) until well into the 8th century.

Thus Anthony meets in quick succession the heresiarchs Mani, Saturninus, Cerdo, St Clement of Alexandria, Bardesanes, the Herbians, the Priscillianists, Valentine, Origen, the Elkhasaites, the Carpocratians, the Nicolaitans, the Marcosians, the Helvidians, the Messalians, the Paternians, Aetius, Tertullian, Priscilla, Maximilla, Montanus, the Archontics, the Tatianians, the Valesians, the Cainites, the Circumcellions, Arius. Pandemonium breaks out:

The Audians shoot arrows against the Devil; the Collyridians throw blue cloths toward the roof; the Ascites prostrate themselves before a waterskin; the Marcionites baptise a dead man with oil. A woman, standing near Appelles, exhibits a round loaf within a bottle, in order the better to explain her idea. Another, standing in the midst of an assembly of Sampseans distributes, as a sacrament, the dust of her own sandals. Upon the rose-strewn bed of the Marcosians, two lovers embrace. The Circumcellionites slaughter one another; the Valesians utter the death-rattle; Bardesanes sings; Carpocras dances; Maximilla and Priscilla moan; and the false prophetess of Cappadocia, completely naked, leaning upon a lion, and brandishing three torches, shrieks the Terrible Invocation.

As you can see, this glorified list is more a goldmine for editors and annotators than any kind of pleasure for readers. Indeed, the Penguin edition has 47 pages of notes giving you fascinating facts on almost every one of the characters and places mentioned in the text. But if you read it as text alone, all these names quickly blur.

This long section about heretics makes clearer than ever the fact that Flaubert has the mentality of an encyclopedist, a compiler of dictionaries. He boasted to friends about the hundreds of history books he read as research for both Salammbô and Anthony and boy does it show.

Flaubert cuts and pastes together the results to produce scenes packed with exotic names, but almost always without any life or psychology and, as here, disappointingly uninformative. The controversies about the precise meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion which racked the early church are riveting because there was so much to play for; they were political as well as theological arguments, because different sects seized control of entire Roman provinces, Roman emperors disinherited their own children or fought opponents because they espoused divergent beliefs.

Flaubert manages to drain this exciting and complex historical and theological subject of all interest and turn it into a procession of cardboard mouthpieces, who all sound the same.

Following Arius, the chapter continues with a paragraph or so from: Sabellius, the Valentinians, the Sethians, the Theodotians, the Merinthians, the Apollinarists, Marcellus of Ancyra, Pope Calixtus, Methodius, Cerinthus, Paul of Samosata, Hermogenes, the Cerinthians, the Marcosians, the Encratites, the Cainites, the Old Ebionites, Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellina…

The ceremony of the Orphites Anthony is then taken through a door into a dark shrine where he witnesses a ceremony of the Orphites, who worshipped the snake, the serpent in the Eden story, believing it to be the true saviour. Their chanting awakens a monstrously huge python which they handle and twine around themselves as they hold a blasphemous eucharist.

Christians being thrown to the lions Exhausted with horror at the sheer number of heresies, Anthony falls to the floor and is immediately back in the dust in front of his humble hut. Time passes and a new hallucination begins. He is in a dark room, a prison cell, among other wretches. Outside it is sunny, he hears the roar of a crowd, the sound of lions and has a vision of the arena, tier after tier of seats. He is among Christians about to be thrown to the lions.

Various characters explain why they’re there (interrupting pagan rites, burning down temples, refusing to worship pagan gods) and explore their plight: an Old Man lamenting he didn’t escape, a Young Man bewailing the lost years, a Consoler saying a miracle might happen. The idea (apparently) is to disillusion Anthony by showing him the mean motives, the backsliding and lack of faith of the so-called ‘martyrs’. The portcullis on the other side of the arena opens and out lope lazy lions, panthers, leopards, and then the martyrs’ door opens and the gaoler whips the weeping Christians out into the sand…

In the cemetery And Anthony awakes, dazed, looks around him, then.. falls into another dream. He is in a cemetery where he meets veiled women lamenting the deaths of their husbands, sons or how they themselves were condemned as Christians and persecuted, and then… as they bow and pray together, eat together, their robes slip open and their mouths join and.. I think they have an orgy – presumably the Devil’s intention is to show him the lack of faith and the easy lasciviousness of the widows of the faithful. This scene fades out and…

The Hindu sage Anthony is at the edge of a tropical forest, with parrots and lizards. On a pyre squats a shrivelled man wearing a necklace of shells and with a bird’s nest built in his long matted hair. He is ‘the Gymnosophist’, a Hindu sage. This wizened figure repeats basic Hindu teachings about reincarnation, about striving to reach purity so as not to fall into corruption. Then his pyre bursts into flames and he is burnt alive without a sound.

Simon Magus and Helen of Troy Anthony tramples out the flames and it is dark again. Then through a cleft in the rocks comes a voice followed by a white-haired old man leading a young girl with bite marks on her face and bruises on her arm. It emerges that he is Simon Magus, a magician of the first century mentioned in the Gospels. He claims to be the reincarnation of God and that the woman with him is his ‘First Thought’ or Ennoia, who has been reincarnated through the ages, at one point in the body of the legendary Helen of Troy, before he rescued from her work in a brothel in Tyre. Simon shakes the pot he’s carrying which has a live flame at the top, but the flame shivers and goes out and a great smoke or fog fills the stage.

Apollonius of Tyana Anthony stumbles though the fog to discover Simon and Helen are gone. Now through the fog come a pair of men, one tall and lordly like Christ, the other a short servant. It is Apollonius of Tyana, the sage or thaumaturge, and his servant Dimas. Apollonius declaims grandly. As so often with Flaubert, the reader gets the sense that the author is more interested, intoxicated even, by lists of grand, exotic-sounding and remote peoples and places – than by any kind of sense or logic. Thus Apollonius:

I have conversed with the Samaneans of the Ganges, with the astrologers of Chaldea, with the magi of Babylon, with the Gaulish Druids, with the priests of the negroes! I have ascended the fourteen Olympii; I have sounded the Scythian lakes; I have measured the breadth of the Desert!…

But first I had visited the Hyrcanian Sea; I made the tour of it; and descending by way of the country of the Baraomati, where Bucephalus is buried, I approached the city of Nineveh….

At Taxilla, the capital of five thousand fortresses, Phraortes, King of the Ganges, showed us his guard of black men, whose stature was five cubits, and under a pavilion of green brocade in his gardens, an enormous elephant, which the queens amused themselves by perfuming. It was the elephant of Porus which had taken flight after the death of Alexander….

Upon the shores of the sea we met with the milk-gorged Cynocephali, who were returning from their expedition to the Island Taprobana…

So we returned through the Region of Aromatics, by way of the country of the Gangarides, the promontory of Comaria, the country of the Sachalites, of the Adramites and of the Homerites; then, across the Cassanian mountains, the Red Sea, and the Island Topazos, we penetrated into Ethiopia through the country of the Pygmies…

I have penetrated into the cave of Trophonius, son of Apollo! I have kneaded for Syracusan women the cakes which they carry to the mountains. I have endured the eighty tests of Mithra! I have pressed to my heart the serpent of Sabasius! I have received the scarf of Kabiri! I have laved Cybele in the waters of the Campanian gulfs! and I have passed three moons in the caverns of Samothracia!

And so on. There is not a trace of drama, character, psychology, theology or philosophy in sight. This is quite transparently just a litany of resonant names. Apollonius and Dimas step backwards off a cliff and remain suspended in the air, like Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, before ascending slowly into the black night sky.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

Part five – the pagan gods and goddesses (42 pages)

Another long chapter in which Anthony meets what amounts to a list of all the pagan gods and goddesses, each of them given – as we’ve become used to – a few sentences or a paragraph in which to show off Flaubert’s erudition and wide reading, before handing on to the next one.

In fact it starts off with a parade of pre-pagan gods, the blocks of wood or stone which original humans worshipped. Anthony and Hilarion mock the stupidity of the men who worshiped these clods. Then detours (unexpectedly) to a quick review of the original Hindu gods and of the Buddha, who tells the story of his life. The purpose of this temptation is that, as each of these entities tells its story, Hilarion (like a mini-devil) chips in to point out that this or that aspect of their worship is really no different from Christian belief or practice; it is designed to erode Christianity’s claims to uniqueness.

We have appearances from the Buddha, Oanna (of the Chaldeans), the gods of ancient Babylon and their temple prostitutes, Ormuz god of the Persians, the Great Diana of Ephesus with her three rows of breasts.

Cybele’s priests sacrifice a sheep and spatter Anthony and Hilarion with the blood, Atys who in a frenzy castrates himself as do his priests, we see the funeral of Adonis, killed by the boar, and the lamentation of Persephone, Isis suckling her babe and lamenting the death and dismemberment of Osiris.

Anthony is racked with sadness that so many souls have been lost worshiping these false gods; but sly Hilarion points out that so many aspects of the gods or their worship echo the True Religion, seeking to undermine Anthony’s belief.

Now he and Anthony see a vast mountain with Olympus on its height and witness the pantheon of Greek gods, one by one lamenting their decline and fall: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Hercules, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Vulcan, one by one they lament the loss of their powers and the end of their worship, before going tumbling down into a black abyss.

The lament of Osiris for her lost lover, and the sorrow of the Greek gods are the only pages in the book which I found moving enough to reread and savour. In it we can hear the voice of Flaubert, who from his schooldays believed he lived in a fallen world of stupidity and vulgarity. Hence the words he puts into dying Jupiter’s mouth:

‘Eagle of apotheoses, what wind from Erebus has wafted thee to me? or, fleeing from the Campus Martins, dost thou bear me the soul of the last of the Emperors? – I no longer desire to receive those of men. Let the Earth keep them; and let them move upon the level of its baseness. Their hearts are now the hearts of slaves; – they forget injuries, forget their ancestors, forget their oaths – and everywhere the mob’s imbecility, the mediocrity of individuals, the hideousness of every race, hold sway!

Latterly go the household gods, those minor deities who gave grace and dignity to all aspects of daily life in ancient Rome, who laid the bride in her bed, tended at childbirth, at sickness, at feasts, during illness. All scorned, ignored and gone. Finally – surprisingly – a page is devoted to Jehovah, the god of the Old Testament, himself rejected and abused, his followers – the Jews – scorned and scattered over the earth.

It was a struggle to read the previous chapters, but these long laments of the dying pagan gods and the imaginative grace and nobility they brought to everyday life is, I think, genuinely moving. For the first time the text stirred, for me, as actual literature instead of a list of gaudy names.

Part six – the Devil (8 pages)

Hilarion gives way to the Devil himself who chucks Anthony onto his horns and carries him up, up and away, through the sky, into space, up to the moon, beyond the solar system, into the realm of the stars, all the time explaining a) that the universe is infinite, nothing like the earth-centred structure of the ancient Greeks or Jews b) while giving him a compelling lecture on theology (the only theology in the text), explaining in a dry logical, professorial manner the unbounded infinitude and one substance of God.

God has no imperfections, God has no passions, God doesn’t worry or fret about his creatures, he is vastly beyond the momentary whims of man, his is as extended, infinite and integral as the universe. BUT the corollary of this is that He doesn’t listen to prayers and hear the sobs and hopes of his countless creations. He is infinitely remote, completely Perfect, utterly indifferent. (According to the notes, this is a summary of the philosophical pantheism of Spinoza.)

The point is that the Devil’s fluent and vast philosophising leads up to the terrifyingly logical conclusion:

Adore me, then! – and curse the phantom thou callest God!

On some instinct Anthony, despite being overwhelmed by this vision of the universe and the Devil’s compelling logic, lifts his eyes as if to pray. The Devil drops him in disgust.

Part seven (20 pages)

Anthony regains consciousness by the cliff edge. It crosses his mind to end it all by simply rolling over it and falling to his death. This final chapter is in three parts:

1. He is approached by a wizened old woman and a nubile young woman. One argues the case for suicide, the other urges him to embrace life. Slowly it becomes clear they are Death and Lust, respectively. He dismisses them and is confronted by:

2. The Chimera and the Sphinx. The former attracts men towards pointless delusions, the latter devours seekers after God. They squabble and argue until the Sphinx sinks into the sand and the Chimaera goes swooping off in pointless circles.

3. Their argument morphs into the most genuinely surreal and hallucinatory section in the text, where Flaubert creates a parade of the strangest creatures or human-beasts he has come across in all his reading of myths and legends. These include:

  • the Astomi, humans who are completely transparent
  • the Nisnas, who have only one eye, one cheek, one hand, one leg, half a body, half a heart
  • the Blemmyes who have no head at all
  • the Pygmies
  • the Sciapods, who live with their heads and bodies in the earth, only the soles of their feet and legs showing
  • the Cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs who fly through trees in great forests,
  • the Sadhuzag, who has seventy-four antlers which the wind blows through to make beautiful sounds
  • the Martichoras, a gigantic red lion, with human face, and three rows of teeth
  • the Catoblepas, a black buffalo with a pig’s head, falling to the ground, and attached to his shoulders by a neck long, thin, and flaccid as an empty gut
  • the Basilisk, a great violet serpent, with trilobate crest, and two fangs, one above, one below
  • the Griffin, a lion with a vulture’s beak, and white wings, red paws and blue neck

And then there is a terrifying outpouring of Life in a profusion of forms:

And all manner of frightful creatures arise: – The Tragelaphus, half deer, half ox; the Myrmecoles, lion before and ant behind, whose genitals are set reversely; the python Askar, sixty cubits long, that terrified Moses; the huge weasel Pastinaca, that kills the trees with her odour; the Presteros, that makes those who touch it imbecile; the Mirag, a horned hare, that dwells in the islands of the sea. The leopard Phalmant bursts his belly by roaring; the triple-headed bear Senad tears her young by licking them with her tongue; the dog Cepus pours out the blue milk of her teats upon the rocks.

Mosquitoes begin to hum, toads commence to leap; serpents hiss. Lightnings flicker. Hail falls.
Then come gusts, bearing with them marvellous anatomies: – Heads of alligators with hoofs of deer; owls with serpent tails; swine with tiger-muzzles; goats with the crupper of an ass; frogs hairy as bears; chameleons huge as hippopotami; calves with two heads, one bellowing, the other weeping; winged bellies flitting hither and thither like gnats.

They rain from the sky, they rise from the earth, they pour from the rocks; everywhere eyes flame, mouths roar, breasts bulge, claws are extended, teeth gnash, flesh clacks against flesh. Some crouch; some devour each other at a mouthful.

Suffocating under their own numbers, multiplying by their own contact, they climb over one another; and move about Anthony with a surging motion as though the ground were the deck of a ship. He feels the trail of snails upon the calves of his legs, the chilliness of vipers upon his hands: – and spiders spinning about him enclose him within their network.

Finally, in this endless chain of evolutions and transformations, animals turn into insects, flowers turn into rocks, beasts turn to crystal, ice pullulates with life, it is a wild hallucination of the pantheistic vision of life in all things

And now the vegetables are no longer distinguishable from the animals. Polyparies that seem like trees, have arms upon their branches. Anthony thinks he sees a caterpillar between two leaves: it is a butterfly that takes flight. He is about to step on a pebble: a grey locust leaps away. One shrub is bedecked with insects that look like petals of roses; fragments of ephemerides form a snowy layer upon the soil.

And then the plants become confounded with the stones. Flints assume the likeness of brains; stalactites of breasts; the flower of iron resembles a figured tapestry.

He sees efflorescences in fragments of ice, imprints of shrubs and shells—yet so that one cannot detect whether they be imprints only, or the things themselves. Diamonds gleam like eyes; metals palpitate.

His vision narrows right down onto ants, onto the tiniest creatures, onto organisms no bigger than pinheads, furred with cilia and quivering with primordial life. Anthony has seen the origins of life and evolution in reverse, and he bursts out:

‘O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life! I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting! I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl! Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell – that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk – make my body writhe – divide myself everywhere – be in everything – emanate with odours – develop myself like the plants – flow like water – vibrate like sound – shine like light, squatting upon all forms – penetrate each atom – descend to the very bottom of matter – be matter itself!

And then:

Day at last appears, and, like the raised curtains of a tabernacle, golden clouds furling into larger scrolls unveil the sky.

There in the middle, inside the very disk of the sun, radiates the face of Jesus Christ.

Anthony makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

Conclusion

Now, either Anthony has learned something definitive in the course of this long, busy night, and Flaubert intends this final outcry, apparently in praise of a kind of pantheistic materialism, as the climax and ‘message’ of the piece (which is very much how it feels when you read it)…

Or the ending has a more pessimistic meaning: namely that the return to his prayers signals a return to the same rut, the same wheel, and that the next night the whole thing will repeat itself all over again. I.e. he is caught like a Beckett character in an endless, pointless cycle of torment and fake wisdom.

I could see that both of these are possibilities but I am happy to leave my reading of the ending completely open because I was just so relieved to get to the end of this long, dense, almost unreadable fantasia of cuttings and notes transmuted into a bizarre sequence of sometimes unbearably tedious scenes.

The only moving part of the whole book is the Lament of the Pagan Gods – where the scenario of each of the gods in turn lamenting the decline of their worship and the end of their influence for once was adequate to the feeling of world sadness Flaubert is obviously aiming at.

Also, the final few pages, the almost hysterical hallucination of the very origins of life, are also head-spinningly delirious. But most if it felt like I was at the dentist having a filling.

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (1869)

This is Flaubert’s third novel, and in fact it’s the last one he finished, if we categorise his fourth book, the temptation of Saint Anthony, as a theological fantasia rather than a novel.

With the previous two novels, Flaubert had established a reputation as a highly literary writer, becoming famous for his meticulously detailed realism. He had also gained a reputation for ‘immorality’: Emma Bovary, the heroine of his first book is shown progressing – or declining – from shy convent schoolgirl, through dissatisfied wife, to reluctant seducee and then seasoned and cynical adulterer. But Emma’s small-town tragedy was eclipsed by the astonishing violence and exotically sensual atmosphere of his second book, Salammbô, a historical novel describing in loving detail the stupefying cruelties of 3rd century BC Carthage.

A consequence of Flaubert’s meticulous craftsmanship was that he took a very long time writing each of his books, sometimes spending a whole day crafting a sentence, searching, as he put it, for le mot juste – for just the right word to create the effect he wanted. There was a seven-year gap between Salammbô and this third work – plenty of time for critics and readers alike to wonder which course he would follow – another realistic tale of contemporary French life, or another oriental phantasmagoria.

In the event it was the former. Sentimental Education is sub-titled ‘The history of a young man’ and that is exactly what it is, the story of a young Frenchman’s emotional, intellectual and social development in the years 1840 to 1851.

Among Flaubert’s entertaining and very readable correspondence, are a number of places where he explains his aim in the book. To one one correspondent he wrote that:

I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation – or, more accurately, the history of their feelings. It’s a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays – that is to say, inactive.

The guiding idea is that the young hero is a romantic, who wants to have a pure and romantic love – but he lives in a ‘fallen’, ‘bourgeois’, business-minded age, an age which cannot sustain him or his dreamy ideals, in which his ‘ideals’ seem to be hopelessly frustrated and compromised and he himself eventually becomes – as we shall see – cynical and manipulative.

Now whether this is the fault of the age, with its ‘bourgeois’ values, or of the protagonist for being such a naive fool, is left for the reader to decide.

The plot

Sentimental Education is divided into three parts, is very long (420 pages in the Penguin paperback version which I read) and exceedingly complicated. My summary is consciously as rambling as the plot itself i.e. I haven’t tried to simplify and regularise it; as a reader I found the book often baffling and sometimes incomprehensible.

Part one

We meet the hero, young Frédéric Moreau, in 1840 when he is an eighteen-year-old student, come from his home in Normandy to study law in Paris. The core of the plot is his enduring love for an older married woman, the wife of the art dealer Jacques Arnoux, who he sees on the Paris-to-Normandy river boat (along the river Seine) and spends the rest of the novel pursuing.

All this is completely autobiographical – Flaubert himself hailed from Normandy (his father was a surgeon), he studied law in Paris and he fell in love with an older married woman, like his hero. Looking back at his romantic younger self, Flaubert gives Frédéric numerous flights of romantic reverie, indulging what was obviously his own early lyrical sensibility. But the older Flaubert is much more world-weary, cynical and pessimistic, a tone which is prevalent in the third person narrative, and above all in the course of events, and the cynical outcomes of almost all the characters.

More interesting than the character of Moreau himself is the network of acquaintances Flaubert creates around him to convey the Parisian artistic and intellectual life of his generation. The art dealer Arnoux is depicted as a crook, inciting artists to paint meretricious works for money and ripping them off in all kinds of dodgy deals. He runs a magazine, L’Art Industriel, and every Wednesday he holds open house for painters, critics, writers, composers and so on to come round and chat. Moreau bumps into the young joker Hussonet and via him worms his way into becoming a regular at these open days, with the sole view of talking to Madame Arnoux who, however, rarely appears.

Meanwhile, his old schoolfriend from back in Nogent, Charles Deslauriers, turns up in Paris to study law and the pair share rooms, drinks, jokes. Frédéric organises a Saturday soirée for his friends. In one or other of these settings, we meet the following characters and follow their endless arguments about art and politics. It turns out to be necessary to really get to know them since they all reappear over the course of the next 12 years or so, playing key roles in the complex personal story, and background political developments, of the age.

  • Baptiste Martinon, law student
  • Marquis de Cisy, nobleman and law student
  • Sénécal, math tutor and uncompromising Republican
  • Hussonet, journalist, drama critic and joker
  • Dussardier, a simple shopworker who Moreau and Hussonet help after he’s wrongfully arrested for assaulting a policeman
  • Regimbart, ‘The Citizen’, a fiercely doctrinaire revolutionary
  • Pellerin, a painter with more theories than talent
  • Madamoiselle Vatnaz, actress, courtesan, frustrated feminist

The ‘plot’ i.e. the tangled sequence of events over the next 11 years (1840 to 1851) involves the appearance, disappearance and reappearance of all these characters, shedding light on their changes and developments, generally in a pessimistic downwards direction. For example, Frédéric’s childhood friend Deslaurier fails as a lawyer and would-be politician, turning to journalism where he writes scurrilous pieces for other papers and nags Frédéric to loan him the money to set up his own.

Whenever there is political turbulence, we can be sure of hearing about Sénécal and Regimbart, who, in different ways, rage against the ruling classes and the king. Over the eleven years they follow drastically different courses, Regimbart becoming a monosyllabic drunk, Sénécal  undergoing a complete volte-face to become a violent reactionary.

Pellerin is a broadly comic character, reminiscent of Homais in Bovary, in that he is mechanically predictable: whenever we meet him he is in thrall to yet another theory of art, changing his allegiance from Michelangelo to Titian to Velasquez and so on, never achieving anything, always complaining.

The plot is complex and multi-layered, but two key elements are Frédéric’s love life and his career (both ill-fated).

Love life (1)

Frédéric sees Madame Arnoux on the boat to Nogent and it is love at first sight. He inveigles his way into Monsieur Arnoux’s confidences with the sole purpose of seeing more of Madame. However, he finds himself being taken up by the cheery, good-natured Arnoux himself and initiated into the fact that Arnoux keeps a mistress in a set of rooms. Arnoux takes him there, and Frédéric meets the rather bony, dry, sharp Madamoiselle Vatnaz.

This adulterous relationship of Arnoux’s is one of the revelations of a Big Night out, when almost all the Parisian characters go to the opening of a new cabaret, the Alhambra. In a scene which is very filmic, they encounter each other in different rooms, drink, gamble, bump into each other later in the evening, are introduced to girlfriends, mistresses and courtesans and so on.

Career

As she sends him off to Paris, his loving mother hopes that Frédéric will work hard at his law studies, become a lawyer, stand as a deputy to the National Assembly and become a minister. Needless to say, none of this happens. Frédéric fritters away his money and his time on pointless love affairs, and looks every possibly gift horse in the mouth. After getting into the arty set around Arnoux’s magazine, he decides to become a painter (cue comic advice from the inept painter Pellerin). Later, Frédéric thinks he might become a journalist. In actual fact he ends up becoming a well-heeled wastrel. This becomes increasingly frustrating for the reader, and by about page 300 I really wanted to give Frédéric a good slap and tell him to sort his life out.

Right from the start Frédéric is advised by Frédéric’s mother’s friend Roque to go and contact a high society banker, Monsieur Dambreuse, to whom he is given a letter of introduction. Over the next 300 pages Frédéric only occasionally goes to see Dambreuse who: offers him the low-down on buying share in a new company which is bound to succeed – distracted by yet another love visit somewhere, Frédéric fails to do this. Then Dambreuse offers to make Frédéric secretary in the new company, in exchange for him purchasing shares: again Frédéric misses this opportunity because he just has to go and visit Madame Arnoux (yet again).

The most unaccountable stupidity is when, after being rejected by Madame Arnoux, Frédéric returns to his mother’s house in rural Nogent, and discovers that the little girl next door who he used to play with, the daughter of his mother’s neighbour, old Roque, has blossomed into the lovely young woman, Louise. They immediately get on well and it becomes clear that Louise is infatuated with him. The parents, of course, are totally informed and approve the match, Frédéric’s mother because old Roque is loaded and, if he marries Louise, Frédéric will inherit all his money – old Roque because he wants his daughter to gain a title and buried deep in Madame Moreau’s past is, in fact, a landed title, which Frédéric could revive.

Louise and Frédéric become so close that they are allowed to walk out together, the Nogent community is informed that they are engaged, and they themselves expect to marry. This goes on for some time, maybe a year, until Frédéric wakes up one fine day to find that a distant uncle – uncle Barthelemy – has died and left him a substantial fortune in property, from which he will be able to extract a very comfortable annual income.

This goes straight to his head and he tells his mother and Louise that he must go back to Paris to make his Great Career. Off he goes, hires himself an enormous apartment, decorates it in the finest fashion, hires a showy carriage and servant, and generally behave like a shallow idiot. What does he do with his position? Does he make careful plans to further his career by, for example, re-contacting the rich Dambreuse? No. He plunges back into the pointless vortex of love affairs and mistresses.

What is incomprehensible to me is that, after Frédéric returns to Paris, he promptly forgets all about Louise who is not mentioned for the next two hundred pages while Frédéric falls back into the same mind-numbingly boring routine of carrying a torch for Madame Arnoux, visiting the Arnoux household, getting caught up with Arnoux’s mistress, and so on.

Love life 2

Back in Paris Frédéric discovers that Arnoux has moved. It takes him some trouble to track him down, whereupon he discovers that Arnoux has completely changed career, selling his art magazine and investing in a pottery factory outside Paris. Moreover, he has dumped Mlle Vatnaz and his new lover is one Rosanette, a courtesan.

There is another Big Party scene, a fabulous masked ball. At this point I realised that Flaubert likes Big Set-Piece Scenes. Madame Bovary features a Rural Wedding, the Agricultural Show and a Rural Funeral, all reminiscent of big mid-Victorian panoramic paintings. As befits a novel set in the Big City, Sentimental Education includes similar Set Pieces but with an urban setting – The Cabaret Party in part one and The Masked Ball in part two, both described in loving detail, at length, and opportunities for Flaubert to display his ability with complex scenes featuring numerous characters, all displaying new and unexpected aspects of their personalities and unexpected relationships between each other.

A feature of these scenes, as with the several Big Dinner Parties given by M. Dambreuse, is that the reader is often as confused as Frédéric by the gossip, mutterings, sniggers behind fans, people looking at him with raised eyebrows, and so on. Whatever Frédéric does, social gossip is always one step ahead, and it’s a feature of the book that he’s not only the last one to find out various important facts about other characters, but that Flaubert makes the reader share in Frédéric’s imperceptiveness, his dimness.

Frédéric likes Arnoux’s mistress, Rosanette, and has Pellerin paint him a portrait of her (giving rise to many comic moments highlighting Pellerin’s ineptitude as an artist). His old schoolfriend Deslauriers is resentful of Frédéric’s new wealth and asks 15,000 francs of him to set up a new newspaper. Frédéric listens to the unrealistic proposal for it, but promises the money anyway.

However, just as he receives the money from his own solicitor, Arnoux comes bustling round to his apartment to tell him that he desperately needs about 12,000 francs as he is about to be declared bankrupt: just for a week, two at the most. Still obsessed with his ‘love’ for M. Arnoux, in the vague hope that by helping the husband he will get ‘closer’ to the wife, Frédéric gives Arnoux the money, and then has to make up some excuse for letting down Deslaurier who, not surprisingly, is bitterly disappointed. Frédéric himself is then let down when cheery Arnoux is unable to repay him next week, or the week after and, as the months go by, Frédéric realises that the money is lost.

Frédéric begins pursuing Rosanette in earnest and takes her to the races, but she goes home with a man named Cisy. At dinner one night at Cisy’s opulent home, Cisy reveals that he had gone home with Rosanette to win a bet. The guests talk about Arnoux and lewdly suggest that Madame Arnoux has been a mistress to many men. Frédéric throws a plate at Cisy, and the argument escalates. The men agree to a duel and Flaubert depicts the formalities of such an event in painstaking detail – but on the appointed day, Cisy faints and the whole thing – symbolic of all the romantic dreams which fizzle out in sordid disappointment – is a damp squib.

Thinking of money has raised the spectre of working with or for Dambreuse, who Frédéric goes to meet and who offers him job but – Frédéric fails to keep the appointment they make to discuss it in detail, because he hears that Arnoux’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse and he makes a wild goose chase visit out to the factory in the country outside Paris to see Madame Arnoux – again. The journey, the countryside and the factory are all interestingly described, but I really want to shake Moreau and tell him to grow up.

Frédéric hesitatingly makes his feelings clear to Madame Arnoux who brushes him off with very sensible nostrums about how duty comes first and brief affairs never lead to happiness. Rebuffed, Frédéric goes straight back into Paris and to the apartment of Rosanette, who he has fancied since he met her. Only after he’s left, does Madame Arnoux have an epiphany and realise that she does love Frédéric.

The Rosanette connection becomes more and more complex in the final third of the novel, because Frédéric discovers that, as well as Arnoux as a lover, Rosanette has for some time had an elderly ‘sponsor’, M. Oudry. Later, in part three, we discover that she is seeing a rich Russian aristocrat. And then in another twist, Frédéric discovers that she seems to be in love with a pretentious Paris actor, Delmas.

None of this prevents Frédéric pursuing her and eventually having sex with her so that (presumably) she becomes ‘his’ mistress. At some point I had to give up and confess I didn’t understand the ‘love’ story in the novel at all. I don’t understand how Frédéric can be passionately in love with Madame Arnoux and yet dedicate so much time to seducing Rosanette, all the time knowing that Rosanette has been the mistress of his beloved’s husband and continues to see other men, and then in the rural scenes back at Nogent, go walking out with Louise and declare to her that he has never been happier.

It’s not a question of him being a cad or a ‘sexual predator’ as modern usage has it – it is much weirder than that. Throughout the novel I had the sense that Flaubert was describing a set of values and a mindset which I just simply don’t understand.

In the concluding scenes of Part Two Frédéric finally gets Madame Arnoux on her own, without her maid or small children, and there tells her he loves her and – for the very first time – she admits that she loves him too. For some reason there is no kissing or sexual contact at this moment, instead – as in so many of these 19th century fictions – they are left on tenterhooks of love and sensuality but…. make an appointment to meet the next day. The reader can’t help thinking this is a convention created purely and solely to create problems and misunderstandings, as in a bedroom farce.

And sure enough, the next day, Mme Arnoux’s son is seriously ill with croup and so, of course, she doesn’t keep the rendezvous. So Frédéric – thinking he has been jilted – promptly goes round to Rosanette’s place and for the first time really oversteps the bounds of 19th century caution, kissing her, putting his arm round her waist and – we are led to believe – finally having sex with her (the first time he’s done it with anyone, as far as we can tell).

Part three (1)

I am hopelessly confused by the love life aspect of the story. Frédéric knows that Rosanette has been the mistress of his beloved Madame Arnoux’s husband, has been attached to a rich old geezer, Oudry, as well as the rich Russian prince, and discovers that she holds a torch for the Parisian actor and yet still thinks he loves her.

The political scenes come as a relief from the love life because at least I understand their logic. The February 1848 revolution breaks out right at the end of part two, and Frédéric associates the sense of liberation and freedom in the air of Paris with his ‘love’ for Rosanette, who he is now regularly sleeping with.

Part three follows straight o from this, with Frédéric getting caught up in the February street fighting, which is described vividly.

French politics – an interlude

In 1830 France had one of its many revolutions and, in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ of July, overthrew King Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch, and replaced him with his cousin Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans.

The reign of Louis-Philippe was characterised by a wide range of political factions, who jostled and bickered for the next eighteen years: on the right some dreamed of restoring the legitimate line of Charles X (hence ‘the legitimists’) – the ‘Orleanists’ supported Louis-Philippe himself – some ‘imperialists’ wanted a return to the glory years of Napoleon. In the ‘centre’ were all sorts of middle-class republicans, who thought France would thrive best without a monarchy, although they all disagreed about who ought to lead the government of this hoped-for republic. On the left was a florid assortment of socialists who wanted to see society reorganised for the benefit of the working class, and even the newly-coined term ‘communists’, who wanted the abolition of private property and the inauguration of a completely utopian, propertyless, and so completely equal, society.

There were insurrections and attempted coups against Louis-Philippe in 1832, 1834 and 1839. These disgruntlements are the backdrop to the occasional political arguments among the characters mentioned above. But it was a bad harvest and industrial depression in 1847 which threw both peasants and urban workers out of work, many of them making their way to Paris in search of employment. These men provided the mobs which rose up in February 1848 and marched on the royal palace carrying torches and muskets. Louis-Philippe fled out the back door and made his way to exile in England (as so many continentals did during the 19th century, monarchs and revolutionaries alike). A republic was declared, a Provisional Government cobbled together, and three years of instability and uncertainty followed.

Flaubert captures the confusion, and the violently opposing political opinions, very well, as Frédéric a) sees for himself the fighting on the streets in February b) hears how the cross-section of pals from his soirees back in part one have fared in the disturbances (shot, arrested, imprisoned, hero of the revolution etc).

In a farcical scene Frédéric is encouraged to go along to one of the countless political clubs which have flourished after the revolution, and stand for election as a deputy. Initially greeted as a hero because he had (more or less accidentally) spoken up against Louis-Philippe at a society dinner given by the banker Dambreuse, when he protests about a Spanish ‘comrade’ giving a long speech in Spanish, the fickle crowd turn against him and just as vehemently attack him for being a member of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’. He is forced to make a speedy exit, the whole scene embodying Flaubert’s contempt for ‘the mob’ and for politics in general. ‘Stupid’ and ‘stupidity’ are words which recur in Flaubert’s descriptions both of crowds and mobs, but also of high society with its reactionary clichés and stereotypes.

Months of political uncertainty follow, against which Frédéric finds out that Arnoux is still Rosanette’s lover. He tries to get Rosanette to choose between them, but she refuses and so – sick of politics and her vacillation – Frédéric takes Rosanette on a prolonged holiday in the beautiful countryside surrounding the royal palace at Fontainebleu. This four or five-day trip is described in minute detail, the precise itinerary of each day’s outings, with exactly what part of the forest and landscape they saw, what the light was like, and what they ate that night for dinner.

This is odd, because they are on this holiday precisely during the notorious ‘June Days’, the decisive event of 1848. Under Louis-Philippe, National Workshops had been set up to provide a dole for the large number of unemployed in Paris. After the February revolution the Provisional Government commissioned a report into the future of the Workshops, and the right-wing leader of the committee recommended closing them down to save money.

As soon as these findings leaked out, socialist leaders roused the working classes and barricades went up all over Paris (again). The government asked the newly appointed Minister of War, General Cavaignac, to put down the insurrection, which he did with great bloodshed. As many as 3,000 people were killed in the resulting street fighting and all the socialist leaders were arrested and put in prison. Cavaignac was appointed President of the Council of Ministers, becoming effective dictator, until the presidential elections which were held in December 1848.

Part three (2)

Anyway, Flaubert must get his hero back into the thick of things and so he invents the pretext that Frédéric reads that his long-standing working class friend, Dussardier, has been wounded. Despite Rosanette’s bitter protestations, Frédéric travels back into Paris (itself difficult because the coaches have stopped running) only to be arrested by various members of the suspicious and angry National Guard.

Flaubert vividly conveys the atmosphere of completely random violence and terror created by insurrection and street fighting. Frédéric is locked up in various ad hoc barracks and prisons, before finally convincing someone in authority to let him proceed to Dussardier’s house, where he finds the working class hero being tended by none other than wiry Mlle Vatnaz. Being a good chap – if also, as we know by now, hopelessly indecisive and weak-willed – Frédéric goes back every day for a fortnight to offer help and moral support.

Things move on. Frédéric attends a dinner chez Dambreuse which is fraught with currents and counter-currents, since Monsieur and Madame Arnoux are there and so is Louise, Monsieur Roque’s daughter, the one Frédéric is meant to be engaged to. Maliciously, the other male guests bring up the subject of the portrait Frédéric persuaded Pellerin to do of Rosanette. In a cameo moment earlier in the story, when Frédéric refused to pay for it, Pellerin had displayed it prominently in his window, with a caption proclaiming that Rosanette was Frédéric’s mistress. As the guests remember and discuss this incident, both Mme Arnoux and Louise realise that Frédéric is her lover. Nonetheless, as they all leave the dinner, Louise walks arm in arm with Frédéric, reminding him that they had pledged to get married. Frédéric makes a fool of himself trying to wriggle out of it.

Meanwhile, life with Rosanette is serene and pleasant. He has moved in with her. They tend the window boxes and watch passersby, neither of them needing to work for a living.

But that doesn’t stop Frédéric – upon hearing gossip that Monsieur and Madame Arnoux are becoming estranged – from going straight round to see Madame Arnoux and – finding her alone – blames her for not coming to see him the morning of their rendezvous. She explains that she had stayed at home to tend her ill son. All is forgiven and they declare their undying love for each other, and indulge in a long, lingering kiss. Then they hear a creak of floorboards and look up. Rosanette is standing there. She had followed Frédéric, and got past the front door, any servants, up the stairs and into the room unimpeded. For me this felt like almost any moment from Eastenders or a Whitehall farce. Somehow everyone involved takes it calmly, Rosanette asks Frédéric to come home with her, Madame Arnoux waves goodbye from the top of the stairs.

Back in their apartment, Frédéric has a furious row with Rosanette, accusing her of following him, in the middle of which she reveals that she is pregnant with his child. Eastenders. This argument makes him realise he despises Rosanette. From that point onwards, Frédéric continues to live with her but is increasingly repelled by her commonness and vulgarity. The happy honeymoon in Fontainebleu, the lazy days staring from the sunny balcony, are completely gone.

Whereupon – and this is the kind of turn of events which genuinely mystifies me – Frédéric decides to seduce Mme Dambreuse in order to gain social standing. The Seduction Scene is described in some detail and Frédéric, who is becoming expert at this, is astonished that Madame Dambreuse gives in so quickly, lying back on her sofa with her eyes closed, which is the signal for him to kiss her.

Once this intimacy is established, Frédéric is astonished to discover just how much Madame Dambreuse hates her husband. It turns out (rather inevitably) that he has also had many mistresses, and that the ‘niece’ they have brought up in their household – Cécile, who we’ve met at their parties and dinners – is in fact his love child by one of his mistresses, who Madame D agreed to raise, but loathes. To his astonishment, she asks if he will marry her.

In quick succession, two key events follow: the previously hale and hearty Monsieur Dambreuse falls ill and dies, and Rosanette’s new-born baby dies. (In one of the many aspects of the novel which seem incomprehensible to the modern reader, as soon as the baby was born she had farmed it out to a wet nurse who lived out in the country – why? – and on the one time Frédéric goes to visit he is appalled by the squalor of the hut the baby’s being kept in, the goats wandering round, the animal manure around the building: why?).

During M. Dambreuse’s illness his wife reveals to Frédéric that, what with her own dowry, all her husband’s business interests, she will be worth some three million francs! Given that Frédéric is living very comfortably on about 15,000 francs a year, this obviously represents an absolute fortune and – being the impractical dreamer that he is – Frédéric starts planning extensions to the house, the creation of his own personal library, a bigger, grander carriage, more servants etc.

Monsieur Dambreuse’s funeral is another typically Flaubertian Set-Piece, with great detail about all the practical arrangements, leading into satire on the starchy behaviour of the high society invitees, and then their unbuttoned conversations at the post-funeral reception.

But Frédéric comes round a day or two later to find Madame Dambreuse sitting on the floor surrounded by a sea of documents, safes, folders and papers, crying. Turns out her husband had destroyed the will in which he left everything to her and instead – has left everything to the love child, Cécile. Frédéric’s dreams go up in smoke, but he still pledges his loyalty to her.

From this point onwards, Frédéric secretly splits his time between the two women, spending the afternoon with Rosanette, going to see Madame Dambreuse every evening. He congratulates himself on his cleverness, on using the same phrases, reading the same poetry, with each of the women. He enjoys his own ‘wickedness’.

Money

As in Madame Bovary it is money troubles which trigger the multiple crises and bring the long rambling plot to a climax.

  1. Rosanette is unable to pay off some debts she owes, and when she tries to cash in some shares which Arnoux gave her, discovers that they are worthless. She takes him to court and her suit is a contributory cause of the final collapse of all Arnoux’s financial scams.
  2. We learn from multiple sources that M. Arnoux has finally been overtaken by his financial difficulties and is preparing to flee the country, along with Madame A.

Initially Frédéric hears gossip that M. Arnoux only needs 12,000 or so francs to remain solvent. In fact he hears it from the painter Pellerin, who he and Rosanette (bizarrely) commissioned to paints a portrait of their dead child. Petrified at the thought of losing Madame Arnoux (if she flees Paris), Frédéric asks for money from Mme Dambreuse, making up a cock and bull story about a friend being threatened with prison.

But M. Arnoux’s debts are much bigger than a measly 12,000 francs and by the time Frédéric goes round with the money he discovers they have fled to Le Havre, presumably to flee the country and his debtors.

Madame Dambreuse discovers his motive for borrowing the money and confronts him in a big shouting match. She accuses him of having multiple lovers, which is close enough. Now earlier in the story we had been told how Frédéric’s oldest friend, Deslaurier, had himself made a pass at Madame Arnoux (is seducing each other’s wives and mistresses all these people do?). When she rejected him, he conceived an obdurate hatred for her. As part of his ongoing attempts to ‘get on’ he had then made himself a sort of legal adviser to Monsieur Dambreuse, and then to his widow.

Now, like the serpent in the garden of Eden, Deslauriers spitefully suggests to Madame Dambreuse that she sell some of the debts which Arnoux racked up with her husband on to a debt collector.

She does so, the debt collector acts with typical aggressiveness, and this results in the bailiffs declaring a public auction of all the Arnouxs’ furniture and possessions.

A few days later, on one of her Frédéric’s lazy afternoon coach rides, Madame Dambreuse deliberately makes the driver ride by the auction house and – as if on a whim – insists to Frédéric that they go in.

Frédéric is horrified to realise what is going on – the auction of all Arnoux’s possessions – but is forced to watch as all the intimate belongings of (despite everything) his one true love, are auctioned off – the carpet she tiptoed across, the bed linen she slept in etc.

Madame Dambreuse watches Frédéric’s discomfiture with real upper-class scorn. When a trivial object of Madame Arnoux’s, a silver keepsake, comes up, Madame Dambreuse insists on outbidding everyone else in order to own it. Frédéric begs her not to, to have pity on his heart – but she insists. It is a very powerful scene.

When they finally exit the auction house, Frédéric sees Madame Dambreuse into her grand carriage, shuts the door, bids her adieu and walks away.

It is over. It is all over. His love is dead. His heart is crushed. He hates Madame Dambreuse; there will be no reconciliation. He knows Rosanette has other lovers; their child is dead; he hates her too. And the only woman he ever loved has gone away, he knows not where.

Sick of Paris and its ‘high life’, he retreats like a broken animal to his home territory, catching a train and stage coach back to Nogent. But as he comes closer he hears church bells and – as a in a fairy tale – he arrives at the church just in time to see Louise in a wedding dress exiting the church on the arm of her new husband, none other than his oldest dearest friend, Deslauriers.

Here and there, in the previous hectic fifty pages or so, had been carefully inserted references to Deslaurier’s absence in Nogent. Now we realise (as does Frédéric) that his best friend had been a) badmouthing him to his own mother, Old Roque and Louise, telling everyone about his married mistresses b) working his way into the affections of both Old Roque and Louise c) using Old Roque’s influence to stand as deputy for the whole region – in all of which he succeeded.

Frédéric is crushed. All his hopes lie in tatters. There remains one last, brutal disillusionment. Frédéric returns to Paris and Flaubert engineers a scene whereby Frédéric witnesses a bit more street fighting (the timeline has moved on to 1851 now) and he sees the good simply working class man Dussardier mount a final barricade and be brutally hacked down with a sword by a policeman of the new order, the Second Empire of Napoleon III. And this enemy of the working class is none other than – Frédéric’s old friend, the violent republican Sénécal, who has completed an intellectual volte-face from fire-breathing socialist to murderous imperialist, a flaring symbol of the utter stupid futility of politics.

Coda

The last few pages of the novel are genuinely emotional. Burnt out, abandoned, Frédéric leaves France and goes travelling to lose himself and when he returns, is a broken man.

He travelled.
He knew the melancholy associated with packet-boats, the chill one feels on waking up under tents, the dizzy effect of landscapes and ruins, and the bitterness of ruptured sympathies.
He returned home.
He mingled in society, and he conceived attachments to other women. But the constant recollection of his first love made these appear insipid; and besides the vehemence of desire, the bloom of the sensation had vanished. In like manner, his intellectual ambitions had grown weaker. Years passed; and he was forced to support the burden of a life in which his mind was unoccupied and his heart devoid of energy.

‘Towards the end of March, 1867, just as it was getting dark, one evening, he was sitting all alone in his study, when a woman suddenly came in.’

It is Madame Arnoux. She and her husband are living in obscurity in rural Brittany. She and Frédéric swear their undying love to each other. Maybe their love has survived and meant so much because they were never together. She takes her cap off to cut a lock of her hair for him, and he is stricken to see that her hair has gone completely white. She is an old lady. She leaves. It is the last time they will meet.

In the final final scene, years later, Frédéric encounters Deslauriers again and the novel ends the way it began, with the pair swapping stories of the past. On the final page they decide that their best memory is of being about 16 and trying to sneak into the town brothel in Nogent. Like simpletones they picked nosegays for the girls but, once inside, all the girls laughed at their sweet innocence and, overcome by embarrassment, first Frédéric and then Deslauriers had fled.

Now they sit by the fire, too old men reminiscing and agreeing that, yes, that was probably the happiest moment in their lives.


Paris

Rosy clouds, scarf-like in form, stretched beyond the roofs; the shop-tents were beginning to be taken away; water-carts were letting a shower of spray fall over the dusty pavement; and an unexpected coolness was mingled with emanations from cafés, as one got a glimpse through their open doors, between some silver plate and gilt ware, of flowers in sheaves, which were reflected in the large sheets of glass. The crowd moved on at a leisurely pace. Groups of men were chatting in the middle of the footpath; and women passed along with an indolent expression in their eyes and that camelia tint in their complexions which intense heat imparts to feminine flesh. Something immeasurable in its vastness seemed to pour itself out and enclose the houses. Never had Paris looked so beautiful. He saw nothing before him in the future but an interminable series of years all full of love. (Part one, chapter five)

If Madame Bovary was a portrait of rural France, Sentimental Education, although it includes a few other settings (Frédéric’s home town of Nogent, the Fontainebleu excursion), feels like a portrait of Paris, its streets, its geography, the wide river Seine, its colourful nightlife, and then as a setting for street fighting and revolution.

The two big parties I mentioned are complemented by smaller but still grand affairs – a formal dinner at Monsieur Dambreuse’s, where Frédéric is surprised at how boring and staid the banking-class guests are – a day at the races in the Champs de Mars (where Madame Arnoux sees Frédéric accompanying Rosanette, one of the many small incidents which add complication to the endless bedroom farce of his love life). Here is Frédéric mingling his dopey romantic feelings with the street life of the city.

The dinners were now renewed; and the more visits he paid at Madame Arnoux’s, the more his love-sickness increased. The contemplation of this woman had an enervating effect upon him, like the use of a perfume that is too strong. It penetrated into the very depths of his nature, and became almost a kind of habitual sensation, a new mode of existence.

The prostitutes whom he brushed past under the gaslight, the female ballad-singers breaking into bursts of melody, the ladies rising on horseback at full gallop, the shopkeepers’ wives on foot, the grisettes at their windows, all women brought her before his mental vision, either from the effect of their resemblance to her or the violent contrast to her which they presented. As he walked along by the shops, he gazed at the cashmeres, the laces, and the jewelled eardrops, imagining how they would look draped around her figure, sewn in her corsage, or lighting up her dark hair. In the flower-girls’ baskets the bouquets blossomed for her to choose one as she passed. In the shoemakers’ show-windows the little satin slippers with swan’s-down edges seemed to be waiting for her foot. Every street led towards her house; the hackney-coaches stood in their places to carry her home the more quickly; Paris was associated with her person, and the great city, with all its noises, roared around her like an immense orchestra. (Part one, chapter five)

There are plenty of descriptions of sunrise over Paris, of Paris at twilight, of the fires burning over revolutionary Paris, of the excitement in the air of spring in Paris, and so on. Paris is intellectual ferment, the hustle and bustle of the streets, money and glamour but above all, the sensual promise of women.

The Seine, which was of a yellowish colour, almost reached the platforms of the bridges. A cool breath of air issued from it. Frederick inhaled it with his utmost energy, drinking in this good air of Paris, which seems to contain the effluvia of love and the emanations of the intellect. He was touched with emotion at the first glimpse of a hackney-coach. He gazed with delight on the thresholds of the wine-merchants’ shops garnished with straw, on the shoe-blacks with their boxes, on the lads who sold groceries as they shook their coffee-burners. Women hurried along at a jog-trot with umbrellas over their heads. He bent forward to try whether he could distinguish their faces—chance might have led Madame Arnoux to come out.

The shops displayed their wares. The crowd grew denser; the noise in the streets grew louder. After passing the Quai Saint-Bernard, the Quai de la Tournelle, and the Quai Montebello, they drove along the Quai Napoléon. He was anxious to see the windows there; but they were too far away from him. Then they once more crossed the Seine over the Pont-Neuf, and descended in the direction of the Louvre; and, having traversed the Rues Saint-Honoré, Croix des Petits-Champs, and Du Bouloi, he reached the Rue Coq-Héron, and entered the courtyard of the hotel. (Part one, chapter seven)

The role of women

Obviously, the main line of the plot is Frédéric’s extraordinarily tangled love life – which I found incomprehensible from start to finish. Saying he carries a torch for a beautiful, sensitive, married woman but ends up going out with a courtesan makes it sound too simple and comprehensible; in fact his love affairs proceed through a sequence of scenes with Madame Arnoux, Rosanette, Mlle Vatnaz and others, every single one of which is difficult to understand – their dialogue, their expectations, their attitudes – all seemed completely alien and unreal to me.

Lengthy dialogue which seems to completely miss the point, alternates with abrupt scenes which skate over what would – for a modern person – be profound emotional or moral issues. And they recur again and again. As an example, as the June Days approach, Frédéric bumps into the banker Dambreuse (who has shifted with the times to become a devout republican), who unexpectedly praises Arnoux for saving his life the last time the mob invaded the Chamber of Deputies and surprises Frédéric by announcing that he has been elected a deputy. In response to this news:

Frédéric, after he had quitted M. Dambreuse, went back to Rosanette, and, in a very gloomy fashion, said that she should choose between him and Arnoux. She replied that she did not understand ‘that sort of talk’, that she did not care about Arnoux, and had no desire to cling to him. Frédéric felt an urge to leave Paris. She did not offer any opposition to this whim; and next morning they set out for Fontainebleau.

So their ‘honeymoon’ trip to Fontainebleu is Frédéric’s response to the fact that his mistress refuses to stop seeing (and presumably having sex with) the husband of the woman he really loves??

I found the endless indecisiveness of the central ‘love story’ more remote from my understanding of human nature  than something out of Chaucer or an Icelandic saga. Why does Frédéric ping pong between just these two women – are they the only two women in Paris? Why is he proud at making Rosannette his mistress when he knows that she continues to see Arnoux, as well as old M. Oudry, the Russian aristocrat and who knows how many others?

Putting that to one side, I think even if you aren’t particularly feminist in outlook, it’s also hard not to get upset at the way women are discussed and treated in the book. Whenever the men get together (which is a lot – Frédéric’s one-on-ones with friends, Frédéric’s house parties, Arnoux’s regular ‘at homes’, in nightclubs, in restaurants, at formal dinners) the conversation among men left to themselves quickly turns to ‘women’, with the men discussing the merits of this or that mistress, or type of woman, or women in general, usually dismissed as fickle or shallow.

When the young lads go for a night out at a new nightclub, the Alcazar, in part one, the aim is to pair off with one of the women there, who are categorised as ‘courtesans, working girls or prostitutes’.

The conversation turned on women. Pellerin would not admit that there were beautiful women (he preferred tigers); besides the human female was an inferior creature in the æsthetic hierarchy.

‘What fascinates you is just the very thing that degrades her as an idea; I mean her breasts, her hair…’

‘Nevertheless,’ urged Frederick, ‘long black hair and large dark eyes…’

‘Oh! we know all about that,’ cried Hussonnet. ‘Enough of Andalusian beauties on the lawn. Those things are out of date; no thank you! For the fact is, honour bright! a fast woman is more amusing than the Venus of Milo. Let us be Gallic, in Heaven’s name, and after the Regency style, if we can!’

Entry-level feminism will be outraged at the relentlessly secondary role given to women, often nameless, judged only on their appearance and seen as appendages to the named and ‘interesting’ men.

Sénécal placed his glass of beer on the mantelpiece, and declared dogmatically that, as prostitution was tyrannical and marriage immoral, it was better to practice abstinence. Deslauriers regarded women as a source of amusement – nothing more. M. de Cisy looked upon them with the utmost dread.

A little to the side of this obvious perspective, I was interested in the way that the objectification and denigration of woman helped the men to bond: Discussing women is a ‘safe’ activity – as opposed to discussions of either art of politics, which lead immediately to bitter arguments. Discussing sex may have its own disputes, but is essentially a unifying exercise at which older men nod and boast about their conquests, while younger men brag and lie.

Flaubert’s overall artistic intention – as stated in a series of famous letters – was to eliminate the intrusive narrator’s voice from his fiction. Narrators had cheerily interrupted their novels to point a moral and make suave generalisations for a hundred years or more. Flaubert very self-consciously set out to reject this entire tradition. The author’s tone was to be everywhere felt but nowhere explicitly visible.

Another aspect of this approach is that Flaubert claimed to be just presenting reality as it is.

If Charles Bovary is weak, if Emma Bovary is a bad mother, if Rodolphe is a sexual predator – it is not Flaubert’s fault. He is presenting humanity in all its weakness.

Ditto, in Sentimental Education, if Frédéric is weak-willed, a prey to feeble sensuality, in thrall to stupid ideals of romance, utterly unable to make the most of the opportunities life presents him with, it is not Flaubert’s fault. If a group of men at a dinner party or a nightclub end up talking about women, Flaubert is showing what the life of his time was like (and the life of men has been right up to the present day).

He would claims that men are like that and he is simply showing it, warts and all.

On the plus side, Flaubert presents the character of Mademoiselle Vatnaz, an avowed feminist and a reminder that, like the arguments of socialists, the arguments of feminists have existed, been published, promoted and discussed, since at least the time of the French Revolution.

The ill-temper of Rosanette only increased. Mademoiselle Vatnaz irritated him with her enthusiasm. Believing that she had a mission, she felt a furious desire to make speeches, to carry on disputes, and – sharper than Rosanette in matters of this sort – overwhelmed her with arguments.

One day she made her appearance burning with indignation against Hussonnet, who had just indulged in some blackguard remarks at the Woman’s Club. Rosanette approved of this conduct, declaring even that she would take men’s clothes to go and ‘give them a bit of her mind, the entire lot of them, and to whip them.’

Frédéric entered at the same moment.

‘You’ll accompany me – won’t you?’

And, in spite of his presence, a bickering match took place between them, one of them playing the part of a citizen’s wife and the other of a female philosopher.

According to Rosanette, women were born exclusively for love, or in order to bring up children, to be housekeepers.

According to Mademoiselle Vatnaz, women ought to have a position in the Government. In former times, the Gaulish women, and also the Anglo-Saxon women, took part in the legislation; the squaws of the Hurons formed a portion of the Council. The work of civilisation was common to both. It was necessary that all should contribute towards it, and that fraternity should be substituted for egoism, association for individualism, and cultivation on a large scale for minute subdivision of land.

The Woman’s Club? This is the only mention made of it in the text. It is fascinating to learn that such a thing existed in 1848, and that all the characters take it and the various arguments for women’s liberation entirely for granted, much as they take the arguments of the legitimists or the socialists, or any other political point of view.

Like Flaubert I am pessimistic about political change. The socialists in this book argue passionately for a change to the system which will abolish poverty and inequality. The feminists argue for a transformation of relationships between the sexes to make men and women truly equal.

170 years later, the arguments are exactly the same and being put with exactly the same vehemence, as if the Great Day of Freedom and Equality is just around the corner, just within reach, only requires a handful more newspaper articles, a couple more stirring speeches and… human nature will be transformed forever. Always mañana.

Summary

Early on I stumbled across the criticism made by Henry James – who adored Madame Bovary – that Sentimental Education lacks charm. He is right. The first hundred pages or so seemed qualitatively superior to the remaining 300. The boat trip to Nogent, Frédéric’s reunion with his old school friend, his poor student days rooming with Deslaurier, his mother’s fussing concern, old Roque the neighbour and his little daughter – all this have a charm and novelty.

But once he has inherited his fortune and goes off to Paris, Frédéric and the novel settle into a boring and repetitive pattern of him repeatedly visiting a) the Arnoux household to be ignored by Madame b) the apartment of Rosanette, where there are hundreds of pages of incomprehensible 19th century etiquette, before he does the simplest thing in the world and puts his arm round her waist and kisses her – at which point she ‘succumbs’ and becomes his mistress. Which is complicated in the final hundred or so pages with the addition of Madame Dambreuse. I freely admit I just didn’t understand the behaviour, motivation or psychology of any of the characters in Frédéric’s three-cornered love life, and so I failed to really understand the core of the book.

That said, as with Bovary the pleasure of the text is in the precise description of almost any individual scene – you can open the book at random and soon come across one of Flaubert’s wonderful descriptions of scenes and settings, large or small. Take this excerpt from the big dinner party chez Dambreuse.

Under the green leaves of a pineapple, in the middle of the table-cloth, a dolphin stood, with its snout reaching towards a quarter of roebuck and its tail just grazing a bushy dish of crayfish. Figs, huge cherries, pears, and grapes (the first fruits of Parisian cultivation) rose like pyramids in baskets of old Saxe. Here and there a bunch of flowers mingled with the shining silver plate. The white silk blinds, drawn down in front of the windows, filled the apartment with a mellow light. It was cooled by two fountains, in which there were pieces of ice; and tall men-servants, in short breeches, waited on them.

There are many moments of lucid clarity like this.

But that said, where Madame Bovary seems to me superior is that its narrative is carried forward in a much more dynamic and straightforward way, with a kind of tragic inevitability – the book is the record of her decline and fall which unfolds with the unstoppability of a Greek tragedy. Whereas Frédéric in Sentimental Education is more like a hamster who just goes round and round in his wheel for hundreds of pages, shilly shallying between one women or another, his personality and his situation never really changing or developing, not till towards the end anyway.

You could be clever and argue that this quality of stasis, of the hero being stuck in a rut, is itself a critique of the limitations, the paralysis, of ‘bourgeois’ society.

But plenty of people in 19th century France lived wildly exciting and achieveful lives, went abroad to run its growing empires, or developed new technologies, industries, made scientific discoveries, even rebuilt Paris – during this period. Fortunes were made, political careers forged, and new arts and designs created – the ‘Second Empire’ style in furniture was created and, as Flaubert was writing this novel (1862-69), the young generation of painters who would be dubbed ‘the Impressionists’ were developing entirely new ways of thinking about art and reality.

Flaubert’s era was one of staggering change and innovation. In other words, the choice of a bumbling ne’er-do-well as protagonist, like the earlier choice of a small-town adulteress, reflect Flaubert’s personality, temperament and aesthetic, rather than the reality of his era.

To make a really sweeping generalisation – insofar as Flaubert is often seen as a patron saint of modern novelists, you could say that he helped to create the stereotype of the author as outsider, as ineffectual bystander – despite living in one of the most dynamic and exciting eras of European history.

Flaubert helped create the reputation of literature as carping and critical of contemporary society – and as deliberately getting its own back on the society which increasingly rejected it, by dwelling on the one area where it could hurt and sting bourgeois culture – by deliberately and provocatively defying conventional sexual morality, by focusing on increasingly degraded or deviant ideas of sexuality.

The political timeframe

Anyway, back with Sentimental Education, I haven’t really brought out the very artful way Flaubert sets the entire story against the fraught political events of 1840 to 1851; how he creates different political points of view for the gang of characters we meet early on and then shows how their initial political beliefs develop, triumph, fail, mutate or are disappointed.

Not only does the final third take place against the revolutionary turmoil of 1848, but the final scene of the auction, when all his hopes and illusions are utterly crushed, is made to coincide with the coup mounted by the President Louis Napoleon, who will go on to have himself crowned the Emperor Napoleon III.

This is a deep and fruitful aspect of the novel but it would require a separate review to do justice to it.

Conclusion

Sentimental Education is a complex, rich, deep, carefully organised and in many places beautifully written novel, but which I really struggled to understand or sympathise with.

The final pages – Madame Arnoux’s appearance as an old lady, and the final scene of two wistful old men reminiscing about their schooldays – are immediately understandable and moving: but too much of the preceding 400 pages was psychologically and morally incomprehensible, so completely alien to modern behaviour and values, that I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert (1862)

With his torch Hamilcar lit the lamp and green, yellow, blue, violet, wine-coloured, and blood-coloured fires suddenly illuminated the hall. It was filled with gems which were either in gold calabashes fastened like sconces upon sheets of brass, or were ranged in native masses at the foot of the wall. There were callaides shot away from the mountains with slings, carbuncles formed by the urine of the lynx, glossopetræ which had fallen from the moon, tyanos, diamonds, sandastra, beryls, with the three kinds of rubies, the four kinds of sapphires, and the twelve kinds of emeralds. They gleamed like splashes of milk, blue icicles, and silver dust, and shed their light in sheets, rays, and stars. Ceraunia, engendered by the thunder, sparkled by the side of chalcedonies, which are a cure for poison. There were topazes from Mount Zabarca to avert terrors, opals from Bactriana to prevent abortions, and horns of Ammon, which are placed under the bed to induce dreams.
(Salammbô, Chapter seven)

Having arrived on the literary scene with a brilliantly realistic depiction of small-town, rural French life in Madame Bovary (1856), Flaubert made his public and the critics wait five years for his next work, a novel which has puzzled and dismayed them, and his many posthumous fans, down to the present day.

Salammbô is a historical novel set in Carthage in the 3rd century BC. It describes the revolt of the mercenaries who had fought for Carthage during the First Punic War (261-241 BC). It could barely – in terms of time, setting and subject matter – be more different from Bovary.

What it does have in common with its predecessor is Flaubert’s obsessive attention to detail. He claimed to have read over 200 history and travel books in preparation for writing it, and undertook not one but two trips to North Africa, where he not only visited the sites of long-extinct Carthage, but befriended European archaeologists to mug up on the latest knowledge. This bookish, encyclopedic quality is on display right from page one.

Men of all nations were there, Ligurians, Lusitanians, Balearians, Negroes, and fugitives from Rome. Beside the heavy Dorian dialect were audible the resonant Celtic syllables rattling like chariots of war, while Ionian terminations conflicted with consonants of the desert as harsh as the jackal’s cry. The Greek might be recognised by his slender figure, the Egyptian by his elevated shoulders, the Cantabrian by his broad calves. There were Carians proudly nodding their helmet plumes, Cappadocian archers displaying large flowers painted on their bodies with the juice of herbs, and a few Lydians in women’s robes, dining in slippers and earrings. Others were ostentatiously daubed with vermilion, and resembled coral statues. (Salammbô, chapter one)

The plot

Salammbô’s plot, characters and many details are based on the account of the Mercenary War (240-238 BC) written by the Greek historian Polybius (200-118 BC) about a hundred years after the event – though Flaubert departs from his source freely when it suits him or for fictional convenience.

So key characters like Hamilcar, the Carthaginian general, are entirely historical, whereas the central figure of Salammbo herself, is entirely fictonal.

There’s a grand, epic, not-really-believable feel to the entire book. It all takes place on an ornate, jewel-encrusted, sun-smitten, blood-soaked stage of the author’s imagination. Every paragraph is devoted to detailed – and no doubt thoroughly researched – descriptions of the exotic and the arcane which have the paradoxical effect of keeping the reader at arm’s length, so that you observe the action but never really become involved.

It opens with the army of mercenaries feasting riotously in the palace of Hamilcar, having served him loyally in the twenty-year-long First Punic War with Rome which has just reached a conclusion (Rome won and imposed harsh penalties on Carthage). The mecenaries get drunk and free some slaves who are clamouring from the cellars.

This liberates a key character, Spendius, a slave of Hamilcar, captured at the battle of Argunisae (we get his full, dire back story) who will become the slippery adviser of the brutish mercenary leader, Mâtho.

During this initial scene of feasting, the slender stately figure of Salammbô, priestess of Tanaan, appears before the drunk barbarians, awing most of them to silence and entrancing Mâtho’s heart. From here onwards a major plot strand is his irrational obsession with Salammbô.

The mercenaries are promised pay and ships home if they will go to the port town of Sicca, so off they trek in a colourful caravanserai. They wait some days, and a peacock-plumed delegation led by fat, ill Hanno, from Carthage eventually arrives with some gold but lots of excuses wny there isn’t more. He’s half way through doling out pay when barbarian spies bring news that a cohort of mercenary slingers, who’d stayed behind in Carthage, have been massacred i.e. treachery! Spendius the freed slave incites the barbarians to rebellion and they attack and ransack the Carthaginian delegation, march back to Carthage and lay siege to it.

Three barbarians are beheaded at the order of the fat, diseased Carthaginian general Hanno - illustration by Victor Armand Poirson

Three barbarians are beheaded at the order of the gross, diseased Carthaginian general, Hanno – illustration by Victor Armand Poirson

There’s a scene crying out to be filmed where Mâtho and Spendius climb the massive aqueduct which carries water into Carthage, lower themselves into the fast-flowing water and are shot out into an underground cistern deep in the city. From here they break out and make their way through the empty midnight streets, till they reach the city’s most holy temple, break into this, and steal the zaïmph, a holy veil studded with precious stones.

Spendius’s motive is purely secular – he knows that theft of the holy veil will demoralise the Carthaginians and also persuade her allies that she’s lost her luck. For Mâtho, though, it is part of his ongoing obsession to see Salammbô and – in a tantalising / erotic / suspenseful moment – he indeed penetrates her bed chamber and stands watching her slender sleeping form.

Then – as in a movie – she wakes, calls the guard and our two heroes have to flee through the waking city. Spendius knows his way about and scarpers through back streets to the high undefended rock towering over the sea, and slithers down it to freedom. In a more baroque scene Mâtho makes his way among the angry citizens, but wraps himself in the zaïmph, so that they are scared of shooting arrows, throwing stones etc, in case they damage the holy relic.

The mercenaries leave Carthage and split into two groups, attacking the vassal towns of Utica and Hippo-Zarytus. The Carthaginian general Hanno surprises Spendius’s force at Utica and crushes the mercenary army with his painted elephants. He is enjoying a luxury bath in the city, when mercenary Mâtho arrives with barbarian reinforcements and routs the Carthaginian troops.

At this point Hamilcar Barca reappears in Carthage. He is the successful general who fought the Romans in the south of Italy during the just-ended war. He is maybe the richest man in Carthage and deeply unpopular with the council of Elders, who suspect him of doing deals with the mercenaries. We accompany him on a grand tour of his palaces, slaves, before entering the secret chambers where he keeps his accumulated wealth in jewels and gold (this is the source of the quote at the top of this review).

Hamilcar is also, incidentally, the father of the sexy priestess, Salammbô. Word has got around that the thieves of the zaïmph were seen coming out of her bed chamber, so gossip has quickly taken hold that she was a) seduced by them b) helped them in the sacrilegious theft.

Hamilcar leads the Carthaginian army to a devastating victory over the barbarian army led by Spendius at the Battle of the Macaras, not least because of his brightly-painted, trumpeting elephants.

However, the barbarians have other armies in the field and, in tracking them down, Hamilcar’s forces are suddenly surrounded and trapped. They quickly make fortifications, a moat and earth wall, and both sides settle down to a siege.

Back in Carthage the narrative zeroes in on Salammbô. In probably the most sensual / sexy scene she is depicted dancing naked with the huge black ‘holy’ python from the temple of Eschmoûn, which coils round her arms and neck and flicks its tail between her white thighs. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud…

Salammbô unfastened her earrings, her necklace, her bracelets, and her long white simar; she unknotted the band in her hair, shaking the latter for a few minutes softly over her shoulders to cool herself by thus scattering it. The music went on outside; it consisted of three notes ever the same, hurried and frenzied; the strings grated, the flute blew; Taanach kept time by striking her hands; Salammbô, with a swaying of her whole body, chanted prayers, and her garments fell one after another around her.

The heavy tapestry trembled, and the python’s head appeared above the cord that supported it. The serpent descended slowly like a drop of water flowing along a wall, crawled among the scattered stuffs, and then, gluing its tail to the ground, rose perfectly erect; and his eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, darted upon Salammbô.

A horror of cold, or perhaps a feeling of shame, at first made her hesitate. But she recalled Schahabarim’s orders and advanced; the python turned downwards, and resting the centre of its body upon the nape of her neck, allowed its head and tail to hang like a broken necklace with both ends trailing to the ground. Salammbô rolled it around her sides, under her arms and between her knees; then taking it by the jaw she brought the little triangular mouth to the edge of her teeth, and half shutting her eyes, threw herself back beneath the rays of the moon. The white light seemed to envelop her in a silver mist, the prints of her humid steps shone upon the flag-stones, stars quivered in the depth of the water; it tightened upon her its black rings that were spotted with scales of gold. Salammbô panted beneath the excessive weight, her loins yielded, she felt herself dying, and with the tip of its tail the serpent gently beat her thigh; then the music becoming still it fell off again. (Chapter ten)

The high priest Schahabarim persuades Salammbô that the only way to save Carthage (and the besieged Carthaginian army) is to enter the camp of the mercenaries and retrieve the stolen zaïmph. After seeking the blessings of a whole lexicon of ancient gods and being anointed with a pharmacy of rare potions, Salammbô is led to the barbarian camp by a loyal servant.

Without too much trouble she finds the tent of the man who is now their leader by dint of his mad courage – Mâtho, the savage brute we first encountered at the barbarians’ feast in chapter one and who then went on the very filmic adventure via the city aqueduct to steal the holy zaïmph.

Salammbô enters his tent and we can feel the heavy hand of 19th century censorship as the pair proceed to utter stagy dialogue at each other, before Mâtho falls to his knees in front of her, clasps her legs, rises to kiss her face and arms, she falls backwards onto the warm lion skin and then… he falls asleep. Hmmm. I think we’re meant to understand that they made love, but this is not stated.

Two things suggest this:

  1. We are told that the ankles of Carthaginian virgins are tied by a short golden chain from puberty i.e. they can only totter, can’t run and certainly can’t spread their legs wide. Flaubert tells us that this chain is broken during Salammbô’s encounter with Mâtho.
  2. When Mâtho goes out to deal with the Carthaginian attack, Salammbô is momentarily visited by one of the Carthaginian prisoners, who tells her how shameful it was to hear her ‘copulate’ almost within sight of her father’s tents within the Carthaginian camp.

As a matter of scientific / sociological curiosity, this is the relevant passage of (censored) lovemaking in full:

He was on his knees on the ground before her; and he encircled her form with both his arms, his head thrown back, and his hands wandering; the gold discs hanging from his ears gleamed upon his bronzed neck; big tears rolled in his eyes like silver globes; he sighed caressingly, and murmured vague words lighter than a breeze and sweet as a kiss.

Salammbô was invaded by a weakness in which she lost all consciousness of herself. Something at once inward and lofty, a command from the gods, obliged her to yield herself; clouds uplifted her, and she fell back swooning upon the bed amid the lion’s hair. The zaïmph fell, and enveloped her; she could see Mâtho’s face bending down above her breast.

‘Moloch, thou burnest me!’ and the soldier’s kisses, more devouring than flames, covered her; she was as though swept away in a hurricane, taken in the might of the sun.

He kissed all her fingers, her arms, her feet, and the long tresses of her hair from one end to the other.

‘Carry it off,’ he said, ‘what do I care? take me away with it! I abandon the army! I renounce everything! Beyond Gades, twenty days’ journey into the sea, you come to an island covered with gold dust, verdure, and birds. On the mountains large flowers filled with smoking perfumes rock like eternal censers; in the citron trees, which are higher than cedars, milk-coloured serpents cause the fruit to fall upon the turf with the diamonds in their jaws; the air is so mild that it keeps you from dying. Oh! I shall find it, you will see. We shall live in crystal grottoes cut out at the foot of the hills. No one dwells in it yet, or I shall become the king of the country.’

He brushed the dust off her cothurni; he wanted her to put a quarter of a pomegranate between her lips; he heaped up garments behind her head to make a cushion for her. He sought for means to serve her, and to humble himself, and he even spread the zaïmph over her feet as if it were a mere rug.

‘Have you still,’ he said, ‘those little gazelle’s horns on which your necklaces hang? You will give them to me! I love them!’ For he spoke as if the war were finished, and joyful laughs broke from him. The Mercenaries, Hamilcar, every obstacle had now disappeared. The moon was gliding between two clouds. They could see it through an opening in the tent. ‘Ah, what nights have I spent gazing at her! she seemed to me like a veil that hid your face; you would look at me through her; the memory of you was mingled with her beams; then I could no longer distinguish you!’ And with his head between her breasts he wept copiously.

‘And this,’ she thought, ‘is the formidable man who makes Carthage tremble!

He fell asleep. Then disengaging herself from his arm she put one foot to the ground, and she perceived that her chainlet was broken.

Salammbô seizes the zaïmph just as the Carthaginians happen to make a sortie against the barbarians and in the confusion a) is reunited with the loyal slave who’d brought her this far who b) guides her into the camp of the Carthaginians.

Here she presents her father Hamilcar with the zaïmph, which is then displayed from the walls of the besieged camp, heartening the Carthaginians and dismaying the besieging barbarians. At the same moment, one of the rebel leaders, Narr’ Havas king of the Numidians, presents himself to Hamilcar. He has been playing a cunning game, not actually engaging the Carthaginians, allying with the barbarians, waiting to see which way the land lies. Now he senses the tide is turning the Carthaginians’ way, he offers all his forces to Hamilcar and prostrates himself on the ground.

Hamilcar knows a gift horse when he sees one, raises him from the floor, kisses him and declares an alliance. Since his daughter happens to be standing there, he cements the alliance by giving Salammbô in marriage to Narr’ Havas, and their wedding is celebrated in exotic style right there and then.

The barbarians drive Hamilcar’s army back into the walls of Carthage and a long and very bloody siege commences. Spendius reprises his earlier feat with the Great Aqueduct by personally loosening a keystone in its base so that the city’s water pours out uselessly into the sand.

Flaubert then describes with sadistic relish the slow descent of the city’s population into hunger and thirst, punctuated by systematic attacks on the city by the barbarians who bring up an impressive array of medieval war machines, giant catapults, battering rams and so on.

Finally, the elders of Carthage decide that a truly awesome sacrifice is required to set the city free, a sacrifice to the wickedest god of all, Moloch, who demands human sacrifices. In the most gruesome passage of the book the boy children of all the families of the city are blindfolded and brought before the monstrous statue of the god of hell, there to be case into an enormous furnace which vaporises their bodies, until it the flames are glutted and quenched by a vast mound of bloody, burnt children’s corpses.

In proportion as the priests made haste, the frenzy of the people increased; as the number of the victims was diminishing, some cried out to spare them, others that still more were needful. The walls, with their burden of people, seemed to be giving way beneath the howlings of terror and mystic voluptuousness. Then the faithful came into the passages, dragging their children, who clung to them; and they beat them  in order to make them let go, and handed them over to the men in red. The instrument-players sometimes stopped through exhaustion; then the cries of the mothers might be heard, and the frizzling of the fat as it fell upon the coals.

The henbane-drinkers crawled on all fours around the colossus, roaring like tigers; the Yidonim vaticinated, the Devotees sang with their cloven lips; the trellis-work had been broken through, all wished for a share in the sacrifice;—and fathers, whose children had died previously, cast their effigies, their playthings, their preserved bones into the fire. Some who had knives rushed upon the rest. They slaughtered one another. The hierodules took the fallen ashes at the edge of the flagstone in bronze fans, and cast them into the air that the sacrifice might be scattered over the town and even to the region of the stars. (Chapter 13)

Importantly, Hamilcar hides his own son, substituting for him a slave child, suitably bathed, anointed and richly dressed to fool the Council of Elders. The son, thus spared, will grow up to become Hannibal, one of the most famous generals of the ancient world.

In the long penultimate chapter, the tide turns. The holocaust of the children appears to prompt the heavens to open – it rains and allows the Carthaginians to drink after a long drouth. Hamilcar lures the barbarians into a defile in the mountains which he blocks at both ends, leading them to go through all the agonies of hunger and thirst including, inevitably, cannibalism carried out in horrible ways.

When Hamilcar finally offers peace, he gets agreement from the leading barbarians then proceeds to massacre the rest. Narr’ Havas has 192 elephants at his command, covered with lances and holding razor sharp swords in their trunks, with towers on their backs from which Indian warriors shoot arrows. They storm through the weakened barbarians, eviscerating them. Two ‘syntagmata’ had escaped into a bend of the valley. Hamilcar makes them lie on the floor as a sign of submission, and then the elephants walk over them, breaking their backs.

A pocket of 400 of the strongest fighters is found on a hilltop. Hamilcar makes them fight each other, promising the survivors they will be absorbed into his personal guard. There is an interesting suggestion that these select fighters have formed homosexual relationships, in which the younger are protected and mentored by the older fighters, and repaid this protection with ‘delicate attentions and wifely favours’ (p.258).

Nonetheless, they fight each other, best friend killing best friend – exactly as in the final scene of the movie Spartacus. I wonder whether this really happened, in either historical event, or whether the scriptwriter of Spartacus borrowed it from Salammbô.

When the sixty survivors of this self-slaughter present themselves, Hamilcar has them, also, murdered.

Narr’ Havas is sent to Carthage where he tells the Elders about the comprehensive victory. He visits Salammbô, who orders him to track down and kill the impious mercenary leader, Mâtho.

The barbarians’ last force, led by Mâtho, captures Hamilcar’s inept rival, general Hanno, and crucifies him along with thirty of the Elders who had been in his camp. In response, Hamilcar crucifies the ten rebel leaders who had submitted at the Valley of the Axe, including Spendius, the escaped slave who we met right at the start and who has had so many adventures.

The last of the mercenaries, led by Mâtho, wander from Tunis south, but find all villages razed, all caves blocked, all wells poisoned, until they finally return to Carthage seeking a final confrontation. Here they are exterminated, with the help of African allies, the elephants trampling , swords cleaving, heads rolling, guts splurging, retreating up a hill of bloody bodies until only 30 are left, 20, 10, three, then Mâtho and one other, then Mâtho alone. He tries to throw himself upon the spears and swords but the Carthaginians withdraw, letting him through, until he is caught in a net, to be taken back to Carthage and displayed.

The climax of the novel is a huge festival of celebration in Carthage, where all ranks of the aristocracy present themselves in their pomp, the people adulate, and Salammbo appears to great cheers, the heroine of the hour for recovering the zaïmph and restoring the favour of the gods.

And it is her wedding day, for the is to be formally married to Carthage’s ally, Narr’ Havas.

Mâtho is brought out of prison and runs a grotesque gauntlet of citizens, who flay him, beat him, puncture his skin, brand him, rip his flesh off until he appears at the bottom of the great balcony where Hamilcar and the other Elders are waiting. All that remains of his face is his eyes which look up and penetrate Salammbô’s soul, reminding her of his beautiful powerful body crouching before her in the tent, in the pomp of his power. Next moment this bleeding stump of a man is knocked backwards and a slave leaps forward with a flensing knife, with which he cuts our Mâtho’s still steaming heart, and holds it up to the setting sun, dedicating this sign of Carthage’s victory to the gods.

And as the sun sets and Narr’ Havas tightens his grip round the woman who will now be his wife, but Salammbô collapses backwards over her throne and dies on the spot.

The very last words of the of the novel indicate she has been struck down by the gods ‘ for having touched the mantle of Tanith’ i.e. the famous zaïmph. But the way it coincides with the grotesque death of Mâtho who has, we think, taken her virginity, suggests some kind of mystic bond between them, so that his death in some doom-laden, voodoo way, necessitates her extinction.


Sex and violence

Sex and violence sell pretty much anything in Western society – newspapers, books, movies and comics – and this novel, highly ‘literary’ though it may be in technique, was no exception. Its gory, sexy reputation made it a best-seller.

1. War

The blurb promotes the battle scenes, but I have read better accounts of battles in countless history books.

Flaubert certainly describes the important battles of the war, as recorded by his source Polybius, but it seems to me that Flaubert is always more interested in the pictorial quality of the compositions, than in their dynamic – let alone strategic – elements.

The dust settled around the army, and they were beginning to sing when Hanno himself appeared on the top of an elephant. He sat bare-headed beneath a parasol of byssus held a Negro behind him. His necklace of blue plates flapped against the flowers on his black tunic; his huge arms were compressed within circles of diamonds, and with open mouth he brandished a pike of inordinate size, which spread out at the end like a lotus, and brighter than a mirror. At once the earth shook – and the Barbarians saw charging, in a single line, all the elephants of Carthage, with their tusks gilded, their ears painted blue, armoured in bronze, and with leather towers shaking about on top of their scarlet caparisons, in each of which were three archers holding great open bows. (Chapter 6)

The second battle, the Battle of the Macaras is described in more impressive detail. Here again the elephants are a central theme, the brutality of their treatment and the carnage they cause taking pride of place in the gory descriptions.

But a cry, a terrible cry broke forth, a roar of pain and wrath: it came from the seventy-two elephants which were rushing on in double line, Hamilcar having waited until the Mercenaries were massed together in one spot to let them loose against them; the Indians had goaded them so vigorously that blood was trickling down their broad ears.

Their trunks, which were smeared with minium, were stretched straight out in the air like red serpents; their breasts were furnished with spears and their backs with cuirasses; their tusks were lengthened with steel blades curved like sabres,—and to make them more ferocious they had been intoxicated with a mixture of pepper, wine, and incense. They shook their necklaces of bells, and shrieked; and the elephantarchs bent their heads beneath the stream of phalaricas which was beginning to fly from the tops of the towers.

In order to resist them the better the Barbarians rushed forward in a compact crowd; the elephants flung themselves impetuously upon the centre of it. The spurs on their breasts, like ships’ prows, clove through the cohorts, which flowed surging back. They stifled the men with their trunks, or else snatching them up from the ground delivered them over their heads to the soldiers in the towers; with their tusks they disembowelled them, and hurled them into the air, and long entrails hung from their ivory fangs like bundles of rope from a mast. The Barbarians strove to blind them, to hamstring them; others would slip beneath their bodies, bury a sword in them up to the hilt, and perish crushed to death; the most intrepid clung to their straps; they would go on sawing the leather amid flames, bullets, and arrows, and the wicker tower would fall like a tower of stone.

Fourteen of the animals on the extreme right, irritated by their wounds, turned upon the second rank; the Indians seized mallet and chisel, applied the latter to a joint in the head, and with all their might struck a great blow.

Down fell the huge beasts, falling one above another. It was like a mountain; and upon the heap of dead bodies and armour a monstrous elephant, called ‘The Fury of Baal’, which had been caught by the leg in some chains, stood howling until the evening with an arrow in its eye.

Wow.

But throughout the battle scenes, pictorialism triumphs over analysis or clear description. Even rereading it carefully, it’s difficult to make out precisely what is going on, except the basic fact that Spendius’s army is being massacred.

The aim is, quite clearly, to shock and amaze and horrify, rather than enlighten.

2. Sex

Actually, there’s a lot less sex than advertised. Considering that even fairly muted hints at sensuality in Flaubert’s preceding (and first novel) Madame Bovary, had resulted in him being taken to court, the sensuality on display in Salammbô is in line with the general atmosphere of exotic decadence, but no more. It is more a case of heavy sensual atmosphere – of ‘mystic lasciviousness’ (p.277) than anything explicit.

For example, when she makes her first appearance among the feasting barbarians, you might at least have expected Salammbô to be bare-breasted as, after all, women in some ancient cultures were as a matter of course. It’s a surprise, then, to read that:

Her hair, which was powdered with violet sand, and combined into the form of a tower, after the fashion of the Chanaanite maidens, added to her height. Tresses of pearls were fastened to her temples, and fell to the corners of her mouth, which was as rosy as a half-open pomegranate. On her breast was a collection of luminous stones, their variegation imitating the scales of the murena. Her arms were adorned with diamonds, and issued naked from her sleeveless tunic, which was starred with red flowers on a perfectly black ground. Between her ankles she wore a golden chainlet to regulate her steps, and her large dark purple mantle, cut of an unknown material, trailed behind her, making, as it were, at each step, a broad wave which followed her. (Chapter one)

In other words, she’s wearing a tunic covering her torso and a long purple mantle. In a later scene she goes up to the roof of the temple to pray, accompanied by a serving girl:

Salammbô ascended to the terrace of her palace, supported by a female slave who carried an iron dish filled with live coals.

In the middle of the terrace there was a small ivory bed covered with lynx skins, and cushions made with the feathers of the parrot, a fatidical animal consecrated to the gods; and at the four corners rose four long perfuming-pans filled with nard, incense, cinnamomum, and myrrh. The slave lit the perfumes. Salammbô looked at the polar star; she slowly saluted the four points of heaven, and knelt down on the ground in the azure dust which was strewn with golden stars in imitation of the firmament. Then with both elbows against her sides, her fore-arms straight and her hands open, she threw back her head beneath the rays of the moon, and said:

‘O Rabetna!—Baalet!—Tanith!’ and her voice was lengthened in a plaintive fashion as if calling to someone. ‘Anaïtis! Astarte! Derceto! Astoreth! Mylitta! Athara! Elissa! Tiratha! – By the hidden symbols, by the resounding sistra – by the furrows of the earth – by the eternal silence and by the eternal fruitfulness – mistress of the gloomy sea and of the azure shores, O Queen of the watery world, all hail!’

She swayed her whole body twice or thrice, and then cast herself face downwards in the dust with both arms outstretched.

But the slave nimbly raised her, for according to the rites someone must catch the suppliant at the moment of his prostration; this told him that the gods accepted him, and Salammbô’s nurse never failed in this pious duty.

Some merchants from Darytian Gætulia had brought her to Carthage when quite young, and after her enfranchisement she would not forsake her old masters, as was shown by her right ear, which was pierced with a large hole. A petticoat of many-coloured stripes fitted closely on her hips, and fell to her ankles, where two tin rings clashed together. Her somewhat flat face was yellow like her tunic. Silver bodkins of great length formed a sun behind her head. She wore a coral button on the nostril, and she stood beside the bed more erect than a Hermes, and with her eyelids cast down.

Salammbô walked to the edge of the terrace; her eyes swept the horizon for an instant, and then were lowered upon the sleeping town, while the sigh that she heaved swelled her bosom, and gave an undulating movement to the whole length of the long white simar which hung without clasp or girdle about her. Her curved and painted sandals were hidden beneath a heap of emeralds, and a net of purple thread was filled with her disordered hair.

So the atmosphere is certainly heavy with oriental jewels, exotica, incense and gods – but Salammbô is far from naked: she is wearing a petticoat and a long white ‘simar’. Still, this didn’t stop the imagination of contemporary readers, and the illustrations of the next generation of artists, from depicting her bare-bosomed – as in Alphone Mucha’s Art Nouveau depiction of exactly this scene.

Salammbô by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

Salammbô by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

The snake scene (Chapter ten, actually titled ‘The Serpent’) is heavily, aromatically sensual, but involves no actual sex just lots of heavy sensuality. And the seduction scene in Chapter eleven (‘In the tent’) has some pawing and kissing but nothing explicit at all. It is only afterwards that we learn there was an act of sexual congress (I think).

Meanwhile there are a lot of references to the sex of other women; within Carthage there are priestesses who have sex with priests, the camp followers of the barbarian army are casually referred to as having sex with miscellaneous soldiers. The sex act doesn’t have to be anywhere actually described in order for there to be a pervasive atmosphere of wanton sexuality, an atmosphere heavy with implication which represented an enormous liberation from the repressed sexuality of Flaubert’s original readers.

3. Sadism

If there’s not a lot of actual sex, there certainly is a great deal of brutal sadism. Just like today, as it was in my youth in the 1970s, so it was in Flaubert’s 1860s, you show a woman’s nipple and the press and the guardians of Purity go mental – but you can show men being tortured, eviscerated, trampled to death, having their heads, arms or legs chopped off, being crucified or burned to death – and that’s fine.

The tone is set in the odd scene towards the sbeginning where the barbarian army is trekking towards the sea and comes to a valley in which lions have been crucified. It is a bizarre custom of the non-Punic locals, apparently, designed to discourage other lions. Later, three hundred Carthaginian nobles taken prisoner by the barbarians all have their legs broken and are thrown into a deep pit where they slowly starve to death.

When Hamilcar returns to Carthage, he reviews his estates and possessions (which takes up most of a chapter) while dealing out quite vicious punishments to all and sundry for their cowardice in the face of the barbarians. He orders the governors of his country estates who fled the mercenaries to be branded on their foreheads with red-hot irons, and when he discovers that his prize elephants were mutilated by the drunk barbarians, he orders his chief of staff, Abdalonim, to be crucified.

Of course, the battle scenes are full of countless horrible eviscerations, impalings and mutilations. The siege of Carthage itself gives opportunity for gory deaths of all descriptions.

The great trench was full to overflowing; the wounded were massed pell-mell with the dead and dying beneath the footsteps of the living. Calcined trunks formed black spots amid opened entrails, scattered brains, and pools of blood; and arms and legs projecting half way out of a heap, would stand straight up like props in a burning vineyard…

All the other tollenos were speedily made ready. But a hundred times as many would have been needed for the capture of the town. They were utilised in a murderous fashion: Ethiopian archers were placed in the baskets; then, the cables having been fastened, they remained suspended and shot poisoned arrows. The fifty tollenos commanding the battlements thus surrounded Carthage like monstrous vultures; and the Negroes laughed to see the guards on the rampart dying in grievous convulsions…

And so on, at very great length.

The text adds refinement upon refinement in the art of torture and painful death. The crucifixion of Hanno and the thirty Elders is matched by the crucifixion of Spendius and the ten barbarian leaders, and then of Mâtho.

Flaubert goes out of his way to take us back to the defile of the Axe, where Hamilcar had trapped the barbarian army, to describe in detail the slow death from starvation of the thousands left behind there; of how Narr’ Havas has carefully rounded up all the lions in the vicinity and lets them loose into the sealed valley, so that they tear the last survivors apart, while they’re still conscious. Then, at nightfall, come slinking the hyenas to rip apart the last survivors.

It feels like Flaubert has made a comprehensive list of every possible physical torment or torture humans are vulnerable to, and found a place somewhere in his narrative for every single one, described with lip-smacking relish.

In one of the heaps of corpses, which in an irregular fashion embossed the plain, something rose up vaguer than a spectre. Then one of the lions set himself in motion, his monstrous form cutting a black shadow on the background of the purple sky, and when he was quite close to the man, he knocked him down with a single blow of his paw. Then, stretching himself flat upon him, he slowly drew out the entrails with the edge of his teeth. (Chapter 14)

Then the lion stretches itself and gives a desolate roar over the valley of corpses. This image – a solitary wild beast emblemising desolation – echoes the lone elephant, the ‘Fury of Baal’, at the end of the Battle of Macaras, bellowing in pain with an arrow in its eye.

Desolation. Devastated landscapes littered with smoking ruins and stinking bodies. In the (short) introduction to the Penguin paperback edition, A.J. Krailsheimer describes all Flaubert’s novels as ‘sermons in vanity’, which seems about right.

In which case this is much the most bleak of those sermons. Not only is every element of this long-forgotten conflict pointless and cruel, but we know the subsequent history of Carthage, its most famous feature being that it was eventually conquered by Rome and the city itself comprehensively destroyed, and the fields ploughed with salt. All that survives of the once-great city is a handful of stone ruins amid the noisy traffic of modern-day Tunis.

The Carthaginians win this war, but it will turn out to be a futile effort just as Flaubert, the misanthrope, believes that, deep down, all human activity is vile and futile.

4. Exotic details

There are so many of these it’s difficult to know where to start. Flaubert obviously enjoyed himself immensely soaking his text in every exotic detail he could possibly mine from his source texts. Here are the barbarians feasting.

First they were served with birds and green sauce in plates of red clay relieved by drawings in black, then with every kind of shell-fish that is gathered on the Punic coasts, wheaten porridge, beans and barley, and snails dressed with cumin on dishes of yellow amber.

Afterwards the tables were covered with meats, antelopes with their horns, peacocks with their feathers, whole sheep cooked in sweet wine, haunches of she-camels and buffaloes, hedgehogs with garum, fried grasshoppers, and preserved dormice. Large pieces of fat floated in the midst of saffron in bowls of Tamrapanni wood. Everything was running over with wine, truffles, and asafotida. Pyramids of fruit were crumbling upon honeycombs, and they had not forgotten a few of those plump little dogs with pink silky hair and fattened on olive lees – a Carthaginian dish held in abhorrence among other nations.

Surprise at the novel fare excited the greed of the stomach. The Gauls with their long hair drawn up on the crown of the head, snatched at the water-melons and lemons, and crunched them up with the rind. The Negroes, who had never seen a lobster, tore their faces with its red prickles. But the shaven Greeks, whiter than marble, threw the leavings of their plates behind them, while the herdsmen from Brutium, in their wolf-skin garments, devoured in silence with their faces in their portions.

There are long detailed passages like this on literally every page.

I soon realised the book was reminding me of Milton’s addiction to exotic names, obscure foods and jewels and dress, a taste he parades throughout Paradise Lost. It is, for long passages, more like wandering through a gallery of ‘orientalist’ art than reading a novel.

In the original editions of Paradise Lost all the rare and exotic names were italicised, which I think would have been a good idea to apply to this novel, so you’d know you’re getting your money’s worth of marvels and wonders, like Victorian visitors to a circus peep show of monsters and rarities.

They were not Libyans from the neighbourhood of Carthage, who had long composed the third army, but nomads from the tableland of Barca, bandits from Cape Phiscus and the promontory of Dernah, from Phazzana and Marmarica. They had crossed the desert, drinking at the brackish wells walled in with camels’ bones; the Zuaeces, with their covering of ostrich feathers, had come on quadrigæ; the Garamantians, masked with black veils, rode behind on their painted mares; others were mounted on asses, onagers, zebras, and buffaloes; while some dragged after them the roofs of their sloop-shaped huts together with their families and idols. There were Ammonians with limbs wrinkled by the hot water of the springs; Atarantians, who curse the sun; Troglodytes, who bury their dead with laughter beneath branches of trees; and the hideous Auseans, who eat grass-hoppers; the Achyrmachidæ, who eat lice; and the vermilion-painted Gysantians, who eat apes.

Dialogue

The dialogue is dire. A major scriptwriter would need to be brought in to make it acceptable to modern readers. All the characters declaim their words in hammy stage voices, like John Gielgud doing Shakespeare. Almost every sentence of dialogue ends with an exclamation mark to ram home the point that this is an Exciting Historical Drama.

Here is Salammbô greeting her father Hamilcar, on his return to the family palace, and then realising that someone has told him about her suspected involvement in the theft of the zaïmph.

‘Greeting, eye of Baalim, eternal glory! triumph! leisure! satisfaction! riches! Long has my heart been sad and the house drooping. But the returning master is like reviving Tammouz; and beneath your gaze, O father, joyfulness and a new existence will everywhere prevail!’

And taking from Taanach’s hands a little oblong vase wherein smoked a mixture of meal, butter, cardamom, and wine: ‘Drink freely,’ said she, ‘of the returning cup, which your servant has prepared!’

He replied: ‘A blessing upon you!’ and he mechanically grasped the golden vase which she held out to him.

He scanned her, however, with such harsh attention, that Salammbô was troubled and stammered out:

‘They have told you, O Master!’

‘Yes! I know!’ said Hamilcar in a low voice.

See what I mean about exclamation marks!

One of the things films have taught us is that a close-up of a few muttered words can be every bit as terrifying as a Grand Speech. Flaubert was writing 100 years before this was discovered, and so his prose – and the entire novel – reflects the stage conventions of his time, with the actors adopting histrionic postures in order to deliver their melodramatic speeches. Here is Hamilcar addressing the Elders:

‘By the hundred torches of your Intelligences! by the eight fires of the Kabiri! by the stars, the meteors, and the volcanoes! by everything that burns! by the thirst of the desert and the saltness of the ocean! by the cave of Hadrumetum and the empire of Souls! by extermination! by the ashes of your sons and the ashes of the brothers of your ancestors with which I now mingle my own!—you, the Hundred of the Council of Carthage, have lied in your accusation of my daughter! And I, Hamilcar Barca, marine Suffet, chief of the rich and ruler of the people, in the presence of bull-headed Moloch, I swear…’ (Chapter seven)

It’s hard to take most of the dialogue – and therefore most of the characters – very seriously. On the other hand almost every passage of description is wonderfully garish and exotic. This is the paragraph immediately following Hamilcar’s vow:

The sacred servants entered wearing their golden combs, some with purple sponges and others with branches of palm. They raised the hyacinth curtain which was stretched before the door; and through the opening of this angle there was visible behind the other halls the great pink sky which seemed to be a continuation of the vault and to rest at the horizon upon the blue sea. The sun was issuing from the waves and mounting upwards. It suddenly struck upon the breast of the brazen colossus, which was divided into seven compartments closed by gratings. His red-toothed jaws opened in a horrible yawn; his enormous nostrils were dilated, the broad daylight animated him, and gave him a terrible and impatient aspect, as if he would fain have leaped without to mingle with the star, the god, and together traverse the immensities. (Chapter seven)

Dialogue 0, Description 10.

Adaptations and imagery

Salammbô quickly gained a reputation for outrageous violence and heavy sensuality, and so ended up being a best-seller, not only cementing Flaubert’s reputation as a player on the mid-nineteenth century literary scene, but fitting right in with the era’s penchant for ‘orientalising’ visions of the ‘exotic’ East (or south, in this case).

Its sex, violence and exotic setting help explain the startling number of plays, operas and early film adaptations which were made of it, and the number of paintings it gave rise to. (A semi-naked, sex-mad, dark-skinned beauty? It was a subject made in heaven for a certain type of ‘realistic’ Victorian painter). Flaubert’s descriptions of Carthaginian costumes even, apparently, had an influence on the fashions of the day.

Salammbo and the holy python by a) Gaston Bussière (1910) b) Charles Allen Winter c) Jules Jean Baptiste Toulot d) Glauco Cambon (1916)

Salammbo and the holy python by a) Gaston Bussière (1910) b) Charles Allen Winter c) Jules Jean Baptiste Toulot d) Glauco Cambon (1916)

What heterosexual man wouldn’t want to be that snake?

In a way Salammbô was a forerunner of the massive fashion for Salomé, the beguiling, sensual blood-thirsty killer of John the Baptist, whose cult blossomed in the 1880s. Comparing painterly treatment of the two shows the way the explicit and light-filled orientalism of the 1860s and 70s morphed into the more dark and shrouded symbolism of the 1890s.

Summary

Salammbô is a triumph of ornate, jewel-loving detail over psychology or plausibility. It’s more like a succession of brightly coloured orientalist paintings rather than a novel. Which is great if you like exotic and colourful orientalist art – as I do.

Alternatively, you could find the book proto-modernist in the way it almost dispenses with character or dialogue, to focus instead on a kind of unremitting carapace of shiny surfaces. It is like a crown or breast-plate from the ancient world, made of interlinking metallic plates studded with precious stones.

However, the dialogue in Salammbô is made of paste. The characters are Victorian histrions. But the word-paintings remain as beautifully coloured, cluttered and exotic, as evocative of an imaginary otherworld of sonorous names and aromatic unguents, as when they were first painted.

As Hamilcar contemplated the accumulation of his riches he became calm; his thoughts wandered to the other halls that were full of still rarer treasures. Bronze plates, silver ingots, and iron bars alternated with pigs of tin brought from the Cassiterides over the Dark Sea; gums from the country of the Blacks were running over their bags of palm bark; and gold dust heaped up in leathern bottles was insensibly creeping out through the worn-out seams. Delicate filaments drawn from marine plants hung amid flax from Egypt, Greece, Taprobane and Judæa; mandrepores bristled like large bushes at the foot of the walls; and an indefinable odour – the exhalation from perfumes, leather, spices, and ostrich feathers, the latter tied in great bunches at the very top of the vault – floated through the air. An arch was formed above the door before each passage with elephants’ teeth placed upright and meeting together at the points. (Chapter seven)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

She still was not happy – she never had been. What caused this inadequacy in her life – why did everything she leaned on instantly decay? … Oh if somewhere there were a being strong and handsome, a valiant heart, passionate and sensitive at once, a poet’s spirit in an angel’s form, a lyre with strings of steel, sounding sweet-sad epithalamiums to the heavens, then why should she not find that being? Vain dream! There was nothing that was worth going far to get: all was lies! Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a misery. Every pleasure brought its surfeit; and the loveliest kisses only left upon your lips a baffled longing for a more intense delight. (Madame Bovary, Part three, chapter six)

Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert is one of the most famous novelists of the 19th century, in any language. Born in 1821 in Normandy, he went to Paris to study law but dropped out after being afflicted by a mystery illness, probably epilepsy. He returned to Normandy and spent the rest of his life living off a modest private income in the remote village of Croisset, devoting himself to literature.

His early (unpublished) novels are lyrical and romantic. As he matured he reined in his tendencies to lush romanticism in order to create a new kind of studied realism.

Madame Bovary

Flaubert is most famous for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857) the low-key, realistic depiction of the life of a small-town woman, Emma Rouault, originally the daughter of a farmer, who marries the well-meaning but dull local doctor, Charles Bovary, but soon yearns for something more.

She has an affair with a stylish local landowner, Rodolphe, who, after several years of dallying, dumps her when she shows signs of wanting to leave her husband and getting serious. As a result Emma has a nervous breakdown and takes months of being tenderly cared for by her husband to recover. Sone years later she develops a passionate and sensuous affair with young Leon the law clerk from her small town, who has moved on to bigger things in Rouen. With him she arranges weekly meetings for days of unbridled sensuality.

Nemesis comes not as a result of these affairs, but through Emma’s equally wanton way with money. The village haberdasher, Lheureux, preys on her over the years, selling her all kinds of luxury knick-knacks she doesn’t really need, making her consolidate her debts into large promissory notes, renewing these at extortionate interest, and finally handing the lot over to a rack-renting debt collector who announces that  she is bankrupt and that he is going to impound and sell off all the good doctor’s belongings and house to pay off the debts.

On this last, climactic day, Flaubert shows Emma desperately running round the village, begging everyone she knows for money. She begs the haberdasher himself, the local lawyer, then goes out to the chateau of her old lover Rodolphe, in a vain attempt to rekindle his interest and get him to lend her money. She takes the coach into town to beg Leon to get the money for her from a friend and then suggests that he steals the money from his employer. One by one all the men reject her.

Finally, in a delirium of despair, Emma goes in the back of the local chemist’s shop, persuades his biddable young assistant to fetch her a jar of arsenic (whose existence we’d learned about in an unrelated scene years earlier, but which she now remembers) and stuffs her mouth with it.

She staggers back home and there follows a protracted death bed scene, at which Charles her husband is distraught and calls for a set of more senior doctors to come and help. Quickly the two local ‘experts’ realise there’s nothing they can do for her and so they take up the offer of Homais, the chemist, to repair for a slap-up dinner at his house (his wife fussing and fretting that she doesn’t have anything special to hand). Back in the sick room, Emma coughs and pukes her last breaths, while the local curé struggles to administer the sacraments. She dies.

The trial of Emma Bovary

Because it was so matter of fact and realistic in its depiction of Emma’s affairs (for its day, 1857) Madame Bovary was seized by the authorities, and Flaubert and the publisher of the magazine it was serialised in were prosecuted for ‘insulting public morals and offending decent manners’.

The trial lasted one day and the defendants were acquitted, although Flaubert was reprimanded by the court for his use of graphic detail concerning ‘adulterous and corrupt affairs’.

The trial, as well as his devotion to the art of writing, which became apparent when Flaubert’s wonderfully colourful and thoughtful correspondence was published after  his death (1880), made Gustave a kind of patron saint of serious literary types, both writers and critics.

Realism

The appeal, the pleasure, of realism is in the precision of the descriptions. Flaubert excels at interiors.

A young woman in a blue merino dress with three flounces came to the threshold of the door to receive Monsieur Bovary, whom she led to the kitchen, where a large fire was blazing. The servant’s breakfast was boiling beside it in small pots of all sizes. Some damp clothes were drying inside the chimney-corner. The shovel, tongs, and the nozzle of the bellows, all of colossal size, shone like polished steel, while along the walls hung many pots and pans in which the clear flame of the hearth, mingling with the first rays of the sun coming in through the window, was mirrored fitfully. (Part one, chapter two)

One day he got there about three o’clock. Everybody was in the fields. He went into the kitchen, but did not at once catch sight of Emma; the outside shutters were closed. Through the chinks of the wood the sun sent across the flooring long fine rays that were broken at the corners of the furniture and trembled along the ceiling. Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider. The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders. Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders. (Part one, chapter three)

Light is important in these prose paintings. They have the still, pregnant precision of interiors by Vermeer.

The precisely rendered descriptions extend to finely observed accounts of humans and their surfaces.

In bed, in the morning, by her side, on the pillow, he watched the sunlight sinking into the down on her fair cheek, half hidden by the lappets of her night-cap. Seen thus closely, her eyes looked to him enlarged, especially when, on waking up, she opened and shut them rapidly many times. Black in the shade, dark blue in broad daylight, they had, as it were, depths of different colours, that, darker in the centre, grew paler towards the surface of the eye. His own eyes lost themselves in these depths; he saw himself in miniature down to the shoulders, with his handkerchief round his head and the top of his shirt open… (Part one, chapter five)

And Flaubert deploys the same forensic skills in his descriptions of human behaviour.

When shy Charles marries sentimental Emma, their wedding feast is an opportunity for Flaubert to satirise the behaviour of the small-town Normans he himself lived his whole life among.

Until night they ate. When any of them were too tired of sitting, they went out for a stroll in the yard, or for a game with corks in the granary, and then returned to table. Some towards the finish went to sleep and snored. But with the coffee everyone woke up. Then they began songs, showed off tricks, raised heavy weights, performed feats with their fingers, then tried lifting carts on their shoulders, made broad jokes, kissed the women. At night when they left, the horses, stuffed up to the nostrils with oats, could hardly be got into the shafts; they kicked, reared, the harness broke, their masters laughed or swore; and all night in the light of the moon along country roads there were runaway carts at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clambering up the hills, with women leaning out from the tilt to catch hold of the reins. (Part one, chapter four)

He’s good at crowd scenes. As well as the wedding feast, he really goes to town in his description of the annual Agricultural Show in the novel’s main setting, Yonville. There’s a sumptuous and vivid set-piece description of a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at Rouen. And Emma’s funeral is another opportunity for Gustave to show his skills at large-scale compositions, the prose equivalent of the large canvases of his contemporary realist, the painter Gustave Courbet.

Flaubert’s characters

Flaubert applies the same wry, detached attitude to his characters.

We get a detailed account of the upbringing of Charles Bovary – which amounts to him being spoiled as a boy by his mother and encouraged to run around in the woods to become ‘a man’ by his father, all of which creates his easy-going, lazy personality. Charles drops his medical studies in Rouen and flunks his exams; then gives them another go, scrapes through to qualify as a doctor, and his doting mother finds him a nice, quiet, rural job as doctor in Tostes (a town near the river Seine, about ten miles south of Rouen).

At first we see Emma only through Charles’s eyes when he goes to treat her father, a worthy old farmer, Monsieur Rouault. Her physical beauty and stillness in the dark parlour entrance him. It’s only after they’re married, that Flaubert gives us a chapter describing Emma’s background and we begin to realise she is not at all what she seemed to simple Charles.

Only now are we told that Emma Bovary née Rouault is shallow, sentimental and silly, having been raised on a diet of romantic novels and sentimental religion at a convent school. It turns out that her poise and stillness conceal a mind consumed by the worst clichés of cheap fiction.

She thought, sometimes, that, after all, this was the happiest time of her life – the honeymoon, as people called it. To taste the full sweetness of it, it would have been necessary doubtless to fly to those lands with sonorous names where the days after marriage are full of laziness most suave. In post chaises behind blue silken curtains to ride slowly up steep road, listening to the song of the postilion re-echoed by the mountains, along with the bells of goats and the muffled sound of a waterfall; at sunset on the shores of gulfs to breathe in the perfume of lemon trees; then in the evening on the villa-terraces above, hand in hand to look at the stars, making plans for the future. It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, and that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could not she lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills? (Part one, chapter seven)

Thus Flaubert, skewering the shallow tropes of popular fiction.

Emma hoped the confident amiable young doctor had come to take her away from a life of rural boredom. Instead she finds herself trapped in an arguably even worse life of small-town boredom.

Perhaps she would have liked to confide all these things to someone. But how tell an undefinable uneasiness, variable as the clouds, unstable as the winds? Words failed her – the opportunity, the courage. If Charles had but wished it, if he had guessed it, if his look had but once met her thought, it seemed to her that a sudden plenty would have gone out from her heart, as the fruit falls from a tree when shaken by a hand. But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him. (Part one, chapter seven)

A trajectory of alienation which continues throughout the book, until Emma comes to loathe and detest everything about Charles.

Banality

What Flaubert hated, what terrified him most, was banality. Life is banal and, oh God, people are so trite and shallow. In their different ways, Charles and Emma are almost spiteful portraits of dullness.

Charles’s conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everyone’s ideas trudged past, in their everyday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.

And poor Emma, the heroine around which these four hundred pages rotate, is an embodiment of the inchoate longing for adventure, for romance, for something, in the mind of a silly, shallow, provincial young woman, trapped by her narrow upbringing, limited life opportunities and her own trite personality.

Life in 1840s rural France seems almost unbearably dull to us, reading the book in the 21st century – but was doubly so for women who lived virtually under house arrest. Of course, she could go out whenever she liked, except that, in the dull little towns where the couple lived, there was almost nothing to do and no-one to see.

The thought of having a male child afforded her a kind of anticipatory revenge for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free. He can explore the passions and the continents, can surmount obstacles, reach out to the most distant joys. But a woman is constantly thwarted. At once inert and pliant, she has to contend with both physical weakness and legal subordination. Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze hat blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains. (Part two, chapter three)

Inevitability

The story of this small-town tragedy unfolds with a kind of grim inevitability. Flaubert pinpoints with surgical precision the moments where Emma slowly realises she doesn’t love Charles, then chafes at her restricted life, then begins to dislike Charles, then ends up passionately hating him.

This makes her ill, stressed and unhappy. She loses appetite. Charles and his domineering mother, blissfully unaware of her feelings, decide a change of scene is called for and they move to a different town, the (fictional) rural town of Yonville. This is the setting of most of the story.

Against the rhythms of rural and small town life, against the backdrop of the Wednesday market and the Agricultural Show attended by the Department Prefect (part two, chapter 8), we watch Emma:

  • get pregnant, desperately hope it will be a boy who she can project her wish for freedom onto, and sink into despair when it is a girl, who she resents and never bonds with
  • has an almost wordless, touchless, intense passion with a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who shares her naive love of literature and music – perversely she doesn’t return his obvious admiration and he leaves to study in Paris, plunging her deeper into despair

It is then that she is spotted by Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy local landowner and experienced womaniser. With cold calculation he sets out to seduce Emma and add her to his list of conquests.

If he is what we nowadays call a ‘sexual predator’, Emma is far from helpless victim. She is depicted as self-centred and heartless – her lack of affection for her own little girl is quite upsetting to anyone who’s been a parent.

And Flaubert depicts with quite haunting insight the development of their affair, its ups and downs, as both parties are by turns genuinely carried away with love and lust, or have moments of doubt and repulsion, return to the fray willing it to remain heady and romantic, become slightly hardened… and so on.

In other words, there are no heroes or villains, everyone is portrayed with a clinical detachment, sometimes with tones of compassion, sometimes broad satire (the chorus of gossipy townspeople), sometimes bordering on contempt.

Style

Stupid young married woman is seduced by cynical womaniser, has further affairs, runs up huge bills  – then kills herself. It’s not a novel you read for the plot. Instead, it’s a book you can open at any page and immediately enjoy for the precision and deftness of its style. God, it’s good writing, even in translation. Here are the household servants.

‘Let me alone,’ Felicity said, moving her pot of starch. ‘You’d better be off and pound almonds; you are always dangling about women. Before you meddle with such things, bad boy, wait till you’ve got a beard to your chin.’
‘Oh, don’t be cross! I’ll go and clean her boots,’ replied Justin.
And he at once took down from the shelf Emma’s boots, all coated with mud, the mud of the rendezvous, that crumbled into powder beneath his fingers, and that he watched as it gently rose in a ray of sunlight. (Part three, chapter twelve)

Composition

And the conception, the composition, feels so right. If the plot isn’t exactly original, it unfurls with a kind of stately orderliness and clarity. Although it is categorised as a ‘realist’ novel, there are in fact many scenes which seem pregnant with an almost medieval sense of allegory and deeper meaning.

In part two, chapter six, Emma hears the church bell of Yonville ringing and is suddenly overcome by the need to confess and unburden herself. She bustles along to the church but there follows an excruciating scene where she tries to hint and convey to the curé that all is not well, but he is hopelessly distracted by a class of unruly young boys he is trying to teach the catechism. Eventually Emma leaves having said nothing, with all her frustration redoubled and bottled up. Back at the house she sits in an agony of frustrated unhappiness while her poor little daughter, Berthe, comes tugging at her skirt, wanting to play. Emma tells her to go away but like all toddlers she comes back and then Emma snaps and pushes her hard with her elbow. With perfect inevitability, Berthe falls backwards and cuts her cheek against the curtain holder, at which Emma snaps out of her misery and panics, shrieking for the maid and then for Charles who comes running. All are impressed by Emma’s doting hyper-care for the child; only we, the reader, have any idea at all of the raging turmoil in her mind which drove her to be so thoughtless.

The whole incident unfolds with the heavy inevitability of a Greek tragedy yet at the same time is entirely naturalistic. There’s nothing forced or symbolic or precious about it. This, you feel, is how life is, made up of silly frustrations, unhappinesses, angers and accidents.

But the way Flaubert chooses and selects these moments is almost breath-taking. ‘Realism’ sounds like it ought to be dull, but Flaubert’s selection of just the right psychological and emotional moments from this tawdry story means that every single scene is alive with meaning and intensity.

And the words. The extremely careful phrasing of every sentence which is used to depict all these charged scenes.

The furniture in its place seemed to have become more immobile, and to lose itself in the shadow as in an ocean of darkness. The fire was out, the clock went on ticking, and Emma marvelled at this calm of all things while within herself was such tumult. But little Berthe was there, between the window and the work-table, tottering on her knitted shoes, and trying to come to her mother to catch hold of the ends of her apron-strings.
‘Leave me alone,’ said Emma, putting her from her with her hand.
The little girl soon came up closer against her knees, and leaning on them with her arms, she looked up with her large blue eyes, while a small thread of pure saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk apron.
‘Leave me alone,’ repeated the young woman quite irritably.

The ticking clock, the spool of spittle, all scream out Emma’s unbearable unhappiness. Character, mood and emotion is portrayed with stunning brilliance on every page. This is what makes Madame Bovary a masterpiece. Here is Charles, alone by the body of Emma, after she’s died and been dressed for her funeral by the village women.

It was the last time; he came to bid her farewell.

The aromatic herbs were still smoking, and spirals of bluish vapour blended at the window-sash with the fog that was coming in. There were few stars, and the night was warm. The wax of the candles fell in great drops upon the sheets of the bed. Charles watched them burn, tiring his eyes against the glare of their yellow flame.

The watering on the satin gown shimmered white as moonlight. Emma was lost beneath it; and it seemed to him that, spreading beyond her own self, she blended confusedly with everything around her – the silence, the night, the passing wind, the damp odours rising from the ground.

Comedy

If Flaubert is harsh on the self deceptions of the lovers – Emma herself, the calculating cad Rodolphe, the genuinely intoxicated young Leon – and gives an unflinching portrait of Charles’s dull obtuseness and the bossiness of his domineering mother, always ready to stick her oar in – an under-appreciated aspect of the book is its broad humour.

Comedy is harder to quote or pick out of a novel than its countless serious strands and issues. It generally needs more context or build-up. But there’s a kind of Dad’s Army, warm humour about Flaubert’s depictions of the inhabitants of the Norman village. If they can be caught out in petty hypocrisies or pompous speeches or absent-minded behaviour or gossiping, they will be.

A lot rotates around the figure of Homais, the pompous village chemist, who fancies himself as a scientific pioneer, quietly breaks the law by giving medical consultations on the side, and also largely writes the little local paper. Flaubert gives us big quotes from this august journal, allowing us to judge for ourselves its pompous provincial quality.

There’s a classic scene which takes a bit of explaining: Charles’s father dies of a stroke. Charles is so upset he deputes Homais to tell Emma. Homais, in his self-important way, writes a long speech (tearing up numerous drafts in order to arrive at just the right slow revelation of this tragic occurrence.)

And so Homais sends his boy to fetch Emma and tell her it’s important. She is walking by the river, but when the boy tells her something serious has happened and she must come to Monsieur Homais’ at once, she is understandably panic-stricken. But – and here’s the comic denouement – when Emma arrives breathless and anxious, she finds Homais in a fury because his assistant has gone into his inner sanctum and meddled with his chemistry equipment. Emma repeatedly asks what is the important message, while Homais rants and shouts at his poor cowering assistant.

Finally, in a paroxysm of anger, Homais turns to Emma and declares ‘Charles’s father has died,’ then returns to chastising his assistant. See, it’s not very funny when I write it down here. But if you are properly absorbed in the world of the book and its characters and the flow of the narrative, I found it very funny and it is clearly intended to be funny.

Similarly, at the end of the book, as Emma lies slowly dying, Charles sends messages for help to the two most senior doctors in the neighbourhood. After quickly examining the patient, the most senior one concludes there is no hope (he is correct) and, none of them wanting to be associated with death (bad for business), they eagerly take up Monsieur Homais’s invitation to cross the road to his house for a slap-up lunch – which is the point where his wife begins fussing that she doesn’t have fine food suitable for such eminences and sends out in a fluster for some luxury fare.

I grew up in a village. I have kids of my own and a network of family, cousins, in-laws, all with their foibles and peculiarities. My parents have died, friends have died, I’ve seen people behave very oddly around bereavements and funerals: the strongest collapse in tears, the weakest turn out to be brilliant at organising the funeral, some just can’t face it, can’t face death.

Without trying very hard I’ve come across commentary on the internet describing the behaviour of Homais and the doctors as ‘despicable’ and ‘contemptible’, but this seems to me much too harsh, simplistic and judgmental. Their behaviour is human, all-too-human. The judgers obviously haven’t learned from Shakespeare that something can be intensely tragic and howlingly funny at the same time – the message also conveyed 400 years later by Samuel Beckett. And maybe they haven’t been at many death beds or attended many funerals.

In fact, at a pinch, this could be taken as the humanist message of ‘literature’ – that people are complex, really complex, that what outsiders regard as ‘positive’ traits, can be mixed in with ‘negative’ traits, that people’s feelings and motivations fluctuate from moment to moment. It is as if modern readers took the moment when Emma pushes her daughter over as the one and only moment which Defines Her Character and condemn her as a Bad Mother.

That is to take a legalistic, social worker-cum-Nazi informer view of human nature, where one chance action or one chance remark against the Great Leader, condemns a person for life.

Literature – or some kinds of relatively modern literature – are intended to work precisely against simple-minded judgementalism and to show human beings in all their contradictoriness. The public prosecutor in Rouen didn’t understand this, and saw only a story about an immoral woman. It is disheartening, but not that surprising, that in our own hyper-judgmental times, many teachers and students of literature take a similarly one-dimensional, judgmental view of Flaubert’s characters.

Not that he’d have been surprised. It is exactly what he’d have expected.

Translations

As befits such a classic, Madame Bovary has been translated into English numerous times.

Madame Bovary, 1886 by Eleanor Marx-Aveling
Madame Bovary, 1928 by James Lewis May
Madame Bovary, 1946 by Gerald Hopkins
Madame Bovary, 1950 by Alan Russell
Madame Bovary, 1957 by Francis Steegmuller
Madame Bovary, 1959 by Lowell Bair
Madame Bovary, 1964 by Mildred Marmur
Madame Bovary, 1965 by Paul de Man
Madame Bovary, 1992 by Geoffrey Wall
Madame Bovary, 2010 by Lydia Davis
Madame Bovary, 2011 by Adam Thorpe

I read the old 1950 Penguin translation by Alan Russell, but I’ve quoted from the only version which seems to be available online, the one by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

Gustave Courbet

Here’s a depiction of a rural funeral by the great pioneer of realism in painting, Gustave Courbet. In its sense of a) composition with large number of figures b) its emphasis on the quirks and individuality of the people depicted – their boredom, itchy noses and distracted looks, in among the expressions of genuine grief and remorse – it is very much the visual equivalent of Flaubert’s all-encompassing vision.

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

Surrealism by Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy (2004)

SURREALISM. Noun: Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, or otherwise, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral considerations.
(First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924)

One of German publisher Taschen’s ‘Basic Art’ movement series, this 95-page-long, mid-size art book consists of a series of key Surrealist art works, prefaced by a handy ten-page introduction, complete with funky timeline of historical events (e.g. 1913 – world’s first domestic refrigerator sold in Chicago!).

The main body of the text consists of 34 double-page spreads, each one displaying a major Surrealist painting on the right, and a page of commentary about the artist – with their biography, photo and interpretation of the work – on the left-hand page.

The artists are presented alphabetically, not chronologically, so the commentary on them and their pictures jumps about a bit in time and space, in a pleasantly random, surreal kind of way. They are:

  • Hans Arp (1 painting)
  • Hans Bellmer (1)
  • Brassaï (1 photo)
  • Giorgio de Chirico (2)
  • Salvador Dalí (5)
  • Paul Delvaux (1)
  • Max Ernst (4)
  • Alberto Giacometti (1)
  • Paul Klee (1)
  • Wifredo Lam (1)
  • René Magritte (4)
  • André Masson (1)
  • Matta (1)
  • Joan Miró (3)
  • Meret Oppenheim (1)
  • Pablo Picasso (4)
  • Man Ray (1 photograph)
  • Yves Tanguy (2 paintings)

As this list shows, Salvador Dalí emerges as the single biggest contributor to the Surrealist ‘look’.

Like other books on the subject, the excellent introduction has problems defining precisely what Surrealism was, because its definitions, ideas and embodiments changed and evolved over the key years between the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and the outbreak of war in 1939.

From this account I took that Surrealism is ‘a philosophical and artistic approach which vehemently rejects the notion of the Rational Mind and all its works’. For Surrealists, the True Mind, true human nature – ‘the true function of thought’ – is profoundly irrational.

The Surrealists thought the Rational Mind formed the basis of ‘bourgeois’ society, with its moral and sexual repressiveness, its worship of work and money, its fetishisation of capitalist greed which had led both to the stifling conformity of Western society and to a series of petty wars over colonies which had themselves led up to the unprecedented calamity of the First World War.

In the Surrealists’ opinion, this entire mindset had proved to be a ghastly mistake. The Surrealists thought that we had to reject it lock stock and barrel by returning to the pure roots of human nature in the fundamentally irrational nature of the human mind, liberating thought from all censorship and superficial, petty morality, seeking to capture ‘the true function of thought’ and creativity through the exploration of the fortuitous and the uncontrolled, the random and the unexpected, through dreams and coincidences.

The first Surrealist magazine was titled La Révolution surréaliste (1924 to 1929) not because it espoused a communist political line, but because it thought that Surrealist writing and art would, by its very nature, reveal to readers and viewers the true nature of unbounded thought and lead to a great social transformation.

Strategies of Surrealist writers

The writers who initiated the movement (André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos) tried to get at and reveal ‘the true function of thought’ using a number of strategies.

Free association In 1919 Breton and Soupault spent days taking it in turns to free associate words and sentences, while the other scribbled down the results – producing monologues ‘without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties, a monologue unencumbered by the slightest inhibition’. The results were published in 1920 in a work of ‘fiction’, The Magnetic Fields, the first Surrealist text.

Automatic writing Later, in the mid-1920s, they experimented with the ability to go into a sort of trance or half-asleep state and then write the mind’s thoughts, similarly ‘unencumbered by inhibition’. The poet Robert Desnos turned out to be the best at this – he could put himself into a trance-like, sleep-like state but nonetheless write reams of text – to everyone’s amazement. There are photos of him doing it.

Transcribing the mad Breton was a trainee doctor and towards the end of the war worked with shell-shocked soldiers, some of whom had gone completely mad. With this experience and training, it’s odd that he didn’t pursue the ravings of the mad in greater detail during the 1920s. Even Freud was forced to amend his theories in light of the universal incidence of shell shock, post traumatic stress disorder and so on among Great War soldiers. So it’s genuinely surprising that there isn’t more about war and madness in Surrealism (not in any of the books I’ve read, anyway).

Compare and contrast with the traumatic war art of the Surrealists’ German contemporaries, Otto Dix or George Grosz.

Paranoiac-critical method It was left to Salvador Dalí, who only joined the movement in the late 1920s, to undertake a (sort of) exploration of madness. Dalí exploited his own florid psychological issues – hysteria, panic attacks, delusions – into a system he grandly titled the ‘Paranoiac-critical method’.

It was never exactly clear what he meant by this, but one definition he gave defined it as a ‘spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.’

In practice this meant cultivating a state of mind in which he was open to the multiple meanings of objects, receptive to visual puns, where one object turns into another object which turns into another object, presenting a kind of vertigo of endless transmutations.

Maybe the most famous example is the image of melting clocks. This came to him at the end of a dinner as he sat watching the cheese board and some super-ripe camembert cheeses drooping and oozing over the edge of the plate. In a flash he saw clock faces, melting clock faces, in the round cheeses, and rushed home to paint them. (At least, that’s the story he tells in his often unreliable memoirs.)

(I hadn’t realised till I read this book that the slug-like thing on the floor of this famous painting is a self-portrait. If you rotate the image through 45 degrees you can see Dalí’s big nose pointing to the left and that the fringe of hairs are the eyelashes of his closed eye. This ‘self-portrait as a slug’ appears in a number of early paintings – look out for the eyelashes.)

Strategies of Surrealist painters

We know that the artists who joined the group at first struggled to compete with the ‘pure’ automatism of  their writer colleagues. After all the ability to free associate words and text is a pretty cheap and easy technique, difficult to replicate with oil paints and brushes.

Automatic drawing Early member André Masson simply free-associated his drawings, letting his pen wander over the surface of paper or canvas, drawing inconsequential lines, dots and squiggles. Many of these were saved and recorded but it’s difficult to get too excited by them.

Interesting up to a point, but you can see how after a certain number of these you might get bored. Is this all the Unconscious had to say?

Collage Max Ernst was a member of the Cologne Dada group when he discovered the hallucinatory power of cutting up graphic elements from newspapers, magazines, adverts and so on and sticking them together in strange combinations.

A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

Illustration from A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

More than letting the pen or brush wander at random, it is this idea of the bizarre yoking-together of elements from different spheres, realms or discourses, the notion of strange and unexpected combinations, which lies at the heart of Surrealist art.

(The art of jarring juxtapositions is a technique Dalí would bring to a kind of cartoon, fluent perfection in Surrealist objects like the famous lobster telephone of 1936.)

Max Ernst emerges as the most prolific innovator among Surrealist artists: he went on to develop a number of other techniques designed either to remove the artist from the process of creation, or to fully incorporate elements of chance and randomness – both with the aim of getting at ‘the true function of thought’:

  • frottage – The technique of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis of a work of art. In frottage, the artist takes a pastel or pencil or other drawing tool and makes a rubbing over an uneven surface. The drawing can be left as it is or used as the basis for further refinement.
  • grattage – Laying a canvas prepared with a layer of oil paint over a textured object and then scraping the paint off to create an interesting and unexpected surface.
  • decalcomania – Applying paint to paper then folding it, applying pressure, and unfolding the paper to reveal a mirror pattern, then turning the resulting patterns into landscapes and mythical creatures. A kind of Rorshach diagram, with elaborations.

Biomorphic shapes Much Surrealist art uses existing objects and motifs from the real world, albeit placed in unexpected combinations, but there also developed a whole sub-set of Surrealist art which explored shapes and patterns for their own sake, creating a whole new visual vocabulary of the strange and uncanny. Klingsöhr-Leroy says this type of exploration distinguishes the first wave of Surrealist painters – Masson, Miró, Arp and Tanguy.

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Dreamlike serenity Although the writers often invoked ‘revolution’, ‘overthrow’ and ‘violence’, there is a whole strand of Surrealist art which is the exact opposite, creating a dreamlike sense of stasis. Think of the mysterious empty cityscapes of de Chirico, the somnambulistic people in Paul Delvaux or the apparently relaxed way the figures in Magritte paintings blankly accept the oddest apparitions.

Klingsöhr-Leroy Cathrin says dream paintings are more characteristic of the painters who joined the movement later on, like Magritte and Dalí. And contrary to all Surrealism’s revolutionary rhetoric, many of these works were, by the time I was growing up in the 1970s if not before, best-selling posters, calm and bright and pretty on the walls of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto’ of 1929 was a lot fiercer in tone. I’ve read various reasons for this, including Breton’s growing involvement with Communism or his own personal life being in disarray. The Second Manifesto notoriously accompanied the expulsion of a number of writers from the movement, angrily denouncing them for abandoning the cause.

But, on the positive side, it also expanded the movement’s terms of reference by namechecking medieval alchemists, drawing a parallel between their arcane quests for knowledge and the Surrealist investigations. And it introduced a distinct new idea, that of exploring ‘the Surreal object’ – using art or writing to reveal ‘the remarkable symbolic life of quite ordinary, mundane objects’.

To no artist is this more applicable than Magritte. What could be more normal than his apples and clouds? Or, in the way he deploys them, more disturbing?

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

Naked women Coming from the generation born around 1900, all these men had been brought up in a traditional Roman Catholic society which was staggeringly repressive about sex.

When they looked for the aspect of ‘bourgeois’ society which would be easiest to provoke, or when they delved into themselves to try and identify their deepest unconscious urges, or when they read any of Freud’s numerous writings about the Unconscious – everywhere they looked, the Surrealists tended to find sex sex sex.

Hence, the most tiresome element of Surrealism, which is the endless images of naked women. I expected sex-mad Dalí would be the most guilty party, but they were all at it – bosoms and fannies as images of ‘liberation’.

For all of them the female body, depicted realistically, or chopped up, or morphing into abstract shapes, was a constant source of inspiration.

Should it be? If feminists had their way, would male artists be allowed to charge the female body with all kinds of ‘profound’ meanings, as the repository of ‘fertility’, ‘sensuality’, ‘sexuality’, ‘mystery’, ‘consolation’, ‘depravity’ – all the hackneyed attributes of the famous madonna-whore complex, plus many more?

It’s partly the tedium of looking at yet another pair of bare boobs which draws me to more abstract artists like Paul Klee. He had a vast amount of beautiful, strange ideas to express, and not a bosom in sight.

Primitivism In a way it’s surprising that there isn’t more evidence of ‘primitivism’ in Surrealist art i.e. the use of images and motifs from the supposedly more ‘primitive’ cultures of Africa or Oceania. According to Sue Roe’s book In Montmartre, there’s some debate about who introduced the taste for African and Oceanic fetishes and statues into avant-garde circles, but it was certainly present by around 1905.

So by 1925 it was a very well-established taste, with most artists having ‘primitive’ masks scattered about among the other bric-a-brac in their studios. But looking at some of the images in this book the main conclusion is that the cult of weird faces and masks had become so diverse that, by the 1930s and 40s, it is difficult to tell where ‘primitivism’ ended and a kind of science fiction weirdness began (the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was published in 1926).

The Surrealist Revolution?

How tiresome modern artists and modern art experts are with their persistence in thinking that modern art ‘undermines’ or ‘subverts’ ‘bourgeois’ values.

It’s hard for us, nowadays, to recreate just what the ‘bourgeoisie’ ever meant. The word derives from mid-19th century France. Are we to think of the narrow-minded townsfolk in novels by Flaubert or Zola? Men who shave, dress ‘correctly’, have sensible jobs as doctors and lawyers and bankers?

Looking at all the photos of Surrealist artists in this book, one of the main visual impressions is how very smart and shaved and formal they themselves look, often in a nice suit, with white shirt and dark tie.

Living in 2018 London packed with stubbly dudes with nose piercings carrying huge backpacks, it’s difficult to imagine these ancient, respectable-looking men ever subverting anything.

It’s very hard to recapture ‘the shock of the new’ so long afterwards. The 1930s when Surrealist artworks began to be widely exhibited, were 20 years after Cubism had ‘shocked the world’, getting on for 30 years since the Fauves scandalised Paris, 40 years since Symbolist and decadent art upset newspaper columnists and 70 years after Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe ‘scandalised’ Paris.

You have to wonder who these people are, who keep on being scandalised by modern art. Hadn’t they read about the previous scandal? And the one before that? And the one before that?

Klingsöhr-Leroy tells an anecdote about when the Surrealist gang broke up a literary banquet being held in honour of the rather conventional poet Saint-Pol-Roux at the Closerie des Lilas bar on 2 July 1925. Tables were overturned, crockery broken, the gang chanted ‘anti-bourgeois’ slogans, blows were exchanged. She goes on to comment:

The incident is characteristic of the Surrealists’ anarchic and anti-bourgeois attitudes. Their actions were an attack on the established bourgeois order, designed to undermine all that was generally accepted and revered by respectable society. (p.17)

Really? A punch-up in a café? Undermining the whole of bourgeois society? I don’t think so, and the fact that, 80 years later, Klingsöhr-Leroy thinks this, undermines your confidence in her sense of history or perspective. Choosing a punch-up in a bar as an outstanding example of their ‘anarchic and anti-bourgeois’ values somehow reduces the whole movement to a set of schoolboy pranks.

In fact the the Surrealists’ ‘anarchic’ and ‘anti-bourgeois’ behaviour and attitude sound like standard undergraduate high jinks to me, precisely the kind of ‘wild’ behaviour that is expected of upper or upper-middle-class ‘rebels’ and bohemians, wild and crazee artists (all men, of course) who, in the final analysis, depend on money and connections (or in the Surrealists’ case) on rich patrons and rich buyers, to bail them out.

1. The connection between money and art was one of the messages of Sue Roe’s gossipy book about Picasso and Matisse, In Monmartre, set in the 1900s and explaining how the competition between the two Great Men of Modern Art was not only to find new artistic avenues of expression but, just as importantly, to curry favour with rich collectors and influential dealers. By 1910 both Picasso and Matisse had good working relationships with both and began to flourish.

2. In her book, Surreal Lives, Ruth Brandon writes a simple and devastating sentence which ought to be inscribed at the entrance to every modern art gallery in the world and tattooed on the forehead of every modern art scholar and curator.

Art is a luxury product, and artists rely for their living on rich patrons. (p.326)

3. I’ve known about Luis Buñuel’s ‘subversive’ early films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or for forty years or more, but it was only when I read Brandon’s book that I learned about the key role played in funding them by the wealthy French aristocrat Arthur Anne Marie Charles, Vicomte de Noailles. According to Wikipedia:

Charles financed Man Ray’s film Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929), which centers around Villa Noailles in Hyères. He also financed Jean Cocteau’s film Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s L’Âge d’Or (1930). In 1930 Charles made possible the career of Dalí by purchasing in advance a large work for 29,000 francs, thus enabling Dalí and Gala to return from Paris to Port Lligat and devote themselves to his art.

The take-home message from all these books is that art – no matter how ostensibly ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ – depends on rich patrons to make it possible. Radical art may upset conservative newspapers and, through them, the great philistine middle classes. But it doesn’t ‘subvert society’; the opposite: it is the plaything of the rich.

There is more ‘radical’ art about than ever before in the history of the world, and yet finance capitalism has never been more entrenched and powerful.

Because their art revelled in images of sex and death, because they behaved like spoilt schoolboys, because they were sponsored by aristocrats, and because they had absolutely no understanding of the fatal consequences of revolutionary politics, it is difficult to disagree with the Soviet Commissar who pointed out that Surrealism itself represented ‘the ultimate degeneration of the French bourgeoisie’ i.e. the complete opposite of the values Breton claimed for it.

In any case, the Surrealists soon recognised the essentially luxury nature of their output. Just six years later, in 1933, the group launched a new, glossy Surrealist magazine, Minotaur. It was limited to 3,000 copies, intended for connoisseurs and collectors only and, as the Hungarian photographer Brassaï put it, was priced far

beyond the reach of proletarian purses and could only serve a milieu of rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works. (quoted page 23)

‘Rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works.’ Precisely.

Dalí grasped this from the start and went to America to become rich – which is why the others came to loathe him. Like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst in later generations, he realised that the best art is business. In fact art is a form of business, it’s just another specialist provider of luxury objects to the rich.

The artistic legacy

Surrealist art didn’t overthrow anything, but its explorations and experiments opened the way for an entirely new visual language to be created, for loads of individual masterpieces, styles and looks to be developed, which filtered through into all aspects of design, fashion, advertising, film and TV.

It became an imaginative climate where we still, to a large extent, live, strangely appropriate for the disjointed and technology-driven lives of the 20th century Western world.

And, having read so much about the earnestness and seriousness with which Breton set up his Institute of Surrealist Research, with which he and colleagues carried out their automatic writing and painting and so on – I wonder if the movement made any lasting scientific discoveries. Are psychologists, linguists or experts in perception and cognition aware of any lasting scientific facts which came out of this explosion of ideas and researches into the unconscious workings of the mind, about language and images and the unconscious?

Or was it all an enormous, delightful, argumentative and hugely influential but, in scientific terms, inconsequential game?


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Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-45 by Ruth Brandon (1999)

Surrealism is not a new or better means of expression, not even a metaphysic of poetry; it is a means of total liberation of the mind.
(Surrealist declaration, January 1925, quoted page 233)

Born in 1943, Ruth Brandon will turn 75 this year. She’s written four novels and seven biographies of figures from the early twentieth century (such as Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt). This big book (524 pages) is a long, detailed and very accessible account of the origins, rise and spread of the Surrealist movement, from its sources in the Great War, through into the 1920s and 1930s when it was, arguably, the dominant art movement in Western Europe.

However, Surreal Lives is, as the title suggests, more a story about the people than about their writings or art. And when it does touch on the latter, it’s mostly about the writing than the paintings. Around page 325 Brandon briefly refers to the core Surrealist painters – Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Joan Miro – at which point I realised that we’d heard almost nothing about them in the preceding pages.

No, the central thread of the book is the life and career of the ‘pope’ of Surrealism, the writer, poet, critic and organiser, André Breton. Each of the nine longish chapters focuses on a key figure in the history of Surrealism – the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire who first coined the word ‘Surrealism’, the joint founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara, the inventor of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp, Breton’s partner in crime the poet Louis Aragon, the Catalan phenomenon Salvador Dalí who joined the movement right at the end of the 20s – but the text always reverts back to their effect on Breton, their threat to Breton, how Breton managed them, alienated them, dismissed them from the movement, and so on.

Along the way we meet plenty of colourful characters, such as the experimental writer Raymond Roussel, Breton’s close friend Jacques Vaché who committed suicide aged just 25, the American photographer Man Ray, the millionaire socialite Nancy Cunard (who had an affair with Aragon), the domineering Gala Eluard who left her husband the poet Paul Eluard to become Salvador Dali’s lifelong muse and protrectress, the young psychiatrist Jacques Lacan whose collaboration with the Surrealists made his name and who went on to become one of the most influential French intellectuals of his day. All these and many more.

The book is full of stories of scandalous behaviour, passionate affairs, casual sex, drug addiction, madness and suicide, in the best bohemian manner.

I was particularly struck by the ‘open marriage’ of Paul and Gala Éluard, both of them enjoying multiple partners. For a while the marriage blossomed into a ménage à trois with the painter Max Ernst, and I enjoyed the anecdote of the three of them travelling to Rome to lure the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico into the Surrealist camp, using Gala’s body as bait. All four of them went to bed together, though de Chirico later said he didn’t enjoy it – and he didn’t join the movement!

But, as I’ve mentioned, in its focus on the writers, on their manifestos, questionnaires, articles and reviews, their letters and diaries, Surreal Lives tends to be very text-based and so doesn’t shed much light on the art of Surrealism (for example, the first Surrealist exhibition, La Peinture Surrealiste, was held at Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925 and I don’t think Brandon even mentions it.)

but then this reflects the historical reality, since Surrealism was first and foremost a literary movement, founded by three poets (Breton, Aragon and Philippe Soupault) and dedicated to writing volumes of verse, manifestos, publishing a succession of magazines (La Révolution surréaliste 1924-29, Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution 1930-33, Minotaure 1933-39), and so on.

It was only towards the end of the 1920s that the Surreal painters came to prominence – in 1928 Breton wrote Surrealism and painting to reflect this. It was only with the arrival of Salvador Dali in their midst in 1929 that the visual arts side of the movement began to vie with the writing and then, during the 1930s, to dominate it.

So Brandon’s focus on the writers reflects the history, but not the Surrealist legacy as we experience it today. Most of the Surrealist writings have disappeared, a lot was designed to be ephemeral anyway, a lot was never translated into English.

Instead Surrealism’s enduring impact in the English-speaking world has been via the bizarre and striking paintings of Dali, Max Ernst, Magritte and many others. The Surrealist heritage is almost entirely visual and Brandon doesn’t have a lot to say about the visual arts (or sculpture). The only visual artist she describes in any detail is Dalí (although the chapter about him is actually about the trio of talented Spaniards – Dalí, Luis Buñuel the film-maker and the poet Frederico García Lorca, and their close relationships and rivalries).

I can imagine a completely different book which would cover the exact same period of time, but focus on the relationships between Arp, Miro, Masson, Tanguy and so on, trying to clarify their relationship to the artists who came before them and how they thought of and interpreted ‘surrealism’. None of that is here.

For this reason, and because the influence of Surrealism becomes considerably more diffuse in the 1930s, with a bewildering cast of hangers-on, increasingly diverse artists and writers all showing its burgeoning influence – I felt the first half of the book was the most compelling. I particularly enjoyed the detailed description of the character and importance of Apollinaire who coined the word Surrealism, and of Duchamp’s trips to New York and his early friendship with Man Ray. I was also thrilled by the riveting account of Dadaism in Zurich and Berlin which, for the first time, really explained the origin and history of that movement to me, making it real in terms of the people and personalities involved.

I’ve known the names of many of these people – Tzara, Aragon – for decades. Brandon’s book for the first time brought them vividly, fascinatingly, to life. It’s a great read.

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray (Paris, 1930)

I made brief notes on the first four chapters or so, before my review began to feel too long. For what it’s worth, here they are:

1. A bas Guillaume

We start with Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, writer and art critic who was gifted with an uncanny sense for the new and important, who had championed cubism in the early 1910s and is here because of his role as patron to the young and ambitious André Breton, the humourless bully who would become the pope of Surrealism.

Apollinaire encouraged Breton and introduced him to the other ‘musketeers’ of the movement, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. And it was Apollinaire who coined the world ‘Surrealist’, in a review of Parade, an avant-garde show put on by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, premiered in May 1917, based on a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau set to music (and experimental noises) by Erik Satie. Cocteau had himself described the ballet as ‘realistic’ but, with its experimental music and highly stylised costumes, Apollinaire described Parade as sur-realistic, the French word ‘sur’ meaning on or above. Above-realism. Beyond-realism.

This new alliance – I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds – has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress.

As with all the other characters in the story – Duchamp, Tzara, Dali and so on – this is a very personal history and Brandon gives full descriptions of the characters’ height and build, their faces, eyes, mannerisms, ways of speaking, their charisma and presence. The aim is on getting to know these people, feeling as if you were being introduced to them at a party. Brandon deals with their theories about literature and art as they emerge from the personalities, but is thankfully lacking in the jargon-heavy theoretical interpretations of an art scholar like the feminist, Whitney Chadwick. It’s a people-first account.

The most remarkable event in Guillaume Apollinaire’s life was that, despite being the doyen of the avant-garde, he made strenuous attempts to volunteer for the French Army (despite being Polish by birth) and surprised everyone by loving the Army and fighting bravely. He was invalided out in 1916 with a shrapnel wound to the head, but died suddenly of the Spanish flu which swept the world in 1918.

2. The death of art

The next chapter focuses on the life and early career of Marcel Duchamp. Since reading the World of Art account of Duchamp by Dawn Ades and Neil Cox I have a much better sense of the overall shape and purpose of Duchamp’s career. It’s still very interesting to have loads of details added in about his time in New York during the War, how he made fast friends with the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Emmanuel Radnitzky, soon to be known as Man Ray, and also the bull-like connoisseur of fast living and high life, Francis Picabia.

They got to know the circle around the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his art gallery and magazine, titled ‘291.’

Duchamp was invited to stay in the vacant apartment of business millionaire Walter Arensberg, who became a lifelong patron and sponsor. The descriptions of the drunken parties they attended, of drunken debauchery, through which shine Duchamp’s icy detachment, his addiction to chess and bad puns, are all super-readable.

Brandon takes the incident when Duchamp’s wonderful Nude descending a staircase was rejected by the organisers of the 1912 Cubist Salon des Indépendants as the moment when Duchamp decided to abandon painting with oils on canvas (which he didn’t enjoy doing, anyway).

Duchamp vowed to abandon ‘retinal art’, which appeals only to the eye, and try and evolve an art of the mind, founding – in the process – the whole idea of ‘conceptual art’. Hence his massive importance through to the present day.

3. The celestial adventure of M. Tristan Tzara

Next we jump to Zurich during the Great War where I found Brandon’s account of the birth of Dada extremely illuminating. She describes how a disparate gang of émigré artists (Emmy Hennings [Germany], Tristan Tzara [Romania], Jean Arp [Alsace], Marcel Janco [Romania], Richard Huelsenbeck [Germany], Sophie Taeuber [Switzerland] and Hans Richter [Germany]) crystallised around the tall, blonde figure of Hugo Ball, who founded the Cabaret Voltaire in February 1916.

It was in this tiny bar-cum-theatre that this disparate group staged their epoch-making anarchic performances, shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones or to the accompaniment of a big bass drum, wearing cardboard costumes, playing random instruments, packing the performances with schoolboy pranks and silliness. The Cabaret had been going for several months before they came up with the word ‘Dada’, precisely who was responsible and what it means continuing to be a subject of argument to this day. Anti-art, anti-reason and logic, anti-bourgeois, Dada was deliberately anti everything which had led to the stupid, slaughterous war.

While Zurich was a kind of playground of irresponsible émigrés, Berlin at the end of the war witnessed the collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire (November 1918) leading to street fighting between organised, armed Communists on one side and the police and army militias on the other, to decide the future of the country. (It was during this street violence that the the well-known Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were murdered by right wing militias in January 1919). The philosophy of Dada appeared here and Berlin Dada was founded by John Heartfeld, the inventor of photomontage, and the satirical painter George Grosz.

The fiercely political Richard Huelsenbeck had argued with Tzara back in Zurich – Tzara saw Dada as another new art movement which would propel him to superstar status in the European art world, whereas Huelsenbeck saw it as a tool in the life or death struggle for Europe’s political future. ‘Dada is German communism,’ he said, simply.

Tzara proved himself the most feverishly active of the Zurich Dadaists, pouring out provocative manifestos, sending out invitations to contribute to Dada magazine to all the avant-garde artists he’d heard of anywhere in Europe, with the result that Duchamp, Picabia and many others got roped in.

Tzara’s invitations found their way to Apollinaire, and so on to his acolyte Breton, along with wartime pals Louis Aragon and his closest friend Soupault. The ‘three musketeers’ invited Tzara to Paris.

Brandon gives a hilarious account of the anticipation on both sides as they waited for the Great God of Dada to make his pilgrimage to Paris – only to be seriously disillusioned by the short, dark, nervous figure who actually materialised, and the respectful relationship which followed but never blossomed into real friendship.

4. Dada comes to Paris

The three very young friends, Breton, Aragon and Soupault, had already published the first number of their magazine Littérature, in Paris in March 1919, with financial help from the grand old man of letters, André Gide. In 1920 they published a joint work by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), the result of days spent doing ‘automatic writing’, i.e. setting down words and sentences unfiltered and just as it came to them.

Although they tried to muster enthusiasm for madcap Tzara and his notion of Dada ‘happenings’, Brandon depicts the Parisians as more intellectual, detached and sceptical than the original Dada gang.

It turned out that Dada was a product of the unique war-time conditions in Zurich, of a mood of hysteria amid the bloodshed. Post-war Paris on the contrary, quickly returned to being a battlefield of avant-garde sophisticates, determined not to be impressed by anything. Jean Cocteau, refused a place on the editorial board of Littérature, complained in his new journal that the Dada events were boring. He complained that ‘not a single Dada has killed himself or even a member of the audience.’ Dull, eh.

It began to be clear that Paris Dada might shock the bourgeoisie – or those members who bothered to turn up to their rather tame happenings – but not many of the over-sophisticated Paris élite. What next? Brandon pinpoints this as the crux: Dada didn’t lead anywhere because it wasn’t meant to lead anywhere, it was against the whole idea of leading anywhere. But the Paris contingent thought it should lead somewhere.

The three musketeers had been experimenting with ‘automatic writing’ just before Tzara arrived, and Brandon gives a fascinating account of what that meant in practice, namely the way the poet Robert Desnos had the ability to be put into a trance or half-sleep and then write, actually write poems, while in this dream state.

Tzara’s arrival led to several years of Dadaist outrages, performances and feverish manifestos, few of which had the drive to really épater les bourgeoisie. It was after one particularly disappointing performance in 1923 that the group and its various hangers-on and associates made the decisive split which led to the founding of a new movement, named by Breton ‘Surrealism’, after the word Apollinaire had introduced seven years earlier.

And so, in June 1924 the final edition of the Dada-era Littérature appeared; and in December 1924, the first edition of La Révolution surréaliste was published, inaugurating the first phase of Surrealism (p.229).

The word ‘revolution’ was used right from the start but, as Brandon points out, at this stage none of the Surrealists were politically revolutionary; the revolution they had in mind was purely cultural and all they really knew about it was that it would involve dreams.

‘Only dreams offer man real liberty’ (quoted page 230).

They set up a ‘Bureau de recherches surréalistes’ at 15 Rue de Grenelles, opening hours 4.30 to 6.30, in order to ‘gather all the information possible related to forms that might express the unconscious activity of the mind’. Breton liked questionnaires – he wanted to be scientific and factual about his investigations of the unconscious mind: so Littérature contained many and La Révolution surréaliste even more.

Other themes

That’s a thumbnail summary of the first 230 or so of the book’s 458 pages of text, taking us up to about 1925. The rest of the book continues in the same vein: introducing new characters as they arrive on the scene, with long chapters devoted to Louis Aragon, Buñuel and Dali, and so on.

The chapter on Aragon was particularly interesting in explaining the appeal of his early lyrical poetry and prose (Paysan de ParisTraité du style 1928, and Irene’s Cunt) and how this airy fluency was squeezed out of him by Breton’s fierce policing and encouragement – Breton banned novels and lyrical writing from the movement, two things Aragon excelled at – in September he made an attempt at suicide.

But apart from the lengthy excursions into the private lives and writings of these lead figures, I’d say three big themes emerge in the rest of the book:

1. The pope of Surrealism

Breton exerted a steely grip over ‘his’ movement in a whole host of ways, including kangaroo courts which held ‘trials’ of anyone accused of betraying Surrealist values or bucking Big Breton’s authority. The first of many ‘heretics’ were his old colleague, Philippe Soupault, and the radical dramatist Antonin Artaud, both expelled after a ‘hearing’ into their crimes, in November 1926.

In 1929 a dissident group of Surrealists based round the writer Georges Bataille began publishing a rival magazine, DOCUMENT. In its nihilism, Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929 reflects the bitterness of these schisms, plus the turmoil in his own personal life. This is the text which contains the notorious line that the most Surrealistic act conceivable would be to run out into the street with a loaded gun and start firing at passersby (p.265). Means modern America must be the world’s most surreal nation.

Writers who were expelled from the ‘movement’ and who often took their revenge in vituperative criticism of Breton, included Robert Desnos (him of the automatic writing experiments), the pornographic fantasist George Bataille, experimental writers Raymond Queneau and Michael Leiris and, in the deepest cut of all, his closest compadre, Louis Aragon.

In 1931 Breton went ahead and published criticism of the way French Communist Party officials had given Aragon the third degree over a piece of pornography by Salvador Dali which was published in the fourth number of the magazine Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Aragon had begged him not to include criticism of the Party, to which he was becoming passionately attached. Breton did so anyway, and the one-time musketeers never spoke again.

2. The impact of Dalí

The arrival of Dali, and to a lesser extent Buñuel, at the end of the 1920s, was a much-needed shot in the arm to a movement which was running out of steam. Dali not only crystallised his own peculiar style of painting in the early 1930s but helped to cement a Surrealist visual identity, the one posterity now remembers it by.

Brandon’s extended chapter about Dali, Buñuel and Lorca is absolutely riveting on everything from the backward culture of 1920s Spain, through their collaboration on the famous Surrealist movies Le Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, to the collapse of Buñuel’s fortunes during the Second World War just as Dali was rising to fame and fortune in America.

And the stories about their bizarre sex lives! According to Dali, (gay) Lorca was in love with him and tried to sodomise him on two occasions. However, Dali was not gay (although he was not exactly a ‘normal’ heterosexual, being obsessed with masturbation and voyeurism). The closest Lorca could get to having sex with Dali, who he was obsessed with, was by hiring a (flat-chested and therefore boyish) woman, who he had sex with while Dali watched. It’s worth buying the book for this extraordinary chapter alone.

From the moment of his arrival Dalí dominates the story till the end of the book. The final chapter relates the contrasting fortunes of Dali and Breton, who were both compelled to spend the Second World War in New York. Dalí thrived, gaining enormous publicity through a series of ever-giddier publicity stunts. He was on the front cover of Time, he sold everything he painted and began to get seriously rich. Breton, in sharp contrast, refused to learn English, refused to give interviews, and struggled to make a living delivering broadcasts on the French-language part the Voice of Liberty radio service.

Breton was disgusted that, for Americans, Dalí became the face of Surrealism. The final pages in the book are devoted to a thought-provoking debate about who, in the end, had the most lasting legacy, Dalí the showman, or Breton the thinker and doctrinaire.

3. Surrealism and communism

In the later 1920s and then throughout the 1930s Breton’s rule became more dictatorial and more overtly political.

Breton’s relationship with the Communist Party of France was troubled (he was formally expelled from it in 1933) and fraught with paradox. He decided he wanted to put his movement at the service of the Party and the proletariat at precisely the moment – the late 1920s – when Stalin was cementing his grip on the Soviet Union, expelling Trotsky in 1928 and introducing the doctrine of Socialist Realism (in 1932).

Insisting that Surrealism was a revolutionary movement, and larding his manifestos with references to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but excluded from alliance with the official Soviet Party line, Breton sought out the leading exponent of World Revolution, travelling with his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, to Mexico to meet Trotsky (staying as the guest of Diego Rivera’s former wife Guadalupe Marin). Even here, as Brandon shows, Breton couldn’t stop himself from lecturing Trotsky (of all people) just as he harangued all his colleagues back in Paris. I’d love to know more of what Trotsky made of his humourless acolyte.

Surrealism’s relationship with Communism is a vast topic, the subject of countless books. It of course varied from one Surrealist writer and painter to another, and also varied with individuals over time. What comes over from the book is that their vexed and troubled relationship with Communism became more central to the movement in the 1930s. Whenever Communist commissars or officials of the French Communist Party appear in the narrative, it’s hard not to sympathise with their patronising attitude to the artists. Compared to the fratricidal stresses they were having to negotiate and the fraught power politics back in Moscow, the Surrealists must have seemed like spoilt schoolboys.

Footnote – surreal suicide

Early in the Second World War Albert Camus wrote his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus to address what he saw as the most pressing issue facing intellectuals, the issue of suicide. The immediate context was France’s catastrophic defeat and occupation by Germany in 1940 which, for many ordinary French people, had overthrown all their values and made them wonder if there was any meaning or purpose in the universe.

But reading this book about often quite hysterical artists made me realise that a surprising number of Continental artists and writers were afflicted by suicidal thoughts between the wars.

In fact Breton included the question ‘Suicide: Is It a Solution?’ in the very first issue of La Révolution surréaliste in 1925 (to which the Surrealist writer René Crevel had answered ‘Yes, it is most probably the most correct and most ultimate solution.’)

Later on, the writer Jacques Rigaut said: ‘Suicide should be a vocation… the most absurd of acts, a brilliant burst of fantasy, the ultimate unconstraint…’ (quoted page 375) before he did, indeed, kill himself.

It sheds much light on Camus’ work to read it against the wave of artistic suicides in the previous twenty years.

  • January 1919 Andre Breton’s bosom buddy Jacques Vaché takes an overdose of opium
  • December 1925 Russian and Soviet poet Sergei Yesenin hangs himself
  • July 1928 Greek poet Kostas Karyotakis shoots himself
  • September 1928 Louis Aragon takes an overdose of sleeping pills, but survives
  • November 1929 Surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut shoots himself through the heart
  • April 1930 Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky shoots himself through the heart
  • December 1931 American poet Vachel Lindsay poisons himself
  • March 1932 English artist Dora Carrington shoots herself
  • April 1932 American poet Hart Crane jumps overboard an ocean liner
  • December 1935 German-Jewish journalist, satirist and writer Kurt Tucholsky takes an overdose
  • February 1937 Uruguayan playwright and poet Horacio Quiroga drinks a glass of cyanide
  • October 1938 Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni drowns himself
  • August 1941 Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself
  • September 1940 German literary critic and culture theorist Walter Benjamin took a morphine overdose
  • March 1941 English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, drowned herself
  • February 1942 Austrian novelist and playwright Stefan Zweig takes a barbiturate overdose

Read in this context, Camus’s notion of ‘the Absurd’ seems less like a bold new concept than a belated attempt to catch up with and define a mood of nihilism which began during the Great War itself and had became steadily more oppressive during the 1930s, well before France’s humiliating defeat.


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Nadja by André Breton (1928)

What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes? What was it they reflected – some obscure distress and at the same time some luminous pride? (p.65)

Reading Ruth Brandon’s group biography of the Surrealists, Surrealist Lives, prompted me to track down this, the most famous work by the group’s domineering leader, the writer, poet and critic André Breton. It is, according to the blurb, ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’.

It is also a huge disappointment. After only a few pages I wanted it to hurry up and finish and was relieved to realise that since it includes quite a few illustrations (44 in fact) this mercifully reduces the length of this tedious book – only 150 or so pages in the Penguin paperback edition – to under 110 pages of text.

It is not shocking or revolutionary or subversive. Nadja is characterised by:

  • a contorted prose style which makes it hard to understand
  • an inability to gather its thoughts into a coherent order
  • the crushing triviality and irrelevance of its examples
  • a dismaying heartlessness towards the young woman at its centre
  • Breton’s astonishingly humourless self-absorption

Part one

Nadja is in three parts. Part one jumps straight in with the most important subject in the world – Breton himself – in its opening sentence:

Who am I?

The answer relies on a French proverb which is not quoted in full or explained in a note, so we never learn what it is exactly, but which apparently involves the word ‘haunt’.

This linguistic accident gives rise to a long disquisition on how the ghost of dead selves ‘haunt’ the current self, about how the ‘self’ can’t be defined by existing social or psychological categories and so on. Breton here rewords ideas about identity that had been discussed by the poet Arthur Rimbaud 60 years earlier (‘je est un autre’, as Rimbaud famously wrote) and far more systematically by Sigmund Freud a generation earlier – in fact much better, by lots of other writers.

Breton’s style is dry and airless, without any colour or (as mentioned) humour, convoluted and contorted, evincing a kind of academic self-importance. To say that Breton is a man who gives himself airs is an understatement.

Such reflections lead me to the conclusion that criticism, abjuring, it is true, its dearest prerogatives but aiming, on the whole, at a goal less futile than the automatic adjustment of ideas, should confine itself to scholarly incursions upon the very realm supposedly barred to it, and which, separate from the work, is a realm where the author’s personality, victimised by the petty events of daily life, expresses itself quite freely and often in so distinctive a manner. (p.13)

It’s all like that. It’s like reading concrete. It’s like drowning in a giant vat of glue. He means the artist’s personality is more important than the work – pretty much the opposite to the current point of view.

Part one moves on to a list of works which have moved Breton, with a predictable jog-trot through the accepted canon of proto-Surrealist writers – Arthur Rimbaud, the Marquis de Sade, Lautreamont.

It seamlessly moves on to discussing places in Paris, particular streets or statues or shop signs, which have strangely moved the author, along with (to him) odd coincidences, like being able to predict where shops with particular names will be along a street, or bumping into someone at a theatre and later receiving a letter from them without realising it was the same person (Paul Eluard). The banality is stupefying.

Only very slowly does it become clear that this section is meant to be about what Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’. Apparently (and it’s only by reading the introduction to the book and the Wikipedia article about it that you can really understand this) the notion of ‘significant coincidences’ was a key element in early Surrealism (along with ‘automatic writing’ and the importance of dreams).

For the Surrealists they were all strategies or techniques for evading the mind’s rational ‘bourgeois’ constraints and tapping directly into our unconscious, into the true and deepest sources of human creativity.

Here’s an example of such a ‘petrifying coincidence’. On one of his dates with Nadja, she and Breton walk from the Place Dauphine to a bar called ‘the Dauphine’ and Breton points out that, when he and friends play the game of comparing each other to animals, more often than not he is compared to a dolphin (‘dauphin’ in French)! Wow, eh!

It would be easier to understand what Breton was on about if he explained it lucidly – if there were some sentences early in Part One describing what he’s trying to do (list spooky places and strange coincidences designed to help you appreciate the non-rational Surrealist worldview) – or if he could write simple clear declarative sentences. But he can’t.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has a really bad stutter? Quite quickly you find yourself willing them to just spit it out; you can see what they’re driving at and you just want to help them get over their crippling debility, which is obviously causing them agonies of frustration.

Reading Breton is like that. He has got something to say but he seems cripplingly unable to express it. And instead of the fluency he so sorely lacks, his prose displays a kind of roughshod, domineering quality, a determination to make himself heard, no matter how incoherent what he’s saying actually is.

I must insist, lastly, that such accidents of thought not be reduced to their unjust proportions as faits-divers, random episodes, so that when I say, for instance, that the statue of Etienne Dolet on its plinth in the Place Maubert in Paris has always fascinated me and induced unbearable discomfort, it will not immediately be supposed that I am merely ready for psychoanalysis, a method I respect and whose present aims I consider nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself, and of which I expect other exploits than those of a bouncer. (p.24)

What?

The pope of Surrealism

Breton became known as the ‘pope’ of Surrealism for the iron control he exercised over the movement. He regularly staged trials and inquisitions into members who had in any way strayed from what he defined as the True Faith, which in practice meant dropping writers, poets or artists if they disagreed with him (which almost all the other Surrealists did at one stage or another).

This self-centred self-importance is on ample display in this book in the casual self-importance:

  • I must insist…
  • Which leads me to my own experience…
  • Nantes: perhaps, with Paris, the only city in France where I feel that something worth while can happen to me…
  • I have always, beyond belief, hoped to meet, at night and in a woods, a beautiful naked woman or rather, since such a wish once expressed means nothing, I regret, beyond belief, not having met her…
  • Meanwhile, you can be sure of meeting me in Paris, of not spending more than three days without seeing me pass, toward the end of the afternoon, along the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle between the Matin printing office and the Boulevard Strasbourg. I don’t know why it should be precisely here that my feet take me…

Paradoxically, the technique of recording every dream, every strange coincidence, every funny feeling you have about a statue or a narrow alley somewhere in Paris, it all runs the risk of seeming very inconsequential.

For example, Breton informs us that his favourite film is called The Grip of the Octopus, giving us several scenes from it which haunt his imagination. Then by far the longest section of Part One (six pages) is devoted to retelling the entire plot of a play he once saw, a thriller which leads up to the discovery of a child’s corpse in a cupboard, which was accompanied by a piercing scream which riveted him to his seat.

It is unbelievably self-absorbed, trivial and boring.

Similarly, we learn that reading Rimbaud in 1915 gave Breton an ‘extremely deep and vivid emotion’. That one day, years later, he was walking in the countryside in the rain when a strange woman fell into step beside him and asked if she could recite a Rimbaud poem to him. And then again, just recently, that he was at the Saint-Ouen flea market when he came across a copy of Rimbaud’s poems amidst the bric-a-brac, which had some hand-written poems among the pages. The book, and the poems, turn out to belong to the stall-keeper, a pretty young woman. That’s it.

It’s only towards the end of this first part that Breton explains (in his convoluted way) that he has been trying to give us examples of what the Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’ and explains a little about the non-rational world he thinks they open up for us.

I imagine he intended all these trivial anecdotes to form a dazzling insight into his and the Surreal worldview. But instead they seem thumpingly banal and ineffectual. If this is it, if this is the basis of the entire Surrealist movement in art and literature – some places give you a spooky feeling, some coincidences are a bit eerie – then you can see why so very little of Surrealist literature has survived or been translated into English.

It seems crushingly boring.

Part two – Nadja

Having got this ham-fisted and disappointing insight into the worldview of Surrealism out of the way, Part Two of the book is finally about the woman of the title. On page 63 Breton finally meets ‘Nadja’, bumping into her in the street. She’s an attractive young woman, who immediately engages him in intense conversation – about her work (about work in general, and ‘Freedom’), about her lover who jilted her, about her family. He is entranced by her candour.

If Part One has done anything it has shown how Breton melodramatises quite humdrum events and feelings into Great Insights Into the Unconscious.

So it’s prepared us for the fact that Breton now reacts to every tremble and hesitation from this strange young woman as if it physically touches his oh-so-precious sensibility.

She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. (p.64)

I met lots of young women like this at parties in my 20s and 30s, fey, sensitive and spiritual souls, bruised by the hard world, treated badly by beastly men, cramped by horrible jobs – women who are too good for this world, women quick to tell you how spiritual they are, how much they care about the environment, how they only live for their cats.

She is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvellously, for life! (p.90)

Breton presents his idealised portrait of a hauntingly sensitive young woman as being somehow new, when it struck me as being incredibly old, really really ancient, a timeworn Romantic cliché. 115 years earlier Lord Byron had written:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

and this story of a sensitive poet falling under the spell of a delicate young woman struck me as the opposite of innovative, new or interesting.

I’ve recently read descriptions of the Futurist Marinetti in 1912 yelling through a megaphone at tourists in Venice to burn the gondolas – that was funny and original.

I’ve been reading about the madcap provocations of Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists in Zurich, dressing up in cardboard costumes and reciting poetry to the beat of a bass drum.

I keep reading about Marcel Duchamp exhibiting his famous urinal in 1917. All these are still startling, new and entertaining.

André Breton sitting in a café in Paris listening to a slightly unhinged young lady telling him about her boyfriend problems…. well… it just seemed incredibly dull and ordinary. And sentimental, Christ! he sounds like a puppyish teenager scribbling in his diary.

She told me her name, the one she had chosen for herself: ‘Nadja, because in Russian it’s the beginning of the world hope, and because it’s only the beginning.’ (p.66)

As you might well imagine it turns out that Nadja’s health is delicate – exactly like any number of beautiful poor young women in 19th century novels or Romantic operas. Nadja loves her mother (‘I love mother. I wouldn’t hurt her for anything in the world’). And – surprise – she’s no good with money.

In other words, Nadja comes across as more stupefyingly dull and clichéd than words can convey. And yet the stolid humourless Breton seems to be endlessly moved by her tedious vapourings.

  • More moved than I care to show…
  • I am deeply moved…
  • This is one of the compliments that has moved me most in my life…

I couldn’t really believe the tone of fatuous self-importance which dominates the text and, for me, was epitomised when, towards the end of their first chat, strolling through the streets:

About to leave her, I want to ask one question which sums up all the rest, a question which only I could ever ask, probably, but which has at least once found a reply worthy of it: ‘Who are you?’ (p.71)

I have read and reread this, but Breton really seems to think that asking a stranger who he’s just met who she is, is a mark of genius, is ‘a question which only I could ever ask’.

Of course, he means it in a more poetic sense than you or I could ever mean it, because he is a POET. He is driving at a deeper enquiry into her soul and identity than just her name (which she’s already given us) and I suppose is referencing the ‘discussion’, if you can call it that, of identity with which he opened the book.

And she answers as only the sensitive young woman in a POET’s life could ever answer:

I am the soul in limbo. (p.71)

This is sentimental horseshit, and I am staggered at its sub-Romantic, pimply, teenage clichédness. Who would ever have predicted that ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’ would be so tiresomely ‘sensitive’ and boring.

The novels of Jean-Paul Sartre are infinitely more weird and disorienting than this. Nadja feels like the work of an immensely boring, utterly normal person trying to force himself into being interesting and sensitive and spooky – and the best he can come up with is ‘odd coincidences’ and an encounter with a slightly bonkers young woman. Really?

The encounters start as a diary of a sequence of days in October, going into detail about their meetings, conversations and wanderings round Paris over the course of a week or two.

Without any explanation the narrative then breaks into scattered memories of Nadja’s increasingly disconnected sayings, random phrases, fears of underground passages and of people watching her. It includes a series of pictures she scribbled on the back of postcards and scraps of paper which Breton takes as signs of uncanny genius, but which look like exactly the kind of pictures you or I might scribble on the back of scraps of paper in bored moments.

And then, suddenly, the narration pulls right away from Nadja. With sudden detachment Breton reports that he was told, ‘several months ago’, that Nadja was found raving in the hallway of her hotel and sent to a sanatorium.

You might have thought this would elicit some kind of concern about her, maybe a visit to the sanatorium, letters to get her released and so on.

But no, instead this news prompts a lengthy diatribe against psychiatry, Breton ranting against the power doctors have to deprive people of their freedom, in which he loses sight of Nadja altogether and instead imagines the fight that he, the Surrealist poet André Breton, would put up in an insane asylum, taking the first opportunity to murder a doctor and being locked up in solitary as a result.

Typically self-absorbed. And typical macho bullshit from bully boy Breton.

Part three

Part Three is short, at just ten pages or so, with a few photographs thrown in. It starts with characteristic self-absorption and bewildering lack of clarity, making it quite difficult to figure out what it’s about.

I envy (in a manner of speaking) any man who has the time to prepare something like a book and who, having reached the end, finds the means to be interested in its fate or in the fate which, after all, it creates for him. (p.147)

So it’s a passage at the end of a book about how difficult he finds it to imagine someone who can end a book.

After struggling to express himself on the subject of how difficult he finds it to express himself, there are a few last scattered memories of Nadja – one particularly hair-raising one where they are driving along and she puts her foot over onto the accelerator pedal, making the car suddenly jerk forward, till he manages to get her to take it off again.

But then, in the last four pages, the entire narrative completely changes tone altogether. Out of the blue it suddenly addresses someone referred to only as ‘You’, a ‘you’ who, apparently, is a bringer of huge emotional turmoil to our confused author, addressed in Breton’s usual rambling manner.

That is the story that I too yielded to the desire to tell you, when I scarcely knew you – you who can no longer remember but who, as if by chance, knowing of the beginning of this book, have intervened so opportunely, so violently, and so effectively, doubtless to remind me that I wanted it to be ‘ajar, like a door’ and that through this door I should probably never see anyone come in but you – come in and go out but you. (p.157)

Confusingly, the entire story of Nadja suddenly seems a thing of the distant past, completely eclipsed by this sudden inexplicable obsession with this mysterious ‘you’.

Since you exist, as you alone know how to exist, it was perhaps not so necessary that this book should exist. I have decided to write it nevertheless, in memory of the conclusion I wanted to give it before knowing you and which your explosion into my life has not rendered vain. (p.158)

This incoherent finale to the book only made any kind of sense when I turned to read the Introduction to this Penguin translation.

The introduction

The introduction to this Penguin edition of Nadja is by Mark Polizzotti who is a biographer of Breton.

To my surprise he quotes some of the tritest, most sentimental passages about Nadja with apparent approval, which at first dismayed me. But then he goes on to give a fascinating account of what actually happened – what Nadja is actually about – which is far more interesting than any of Breton’s bombastic bragging.

Polizzotti explains that ‘Nadja’ was actually Léona-Camile-Ghislaine D., last name unknown to this day, born in 1902, who Breton met in the street in October 1926, and then met again and again obsessively over the period of a month or so. Breton introduced her to his Surrealist colleagues (all impressed by her spooky intensity) and to his long-suffering wife Simone Kahn (intellectual collaborator, sounding board but not, apparently, sexual partner).

Breton the big-talking poet entranced Léona just as much as she beguiled him – it was a short sharp affair which climaxed in a train ride out of town to a rural hotel where they had sex. This physical act Breton, apparently, found unsatisfying, and soon after he began withdrawing himself from her. She continued to try to meet him, bombarding him with letters and drawings – and it’s these increasingly desperate messages which account for the way the middle part of the book morphs from distinct diary entries into a haphazard set of fragmented memories, notes, sayings, and photos of the drawings which she sent Breton.

One day Léona was found raving and hallucinating in the hallway of her cheap hotel, and was reported to the police who called the medics who took her off to an asylum. According to Polizzotti, some of the Surrealists she’d been introduced to visited her there, but Breton didn’t.

Léona was transferred on to another hospital in 1928 (just about the time Nadja was published), where she remained incarcerated until her death from cancer in 1941.

Breton using Léona

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Breton, desperate to write something, anything, in the mid-1920s, to assert his control and leadership of the Surrealist movement – desperate to compete with the outrageous pronouncements of the Dada provocateur Tristan Tzara or the fluent lyricism of his friend, Louis Aragon – used his chance encounter with Léona, her intensity, her ‘insights’ and ultimate madness, to create a text notable only for its self-aggrandisement and self-promotion.

You don’t have to be a feminist to find this despicable, as despicable as the fact that he had his sexual way with her, then dumped her to return to his wife, letting her go mad and be locked up without once visiting her.

Suzanne

And according to Polizzotti, this was at least in part because Breton had, at just the moment Léona was incarcerated, fallen madly in love with the statuesque mistress of a fellow writer (Emmanuel Berl), one Suzanne Muzard.

After meeting her only a few times, Breton persuaded Suzanne to run off to the South of France with him (from where Breton wrote long letters describing every development in his infatuation to his long-suffering wife, Simone).

But when Suzanne insisted that Breton leave Simone and marry her, Breton didn’t know what to do. Disappointed by his reaction, Suzanne insisted that they return to Paris. Her former lover Berl got back in touch and offered her a secure home and money. What’s a girl to do? She rejoined him and they set off abroad together.

Breton got wind that they were departing from the Gare de Lyon and rushed there to confront her as she left, but she chose money and comfort over passion and love (wise woman).

So it takes all this explaining to get to the point of realising that it is Suzanne who is addressed as ‘you’ in those final pages of Nadja.

Without the long and thorough factual explanation given in Polizzotti’s introduction the reader would have no way of making sense of the way this ‘you’ supersedes Nadja in a firework display of schoolboy gush.

All I know is that this substitution of persons stops with you, because nothing can be substituted for you, and because for me it was for all eternity that this succession of terrible or charming enigmas was to come to an end at your feet. (p.158)

Pathetic.

Failure to communicate

According to Polizzotti, Breton had intended to close Nadja with a final section which would be ‘a long meditation on beauty, a kind of beauty consisting of “jolts and shocks” as represented by Nadja and her unsettling presence’.

You can see how this might have worked – how the uncanny moments and strange insights of Nadja could be associated with the opening section about coincidences and spooky locations, and all drawn together to put forward a sustained case for a new aesthetic, an aesthetic of the irrational, the accidental, the uncanny and the inexplicable.

Unfortunately, Breton found himself simply unable to do it. All he managed was a few last pages about Nadja, into which suddenly erupt a handful of pages of fifth-form gush about Suzanne, and then, abruptly, one page (one page!) which in a half-baked way leads up to the most famous thing in the book, its last sentence:

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will be nothing at all. (p.160)

What a shame, what a real shame that he didn’t have the wit or intelligence to go back over his own text and summarise the findings of a) his general thoughts about coincidence b) the specific case study of Nadja – and produce a systematic and blistering defence of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Instead, the preceding 160 pages amount to a badly organised ragbag of subjective impressions, silly premonitions, pretentious conversations with a fragile young woman, crappy hand-drawn sketches, boring photographs of Paris streets, half-assed gestures towards an aesthetic which in no way build a case.

You could be smart and argue that the text’s very failure to make much sense or mount a coherent argument enacts the Surrealist aesthetic of fragments and the anti-rational, but that’s not very persuasive. There’s a difference between the artful placing of fragments – as done by countless modern artists, collagists and photomontagists, done with wit and style – and this spavined text, which so overtly struggles with Breton’s own lack of style and with his abject inability to write clearly or coherently.

Breton comes across from this book as a humourless, pompous and self-important prig, and this is exactly the impression you get from reading Ruth Brandon’s 450-page long account of the Surrealists. One of the colleagues he expels from the group describes him as a schoolboy bully. Exactly.

And why is he talking about ‘beauty’, like some 18th century connoisseur or some 1880s dandy? In the age of Duchamp’s anti-art, Tsara and Arp and Ball’s Dada, Grosz’s searing satirical paintings, Heartfield’s photomontages or Man Ray’s solarised photographs, it seems almost unbelievably retrograde, reactionary and obtuse to be crapping on about ‘beauty’. Beauty? What has beauty got to do with anything?

In every way Nadja seems to me an extravagantly feeble, badly written, pompous, sentimental, self-centred failure of a piece of steaming, putrid donkey dung.


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