The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

Need I stress that I intend no theoretical statement at all, and that the entire book is simply a practitioner’s confession? Every novelist’s work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel is; I have tried to express here the idea of the novel that is inherent in my own novels. (Preface)

This book contains seven essays on the art of the novel. First, a few observations.

Kundera is an academic Remember Kundera was a lecturer in ‘World Literature’ at Charles University in Prague for some 20 years (1952-75). This is a grand title and obviously encouraged a panoramic overview of the subject. Then he emigrated to France, where he continued to teach at university. He is, in other words, an academic, an expounder, a simplifier and teacher of other people’s views and theories, and that is probably the most dominant characteristic of his fiction – the wish to lecture and explicate.

He discusses a narrow academic canon You quickly realise he isn’t talking about the hundreds of thousands of novels which have been published over the past 400 years – he is talking about The Novel, the ‘serious novel’, ‘real novels’ – an entirely academic construct, which consists of a handful, well at most 50 novelists, across that entire period and all of Europe, whose concerns are ‘serious’ enough to be included in ‘serious’ academic study.

Non-British And he is very consciously European. This means many of his references are alien or exotic to us. Or just incomprehensible. When he says that The Good Soldier Schweik is probably the last popular novel, he might as well be living on Mars. There is no mention of Daniel Defoe, of Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James, DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, or anyone from the British ‘Great Tradition’ except the dry and dusty Samuel Richardson, in some histories, the founder of the English novel. He mentions Orwell’s ‘1984’ to dismiss it as a form of journalism. All Orwell’s fiction, he thinks, would have been better conveyed in pamphlets.

There is no mention of American fiction: from Melville through Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner (OK, Faulkner is mentioned right towards the end as one of the several authors who want nothing written about their lives, only their works), Updike or Roth or Bellow. No reference to science fiction or historical fiction or thrillers or detective fiction. Or children’s fiction. There is no mention of South American fiction (actually, he does mention a novel by Carlos Fuentes), or anything from Africa or Asia.

Some exceptions, but by and large, it is a very very very narrow definition of the Novel. Kundera can only talk as sweepingly as he does because he has disqualified 99.9% of the world from consideration before he begins.

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

In 1935 Edmund Husserl gave a lecture titled ‘Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man’. He identifies the Modern Era as starting with Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632) and Descartes (Discourse on the Method, 1637) and complains that Europe (by which he includes America and the other colonies) has become obsessed with science and the external world at the expense of spirit and psychology, at the expense of Lebenswelt.

Kundera says that Husserl neglected the novel, which was also born at the start of the modern era, specifically in the Don Quixote of Miguel Cervantes (1605). It is in the novel that Europeans have, for 400 years, been investigating the interior life of humanity. The novel discovers those elements of life which only it can discover. Therefore the sequence of great novelists amounts to a sequence of discoveries about human nature:

  • Cervantes – explores the nature of adventure
  • Richardson – the secret life of feelings
  • Balzac – man’s rootedness in history
  • Flaubert – details of the everyday
  • Tolstoy – the intrusion of the irrational into decision making
  • Proust – the elusiveness of time past
  • Joyce – the elusiveness of time present
  • Mann – the role of ancient myth in modern life

At the start of the Modern Era God began to disappear, and with him the idea of one truth. Instead the world disintegrated into multiple truths. In the novel these multiple truths are dramatised as characters.

The whole point of the novel is it does not rush to judgement, to praise or condemn. Religion and ideologies (and political correctness) does that. The whole point of the novel is to suspend humanity’s Gadarene rush to judge and condemn before understanding: to ‘tolerate the essential relativity of things human’ (p.7).

He describes how there is a straight decline in the European spirit, from Cervantes – whose heroes live on the open road with an infinite horizon and never-ending supply of adventures – through Balzac whose characters are bounded by the city, via Emma Bovary who is driven mad by boredom, down to Kafka, whose characters have no agency of their own, but exist solely as the function of bureaucratic mistakes. It’s a neat diagram, but to draw it you have to leave out of account most of the novels ever written – for example all the novels of adventure written in the later 19th century, all of Robert Louis Stevenson, for example.

As in all his Western books, Kundera laments the spirit of the age, how the mass media are making everything look and sound the same, reducing everything to stereotypes and soundbites, simplifying the world, creating ‘the endless babble of the graphomanics’ –  whereas the novel’s task is to revel in its oddity and complexity.

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

In a written dialogue with an interviewer, Kundera moves the same brightly coloured counters around – Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce. The novel was about adventure, then about society, then about psychology.

He states his novels are outside the novel of psychology. There’s psychology in them but that’s not their primary interest.

Being a central European he sees the 1914-18 war as a catastrophe which plunged art and literature into the grip of a merciless History. The essential dreaminess of a Proust or Joyce became impossible. Kafka opened the door to a new way of being, as prostrate victim of an all-powerful bureaucracy.

He clarifies that a key concern is the instability of the self: which is why characters often play games, pose and dramatise themselves; it is to find out where their limits are.

He clarifies his approach as against Joyce’s. Joyce uses internal monologue. There is no internal monologue at all in Kundera. In fact, as he explains it, you realise that the monologue is his, the author’s as the author tries different approaches in order to analyse his own characters. His books are philosophical analyses of fictional characters. And the characters are conceived as ‘experimental selfs’ (p.31), fully in line with his core idea that the history of the novel is a sequence of discoveries.

If the novel is a method for grasping the self, first there was grasping through adventure and action (from Cervantes to Tolstoy). Then grasping the self through the interior life (Joyce, Proust). Kundera is about grasping the self though examining existential situations. He always begins with existential plights. A woman who has vertigo. A man who suffers because he feels his existence is too light, and so on. Then he creates characters around these fundamentals. Then he puts them into situations which he, the author, can analyse, analyse repeatedly and from different angles, in order to investigate the mystery of the self.

Thus a character is ‘not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self.’ (p.34) Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of their existential problem’ (p.35).

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. (p.42)

The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence. (p.44)

The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters. (p.83)

A theme is an existential enquiry. (p.84)

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

The Sleepwalkers is the name given to a trilogy of novels by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951). The three novels were published between 1928 and 1932. They focus on three protagonists and are set 15 years apart:

  1. Joachim von Pasenow set in 1888
  2. August Esch set in 1903
  3. Wilhelm Huguenau set in 1918

In their different ways they address on core them: man confronting the disintegration of his values.

According to Kundera, before one writes one must have an ontological hypothesis, a theory about what kind of world we live in. For example The Good Soldier Švejk finds everything about the world absurd. At the opposite pole, Kafka’s protagonists find everything about the world so oppressive that they lose their identities to it.

After all, What is action? How do we decide to do what we do? That is, according to Kundera, the eternal question of the novel. (p.58)

Through an analysis of the plots of the three novels, Kundera concludes that what Broch discovered was the system of symbolic thought which underlies all decisions, public or private.

He closes with some waspish criticism of ‘Establishment Modernism’, i.e. the modernism of academics, which requires an absolute break at the time of the Great War, and the notion that Joyce et al. definitively abolished the old-fashioned novel of character. Obviously Kundera disagrees. For him Broch (whose most famous masterpiece, The Death of Virgil didn’t come out till the end of World War Two) was still opening up new possibilities in the novel form, was still asking the same questions the novel has asked ever since Cervantes.

It is a little odd that Kundera takes this 2-page swipe at ‘Establishment Modernism’, given that a) he is an academic himself, and his own approach is open to all sorts of objections (mainly around its ferocious exclusivity), and b) as he was writing these essays, Modernism was being replaced, in literature and the academy, by Post-Modernism, with its much greater openness to all kinds of literary forms and genres.

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

Second part of the extended ‘dialogue’ whose first part was section two, above. Starts by examining three principles found in Kundera’s work:

1. Divestment, or ellipsis. He means getting straight to the heart of the matter, without the traditional fol-de-rol of setting scenes or background to cities or towns or locations.

2. Counterpoint or polyphony. Conventional novels have several storylines. Kundera is interested in the way completely distinct themes or ideas can be woven next to each other, setting each other off. For the early composers a principle of polyphony was that all the lines are clear and distinct and of equal value.

Interestingly, he chooses as fine examples of his attempts to apply this technique to his novels, the Angels section in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – which I found scrappy and unconvincing – and Part Six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is by far the worst thing he’s ever written, embarrassingly bad.

There’s some chat about Kundera’s own personal interventions in his novels. He emphasises that anything said within a novel is provisional hypothetical and playful. Sure, he intervenes sometimes to push the analysis of a character’s situation deeper than the character themselves could do it. But emphasises that even the most serious-sounding interventions are always playful. They can never be ‘philosophy’ because they don’t occur in a philosophical text.

From the very first word, my thoughts have a tone which is playful, ironic, provocative, experimental or enquiring. (p.80)

This is what he means by ‘a specifically novelistic essay’ i.e. you can write digressions and essays within novels but, by coming within its force field, they become playful and ironic.

The final part is an analysis of his novels in terms of their structure, their architecture i.e. the number of parts, the way the sub-sections are so distinct. And then a really intense comparison with works of classical music, in the sense that the varying length and tempo of the parts of his novels are directly compared with classical music, particularly to Beethoven quartets. Until the age of 25 he thought he was going to be a composer rather than a writer and he is formidably learned about classical music.

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

A short essay about Kafka. He uses the adjective Kafkan, which I don’t like; I prefer Kafkaesque. What does it consist of?

  1. boundless labyrinth
  2. a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy), which tends to make his life’s meaning theological. Or pseudo-theological
  3. the punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done
  4. when Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but…

Fundamentally his stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers.

What strikes Kundera is that accurately predicted an entire aspect of man in the 20th century without trying to. All his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, communist etc, thought endlessly about the future society. But all of their works are lost. Kafka, in complete contrast, was a very private man, obsessed above all with his own personal life, with the domineering presence of his father and his tricky love life. With no thought of the future or society at large, he created works which turned out to be prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

This Kundera takes to be a prime example of the radical autonomy of the novel, whose practitioners are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity, which no other science or discipline can.

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

As Kundera became famous, and his books published in foreign languages, he became appalled by the quality of the translations. (The English version of The Joke particularly traumatised him; the English publisher cut all the reflective passages, eliminated the musicological chapters, and changed the order of the parts! In the 1980s he decided to take some time out from writing and undertake a comprehensive review of all translations of his books with a view to producing definitive versions.

Specific words are more important to Kundera than other novelists because his novels are often highly philosophical. In fact, he boils it down: a novel is a meditation on certain themes; and these themes are expressed in words. Change the words, you screw up the meditations, you wreck the novel.

A friendly publisher, watching him slog away at this work for years, said, ‘Since you’re going over all your works with a fine toothcomb, why don’t you make a personal list of the words and ideas which mean most to you?’

And so he produced this very entertaining and easy-to-read collection of short articles, reflections and quotes relating to Milan Kundera’s keywords:

  • aphorism
  • beauty
  • being – friends advised him to remove ‘being’ from the title of The Unbearable Lightness of Being’: but it is designed to be a meditation on the existential quality of being. What if Shakespeare had written: To live or not to live… Too superficial. He was trying to get at the absolute root of our existence.
  • betrayal
  • border
  • Central Europe – the Counter-Reformation baroque dominated the area ensuring no Enlightenment, but on the other hand it was the epicentre of European classical music. Throughout the book he is struck by the way the great modern central European novelists – Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz – were anti-Romantic and modern just not in the way of the flashy avant-gardes of Rome or Paris. Then after 1945 central Europe was extinguished and – as he was writing this list – was a prophetic type of the extinguishment of all Europe. Now we know this didn’t happen.
  • collaborator – he says the word ‘collaborator’ was only coined in 1944, and immediately defined an entire attitude towards modernity. Nowadays he reviles collaborators with the mass media and advertising who he thinks are crushing humanity. (Looking it up I see the word ‘collaborator’ was first recorded in English in 1802. This is one of the many examples where Kundera pays great attention to a word and everything he says about it turns out to be untrue for English. It makes reading these essays, and his ovels, a sometimes slippery business.)
  • comic
  • Czechoslovakia – he never uses the word in his fiction, it is too young (the word and country were, after all, only created in 1918, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed). He always uses ‘Bohemia’ or ‘Moravia’.
  • definition
  • elitism – the Western world is being handed over to the control of a mass media elite. Every time I read his diatribes against the media, paparazzi and the intrusion into people’s private lives, I wonder what he makes of the Facebook and twitter age.
  • Europe – his books are streaked with cultural pessimism. Here is another example. He thinks Europe is over and European culture already lost. Well, that’s what every generation of intellectuals thinks. 40 years later Europe is still here.
  • excitement
  • fate
  • flow
  • forgetting – In my review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I pointed out that Mirek rails against forgetting as deployed by the state (sacking historians) but is himself actively engaged in trying to erase his past (claiming back his love letters to an old flame). Kundera confirms my perception. Totalitarian regimes want to control the past (‘Orwell’s famous theme’), but what his story shows is that so do people. It is a profound part of human nature.
  • graphomania – he rails against the way everyone is a writer nowadays, and says it has nothing to do with writing (i.e. the very careful consideration of form which he has shown us in the other essays in this book) but a primitive and crude will to impose your views on everyone else.
  • hat
  • hatstand
  • ideas – his despair at those who reduce works to ideas alone. No, it is how they are treated, and his sense of the complexity of treatment is brought out in the extended comparison of his novels to complicated late Beethoven string quartets in 4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition
  • idyll
  • imagination
  • inexperience – a working title for The Unbearable Lightness of Being was The Planet of Inexperience. Why? Because none of us have done this before. We’re all making it up as we go along. That’s what’s so terrifying, so vertiginous.
  • infantocracy
  • interview – as comes over in a scene in Immortality, he hates press interviews because the interviewer is only interested in their own agenda and in twisting and distorting the interviewees’ responses. Thus in 1985 he made a decision to give no more interviews and only allow his views to be published as dialogues which he had carefully gone over, refined and copyrighted. Hence parts two and four of this book, although they have a third party asking questions, are in the form of a dialogue and were carefully polished.
  • irony
  • kitsch – he’s obsessed with this idea which forms the core – is the theme being meditated on – in part six of the Unbearable Lightness of Being. It consists of two parts: step one is eliminating ‘shit’ from the world (he uses the word ‘shit’) in order to make it perfect and wonderful, as in Communist leaders taking a May Day parade or TV adverts. Step two is looking at this shallow, lying version of the world and bursting into tears at its beauty. Kitsch is ‘the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.’ (p.135)
  • laughter – For Rabelais, the comic and the merry were one. Slowly literature became more serious, the eighteenth century preferring wit, the Romantics preferring passion, the nineteenth century preferring realism. Now ‘the European history of laughter is coming to an end’. (p.136) That is so preposterous a thought I laughed out loud.
  • letters
  • lightness
  • lyric
  • lyricism
  • macho
  • meditation – his cultural pessimism is revealed again when he claims that ‘to base a novel on sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all. (p.139)
  • message
  • misogynist – gynophobia (hatred of women) is a potential of human nature as is androphobia (hatred of men), but feminists have reduced misogyny to the status of an insult and thus closed off exploration of a part of human nature.
  • misomusist – someone who has no feel for art or literature or music and so wants to take their revenge on it
  • modern
  • nonbeing
  • nonthought – the media’s nonthought
  • novel and poetry – the greatest of the nivelists -become-poets are violently anti-lyrical: Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka (don’t think that’s true of Joyce whose prose is trmeendously lyrical)
  • novel – the European novel
  • novelist and writer
  • novelist and his life – quotes from a series of novelists all wishing their lives to remain secret and obscure: all attention should be on the works. Despite this, the army of biographers swells daily. The moment Kafka attracts more attention that Josef K, cultural death begins.
  • obscenity
  • Octavio – the Mexican writer, Octavio Paz
  • old age – frees you to do and say what you want.
  • opus
  • repetitions
  • rewriting – for the mass media, is desecration. ‘Death to all those who dare rewrite what has been written!’ Jacques and His Master
  • rhythm – the amazing subtlety of rhythm in classical music compared to the tedious primitivism of rock music. Tut tut.
  • Soviet – the Germans and Poles have produced writers who lament the German and Polish spirit. The Russians will never do that. They can’t. Every single one of them is a Russian chauvinist.
  • Temps Modernes – his cultural pessimism blooms: ‘we are living at the end of the Modern Era; the end of art as conceived as an irreplaceable expression of personal originality; the end that heralds an era of unparalleled uniformity’ (p.150)
  • transparency – the word and concept in whose name the mass media are destroying privacy
  • ugly
  • uniform
  • value – ‘To examine a value means: to try to demaracte and give name to the discoveries, the innovations, the new light that a work casts on the human world.’ (p.152)
  • vulgarity
  • work
  • youth

7. Jerusalem Address: the Novel and Europe (1985)

In the Spring of 1985 Kundera was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. He went to Jerusalem to deliver this thank you address. It is a short, extremely punch defense of the novel as a form devoted to saving the human spirit of enquiry in dark times.

In a whistlestop overview of European history, he asserts that the novel was born at the birth of the modern era when, with religious belief receding, man for the first time grasped his plight as a being abandoned on earth: the novel was an investigation of this plight and has remained so ever since.

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood. (p.159)

Every novel, like it or not, offers some answer to the question: What is human existence, and wherein does its poetry lie? (p.161)

But the novel, like the life of the mind, has its enemies. Namely the producers of kitsch and what Rabelais called the agélastes, people who have no sense of humour and do not laugh. He doesn’t say it but I interpret this to mean those who espouse identity politics and political correctness. Thou Must Not Laugh At These Serious Subjects, say the politically correct, and then reel off a list which suits themselves. And kitsch:

Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for the banality of what we think and feel. (p.163)

The greatest promoter of kitsch is the mass media which turns the huge human variety into half a dozen set narratives designed to make us burst into tears. We are confronted by a three-headed monster: the agélastes, the nonthought of received ideas, and kitsch.

Kundera sees European culture as being under threat from these three forces, and identifies what is most precious about it (European culture), namely:

  • its respect for the individual
  • for the individual’s original thought
  • for the right of the individual to a private life

Against the three-headed monster, and defending these precious freedoms, is set the Novel, a sustained investigation by some of the greatest minds, into all aspects of human existence, the human predicament, into human life and interactions, into human culture.


Central ideas

The novel is an investigation into man’s Lebenwelt – his life-being.

Novelists are discoverers and explorer of the capabilities, the potentialities, of human existence.

Conclusions

1. Fascinating conception of the novel as a sustained investigation into the nature of the self, conducted through a series of historical eras each with a corresponding focus and interest.

2. Fascinating trot through the history of the European novel, specially the way it mentions novelists we in England are not so familiar with, such as Hermann Broch or Diderot or Novalis, or gives a mid-European interpretation to those we have heard of like Kafka or Joyce.

3. Fascinating insight into not only his own working practice, but what he thinks he’s doing; how he sees his novels continuing and furthering the never-ending quest of discovery which he sees as the novel’s historic mission.

But what none of this fancy talk brings out at all, is the way Milan Kundera’s novels are obsessed with sex. It is extraordinary that neither Sex nor Eroticism appear in his list of 63 words since his powerfully erotic (and shameful and traumatic and mysterious and ironic) explorations of human sexuality are what many people associate Kundera’s novels with.

Last thoughts

Changes your perspective It’s a short book, only 165 pages with big gaps between the sections, but it does a very good job of explaining how Kundera sees the history and function of the novel, as an investigation into the existential plight of humanity. It changed my mental image of Kundera from being an erotic novelist to being more like an existentialist thinker-cum-writer in the tradition of Sartre.

The gap between Britain and Europe There is a subtler takeaway, which is to bring out how very different we, the British, are from the Europeans. True, he mentions a few of our authors – the eighteenth century trio of Richardson, Fielding and Sterne – but no Defoe, Austen, Scott or Dickens.

The real point is that he assumes all European intellectuals will have read widely in European literature – from Dante and Boccaccio through Cervantes and into the eighteenth century of Diderot, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade. And when you read the French founders of critical theory, Barthes or Derrida, or the influential historian Foucault, they obviously refer to this tradition.

But it remains completely alien to us in Britain. Not many of us read Diderot or Novalis or Lermontov or even Goethe. We’ve all heard of Flaubert and Baudelaire because, in fact, they’re relatively easy to read – but not many of us have read Broch or Musil, and certainly not Gombrowicz. Though all literature students should have heard of Thomas Mann I wonder how many have read any of his novels.

My point being that, as you read on into the book, you become aware of the gulf between this huge reservoir of writers, novels and texts in the European languages – French, German and Russian – and the almost oppressively Anglo-Saxon cultural world we inhabit, not only packed with Shakespeare and Dickens, but also drenched in American writers, not least the shibboleths of modern American identity politics such as Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou.

Reading this book fills your mind with ideas about the European tradition. But at the same time it makes you aware of how very different and apart we, in Britain, are, from that tradition. Some of us may have read some of it; but none of us, I think, can claim to be of it.

Credit

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera was first published in French in 1986. The English translation was published by Grove Press in the USA and Faber and Faber in the UK in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds (1999)

‘Affairs are absolutely OK as long as you don’t get involved and you’re really discreet.’
Gemma Bovery’s diary (p.63)

Gemma Bovery

True Love which Posy Simmonds published in 1981 was, apparently, the first graphic novel in English, although it is more like a set of loosely connected sketches (see my review). Eighteen years later Simmonds published Gemma Bovery, a much longer, much wordier, and infinitely more sophisticated graphic novel.

As the title immediately indicates, the book is a modern take on Flaubert’s classic novel of 1857, Madame Bovary, whose ill-fated heroine was named Emma. In the original novel, Emma marries boring and incompetent provincial doctor Charles Bovary and, to escape the drudgery and boredom of her life, has a series of increasingly doomed affairs, and borrows money recklessly, until her world collapses and she commits suicide. I happened to write a detailed synopsis and review of the Flaubert novel a few years ago.

The obvious difference with the Simmonds is that whereas the Flaubert novel is about a cabined and trapped Frenchwoman, Simmonds’s graphic novel is about a free-spirited young Englishwoman from the cultured middle classes who takes it for granted that she’ll always have a job and can shift homes easily from England to France.

The plot 1

Gemma is the twenty-something, middle-class daughter of a comfortably-off dentist based in Reading. She has moved to London and made a career as a magazine illustrator who can turn her hand to interior designing and decorating. We meet her in the midst of an affair with older, high-status male, Patrick Large, who is the suave, confident food critic for a Time Out-type London magazine. She resents the way he patronises her, and is always on the lookout for other pretty young things, but nonetheless she stays with him for in his company she gets kudos, the best tables at restaurants, invites to good parties, and so on.

Until one day she sees him coming out of his flat snogging some other pretty young thing. She is distraught. That night she is at a party and bursts into tears and flings herself into the arms of the innocent chap chatting to her, an older man named Charlie Bovery. Charlie is divorced, lives in rented digs in Hackney while paying alimony to his ghastly wife (Judi) who is bringing up their two kids (Justin and Delia) in Islington. Judi is always on the phone nagging for the alimony and telling him what a bad father he is.

One thing leads to another and Gemma goes to bed with Charlie and moves in with him. (It seems she can’t live without at least one man in her life.) Charlie’s wife gets even angrier when she learns her ex is living with a pretty dolly bird, can’t he think of the kids etc.

Then she and Charlie get married – an event accompanied by a drone of criticism from Gemma’s mum when she and Charlie turn down the all-expenses-paid bash her mum and dad offer. Even at the wedding her mum is sniping. Everyone snipes. All Gemma’s family, and Charlie’s wife. Snipe snipe snipe.

Gemma’s mum and dad trying to bully her into a Full Monty wedding (left) and Charlie’s ex, Judi, being bitchy (bottom right)

Eventually, the ex and the constant visits of the pesky kids and the crappy location of his flat in Hackney starts to really get Gemma down and she fantasises about moving away from all of it. Which is when her father drops dead of a heart attack and leaves her fifty-five grand. So Gemma persuades Charlie to buy an old country house in rural Normandy and move to France.

They do so and are, at first, enchanted. Surrounded by countryside, with a sweet little village nearby, Bailleville, all of whose shops are ‘authentic’ and locally owned. Mmmm smell the freshly baked French bread!

However, the book then reveals all the negatives about living in a plain old peasant house in rural France. It smells; there’s only a septic tank, not proper sewerage, so in the summer the whole place reeks of shit. The windows are small, making being inside dingy and depressing. After a couple of months Gemma is bored of the same old ten or so shops in the crappy little ‘one-eyed’ village, and prefers motoring to the nearest supermarket – cheaper, more convenient, and people aren’t watching you all the time. Charlie’s kids, Justin and Delia, hate coming to stay, there’s nothing to do, they hate the French food Gemma prepares, and the telly doesn’t work.

Worst of all is all the other bloody Brit ex-pats, especially the ones who don’t live there but have bought up all the surrounding pretty rural houses, and only turn up at half-term and the other school holidays, bringing along their yapping ‘Brit brats’. Suddenly the quiet village is infested with the sound of braying upper-middle-class voices – ‘Mark, daahhhhling, better get twice as many baguettes, Sam and Polly may pop in on their way back from Périgeux.’

These posh Brits are exemplified by Mark and Wizzy Rankin who have bought a large manor house near the village, which they’ve done up within an inch of its life. They’re always having loads of friends to stay – fellow corporate financiers chatting about their skiing holidays, bond traders, financial journalists and the like – piles of empty bottles of fine wine, posh guffawing late into the night. Their wealth and their effortless success (this year Mark’s bonus was £2 million – p.65) oppress Gemma (as they did this reader) and highlight the dingy poverty of the half-repaired house she’s stuck in with Charlie.

And Charlie irritates the hell out of Gemma. He’s taken to rural French life, padding round in a vest, a Gauloise cigarette permanently hanging off his lip (as far as I can tell all the adult characters smoke incessantly), fixing up antique furniture in his workshop, not really bothered about the damp and the thousand and one little tasks which need doing round the house.

Late at night Gemma lies in bed next to him consumed with anger and frustration and has half-asleep fantasies of getting back with her tall, handsome, successful London lover, Patrick Large.

Gemma lies in bed with poor, honest Charlie Bovery but fantasises about getting back together with glamorous successful Patrick Large

Until one day Gemma reads in one of the Sunday supplements that Patrick has gone and married the dolly bird she saw him snogging (Pandora) and had a baby! The supplement shows photos of his perfect wife and perfect baby and perfect up-market London flat and something in Gemma snaps. She is consumed with frustration and envy, beside herself with frustration.

She goes into the village by herself in a very short skirt and her long legs catch the eye of local aristocratic layabout Hervé de Bressigny whose family own a rundown chateau near the Bovary’s house. They chat a bit, then part.

A few days later Charlie organises a dinner party for some of the French neighbours. Gemma goes into town to do the shopping and bumps into Hervé in the supermarket where they chat a bit more. A few hours later, driving home, on impulse, and even though she’s meant to be cooking for the dinner party that very evening, Gemma swings left through the gates of the old chateau (for she’s found out this is where Hervé lives), and as a storm gathers, knocks and young Hervé comes to open the door.

Hervé, we learn, has failed his law exams in Paris and his stern mother, Madame de Bressigny, has told him to stay at the rotting family mansion and work hard for the resits. He was hard at it when Gemma knocked on the door and he is irritated by her visit. But out of politeness shows her round – and Gemma, being into interior decoration, marvels at the decaying mansion’s original features.

Suddenly there is a tremendous crack of thunder which makes Gemma start backwards… into the arms of the dapper young man and… well… they kiss, they snog, they embrace, they fumble and grope and fall to the floor and…

Then we cut away to the dinner party she and Charlie have arranged with the Rankins and two local French couples, where she arrives late, claiming to have been delayed in the storms, looking flustered, and then whizzes up a tremendous dinner (although various bits of it puzzle the French – sushi?).

Gemma serves at her dinner party (left) while thinking back to meeting Hervé in the supermarket (top right) and then going round to his gloomy old chateau and knocking on the front door (bottom right)

She is closely watched he shows her round – he is supposed to be revising for a retake of the law exam he failed. there’s a crash of thunder, she steps back startled into his arms and… snog, embrace, strip off, sex. We learn she is 30 years old.

Raymond Joubert

At this point I should explain that the entire narrative is told in flashbacks by the village baker, Raymond Joubert.

Joubert is a bearded middle-aged man who was once himself something of an intellectual, having written and taught in Paris, and occasionally still contributing to an old intellectual quarterly. But his career was going nowhere so when his parents passed away he decided to return to the village of his birth (along with his Parisian wife and two children) and take over the family bakery. In time he realised he had a real feel for making bread, and found it deeply satisfying.

Joubert noticed Gemma from the moment she arrived, and watches her changing shape and happiness and manner like a hawk. He, too, is in love with her.

And so it is Joubert who sees the first encounter of Gemma and Hervé at the market, and happens to be driving in front of her on the road home when he sees Gemma turn off into the chateau for that first meeting with Hervé. And who attends the dinner party a few hours later, scrutinising her for signs of post-coital passion.

And then watches her closely over the ensuing weeks as her affair with Hervé deepens, notices her working hard, earning more money, and comprehensively redecorating her and Charlie’s house, chucking out the rural wood furniture and installing 18th century period pieces.

Prolepsis and the sense of doom

More than that, the narrative begins after Gemma has died. Gemma is dead and a grief-stricken Joubert is moping and reflecting on everything which led up to her tragic death. Therefore his narrative lends every detail of her life a morbid and gloomy sense of tragic foreboding.

In the first few pages Joubert pays a visit to a heart-broken Charlie Bovery and, as Charlie pours him a drink, notices Gemma’s belongings strewn about the old farmhouse – Charlie is having a clear-out – and spots some of Gemma’s diaries lying around. While Charlie’s back is turned Joubert steals as many of her diaries as he can hide and, when he gets back to his house, a short walk from the Bovery’s, starts to read them (translating with the help of his son’s English-French dictionary).

Joubert visits Charlie in his grief over Gemma’s death, and learns with alarm of the existence of Gemma’s diaries

Thus the entire narrative is one giant flashback, heading inexorably towards the moment of Gemma’s death – and it is told via two voices, in a kind of textual split-screen effect – because the main narrative, in printed text, gives Joubert’s account of what he saw, from the moment the Boverys arrived at the old farmhouse, but this is counterpointed with the handwritten entries in Gemma’s diary – which Joubert is reading and which helps shed light on little mysteries he had observed.

The narrative is thus a journey of discovery for both Joubert and the reader.

An additional weight or significance is given to everything because Joubert has an increasingly doom-laden feeling that Gemma is fated to re-enact the destiny of her famous namesake, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, who has ill-fated love affairs with a local aristocrat, with a playboy in the local town, Rouen, runs up huge debts before killing herself with arsenic.

So, arguably, the narrative contains at least three levels – Joubert’s eye-witness account of events – Gemma’s diary giving her view of things – and the heavy hand of destiny in Joubert’s increasingly hectic concern that Gemma is unconsciously treading in Emma Bovary’s footsteps and that the same awful fate awaits her.

It’s a sophisticated narrative structure and it builds up a sense of genuine tension because we want to know how Gemma died. As events speed up and the sense of inevitable doom darkens, the reader becomes more and more absorbed until – on the last few pages – I was gripped, really gripped, couldn’t put it down and had to find out what happens.

Joubert as compromised narrator

Joubert starts to follow Gemma around. He thinks he is in love with her, concerned for her and so on, poo-poos the notion that he is a creepy pervert and voyeur, although Simmonds includes plenty of examples of how he notices Gemma’s long legs, her love bite, how he imagines her lying in bed, frustrated, finds this or that notion about her ‘erotic’ – in other words how he has all sorts of pervey thoughts about her. Plus we are given several asides in Gemma’s diary about how she has noticed that Joubert is always watching her, she finds him creepy.

So Joubert is far from being an objective narrator, he is himself implicated in the story’s passion plays. By the middle of the story he is actively stalking and following her to her secret rendezvous with young Hervé, not least because Joubert’s house lies off the path from the Bovery’s house to Hervé’s mansion, so it’s easy for him to keep tabs on her (there’s even a map showing the relative location of the three houses – the Boveries’, Hervé’s and Jouberts, along with the public footpaths, to help us visualise it all.)

I went after Gemma, and if this sounds  criminal – stalking a young woman – I can only protest that at the time it seemed quite legitimate… (p.55)

I told myself the only reason I was following Mrs Bovery was to confirm my speculations about her and Hervé… (p.56)

This stalking continues up to and including the scene where Joubert delivers some croissants to the Bovary house, knocks on the door a few times then goes round the side and, through a window, sees Gemma and Hervé making love.

A few days later, Joubert sneaks through the grounds of Hervé’s mansion in order to peer through the windows and catch them at it, again. But is he a pervert, a voyeur? Not in his own mind. “Moi?? Non, non monsieur, I was simply concerned for ‘er well-being” etc.

Joubert ‘accidentally’ bumping into Gemma on one of her walks along the path past his house

Joubert also has a comic side, playing to broad stereotypes of the Frenchman: his erotic fantasies are rather quirky, he fetishises French bread and food and is appalled at English gastronomy (Pimms! Porky scratchings!!) and doesn’t disapprove of Gemma taking a lover – what, after all, could be more French – but is scandalised at how Gemma dresses to go to her assignations – chewing gum! wearing a tracksuit!!

Joubert (in the small pictures in the middle of the page, watches through the chateau windows as Gemma disrobes to her sexy underwear for the gaze of her lover

In his curious mix of Frenchness, middle-aged lust, voyeurism, and in his over-heated comparisons between Gemma and her ill-fated Victorian forebear, Joubert is in many ways the central, certainly the most memorable, character in the plot.

The plot 2

Back to the main narrative.

Through Joubert’s eyes – and through his reading of Gemma’s diary – we watch Gemma continue the affair and blossom with happiness. She goes on a spending spree, redoing the interior furnishings of the farmhouse, chucking out the heavy rural furniture and splashing out on new furniture, wallpapers, carpets etc. In other words, running up a stack of debts, just like Madame Bovary. She also spends a lot on expensive sexy lingerie.

Gemma Bovery fait le shopping

Joubert, reading her diary, disapproves of how Gemma buys the lingerie to turn herself into a sex object for her lover’s pleasure, and of the stunning, leggy blonde bombshell she has turned herself into, on the rare occasions when she comes shopping in his boulangerie (both scenes appearing in the page below).

Gemma shops, practices sexily stripping to her lingerie for Hervé, and turns up in Joubert’s boulangerie looking like a model

All this during half-term while Charlie is back in England. Returning, he is impressed by the change in the farmhouse, but appalled at how much it must have cost…

But Joubert guesses correctly that something is on Hervé’s mind, namely that he has a full-time lover back in Paris and must return to his studies there. Thus we the reader see them in bed together, but only we know why Hervé has such a distracted look on his face. He wants to end the affair. He wants to be shot of Gemma.

Hervé is soon back in Paris telling his mate Arnaud about his entanglement with Gemma and trying to persuade his mum to let him stay part of the new academic term down in the country, and to square his suspicious girlfriend, Delphine.

Joubert is now following her all the opportunities he gets and so overhears the couple have an argument in the big park of Hervé’s house, during which the latter curses her for still sleeping with Charlie and then comes out with a passionate declaration of love. Joubert himself is torn apart and realises he is stricken with jealousy, while Gemma goes home transported. She is on cloud nine. She insists they go for lunches, admittedly at remote villages. All the time Charlie seems oblivious, not least because he receives a letter from HMRC saying they’re going to do a check of his revenue and taxes, a check he knows he will fail, and Charlie is convinced it’s his malicious ex, Judi, who has shopped him.

According to the diaries, their love-making takes on a new intensity, which is how they come to break a precious Sevres porcelain statuette at the chateau.

Gemma’s fantasies get the better of her. She stops returning business calls and emails, spends even more money on Hervé, and starts fantasising about getting a commission from  his mother to redecorate the entire chateau (never going to happen) and then commissions from her friends (cloud cuckoo land). Meanwhile Hervé’s girlfriend in Paris realises he’s got another woman and confronts him, in floods of tears.

Joubert learns that Gemma is going for a long weekend in London and has made elaborate plans for Hervé to come too, but the confrontation with his girlfriend, Delphine has crystallised his doubts.

Meanwhile, Joubert, consumed with jealousy, has decided to sabotage the lovers’ relationship and so he cuts and pastes from the English Penguin translation of Madame Bovary, excerpts from the letter Emma’s lover sends her on the day of their planned elopement, to say he is pulling out, their love cannot be etc. it is hand delivered to Gemma by a village boy and when she opens and reads it she really thinks it’s from Hervé and that he’s dumping her.

Gemma, already worrying whether a long weekend in London with Hervé will really work out, receives Joubert’s letter containing the quote from Madame Bovary as if a rejection letter from Hervé

But in fact the real Hervé is having second thoughts and, egged on by his Paris friend Arnaud who tells him to think of his future, his career and of Delphine, Hervé faxes Gemma a short note saying he can’t come with her to London. Gemma is distraught but Charlie is expecting her to go, everyone is, and so she leaves.

Five days later she is back, her hair cut short and a lost look in her eyes, as Joubert, inevitably, notices.

Cut to Hervé struggling to write Gemma a letter. Seems his mother is going to visit and will notice the absence of that pesky statuette which they broke. Gemma said she’s give it to Charlie to fix, that’s the kind of thing he’s good at – but Hervé must get it back and into the chateau before his mother’s visit.

The business with the statuette gets complicated. Hervé tells his mother he gave it to a woman who said she’s give it to her husband to fix, a Monsieur Tate (Gemma always told Hervé her maiden name, Tate – he thinks that’s her married name). So out of the blue Hervé’s mother turns up at Charlie Bovery’s house (Gemma is out) and first of all calls him Monsieur Tate and then asks for a statuette he’s never heard of.

Two things result: 1. when Gemma returns, Charlie confronts her about the statuette which she remembers she’s put in a cupboard and she decides it’s the moment to tell Charlie all about her affair but – he doesn’t want to know, he refuses to listen to her and announces he has to go to London to sort out  his tax affairs.

And 2. Hervé’s mother confronts him with her interview with Charlie, gets Hervé to cobble together more and more complex lies, before revealing that she found plenty of evidence of his affair with Gemma down at the chateau. She is disgusted that he is having an affair with a married woman, has steadily lied to her, and has lost the statuette into the bargain. She instructs her lawyers to write Gemma a stiff letter demanding the return of the statuette or their will be legal ramifications.

Gemma wakes up to her situation and realises she is drowning in official letters, claims for all her bills, not least from the maxed-out credit cards as well as all the utilities for the farmhouse. She asks Joubert in to write formal French replies to them, but he is so stunned to be in the same room where he was watched Hervé undress Gemma, that he cannot think straight and says he’ll take the bills and write out French replies that evening. Meet her in Rouen tomorrow, the day of the Saturday market, where he can hand them over.

Gemma’s financial mess deepens. The cheque she wrote to the electricity company bounced. Her electrics are about to be cut off and the bank has withdrawn her cheque facility. She has to get cash for doing a decorating job for posh Englishwoman, Wizzy. It’s while at their place that Patrick Large, her old beau, steps into the room. His wife, the perfect wife of the colour supplement, Pandora, has kicked him out and refuses to let him see their son. All this he tells quickly, and the fact that he knew Mark and Wizzy back in London and they’ve given him shelter in the storm.

Meanwhile we cut back to Joubert the next day, Saturday, in Rouen, all a-flutter waiting to meet Gemma to hand over the letters he’s typed for her. In his self-deluded way he imagines himself becoming her aid and helper, even imagines them in bed, naked, together and feels his heart racing. But she is late for their rendezvous. Eventually he hears the growl of her VW camper van and goes outside to see her climb out of it but then… a man also exit the van, who comes up besides Gemma and… they embrace!… they kiss!!! Once again Joubert’s hopes are dashed.

In an odd sequence, Joubert hears the van start up and drive round Rouen town centre – and is able (improbably) to give its itinerary. This is odd until you realise it is a parody of the scene in Madame Bovary where Emma takes a ride in a hansom cab with a handsome man and during the ride becomes his lover i.e. they have sex. In its modern-day reincarnation, Joubert follows them down to an underground car park, locates the van and is about to stuff the letters he so carefully composed for her under its windscreen wipers when he realises it is rocking back and forth. Gemma and Patrick are shagging. Disgusted, Joubert walks away wishing them dead, wishing Gemma DEAD!

But that night, out to dinner with suave Patrick, Gemma realises that he hasn’t changed at all, still treats her like a trophy girlfriends, swanks with the waiters, talks down to her. She realises she doesn’t even like him any more and that the afternoon shag was just a one-off. That night she fends off his advances, drops him at the Rankins’ place, and goes home alone, feeling proud of herself. She decides to sort her life out, sell the farmhouse, clear her debts, move back to London and revive her career, live simply and avoid entanglements.

Then she sees the statuette. Charlie must have repaired it. He is such a good man, he deserves better of her.

Next day she’s in the garden when Joubert passes by walking his dog. Gemma politely explains that she doesn’t need those letters she asked him to compose, she’s found the statuette, all she needs is him to write a letter in French replying to the stern missive from Madame de Bressigny’s lawyers. She talks him into going into the farmhouse and there, accidentally, he sees a Penguin translation of Madame Bovary, He starts back, knocks over a stool. Surprised, Gemma looks from him to the book, from the book to him and… rumbles him. It was he who sent her that letter, quoting the lover’s rejection from the novel.

‘You sod! How dare you interfere in my life?’

Pathetically, Joubert tries to defend himself, says he is worried for her, worried she is re-enacting the fate of Flaubert’s heroine. She replies: ‘What! Commit suicide over a few debts? Don’t be ridiculous!’

Gemma kicks him out but Joubert continues to feel hysterically frightened for her and that night has intense and ominous dreams, imagines the black figure of death closing in on her house. In the morning, unable to leave the thing alone, Joubert photocopies the pages from Madame Bovary where she takes the arsenic, and anonymously sends a copy each to Charlie (in London), to Patrick and the Rankins.

Wizzy Rankin is predictably robust. She is in the middle of frenzied preparations for her fortieth birthday party and thinks the letter Joubert has sent her is a stupid plea for help and that Gemma’s brought it all on herself. But what if it’s a real cry for help and she’s about to take arsenic like Madame Bovary? To which posh wife Wizzy replies, in one of the best jokes in Simmonds’s entire oeuvre:

‘What? Take arsenic? She’d better not – she’s doing my table decorations!’ (p.91)

Mark (the rich banker) drives round to make sure Emma’s alright and she dismisses the letter as further machinations by the bonkers baker, Joubert. Mark quizzes her about her debts and when he learns they’re a measly 25 grand offers to pay them if she… if she, you know, made it nice for him.. But Gemma robustly tells him to piss off, which, shamefacedly, he does.

Then Joubert comes to discuss with us the final entries in Gemma’s diary, which describe Patrick coming round to see her in response to the silly letter Joubert sent him. When Gemma explains that Joubert was behind it, Patrick suggests she sue him. He’s not worth it, she replies. Anyway she’ll be going back to London soon. Patrick asks if she’ll consider moving in with him. But she says ‘No, it wouldn’t work out.’ She has changed. She wants to be a new person.

Next morning Joubert awakens in panic and guilt. He tries to write a letter of apology to Gemma. Goes to the bakery and starts kneading the dough way before sunrise. Once the shop is opened and staffed, decides to go and deliver her a fresh-baked baguette and the note. Walking through her gate he hears the sound of whale music coming from the shade of a tree. She is practicing yoga positions to whale song, with her back to him. Unwilling to disturb her, Joubert tiptoes into the open house and leaves the baguette on the kitchen table with the letter propped up against it.

At lunchtime Joubert and Martine settle down for a light lunch with cheese. They hear a van draw up and park. It is Charlie, back from England at long last, and parking this far from the farmhouse, maybe to surprise Gemma. He walks down the track. Joubert settles for his post-prandial snooze.

Next thing he knows Charlie is running over the field his glasses knocked off, blood on his face and shirt, bellowing the GEMMA IS DEAD! Joubert babbles that he knew it, he knew it, was it arsenic?? Charlie doesn’t know what he’s saying and begs to use the phone. Martine takes over from her babbling husband and calls the emergency services, as Charlie runs back to the farmhouse.

Joubert and his wife begin to walk to the farmhouse, but a car pulls up and it is Madame de Bressigny, of all people, come for her statuette. When Joubert babbles to her arsenic and Flaubert she stares at him but when the ambulance arrives, she departs. The Jouberts continue into the kitchen of the farmhouse where they find Charlie on his knees beside the body of Gemma, lying peacefully on the floor and quite quite dead.

Moments later the Rankins drive up with a doctor friend who’d come for Wizzy’s party. He checks the body, Wizzy takes control as these sturdy upper middle-class women often do, dispensing whisky to Charlie and lending him her mobile phone so he can start making formal calls to England.

The doctor and then the ambulanceman pronounce the cause of death: she choked on a piece of the bread Joubert baked and brought for her that morning. They try to reassure him that it was an accident, but Joubert – who all the way through had been obsessed with a brooding sense of doom and death – who felt as if he had himself kick-started the affair between Hervé and Gemma and then supervised every step of its progression – it was Joubert himself who was the cause (at some remove) of poor Gemma’s death.

Charlie’s account

A few weeks later Joubert is in his boulangerie, inconsolable. Gemma has been buried. The Rankins paid for the small service and wake. Now, Joubert feels guilty and takes the short walk across the fields to the Boverys’ farmhouse. He’s been popping in on Charlie now and then to check he’s alright.

Now he feels guilty and starts to confess, telling Charlie that a) he stole Gemma’s diaries and b) he is responsible for her death – and is about to vent a long soliloquy about how he magically created the love affair between Gemma and Hervé, all the self-centred twaddle we’ve read him gushing throughout the text – when Charlie cuts across him and says, no, he killed Emma.

He knew she was having an affair but when it did finally blow over Gemma remained distant so he thought, blow it, and went back to London. It was there that he got a phone call from a regretful Gemma, followed up by a long letter in which she said she still loved him.

But in the same post someone had sent him photocopies of pages from Madame Bovary describing Emma’s agonising death from arsenic (that being Joubert, of course). This worried Charlie so he caught the next ferry and drove to the farmhouse, parking a little way away so as to walk (as observed by Joubert and his wife).

But when he walked into the open front door it was to find Patrick Large standing behind Gemma with his arms around her. Finally, after all these months, Charlie snapped and saw red and attacked the guy, knocking him to the floor where they rolled around fighting. Only after a few minutes does Patrick make Charlie realise they weren’t snogging – Gemma was choking and he was trying to do the Heimlich manoeuvre as Charlie walked in. Those precious few minutes while they fought were long enough for Gemma to choke and die.

So Charlie ran to Joubert’s, they called the ambulance, Patrick ran off and fetched the Rankins (which explains their sudden arrival) – all too late. Later that night Patrick came back and he and Charlie got drunk. Patrick explained that Gemma choked because she got cross with him trying to persuade her to get back with him.

So did Patrick kill her, from provoking the choking? Or Charlie for stopping Patrick help her in the vital minute? Or Joubert for sending the photocopied pages to Charlie to make him come back? Or for breaking the baguette a fragment of which choked her?

Did all these men kill her? Or was it her own nature, unable to settle, to make her mind up, to form a fixed relationship?

Or was it a pointless stupid accident?

There’s one last thing. Joubert is still fussing and fretting about Charlie, irrationally concerned the he will meet the same fate as Charles Bovary (who is found dead in the garden, in Flaubert’s novel). And here there is the second good joke of the book, for Charlie dismisses Joubert’s concerns as nonsense – everyone calls him Charlie but his actual name – he was named after his grandfather – his actual name is CYRIL – and Joubert kisses him with relief and delight!

Epilogue

It’s Spring. Charlie sold the farmhouse and made enough to pay off his and Gemma’s debts. He’s gone back to London and picked up a new girlfriend. Joubert has inherited Gemma’s dog. As to Hervé, Joubert hears he passed his law exams but his long-standing girlfriend gave him the push.

There’s a removal van outside the Boverys’ farmhouse. New owners are moving in. Joubert’s wife met them walking in the lane. The wife is called Eyre. Jane Eyre!


The triumph of Thatcherite values

Simmonds ended the Posy strip in 1987. Twelve years later, Gemma Bovery exists in a completely different universe, a post-Thatcherite Britain, among a well-heeled, well-educated, comfortable urban bourgeoisie.

What surprised me – astonished me, really – is that sex and adultery seem to have won. In the Weber strips a powerful recurring character was Stanhope Wright, tall, blonde advertising executive who propositioned every pretty young woman he met and generally had several affairs on the go at once, but always returned to his long-suffering wife Trish. In the Weber strip-world it was understood that Stanhope was a philandering swine, while the heart of the strips rotated around the home life of nerdy lecturer George Weber and his ironic, feminist, vegetarian, Guardian-reading wife, Wendy.

They’ve disappeared. Their whole world of values to do with respect and concern for right-on political values – has ceased to exist. Instead we are in a dog-eat-dog world of late twentieth century London, where private wealth contrasts with public squalor and homelessness, where rural France is infested with shouty, posh, banker Brits.

Affair World

And where almost every character seems to be having an affair. Charlie and Judi’s marriage broke up, Patrick is unfaithful to Gemma with Pandora, but goes on to have an affair, be discovered and kicked out. Gemma is unfaithful to Charlie with not one but two lovers and Hervé cheats on his Paris girlfriend. Given half a chance Joubert would cheat on his wife, Martine. Even Gemma’s father, Michael Tate the dentist, had an affair with his receptionist while his wife was dying.

In other words, we are in Middle-Class Affair World. We are in a world where almost everyone is being unfaithful to their spouses and partners, a world stiflingly familiar to me from all the other middle-class novels of our time about adultery and affairs, particularly those of Kingsley Amis or David Lodge, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

And a world I have never encountered except in books. I live in London and have brought up two children all the way through school. In those 18 years I only know of four couples who have got divorced, and am not aware of any long-running affairs. Certainly not aware of either men or women who have a new affair each year or are ‘notorious for their philandering’. I suppose it must happen in the real world, but not nearly as much as it happens in this kind of middle-class, middle-brow fiction. In the kind of genre Gemma Bovery belongs to, where it happens all the time.

Feminism

And I am a little staggered that, whereas the strongest thread in the 488 pages of the Weber comic omnibus is Simmonds’s persistent hectoring feminism, in strip after strip going on and on and on and on about the wickedness of the sexual stereotyping of women, the objectification of women, the leery association of women with sex and boobs and bras and kinky outfits…

She drew a memorable cartoon on the subject which, she explained, was a protest against the way Women in Cartoons were only treated as nymphets and sex objects by a sexist world which ignored all their other attributes and achievements…

The Seven Ages of Woman by Posy Simmonds

AND THEN… the central character of this book is a stunningly good-looking, gorgeous, pouting super model, a skinny shapely nymphet who makes all men stop and stare when she walks by, who spends a fortune on sexy lingerie so she can drop her overcoat and reveal herself in all her splendour as an erotic pinup, and whose central activity is snaring and sleeping with men.

The story makes occasional mention of Gemma’s talent for painting and decorating, but hurries on to focus on what really matters – her relationships with men and, in particular, which one she is taking her clothes off and revealing her gorgeous, lithe, leggy nymphet body for.

Gemma stripping to her sexy underwear for Hervé (and for the reader)

Boobs. Gemma has great trim, shapely boobs and Simmonds draws them for our delectation, again and again.

Bare-naked Gemma in bed with her lover, Hervé (who is, however, distracted and worried)

Obviously Gemma keeps her clothes on most of the time but, if you flick through the book, the visual impression is of a streamlined, lithe and sexy babe, just hitting her physical and sexual prime, who loves dressing like a Victoria’s Secret sex model, and strips off and has sex again and again.

Maybe this is all some subtle way of subverting the male gaze, but it felt very much to me like encouraging the male gaze, and encouraging just about every sexist stereotype you can conceive about lithe, young, shapely women.

It is all a million miles away from downtrodden Wendy Weber and her big glasses and sensible dungarees and knitted pullovers and concern about poor people and immigrants and the environment, or the angry feminism of plain-jane art student Jocasta Wright, which dominated the Posy strip.

Who worries about the worriers? by Posy Simmonds (1986)

So it seemed to me that not only does Gemma Bovery depict the victory of Thatcherite values (the unabashed making and spending of money, basically) but also describes the triumph of post-feminist visual values of sexual fantasy and adultery. This kind of thing was consistently disapproved of in the Posy strip. In Gemma Bovery it is celebrated.

Coming to the book after experiencing the rigorous political correctness of the Posy strip makes it feel like the enemy has won, both thematically and visually.

Here’s a page of preparatory sketches Simmonds made for the character, showing Gemma about her favourite activities – shopping and wearing sexy underwear for her man.

If they’d been done by a man wouldn’t you say they were patronising, sexist and stereotyped, the kind of mindless shopper/sex doll clichés women have been fighting for centuries?

Joubert

In my reviews of the Posy cartoon collections I pointed out how frequently Simmonds used parody to make a point, copying classic paintings or putting satirical new words to well-loved carols and tunes.

Insofar as it is an extended modern take on Flaubert’s classic novel, Gemma Bovery seemed to me a triumph. It is a masterpiece of storytelling. The first time I read it I found myself seriously gripped by the book’s final pages, feverishly reading them faster and faster to discover the long-anticipated cause of Gemma’s death.

Presumably there will be millions of women readers who identify to a greater or lesser extent with Gemma’s well-meaning but confused inability to make up her mind about her men, with her ‘weakness’ in falling from one lover to another – but that part didn’t interest me so much.

By the end it was the figure of Joubert I found fascinating. In many respects a joke – without doubt a fantasist, a lecherous old man and a voyeur – he is also given the genuine imaginative power of making you believe there really is a malign destiny at work in the story. His obsession with the fictional Emma Bovary really does come to infuse the modern real-life story of Gemma.

Without Joubert Gemma Bovery would have simply been the story of a young woman who had a fling in France and died an accidental death. With him – stealing her diaries and filtering Gemma’s consciousness through his own morbid and lustful obsessions and suffusing everything with his over-awareness of the Flaubert novel – the narrative becomes something altogether richer, more complex and stranger.

The attention to detail paid to all the characters throughout Gemma Bovery is impressive and persuasive, creating a totally real world. But the invention of Joubert was a masterstroke.


Credit

All images are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.

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Other Posy Simmonds reviews

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.


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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)


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