Monday, July 07, 2008
Our book today is Gustave Flaubert's Carthaginian historical novel Salammbo, which intertwines the story of a naive and seductive priestess with a tale straight out of our old friend Polybius: the revolt of Carthage's heterogeneous mob of mercenaries against the army under the command of Hamilcar, just after the close of the First Punic War. Flaubert's novel appalled those of his friends who heard passages during its composition, and it called down a storm of factual criticism from authorities of every stripe after its publication on 24 November 1862 (readers of a certain age will recall that Robert Graves faced a similar storm upon the publication of I, Claudius - both he and Flaubert responded with lengthy, testy, source-citing defenses of their work, for all the world as though they'd written works of history).
Flaubert visited Carthaginian locations several times, and he claimed to have read over 200 books on the Punic War period, but since virtually everything Flaubert claimed was a bald-faced lie (if he mentioned in a letter to you that he'd been inspired to write by the stunning sunrise, you knew with 100 percent certainty that he'd slept in), we needn't worry too much about that - especially since Salammbo, despite what some of its critics have maintained, is the furthest thing in the world from a stuffy, over-researched book. In fact, it's unabashedly, relentlessly passionate, a tightly-controlled little whirlwind of historical fiction. Flaubert takes the basic facts of the events about which he writes - most of which are right there in Polybius - and imbues them with a miracle of life-breath, as in one of his signature battle scenes (with grudging apologies for our somewhat reluctant command of French):
Above and beyond the officers' commands, the trumpets' call and the screaming of the lyres, lead and clay pellets whistled through the air, tore swords out of men's hands or the brains out of their skulls. The wounded, crouching under their shields, held out their swords by resting the hilts against the ground, and others, in pools of their own blood, turned round to bite at enemy heels. The crowd was so compact, the dust so thick, the roar so loud, that nothing was clear; the cowards who offered to surrender were not even heard. When there were no weapons left to hold they wrestled bodily with each other; chests cracked against breast-plates and corpses hung with heads thrown back between stiffening arms.
Critics at first had no idea what to make of Salammbo, and although readers have always loved it, critics still find themselves a bit confused, calling it a flawed masterpiece and the like. And they tend to pounce on the almost psychedelic fervor with which Flaubert writes his battle scenes. But in our author's defense, there might have been something in the air. Only a couple of weeks after the publication of his book, the Battle of Fredericksburg took place in the American Civil War, and its carnage and confusion, as related by its greatest historian, wouldn't have seemed out of place in the Punic Wars:
The fighting was sheer murder. Coming out of the town, Burnside's men crashed into the stone wall and were broken. Division after division moved up the attack, marching out of the plain in faultless alignment, to be cut and broken and driven back by a storm of fire; for hour after hour they attacked, until all the plain was stained with the blue bodies that had been thrown on it, and not one armed Yankee ever reached even the foot of the hill. The plain was filled with smoke, shot through with unceasing flashes of fire, and the wild, rolling crash of battle went on and on through all the afternoon and there seemed to be no end to it. Burnside was east of the river, encased in the ignorance that besets headquarters, sending over order to carry on with the attack. His men obeyed every order, until whole divisions had been cut to pieces and the town and the sheltered banks by the river with clogged with men who had been knocked loose from their commands, but from first to last it was completely hopeless. Never, at any time, was there the remotest chance that this attack could succeed.
The ecstasies of religion - at least, as Flaubert conveys them - might creak here and there in Salammbo, but all the rest of it is entirely first-rate and worth your attention in the nearest halfway competent English translation.