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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

397 Salammbo herself is shadowy


This

defiant and victorious naturalness--not "naturalism"--pervades the book: from the other main characters--the luckless, brainless, tasteless, harmless husband; the vulgar Don Juans of lovers; the apothecary Homais[394]--one of the most original and firmly drawn characters in fiction--from all, down to the merest "supers." It floods the scene-painting (admirable in itself) with a light of common day--not too cheerful, but absolutely real. It animates the conversation, though Flaubert is not exactly prodigal of this;[395] and it presides over the weaving of the story as such in a fashion very little, if at all, inferior to that which prevails in the very greatest masters of pure story-telling.

[Sidenote: _Salammbo._]

Hardly any one, speaking critically, could, I suppose, also speak thus positively about Flaubert's second book, _Salammbo_--a romance of Carthaginian history at the time of the Mutiny of the Mercenaries. Even Sainte-Beuve--no weak-stomached reader--was put off by its blotches of blood and grime, and by the sort of ghastly gorgeousness which, if it does not "relieve" these, forms a kind of background to throw them up. It was violently attacked by clever carpers like M. de Pontmartin, by eccentrics of half-genius and whole prejudice like M. Barbey d'Aurevilly, and by dull pedants like M. Saint-Rene Taillandier; while it may be questioned whether, to the present day, its friends have not mostly belonged

to that "Save-me-from-them" class which simply extols the "unpleasant" because other people find it unpleasant.[396] For my own part, I did not enjoy it much at the very first; but I felt its power at once, and, as always happens in such cases when admiration does not come from the tainted source just glanced at, the enjoyment increased, and the sense of power increased with it, the "unpleasantness," as a known thing, becoming merely "discountable" and disinfected. The book can, of course, never rank with _Madame Bovary_, because it is a _tour de force_ of abnormality--a thing incompatible with that highest art which consists in the transformation and transcendentalising of the ordinary. The leprosies, and the crucifixions, and the sorceries, and the rest of it are ugly; but then Carthage _was_ ugly, as far as we know anything about it.[397] Salammbo herself is shadowy; but how could a Carthaginian girl be anything else? The point to consider is the way in which all this unfamiliar, uncanny, unpleasant stuff is _fused_ by sheer power of art into something which has at least the reality of a bad dream--which, as most people know, is a very real thing indeed while it lasts, and for a little time after. It increases the wonder--though to me it does not increase the interest--to know that Flaubert took the most gigantic pains to make his task as difficult as possible by acquiring and piecing together the available knowledge on his subject. This process--the ostensible _sine qua non_ of "Realism" and "Naturalism"--will require further treatment. It is almost enough for the present to say that, though not a novelty, it had been, and for the matter of that has been, rarely a success. It has, as was pointed out before, spoilt most classical novels, reaching its acme of boredom in the German work of Ebers and Dahn; and it has scarcely ever been very successful, even in the hands of Charles Reade, who used it "with a difference." But it can hardly be said to have done _Salammbo_ much harm, because the "fusing" process which is above referred to, and to which the imported elements are often so rebellious, is here perfectly carried out. You may not like the colour and shape of the ingot or cast; but there is nothing in it which has not duly felt and obeyed the fire of art.


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