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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

But La Tentation de Saint Antoine


[Sidenote:

_La Tentation de Saint-Antoine_.]

Yet, as has been remarked before, nothing shows Flaubert's greatness better than his absolute freedom from the "rut." Even in carrying out the general "Vanity" idea he has no monotony. The book which followed _L'Education_ had been preluded, twenty years earlier, by some fragments in _L'Artiste_, a periodical edited by Gautier. But _La Tentation de Saint-Antoine_, when it finally appeared, far surpassed the promise of these specimens. It is my own favourite among its author's books; and it is one of those which you can read merely for enjoyment or take as a subject of study, just as you please--if you are wise you will give "five in five score" of your attentions to the latter occupation and the other ninety-five to the former. The people who had made up their minds to take Flaubert as a sort of Devil's Gigadibs--a "Swiss, not of Heaven," but of the other place, hiring himself out to war on all things good--called it "an attack on the idea of God"! As it, like its smaller and later counterpart _Saint Julien l'Hospitalier_, ends in a manifestation of Christ, which would do honour to the most orthodox of Saints' Lives, the "attack" seems to be a curious kind of offensive operation.

As a matter of fact, the book takes its vaguely familiar subject, and _embroiders_ that subject with a fresh collection of details from untiring research. The nearest approach to an actual person, besides

the tormented Saint himself, is the Evil One, not at first _in propria persona_, but under the form of the Saint's disciple Hilarion, who at first acts as usher to the various elements of the Temptation-Pageant, and at last reveals himself by treacherous suggestions of unbelief. The pageant itself is of wonderful variety. After a vividly drawn sketch of the hermitage in the Thebaid, the drama starts with the more vulgar and direct incitements to the coarser Deadly Sins and others--Gluttony, Avarice, Ambition, Luxury. Then Hilarion appears and starts theological discussion, whence arises a new series of actual visions--the excesses of the heretics, the degradation of martyrdom itself, the Eastern theosophies, the monstrous cults of Paganism. After this, Hilarion tries a sort of Modernism, contrasting the contradictions and absurdities of actual religions with a more and more atheistic Pantheism. This failing, the Temptation reverts to the moral forms, Death and Vice contending for Anthony and bidding against each other. The next shift of the kaleidoscope is to semi-philosophical fantasies--the Sphinx, the Chimaera, basilisks, unicorns, microscopic mysteries. The Saint is nearly bewildered into blasphemy; but at last the night wanes, the sun rises, and the face of Christ beams from it. The Temptation is ended.[398]

The magnificence of the style, in which the sweep of this dream-procession over the stage is conveyed to the reader, is probably the first thing that will strike him; and certainly it never palls. But, if not at once, pretty soon, any really critical mind must perceive something different from, and much rarer than, mere style. It is the extraordinary power--the exactness, finish, and freedom from any excess or waste labour, of the narrative, in reproducing dream-quality. A very large proportion--and there is nothing surprising in the fact--of the best pieces of ornate prose in French, as well as in English, are busied with dreams; but the writers have not invariably remembered one of the most singular--and even, when considered from some points of view, disquieting--features of a dream,--that you are never, while dreaming, in the least surprised at what happens. Flaubert makes no mistake as to this matter. The real realism which had enabled him to re-create the most sordid details of _Madame Bovary_, the half-historic grime and gorgeousness mixed of _Salammbo_, and the quintessentially ordinary life of _L'Education_, came mightily to his assistance in this his Vision of the Desert. You see and hear its external details as Anthony saw and heard them: you almost feel its internal influence as if Hilarion had been--as if he _was_--at your side.


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