Violets and Other Tales/Salammbo
Like unto the barbaric splendor, the clashing of arms, the flashing of jewels, so is this book, full of brightness that dazzles, yet does not weary, of rich mosaic beauty of sensuous softness. Yet, with it all, there is a singular lack of elevation of thought and expression; everything tends to degrade, to drag the mind to a worse than earthly level. The crudity of the warriors, the minute description of the battles, the leper, Hann; even the sensual love-scene of Salammbo and Matho, and the rites of Taint and Moloch. Possibly this is due to the peculiar shortness and crispness of the sentences, and the painstaking attention to details. Nothing is left for the imagination to complete. The slightest turn of the hand, the smallest bit of tapestry and armor,—all, all is described until one's brain becomes weary with the scintillating flash of minutia. Such careful attention wearies and disappoints, and sometimes, instead of photographing the scenes indelibly upon the mental vision, there ensues only a confused mass of armor and soldiers, plains and horses.
But the description of action and movement are incomparable, resembling somewhat, in the rush and flow of words, the style of Victor Hugo; the breathless rush and fire, the restrained passion and fury of a master-hand.
Throughout the whole book this peculiarity is noticeable—there are no dissertations, no pauses for the author to express his opinions, no stoppages to reflect,—we are rushed onward with almost breathless haste, and many times are fain to pause and re-read a sentence, a paragraph, sometimes a whole page. Like the unceasing motion of a column of artillery in battle, like the roar and fury of the Carthaginian's elephant, so is the torrent of Flanbert's eloquence—majestic, grand, intense, with nobility, sensuous, but never sublime, never elevating, never delicate.
As an historian, Flanbert would have ranked high—at least in impartiality. Not once in the whole volume does he allow his prejudices, his opinions, his sentiments to crop out. We lose complete sight of the author in his work. With marvellous fidelity he explains the movements, the vices and the virtues of each party, and with Shakespearean tact, he conceals his identity, so that we are troubled with none of that Byronic vice of 'dipping one's pen into one's self.'
Still, for all the historian's impartiality, he is just a trifle incorrect, here and there—the ancients mention no aqueduct in or near Carthage. Hann was not crucified outside of Tunis. The incident of the Carthaginian women cutting off their tresses to furnish strings for bows and catapults is generally conceded to have occurred during the latter portion of the third Punic War. And still another difficulty presents itself—Salammbo was supposed to have been the only daughter of Hamilcar; according to Flanbert she dies unmarried, or rather on her wedding day, and yet historians tell us that after the death of the elder Barca, Hannibal was brought up and watched over by Hamilcar's son-in-law, Hasdrubal. Can it be possible that the crafty Numidian King, Nari Havas, is the intrepid, fearless and whole-souled Hasdrubal? Or is it only another deviation from the beaten track of history? In a historical novel, however, and one so evidently arranged for dramatic effects, such lapses from the truth only heighten the interest and kindle the imagination to a brighter flame.
The school of realism of which Zola, Tolstoi, De Maupassant, and others of that ilk are followers, claims its descent from the author of Salammbo. Perhaps their claim is well-founded, perhaps not; we are inclined to believe that it is, for every page in this novel is crowded with details, often disgusting, which are generally left out in ordinary works. The hideous deformity, the rottenness and repulsiveness of the leper Hann is brought out in such vivid detail that we sicken and fain would turn aside in disgust. But go where one will, the ghastly, quivering, wretched picture is always before us in all its filth and splendid misery. The reeking horrors of the battle-fields, the disgusting details of the army imprisoned in the defile of the battle-axe, the grimness of the sacrifices to the blood-thirsty god, Moloch, the wretchedness of Hamilcar's slaves are presented with every ghastly detail, with every degrading trick of expression. Picture after picture of misery and foulness arises and pursues us as the grim witches pursued the hapless Tam O'Shanter, clutching us in ghastly arms, clinging to us with grim and ghoulish tenacity.
Viewing the character through the genteel crystal of nineteenth century civilization, they are all barbarous, unnatural, intensified; but considering the age in which they lived—the tendencies of that age, the gods they worshipped, the practices in which they indulged,—they are all true to life, perfect in the depiction of their natures. Spendius is a true Greek, crafty, lying, deceitful, ungrateful. Hamilcar needs no novelist to crystallize his character in words, he always remains the same Hamilcar of history, so it is with Hann; but to Flanbert alone are we indebted for the hideous realism of his external aspect. Matho is a dusky son of Libya,—fierce, passionate, resentful, unbridled in his speech and action, swept by the hot breath of furious love as his native sands are swept by the burning simoon. Salammbo, cold and strange delving deep in the mysticism of the Carthaginian gods, living apart from human passions in her intense love for the goddess, Tanit; Salammbo, in the earnest excess of her religious fervor, eagerly accepting the mission given her by the puzzled Saracharabim; Salammbo, twining the gloomy folds of the python about her perfumed limbs; Salammbo, resisting, then yielding to the fierce love of Matho; Salammbo, dying when her erstwhile lover expires; Salammbo, in all her many phases reminds us of some early Christian martyr or saint, though the sweet spirit of the Great Teacher is hidden in the punctual devotion to the mysterious rites of Tanit. She is an inexplicable mixture of the tropical exotic and the frigid snow-flower,—a rich and rare growth that attracts and repulses, that interests and absorbs, that we admire—without loving, detest—without hating.