Of the three books that Gustave Flaubert was able to write only after a lengthy cohabitation with his sources, Bouvard et Pécuchet is by some way the most approachable. The other two are exhibition pieces, admirable for their form but keeping their distance, full as they are of the rare knowledge he had come to by his reading. In La Tentation de Saint Antoine, the desert-dwelling anchorite of that name - an antisocial paragon to whom Flaubert felt sufficiently drawn to go on writing and rewriting the book for thirty years - endures a punishing series of night-time intrusions from various biblical, classical and other phantasmal interlocutors, until the sun comes up and the saint can go back to his solitary prayers. In Salammbô, a novel set in Carthage in the third century BC, Flaubert re-creates the décor of the city, its mores and its bloody goings-on so attentively that the setting comes to seem the main reason for the book's existence. When the great critic of the day, Sainte-Beuve, faulted it for historical implausibilities, he received a surprisingly temperate ticking-off from its author, who quoted the scholarly authorities he had relied on to demonstrate that he knew more and better about Hamilcar's home-town than did his dilettante critic.
LRB 7 September 2006 | PDF Download