Tuesday, August 25, 2009

231. The Temptation of St. Anthony – Gustave Flaubert

June 2009
History: Author Gustave Flaubert spent practically his whole life fitfully working on, in three versions he completed in 1849, 1856 (extracts published at the same time) and 1872 before publishing the final version in 1874. The Temptation of St Anthony is an often-repeated subject in history of art and literature, concerning the supernatural temptation reportedly faced by Saint Anthony the Great during his sojourn in the Egyptian desert. It is written in the form of a play script. It details one night in the life of Anthony the Great where Anthony is faced with great temptations, and it was inspired by the painting by Hieronymus Bosch , which he saw at the Balbi Palace in Genoa. It was this work, rather than his better known Madame Bovary, that Flaubert considered his masterwork.
Plot: Anthony, a monk, goes out to the desert to meditate, gets tempted. But what temptations! Flaubert pulls out all the stops in a decadent, phantasmagorical, hallucinatory, excessively brilliant novel. While the book is written like a play, it is clearly a novel, since staging this would be impossible.
Our benighted monk gets tempted by all manner of beasts, demons, and sexy ladies, while the reader is treated to a panoply of cults, heresies, and sects, fighting for his attention.
Review: This is a work that should not be neglected by those interested in Flaubert or by lovers of French Literature. It's format resembles an old-fashioned cyclorama, which was basically a revolving canvas, portraying various interpretive images to an audience that would be seated in the middle of a room. Or it may recall the same period's "magic lantern" which would produce a similar effect, projecting a series of images on a flat wall, the precursor of modern cinema.
Flaubert ushered in an entirely new sensibility to the world of letters. He reinvented the concept of the literary artist as word-and world shaper. The word is the world and vice-versa. No writer ever engaged in such a Herculean struggle to shape every word, every sentence, every image, every assonance or consonance to perfectly conform to his intention.
Flaubert engaged in a kind of ascetisism his entire adult life, which is hardly news, but is central to an understanding of this work and to his attraction towards St. Anthony for a protagonist. Flaubert was for many years a kind of hermit in his study at Croisset, where he retired to his study to read books and write novels. He had contact with his mother and adopted niece and wrote letters to a mistress (Louise Collet, and later to George Sand) along with a few male friends. He would make brief sojourns into Paris, but for the most part, stayed to himself in his provincial hideaway. What he dreamt of there, besides his most famous works (Madame Bovary and L'Education Sentimentale) were reveries such as this novel and Salammbo, another book set in the Near-East and equally evocative in terms of his treatment of that region's sensual and Byzantine richness.
"The Temptation" sparkles with some of Flaubert's most carefully and lovingly constructed imagery. It is the author's own homage to the fertility of his imagination. He never fathered a child literally that we know of, but this work and Salammbo were his ways of saying that he was fertile in all other respects. Each passing personage or creature is a seed sewn by this father of imagery. To actually enjoy this book, one would need to have knowledge of the characters in the bible, greek mythology, and other cultural mythological adventures and imagery.
Opening Line: “The setting is the Thebald, high on a mountain, where a platform curves to a half-moon, shut in by large boulders.”
Closing Line: “Anthony makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.”
Quotes: “At the edge of a cliff the old palm tree with its tuft of yellow leaves becomes the torso of a woman, leaning over the abyss, her long hair floating.”
Rating: Okay.

1 comment:

  1. The temptation of Anthony is also a contemporary painting by Belgian artist Jan Theuninck : http://www.flickr.com/photos/26915283@N07/3877985781/