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Volume 39, Number 5September/October 1988

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Flaubert in Tunisia

Written by Edward Fox
Photographed by Miriam Schottland

The story begins in 1858 in a dark, grand stone house, since demolished, on a bank of the Seine in the Normandy village of Croisset. It is January; the weather is awful. The novelist Gustave Flaubert, shut off from the world behind a mountain of arcane books, is seeking solace from the ailments that have been afflicting him by complaining of them in a letter to a friend. It has been a difficult, frustrating winter.

The author of the celebrated, scandalous novel Madame Bovary has withdrawn from the social attractions that Paris has offered him since the publication of his book and his subsequent trial and acquittal on an indecency charge.

Now he is trying to write his next novel, which ultimately - after several name changes - will be called Salammbô. It will be a historical novel based on an obscure episode in history: the revolt, in the third century BC, of a group of mercenaries of mixed race and nationality against the Punic state of Carthage. Flaubert has already read 100 books that touch on the subject, but the writing is not going well.

He continues to read, searching for the spark of truth that will bring the story to life. In Paris, the rumor is going about that Flaubert, "the hermit of Croisset," sees no one at all except his servant Narcisse, who comes to his study once a week to announce, "Monsieur, today is Sunday."

"When will this be finished? I don't know," he writes in exasperation to Leroyer de Chantpie, a well-born lady with literary aspirations who was the frequent recipient of his letters during this period. "For the past five months I've been in a pitiable moral condition, and if I carry on like this, the thing won't be finished in 20 years."

Flaubert has never met Leroyer de Chantpie face-to-face, yet their correspondence is candid and intimate. She began writing to him after the publication of Madame Bovary; Flaubert uses his replies to her to express what he cannot say to those he knows better. She is the first to be told what he intends to do to break out of his deadlock over Salammbô: He will visit the land where the novel is set, the country that has kept his head bowed low over his books, to give life to the facts that he has been painstakingly accumulating over the past months. At this stage in the writing of Salammbô he needs to rekindle the idea of the book - an extraordinary synthesis of a romantic European conception of "the East" and a darker fascination with the power and violence of an ancient civilization. By going to Tunisia - even the beylical Tunisia of 1858 - he could see what his imagination cannot supply. The very idea of travel perks him up.

I absolutely must make a trip to Africa; so, toward the end of March I'll return to the land of dates. I'm thrilled at the prospect. Once again I'll live on horseback and sleep under a tent. What deep breaths of air I'll treat myself to when I board my ship at Marseilles! But this trip will be a short one. I need only to go to El Kef, and explore the environs of Carthage within a radius of 30 leagues [75 miles], in order to acquaint myself thoroughly-with the landscapes I'll be describing. My outline is done, and I'm a third of the way through the second chapter. The book will have 15. As you see, I've barely begun. Under the best of circumstances, I'll not be finished for two years.

Flaubert made his last trip abroad eight years earlier, when he set out on his famous two-year sojourn in the Middle East and southern Europe with his friend Maxime du Camp. That experience has sown in Flaubert's imagination ideas and impressions that he will develop in overwhelming richness in Salammbô.

But the man who sets off in the middle of April for "the land of dates" is very different from the gallant bon viveur who galloped through the desert in impatience to see the Sphinx, consorted with courtesans along the Nile, and ate dromedary in Damascus. Although only 37, he seems like an old man. He is cranky and self-absorbed; numerous medical problems afflict him; he suffers from epilepsy and a long-established case of syphilis. To treat the latter, he has been swallowing poisonous doses of mercury which are making his hair and teeth fall out. He has a paunch from sedentary living, and his nerves are fragile from the strain of his illnesses, his long hours of perfectionist literary work, and the emotional stress imposed upon him by his mother. "I want to take the air for six weeks," he writes to his friend Louis Bouilhet, "and, frankly, I need it."

Flaubert was always melancholy at the outset of a journey. He grew attached to wherever he happened to be, like the bivalve that squeaks when it is plucked from its rock. He left Croisset without ceremony and made his way by train to Marseilles, where he would take a boat to North Africa.

As Flaubert's life became more bookish, he became nostalgic. He lived in a cloud of pipe smoke and memories, and in Marseilles he spent a few days drifting from café to café, smoking, wrapped in the comforts of solitude. In his notebook he wrote, "In the past few weeks I've barely exchanged 10 words."

On board the ship that brought him to Tunis, after stops at the Algerian ports of Philippeville and Constantine, he stayed up all night, despite "dullness and headaches," transfixed by anticipation and the beauty of the starry Mediterranean sky.

Though they were joined by the common history and culture of the Maghrib, Algeria and Tunisia were quite dissimilar countries. Algeria had been under French military occupation since 1830, and French civilian colonies were being established. Algeria, "the bodyguard of the west," Flaubert wrote, had "a strong odor of absinthe and the barracks."

Tunisia was a luckier country. Although it too eventually fell under French domination, it was never colonized. At this time Tunisia was a nominally independent principality, ruled by a bey who paid homage - but not much else - to the Ottoman sultan. The bey at the time of Flaubert's visit was Muhammad ibn Husayn, whose main task was to fend off the impending economic disaster caused by corrupt ministers and the political maneuvers of the European consuls, who were becoming increasingly powerful in Tunisian domestic affairs.

The French celebrate literary accomplishment unlike any other people; the success of Madame Bovary opened doors to Flaubert wherever he went, and its fame had penetrated the closed world of powerful Europeans in Tunisia. Flaubert had access to the upper reaches of the Tunisian establishment; his notebook records dinners with the English consul in Tunis, and the French deputy consul.

But Flaubert was more interested in what he saw in the streets of Tunis than in the drawing rooms above them. He stayed at the Hotel de France (now long gone) near the madina. In the narrow streets and markets of the old city he saw the kind of dusty, ragged life that had appealed to him in Egypt. The noted Palestinian-American critic Edward Said has suggested, in Orientalism, that Flaubert's descriptions of such scenes reveal more about Flaubert than they do about the Middle East at the time of his visit. And indeed, Flaubert liked the street life he saw because it reflected his own belief in the grotesqueness and insignificance of human life as a whole. To Flaubert, aesthete and romantic, art alone was long, and life generally nasty, brutish and short. A snake charmer - one of the clichés of the orientalist viewpoint - captivated Flaubert in Tunis:

He pulled from a bag two snakes with very flat heads. Opposite him, a tambourine player and a fife player; a child danced, or rather leaped, and the old man shouted, gestured, stuck out his tongue and imitated the swaying of the snakes...."

Flaubert's visit coincided with the holy month of Ramadan. He did not seem to notice the fasting of the Muslim population during the day, but he was aware of the festivities at night. Then, the streets were jammed with people, musical groups played in the cafés and the minarets were illuminated by oil lamps.

After a few days in Tunis, he set off on horseback to Carthage. He rode to the top of the hill of Byrsa, site of the Punic acropolis. Byrsa, with its ruins and broken statuary, commands a stunning view of the lake and city of Tunis, the Mediterranean and the countryside inland.

Seeing this site with his own eyes brought all of Flaubert's scholarship to life. This is how, through the prism of his powerful historical imagination, Flaubert described the hill in Salammbô:

The Acropolis hill, in the center of Byrsa, was covered over with a litter of monuments. There were temples with twisted pillars, bronze capitals, and metal chains, cones of dry stone with azure stripes, copper cupolas, marble architraves, Babylonian buttresses, obelisks balancing on their points like upturned torches. Peristyles reached to pediments; scrolls unfolded between colonnades; granite walls supported tile partitions; in all this one thing was piled on another, half-hiding it, in a marvelous and unintelligible way. There was a feeling of successive ages and, as it were, memories of forgotten lands.

Carthage is usually seen at night in Flaubert's novel. Indeed, modern Carthage on a summer evening has a magic that suggests Flaubert's imaginary city, a mood created by the intense purple of bougainvillea bushes, the perfume of gardens, and the soughing of the sea nearby, all under canopies of palm branches that nearly cover the broad streets of what is now a quiet, affluent suburb of Tunis.

The same mood inspires this description of Carthage, among the most powerful in the novel. Spendius and Matho, the leaders of the uprising against Carthage, are on the terrace of the palace at Megara, at present day La Marsa, a few kilometers from Carthage on the coast, looking toward the city:

An immense mass of shadow lay spread out before them, containing vague crests that looked like the gigantic waves of a petrified black ocean.

But a bar of light rose up in the East. On the left, right down below, the canals of Megara began to wind their white coils across the greenery of the gardens. The conical roofs of the heptagonal temples, the stairs, terraces, ramparts, gradually took shape against the pale dawn; and all round the Carthaginian peninsula pulsed a girdle of white foam while the emerald-colored sea seemed frozen in the cool of the morning. Then as the rosy sun spread wider, the tall houses tilted on the slopes of the ground grew taller and massed together like a flock of black goats coming down from the mountains. The empty streets lengthened out; palm-trees, rising out of the walls here and there, did not stir; the full water-tanks looked like silver shields abandoned in the courtyards, the lighthouse on the Hermaeum promontory began to grow pale. On the very top of the Acropolis, in the cypress wood, Eschmoun's horses, feeling the approach of day, put their hooves on the marble parapet and whinnied towards the sun.

The description is impressive not only for its beauty but also because so much of what Flaubert described was reconstructed from his reading. The Romans, after all, saw to it that Carthage would be a disappointment for all future visitors by leveling it thoroughly in 146 BC. Moreover, the scant remains were only partly excavated at the time of Flaubert's visit.

One of the grisliest parts of Salammbô is the scene in which, besieged and starving, the people of Carthage conclude that their plight is due to the anger of the gods, whom they then set about to propitiate by sacrificing their children. The chapter in which the Carthaginian soldiers gather up the children of the city and carry them to a fiery death is one of several that have led readers of Salammbô to turn away from its manifest sadism. Until 1921 no archeological evidence for this gruesome practice existed, but today the museum at Carthage contains exhibits that describe it in detail. It was also described by historian Diodorus Siculus in a passage that Flaubert certainly read:

When they had given thought to these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honors of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected 200 of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than 300.

Recent excavations in Carthage have shown that in fact one child was sacrificed roughly every day for three centuries. Flaubert did not exaggerate here; there was indeed darkness at the heart of Carthaginian civilization.

Nineteenth-century prints of Carthage evoke an atmosphere that the present tidy appearance of the place has eclipsed. They show a dismal configuration of rocks facing the sea, a lonely scene of desolation and sadness. Today these gloomy sites have been turned into gardens, with potted plants and benches: charming but not the same. Flaubert enjoyed his visits to Carthage enormously. A week after his first visit there, he wrote to Louis Bouilhet, "I know Carthage thoroughly and at every hour of the day and night. I've collected some seashells for you from the beach...."

Later, he visited Sidi Bou Said, La Marsa and Utica. He summarized these excursions in a letter to his friend Ernest Feydeau:

It's very good of you to write to me, but I'm exhausted, and unless you long for my death don't ask for letters. This week I was at Utica, and I spent four entire days at Carthage, from eight to fourteen hours on horseback every day. At five this afternoon, I leave in a caravan for Bizerta, riding a mule; I scarcely have time to make notes. Don't worry about me: there's nothing to be afraid of in Tunisia. The worst of the inhabitants hang around the city gates; it isn't a good idea to frequent those regions at night, but I think the European residents here are egregious cowards. I discharged my dragoman [guide and translator] because he was similarly afflicted, trembling at every bush.

I miss you greatly. You'd enjoy it here - we'd enjoy it together. The sky is splendid. At evening and in the morning the lake of Tunis is covered with flocks of flamingoes: when they fly off they're like a mass of little pink and black clouds....

I shall probably leave here for Constantine by land - it is feasible - with two of the Bey's horsemen. At the [Algerian] frontier, four days from here, the commanding officer at Souk Ahras will give me some men to take me to Constantine. This journey is easier going from Tunis to Constantine than from Constantine to Tunis, yet few Europeans have done it, so far. In this way, I'll have seen all the places I'll be writing about in my book.

As soon as Salammbô was published, a controversy broke out over the historical accuracy of the novel. A precocious 27-year-old German scholar, Guillaume Froehner, in a long pedantic letter to the Paris literary journal Revue Contemporaine, found fault after fault in Flaubert's scholarship. In a highly entertaining feat of literary fencing, Flaubert defended himself point for point, and stylishly prevailed over his adversary, finishing him off with flourishes of sarcasm marked by elaborate courtesy. "If I have not been 'better guided'," he wrote, "it is because I have not had the honor, the advantage, of knowing you: forgive me!"

But in a letter to the important literary critic Saint-Beuve, Flaubert admitted that he had taken a liberty with history by admitting a considerable anachronism into Salammbô. This anachronism is one of the pivotal elements of the novel: The plot would capsize without it. Spendius, the rebel leader, cuts a hole in the aqueduct that carries fresh water into Carthage, depriving the Carthaginians of their only source of water.

"Suddenly," Flaubert narrates, "a cataract, a whole river fell from the sky onto the plain. The aqueduct, cut in the middle, was gushing out. It meant death for Carthage, victory for the Barbarians.

Remains of the Roman aqueducts that led water into Carthage from the surrounding countryside are still visible in modern Carthage, particularly in the area around the Bardo Palace, which Flaubert visited. Although they were built long after the Punic period, Flaubert introduced them into his novel. "No question," he wrote to Saint-Beuve, "my aqueduct is an evasion. Confiteorl [I confess!]"

Froehner didn't notice - and Flaubert didn't admit to - numerous other farfetched borrowings which form the imaginative fabric of Salammbô: the elements of ancient Egyptian religion, for example, incorporated into the Carthaginian scenes.

After Carthage, Flaubert traveled to Bizerta, where he met a French priest whose congregation was so small - only four members - that he had plenty of time to cultivate his own interests. He kept silkworms, and had eaten "lion, jackal, panther and hyena: he claims that lion is excellent fare," Flaubert noted. Ever the assiduous devotee of detail, Flaubert recorded in his notebook, "Silkworms sleep with heads raised." As always, he hated to leave: "More people and places I will never see again!"

On his return to Tunis, Flaubert witnessed the ceremony of the kissing of the bey's hand. The invitations to royal functions in Paris, which had come in the wake of Madame Bovanfs success, had simultaneously intrigued and repelled him. The same mixed sentiments made him attentive to court ritual in Tunisia, yet removed from it, and he was not impressed by Muhammad Bey. To him this ritual of homage was a pantomime designed to make a weak ruler look strong for the few minutes it lasted. Flaubert saw through the pomp a weary man who was the puppet of those bowing before him.

The Bey appears and sits on his chair of fishbone; a sword and pistols are behind him, with his snuffbox and his handkerchief. Tired figure, stupid, graying, heavy eyelids, drunken look in his eye, he disappears amid the gold leaf and the [medals]. Each, in a line, one after the other, comes and kisses the inside of his hand, while his elbow rests on a cushion. Almost all give two kisses: one kiss, then they touch the tip of the hand to their foreheads, then a second kiss to finish.

In the year of Flaubert's visit the Tunisian economy, dominated and manipulated by European interests, came close to collapse. Since the foreign merchants received gold and silver for their imports, these metals traveled only in one direction: out of the country. By 1858 all the gold and silver coins had disappeared from circulation, and the copper coins which the bey ordered minted in large quantities were rejected by the merchants. The bey was forced to take out a huge loan, which made him even more dependent on the foreign consuls. These were plainly the last days of the Husaynid rulers.

As he had written to Ernest Feydeau, Flaubert traveled west by land before returning to France by ship from Constantine. His descriptions, in Salammbô, of the countryside through which the mercenaries pass on the way to Sicca, now called El Kef, could be scenes of 19th-century - or indeed even 20th-century - Tunisia.

Then farmland became more scattered. They found themselves suddenly in belts of sand, bristling with prickly plants. Flocks of sheep grazed among the stones; a woman, with a blue fleece around her waist, was tending them.

Then appears one of the most stunning images in the book: The soldiers come upon a line of decomposing lions, crucified on wooden crosses.

Flaubert frequently refers to lions in his travel notes, although he never seems to have seen one. He came to Tunisia fired with the thought that lions still roamed the mountainous area of North Africa. While traveling to El Kef, he admiringly noted that he had met a lion hunter who claimed to have killed 32 of them.

In El Kef, with his usual interest in Roman hydraulics, he noted details of the cisterns that held the spring water that still supplies the town.

Later, in a nomad camp, he recalled his first night at the Pyramids, and found himself overwhelmed by a feeling of joy he could not explain. His deeper instincts, perhaps, were telling him that the trip had been a success.

Within a few days, he was back in France, rushing about to visit the friends he had missed so ardently. Later he returned to the solitude of his study. The burden had been lifted, and Flaubert saw the work that lay before him. In a letter to Leroyer de Chantpie soon after his return he wrote,

"Everything I had done on my novel has to be done over: I was on the wrong track entirely. So it turns out that a little over a year since I first had the idea for the book, and after working hard on it most of that time, I am still only at the beginning."

He finished the book four years later. Although faint-hearted critics expressed misgivings, Salammbô was an enormous popular success. The composer Hector Berlioz visited Flaubert several times to discuss making it into an opera, but the opera was never written. The grandeur of Salammbô could never be translated to the stage, even by a Berlioz. Salammbô can only be contained on the grandest stage of all: the mind of the attentive reader.

Edward Fox writes for U.S. and British magazines and holds a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Columbia University. He recently visited Tonga to write a profile of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.

This article appeared on pages 28-36 of the September/October 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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