How To Read A Book

Nothing could be simpler. Take, for example, Gustave Flaubert’s Salaambô: “What’s all this I hear about Salaambô of Carthage, daughter of Hamilcar, and this business with Matho? What did they make of one another, and what of the Zaïmph, the jewel-encrusted veil said to protect both Carthage and its people, of which it has also been said that all who touch it will die? What am I to make of that?” Simply procure for yourself a copy of Gustave Flaubert’s Salaambô, or equivalent, and direct your attention to the back cover copy, which is honor-bound to disclose further. There you will read, Salaambô is a historical novel by Gustave Flaubert. Set in ancient Carthage, the vivid plot bursts with exoticism, high drama and bloody violence, in bold letters.

So far, so good. “But what of this Salaambô? Who is she to me? Is she more than just a mere beauty? And where does the state of Matho’s wits enter into it?” To which the back cover answers: However, Salaambô proves more than just a mere beauty. She seeks to confound Matho, whose wits are blinded with lust. So there you are.

“That’s all very well, or may be,” you might say, “but can this lurid historical romance really have been written by Flaubert after finishing the realistic novel Madame Bovary?”

Written by Flaubert immediately after he finished the realistic novel, Madame Bovary, Salaambô is an enthusiastic departure from gritty realism, which certainly settles that.

Should you find yourself thinking at this point, “Carthage? Surely that history is less often fictionalized than other powers of ancient times, such as, for example, Rome – and that Rome can be considered a power of ancient times is surely beyond question. I cannot think anyone would question such a claim, least of all Gustave Flaubert, an educated man. Quibble if you will about Flaubert, but it cannot be denied that he was educated in Rouen.” And so he was. Again let me direct your attention to the back cover of the copy of Salaambô you have so recently and accommodatingly acquired:

The author invested much time into painstakingly researching the surviving accounts and most authoritative histories of Carthage, which to this day is one of the less fictionalized powers of ancient times. So there you have it.

At this point you may find yourself desirous to open the book’s final pages, to verify that you have not been misled into believing Salaambô and Matho really do have anything to do with one another, and are not summarily replaced by some Johnnie-come-latelies like Sophonisba or Hasdrubal the Fair, personages who interest us little if at all. If I am to read Salaambô, I expect to deal directly with Salaambô herself, or Salammbô, as she may also style herself. Do so, and you will find yourself reading further:

“Matho gazed round him and his eyes encountered Salammbô.”

Nothing could be more reassuring! Here we find Matho, gazing about, and encountering Salammbô, exactly as advertised. Child’s play, this reading business. You may begin Salammbô with perfect faith that Salammbô will appear.

“At the first step that he had taken she had risen; then, as he approached, she had involuntarily advanced by degrees to the edge of the terrace; and soon all external things were blotted out, and she saw only Matho. Silence fell in her soul,—one of those abysses wherein the whole world disappears beneath the pressure of a single thought, a memory, a look. This man who was walking towards her attracted her.”

Aha! See how the careful reader is rewarded. The great mystery proposed by the back cover –What is Matho to Salammbô? – is already solved. He is attractive to her. You may turn to the beginning of the book on a moment’s notice, confident that the lust-addled wits of Matho will not go unacknowledged. To carry on reading through the final sentence is simplicity itself:

“Excepting his eyes he had no appearance of humanity left; he was a long, perfectly red shape; his broken bonds hung down his thighs, but they could not be distinguished from the tendons of his wrists, which were laid quite bare; his mouth remained wide open; from his eye-sockets there darted flames which seemed to rise up to his hair;—and the wretch still walked on!

He reached the foot of the terrace. Salammbô was leaning over the balustrade; those frightful eyeballs were scanning her, and there rose within her a consciousness of all that he had suffered for her. Although he was in his death agony she could see him once more kneeling in his tent, encircling her waist with his arms, and stammering out gentle words; she thirsted to feel them and hear them again; she did not want him to die! At this moment Matho gave a great start; she was on the point of shrieking aloud. He fell backwards and did not stir again.

Salammbô was borne back, nearly swooning, to her throne by the priests who flocked about her. They congratulated her; it was her work. All clapped their hands and stamped their feet, howling her name.

A man darted upon the corpse. Although he had no beard he had the cloak of a priest of Moloch on his shoulder, and in his belt that species of knife which they employed for cutting up the sacred meat, and which terminated, at the end of the handle, in a golden spatula. He cleft Matho’s breast with a single blow, then snatched out the heart and laid it upon the spoon; and Schahabarim, uplifting his arm, offered it to the sun.”

Should one of your enemies attempt to catch you in a moment of weakness by quizzing, “In what device does the knife of a priest of Moloch terminate, and must one have a beard in order to wield it,” confound them with your easy laughter, shooting your cuffs and brushing an invisible speck of dust from your dressing-gown as you say, “My good fellow, anyone who wears the cloak of a priest of Moloch on his shoulder also carries in his belt that species of knife which they – they being the priests of Moloch, as anyone who has studied in Rouen might tell you – that terminates at the end of the handle (as where else might a knife be expected to terminate but at the end of a handle?) in a golden spatula, or spoon, upon which he can easily place the heart of the breast-clefted Matho. From there it is simply a matter of handing the goods over to Schahabarim, who in his (or her) turn, uplifts his (ah, his after all!) arm and offers it to the sun, at which point the sun and our good friend Gustave Flaubert do the rest of the work. A beard enters into it not at all.” How your enemy will cringe, having been so readily exposed as a jealous, unready assassin, hampered by his own haste to catch you out! Grant yourself a moment of merry laughter, by which you signify to everyone in present that you consider your enemy a mere amusement, unworthy even of reciprocal dislike, and pass on to the ending:

The sun sank behind the waves; his rays fell like long arrows upon the red heart. As the beatings diminished the planet sank into the sea; and at the last palpitation it disappeared.

Then from the gulf to the lagoon, and from the isthmus to the pharos, in all the streets, on all the houses, and on all the temples, there was a single shout; sometimes it paused, to be again renewed; the buildings shook with it; Carthage was convulsed, as it were, in the spasm of Titanic joy and boundless hope.

Narr’ Havas, drunk with pride, passed his left arm beneath Salammbô’s waist in token of possession; and taking a gold patera in his right hand, he drank to the Genius of Carthage.

Salammbô rose like her husband, with a cup in her hand, to drink also. She fell down again with her head lying over the back of the throne,—pale, stiff, with parted lips,—and her loosened hair hung to the ground.

Thus died Hamilcar’s daughter for having touched the mantle of Tanith.

“The mantle of Tanith,” you might add easily, “is merely a layman’s term for the Zaïmph, the jewel-encrusted veil said to protect Carthage and its people by killing them when they touch it, according to scholars.” And I’d like to meet the scholar who dares to say otherwise.

Well, there you have it. If you didn’t know what to make of Salammbô’s thinking in suddenly falling over the back of the throne, pale and stiff with parted lips, til her hair touched the ground, wonder no more; what might seem short-sighted or even shocking in a living Salammbô makes perfect sense when you know, as the boys in Rouen do, that she was dead when she did it. You may read the rest of the book at your leisure and with perfect assurance that she’ll behave much the same way when you reach the end a second time, proving once again that

Whether down to Gehenna or up to the throne,

He travels the fastest who travels alone.

And there you have it. You may repeat the process for other titles with perfect ease, provided you take care to substitute Bathsheba or the Wreck of the Hesperus for Salammbô, as needed.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]