The Temptation of St. Anthony

by John Holbo on August 27, 2017

Today I read Gustave Flaubert’s novel, The Temptation of St. Anthony in the Lafcadio Hearn translation. It’s a bit different from, say, Madame Bovary. I don’t think it’s just Hearn’s translation that seems to be aimed at the Weird Tales market.

Hearn likes ‘nacreous’ (much like Clark Ashton Smith).

The view to right and left is broken by the barrier of rocks. But on the desert-side, like a vast succession of sandy beaches, immense undulations of an ashen-blonde color extend one behind the other, rising higher as they recede; and far in the distance, beyond the sands, the Libyan chain forms a chalk-colored wall, lightly shaded by violet mists. On the opposite side the sun is sinking. In the north the sky is of a pearl-gray tint, while at the zenith purple clouds disposed like the tufts of a gigantic mane, lengthen themselves against the blue vault. These streaks of flame take darker tones; the azure spots turn to a nacreous pallor; the shrubs, the pebbles, the earth, all now seem hard as bronze; and throughout space there floats a golden dust so fine as to become confounded with the vibrations of the light.

Later: “The splendour of her body makes a nacreous-tinted halo of bright light about her.”

And again later (different lady): “It is a skull, crowned with roses, dominating the torso of a woman nacreously white. Below, a shroud starred with specks of gold forms something like a tail; and the whole body undulates, after the fashion of a gigantic worm erect on end.”

There are more Cimmerians from beyond Thule than in Bovary. And Anthony is tempted with some serious +5 gear.

Dost thou desire the buckler of Dgian-ben-Dgian, who built the pyramids ? — behold it ! — It is formed of seven dragon-skins laid one over the other, tanned in the bile of parricides, and fastened together by adamantine screws. Upon one side are represented all the wars that have taken place since the invention of weapons; and upon the other, all the wars that will take place until the end of the world. The lightning itself rebounds from it like a ball of cork. I am going to place it upon thy arm ; and thou wilt carry it during the chase.

Later we meet Buddha:

None could equal me in the knowledge of the Scriptures, the enumeration of atoms, the conduct of elephants, the working of wax, astronomy, poetry, pugilism, all the exercises and all the arts!

And Oannes:

I dwelt in that formless world where hermaphroditic creatures slumbered, under the weight of an opaque atmosphere, in the deeps of dark waters — when fingers, fins, and wings were blended, and eyes without heads were floating like mollusks, among human-headed bulls, and dog-footed serpents.

We meet people and gods, a whole Monster Manual worth of beasts. The book is quite an astounding work of fantastic fiction.

Then Hilarion tempts Anthony with ‘science’. (I don’t want to give away the ending.)

Two thumbs up!



Adam Roberts 08.27.17 at 4:27 pm

It would be good if there were a books blog, or an as-it-might-be literary organ, where you could post pieces like this.


Ben Alpers 08.27.17 at 5:35 pm

Slightly OT, but the mention of Hearn gives me an occasion to plug Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 anthology horror film that’s based on some of Hearn’s Japanese ghost stories. It’s available in a great Criterion edition and it’s simply one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever seen.


tony in san diego 08.27.17 at 7:50 pm

I have that book on my shelf. I have not read it in probably 40 years. I guess I will pull it down.


Belle Waring 08.27.17 at 11:39 pm

Wow I guess I’m reading it for real. The Legend of St. Julien the Hospitalier is weird but it’s not nearly this weird.


John Holbo 08.27.17 at 11:59 pm

Maybe Crooked Timber, in its old age, can decline into dignified literary organhood, Adam. The future is a long time!

Ben, I know Hearn is mostly known for his Japanese stuff. He seems like quite a character. I really don’t know much about him, although the name – so distinctive – has been rattling around in my head for years. Have there been any other Lafcadio’s except this one, and the lion who shot back?


kidneystones 08.28.17 at 12:19 am

Hi John, thanks for this. Hearn massacres the original for what its worth. From page 2 of Flaubert’s 1885 version (accessible via Google books)

En face, le soleil s’abaisse. Le ciel, dans le nord, est d’une teinte gris perle, tandis qu’au zenith des nuages de pourpre, disposés comme les flacons d’une crinière gigantesque, s’allongent sur la voûte bleue. Ces raies de flamme se rembrunissent, les parties d’azur prennent un pâleur nacrée; les buissons, les cailloux, la terre, tout maintenant parait dur comme du bronze; et dans l’espace flotte une poudre d’or tellement menue qu’elle se confond avec la vibration de la lumière.

Hearn renders as:
…On the opposite side the sun is sinking. In the north the sky is of a pearl-gray tint, while at the zenith purple clouds disposed like the tufts of a gigantic mane, lengthen themselves against the blue vault. These streaks of flame take darker tones; the azure spots turn to a nacreous pallor; the shrubs, the pebbles, the earth all now seem hard as bronze; and throughout space there floats a golden dust so fine as to become confounded with the vibrations of the light.

Hearn translates as a journalist, not a poet, and would have done better to allow Flaubert to guide his hand. From the introduction at your link: “He endeavored never to repeat a word in that page, and tried to force every phrase to respond to a rhythmic law… [citing Maupassant]: Il écoutait la rythme de sa prose…combinait les tons, éloignait les assonances.”

Hearn ignores Flaubert’s precepts and opts instead for word for word translation, rather than remain loyal to mood and sense, to disastrous effect. The cited passage isn’t (too) difficult to read and translate, especially with Hearn’s entirely workable translation as a guide. Love to read what you, Belle, or any brave soul might make of that.


JanieM 08.28.17 at 12:36 am

From Wikipedia, for anyone who, like me, was curious and didn’t know:

His father was stationed in Lefkada during the British occupation of the islands, where he was the highest-ranking surgeon in his regiment. Lafcadio was baptized Patricios Lefcadios Hearn (Πατρίκιος Λευκάδιος Χερν) in the Greek Orthodox Church, but he seems to have been called “Patrick Lefcadio Kassimati Charles Hearn” in English.[2]


Matt 08.28.17 at 12:52 am

I might try to pick this up when I finish my current small stack of fiction. Have you read the source material, _The Life of St. Antony of the Desert_ by Athanasius? It’s already pretty crazy stuff. (I read it for a class many years ago.)


Doug O'Keefe 08.28.17 at 1:22 am

I’d like to plug “Salammbo,” the novel that followed “Bovary,” and which Flaubert described as “an orgy of historical hashish.” It’s got to be the greatest sword-and-sandal epic ever. So good.


John Holbo 08.28.17 at 1:23 am

” Have you read the source material, _The Life of St. Antony of the Desert_ by Athanasius?”

That’s next on my list. I’m actually on an Anthony kick not a Flaubert kick! Although I have a particular use for Flaubert. (Watch this space for a follow-up post!)

Thanks for bothering to check the French, kidneystones. “un pâleur nacrée” I guess nacreous pallor is pretty on the nose, maybe too much so. As you say, he seems to have followed the text mechanically. But I’m not sure what I would substitute. Because, pretty clearly, the author really is going for a quite weird atmosphere. One argument in its favor is that the French were ga-ga for Poe. Flaubert cared very much what Baudelaire thought about his work, and Baudelaire (a facebook friend kindly provided me text to this effect) wrote approvingly about Antoine, although the book was apparently not well-received generally. Translating Flaubert’s Antoine so it sounds like Poe – flamboyant, over-the-top, chewing the nacreous scenery to a pulp, all Weird Tales – is not obviously wrong, although it is not my place to pronounce it alright.


John Holbo 08.28.17 at 1:30 am

Just to be totally clear what I am asking: does Flaubert’s prose here, in the original, seem to competent French speakers to be ‘pulpy’ and flamboyant and all “Weird Tales”?


faustusnotes 08.28.17 at 2:08 am

I lived in Matsue, Japan for a year or two – it’s the town where Lafcadio Hearn lived and wrote some books about Japan. His description of a singing insect market is very nice, and I think a lot of his descriptions of ordinary life in Japan at the time he was there are really well written and valuable. He’s less didactic than Chamberlain and doesn’t write as someone self-consciously trying to interpret Japan for a western audience. Matsue also preserves a lot of things related to his life, and if you’re in Japan it’s worth a visit to Matsue to explore the castle, the small Shinto shrine behind it, and Lafcadio Hearn’s home, which is well preserved and very still and restful. Plus, Matsue has incredibly good food.

I don’t know if I’d trust any of his translations though!


LFC 08.28.17 at 3:09 am

I’m know there are quite a few people on this blog way more qualified than I am to take a stab at translation. (Plus I don’t know much about this particular book by Flaubert or its source material.)

W/ those caveats, for “dans l’espace flotte une poudre d’or tellement menue qu’elle se confond avec la vibration de la lumière,” I’d be inclined to go w/ something like “in space there floats a golden dust so fine that it merges with the shimmering light” (or maybe “the shimmering sunlight”?).

That’s less literal than Hearn’s translation, but perhaps a touch more poetic (for lack of a better word). [and thks to k’stones for the original]


LFC 08.28.17 at 3:10 am

“I know” not “I’m know”


James Wimberley 08.28.17 at 8:22 am

Flaubert is clearly going for Oriental exotism here. He just does it better than Hearn.
“S’allongent” is not “lengthen themselves” but “stretch themselves out”. It’s a word you would use when the location is a sofa ora beach towel.


ThM 08.28.17 at 11:33 am

> Just to be totally clear what I am asking: does Flaubert’s prose here, in the original, seem to competent French speakers to be ‘pulpy’ and flamboyant and all “Weird Tales”?

I can se that, but then so is the description of Rouen in Madame Bovary:


kidneystones 08.28.17 at 11:55 am

@13 Cheers, and three more for a nice effort!
@14 Cheers, James. The reflexive verbs in these cases carry implied agency, yes?. I thought “stretched” the better choice, but in this line a simple “stretched across the blue vault” seems better to me, the ambiguity of agency latent rather than explicit at this point.

I find a similar need for agency in “les parties d’azur prennent un pâleur nacrée” which I might finish as more simply as “the blue acquires the pallor of mother-of-pearl; plants, pebbles, and earth now all seem solid as bronze, and within this space floats a golden mist so fine as to seem inseparable from the shimmering light.”

Good fun!

The image of plants rendered as a still life cast of metal makes a moving contrast to the ethereal gold mist mixing with the evening light. Nature, land, and sky transform themselves before our eyes. The color work in the original is splendid. No risk of confusing Hearn with Whitman. His most notable literary contribution (from the little I know) are his translations of the Japanese which served as inspiration for Pound’s much more successful efforts.


kidneystones 08.28.17 at 12:23 pm

Doubled-up on “seem” in the last line I see, post-edit. That needs to be resolved.

As for John’s question re: pulpy. Part of this is in the eye of the beholder. Some watch Dynasty and discover Tolstoy. 19th-century stories were often serialized and published in magazines (see Dickens, Conrad). French art criticism often appeared first serially and then later as books. I would think practically nobody would describe Flaubert as ‘pulpy’ in terms of style. Content is a different question. The menace you detect in the Temptation flowers in the work of the “decadents” and even Wilde. It is decidedly ‘pulpy’ in Bram Stoker. The appetite for the macabre, of course, is not new or country specific. Some of the more interesting pieces I’ve seen from the 18th-century are mass-market ghost stories from Japan published in manga format. There’s normally plenty of pulp, it just doesn’t usually make it into the canon. Brand, or reputation, mattered. So, whilst Flaubert no doubt enjoyed fart jokes, we wouldn’t expect to find too many in the prose published under his own name.


Peter Hovde 08.28.17 at 3:50 pm

Odilon Redon did a series of illustrations, for extra weird.


Peter Hovde 08.28.17 at 3:55 pm

And here’s Ortberg’s riff on various treatments of the theme:

“DEVIL THE FIRST: ‘The gorgeous women aren’t working, what should we send next to tempt this holy man to forget his vows?’

DEVIL THE SECOND: ‘DEFINITELY a man who is only a head and two very small legs wearing an elaborate turban. If that doesn’t do the trick, I don’t know what will. And also a vole that can read.’

DEVIL THE FIRST: ‘You have such a flair for these things.’



Suzanne 08.28.17 at 4:22 pm

@9:” Salammbô” is great fun. Flaubert worked hard on getting the history right and my guess is he had fun writing it, too. Inevitably the story made its way to opera and movie buffs may recall that poor Susan Alexander of “Citizen Kane” makes her disastrous opera debut in the part (her aria was composed by Bernard Herrmann for the picture).


alfredlordbleep 08.28.17 at 4:44 pm

For us blockheads who welcome a little background:

He aspired to write “a book about nothing, a book with no external attachment…. The most beautiful books are those with the least matter,” he wrote in 1852; and in the same letter he wrote that “from the point of view of Art, there is no such thing as a subject, style being solely in itself an absolute way of seeing things.”

James Wood on Flaubert, TNR 2014

Of course, looking for the decadent in Wilde means steering clear of his plays (and into Dorian).


Z 08.28.17 at 5:03 pm

My contribution to this thread will be to note that the “nuages de pourpre” are not disposed like “les flacons d’une crinière gigantesque” (the flasks of a gigantic mane) but like “les flocons d’une crinière gigantesque” (the tufts of a gigantic mane).

Well that and thanking profusely Peter Hovde for the link.

“THANK YOU. Okay, someone is FINALLY keeping it simple. ONE LADY. ONE TEMPTATION PER SAINT. She’s babely, she’s wearing pink so you know she’s attractive, she has a slit up the thigh so you know she’s good to go, and she has attractive little Satan wings so you know she’s got the Bad Touch.”


Belle Waring 08.29.17 at 12:00 am

I would like to make a personal note here to say that I am one of the few English-speakers to use the word nacreous every day for a time (if only to myself for the most part, since my brother got tired of hearing about it). Leakage created a nacreous deposit at the mouth of the cavernous exit to the Tenleytown metro and every day as I passed on the escalator on my way to school I would think, “that accumulation of minerals is rather nacreous,” or, “nacreous is a great word,” or most frequently the meta-thought, “I have thought of the word nacreous on this spot countless times.” So, that thing.


Matt 08.29.17 at 12:09 am

Leakage created a nacreous deposit at the mouth

As the start of this sentence, I thought it was going to be about a really bad case of post-nasal drip. Or worse.


LFC 08.29.17 at 12:20 am

@B Waring

I’ve exited the Tenleytown metro a number of times (not that many, but enough) and have never thought of the word “nacreous.” Indeed I’m not sure I even knew the word “nacreous” until this thread. And I’m older than you are. (Now it’s true I didn’t go to the boys’ counterpart of NCS — which I believe is your high school alma mater — but still. Anyway you probably didn’t the learn the word in school.)


LFC 08.29.17 at 12:22 am

“didn’t learn the word”
(my typing and proofreading skills are apparently on vacation)


Belle Waring 08.29.17 at 1:34 am

I just learned a lot of words from reading, like most people. Leading to embarrassing mispronunciations as late as college.


kidneystones 08.29.17 at 1:54 am

@ 23. Thanks for the correction. Actually,”flocons” I find the most difficult to render into English and normally refers to the tufts of hair in animal’s tail. As with the English word “mane,” the parts of the “crinière” are infrequently discussed except by biologists. As with English, the parts of the mane are described as hair, or “poils.” We can find 19th-century examples of flocon here

“Tufts” seems to me a deeply unsatisfying compromise simply because I can’t think of a tuft in the context of hair as anything but tiny and feeble, especially in contrast the expansive richness of a powerful lion’s mane. But I can’t come up within anything more workable.

This Celtic stater evokes the sense of what Flaubert is trying to achieve:

Tufts? Uh-uh.


John Holbo 08.29.17 at 2:09 am

I should have been more precise in asking if Flaubert could be deliberately ‘pulpy’ because there’s different flavors of pulp. My idea was (and most people in the thread seem to have gotten it instinctively but let’s be explicit): there’s a weird tales thing of not saying ‘dark and gloomy night’ when you could say ‘tenebrific nocturnalities’. Or at least sprinkling that fancy stuff in. I’m wondering whether, in Flaubert’s Antoine, there is some tendency to favor words that are all look-at-me-I’m-a-weird-word! like that. Because for sure that’s in the Hearn translation. Maybe Hearn is turning it up to 9 (whereas Ashton Clark Smith turns it up to 11); but it’s turned up somewhat past 6 in Flaubert’s original? Asking for a friend.


kidneystones 08.29.17 at 3:12 am

Hi John, I don’t see Flaubert going creepy, or showy, at least in the Weird Tales sense, but you may be right about Hearn turning up the scale.

What you’re observing in Flaubert can be found in Robert Browning’s poetry and the Romantic movement (Byron – Goethe) in general has a very creepy side. Henry Fuseli’s the “Nightmare” is the stuff of nightmares. The tales of the Brothers Grimm (see this 1853 English translation were hugely popular across cultures.

I don’t find any Flaubert taking any particular liberties with language beyond deploying words unusually for poetic effect, or to put a fresh twist on a standard trope.

As noted, essays and fiction, were crafted and sold first to magazine editors. The first obligation of the writer was to hook the reader and then keep the reader coming back. Standards of normality mattered and censorship was in force. The church (yes, that artifact) played a dominant role as arbiter of discourse modes and acceptable social behavior. I realize that’s not directly germane to your question re: style and content. Flaubert was selling stories to the general public, not high-brows, as were Balzac and Dickens. Baudelaire is a different kettle of fish, but even Poe found a market for his horror stories. I’m not sure what the 19th-century term for “cheesy” was in any language, but it’s highly unlikely that any of the authors I read (including those here) would find the term flattering. Flaubert took writing very seriously.

Go back and (re) read Elizabeth Bisland’s short introduction to the Hearn translation. It’s very good.

My own experiences reading 19th-century essayists and modern critics is that the 19th-century critics display much keener critical faculties, particularly on questions of style and technique. The essential Mary Berry is a good case in point. Her pithy writings in English on Paris and France in 1802 open a window like few of her male peers, and certainly no modern critic. The first link will take the interested directly to her departure from England that spring. She traveled with her lifetime friend Anne (Conway) Damer, the equally impressive sculptor.


Belle Waring 08.29.17 at 3:21 am

This is actually a good comments thread you guys I’m so proud of you.


Gabriel 08.29.17 at 4:26 am

Mary Berry is brilliant. And ‘lifetime friend’ here is likely the same coded language as ‘confirmed bachelor’ would be for a man.


kidneystones 08.30.17 at 12:53 am

Cheers, Belle. I really would like to read your, or John’s, reworking of the original, perhaps in different registers?

@33 Hi Gabriel. Yes, “lifetime” companion may well be code for confirmed bachelor. I enjoy Berry so much I re-read thirty, or so, pages from the Berry link. My own focus is 1780-1815. I’m interested in the French exiles and print/propaganda coming out of London, but principally cultural production and consumption before, during, and after the Revolution, especially in Paris.


clew 08.31.17 at 1:25 am

Do the Decadents and the Swedenborgians mix, in influence, or did they find each other oil and water? I think of Swendenborgian highfalutin crystal-cities imagery as a precursor to both SF and fantasy.


Meredith 08.31.17 at 6:34 am

Love this! My short response, French like Latin has a small vocabulary. The subtleties of Flaubert’s usage must be amazing to someone who really knows French.


kidneystones 09.01.17 at 1:58 am

@ 35 The introduction to Karl Beckson’s Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890’s: An Anthology of British Poetry and Prose provides a very fine summary of the genealogy of the Decadent movement. (24 pages and readable in its entirety at Google Books).

@ 36 Agreed! Japanese has a substantially smaller vocabulary, but no prepositions or articles to encumber the line.

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