Flaubert's Salammbo and Historical Imagination of the Russian Symbolists

Dan Ungurianu, University of Missouri

The place of Flaubert's Salammbo (1862) in the development of historical fiction is quite peculiar. On one hand, the novel pays tribute to the dominant realistic paradigm in presenting a "social anatomy" of the mercenaries' mutiny in ancient Carthage. On the other, it continues and in many ways completes the Romantic tradition. Salammbo brings to an extreme the freneticism and ethno-historical exoticism pivotal for the Romantic historical novel. But whereas the Romantics tend to emphasize fictionality of their narrative and often behave like a puppeteer who constantly interrupts the show in order to address the audience in person, Flaubert strives to create an illusion of absolute reality, immersing the reader into a sharply exotic atmosphere of a vanished civilization. This feature anticipates subsequent trends in historical fiction. Another important innovation which points to the future of the genre is found in Flaubert's attention to mythological aspects of history, especially in his emphasis on prefigurations of Christianity (cult of the virgin goddess Tanit, crucifixions, execution of Metho, etc.)

The impact of Flaubert's novel (which was first translated into Russian in 1863) can be seen in various works of Russian literature: from Leskov's Byzantine stylizations to Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. My paper discusses the influence of Flaubert in historical novels of Russian Symbolists: 1) Julian the Apostate and later Egyptian novels by Merezhkovskij who is obsessed with "Christianity before Christ and paganism after Christianity"; 2) The Altar of Victory by Brjusov who tries to recreate the atmosphere of the late Roman Empire. I also dwell on certain aspects of Salammbo's translation by Nikolaj Minskij who was among the pioneers of the Russian Symbolism.