It was at some period between 1875 and 1876 that Lafcadio Hearn — still a “cub” reporter on a daily paper in Cincinnati — began his translation of Flaubert’s “Temptation of St. Anthony.” The definitive edition of the work, over which the author had laboured for thirty years, had appeared in 1874.
Hearn was, in his early youth, singularly indifferent to the work of the Englishmen of the Victorian period. Though he knew the English masterpieces of that epoch, their large, unacademic freedom of manner awakened no echoes in his spirit. His instinctive taste was for the exquisite in style: for “that peculiar kneading, heightening, and recasting” which Matthew Arnold thought necessary for perfection. Neither did the matter, more than the manner of the Victorians appeal to him. The circumstances of his life had at so many points set him out of touch with his fellows that the affectionate mockery of Thackeray’s pictures of English society were alien to his interest. The laughing heartiness of Dickens’ studies of the man in the street hardly touched him. Browning’s poignant analyses of souls were too rudely robust of manner to move him. Before essaying journalism Hearn had served for a while as an assistant in the Public Library, and there he had found and fallen under the spell, of the great Frenchman of the Romantic School of the ’30’s — that period of rich flowering of the Gallic genius. Gautier’s tales of ancient weirdnesses fired his imagination. The penetrating subtleties of his verse woke in the boy the felicitous emotions which the virtuoso knows in handling cameos and enamellings by hands which have long been dust. So, also, Hugo’s revivals of the passions and terrors of the mediæval world stirred the young librarian’s eager interest. But most of all his spirit leapt to meet the tremendous drama of the “Temptation.” He comprehended at once its large significance, its great import, and in his enthusiastic recognition of its value and meaning he set at once about giving it a language understood of the people of his own tongue.
Tunison tells of the little shy, shabby, half-blind boy — the long dull day of police reporting done — labouring at his desk into the small hours, with the flickering gas jet whistling overhead, and his myopic eyes bent close to the papers which he covered with beautiful, almost microscopic characters — escaping thus from the crass, raw world about him to delicately and painstakingly turn into English stories of Cleopatra’s cruel, fantastic Egyptian Night’s Entertainment. Withdrawing himself to transliterate tales of pallid beautiful vampires draining the veins of ardent boys: of lovely faded ghosts of great ladies descending from shadowy tapestries to coquette with romantic dreamers; or to find an English voice for the tragedy of the soul of the Alexandrian cenobite.
It was in such dreams and labours that he found refuge from the environment that was so antipathetic to his tastes, and in his immersion in the works of these virtuosos of words, in his passionate search for equivalents of the subtle nuances of their phrases, he developed his own style. A style full of intricate assonances, of a texture close woven and iridescent.
“One of Cleopatra’s Night’s” — a translation of some of Gautier’s tales of glamour — was issued in 1882, but at “The Temptation of St. Anthony” the publishers altogether balked. The manuscript could not achieve even so much as a reading. America had in the ’70’s just begun to emerge from that state of provincial propriety in which we were accused of clothing even our piano legs in pantelettes. The very name of the work was sufficient to start modest shivers down the spine of all well regulated purveyors of books. It was largely due to the painters’ conceptions of the nature of the hermit’s trials that the story of Saint Anthony’s spiritual struggle aroused instinctive terrors in all truly modest natures. The painters — who so dearly love to display their skill in drawing legs and busts — had been wont to push the poor old saint into the obscure of the background, and fill all the foreground with ladies of obviously the very lightest character, in garments still lighter, if possible. What had reputable American citizens to do with such as these jades? More especially such jades as seen through a French imagination! That Flaubert had brushed aside the gross and jejune conceptions of the painters the publishers would not even take the pains to learn.
It is amusing now to recall the nervous, timid proprieties of those days. At the time Hearn failed to see the laughable side of it. He was then too young and earnest, too passionate and too melancholy to have a sense of its humours.
He had brought his unfinished manuscript from Cincinnati to New Orleans, and had continued to work upon it in strange lodgings in gaunt, old half-ruined Creole houses; at the tables of odd little French cafés, or among the queer dishes in obscure Spanish and Chinese restaurants. He had snatched minutes for it amidst the reading and clipping of exchanges in a newspaper office; had toiled drippingly over it in the liquifying heats of tropic nights; had arisen from the “inexpungable langours” of yellow fever to complete its last astounding pages.
I can remember applauding, with ardent youthful sympathy, his tirades against the stultifying influence of blind puritanism upon American literature. I recall his scornful mocking at the inconsistency which complacently accepted the vulgar seduction, and the theatrical Brocken revels of Faust, while shrinking piously from Flaubert’s grim story of the soul of man struggling to answer the riddle of the universe. He had however an almost equal contempt for the author’s countrymen, who received with eager interest and pleasure the deliberate analysis — in Madame Bovary — of a woman’s degradation and ruin, while they yawned over the amazing history of humanity’s tremendous spiritual adventures. Hearn’s own sensitiveness shrank in pain from the cold insight which uncovered layer by layer the brutal squalour of a woman’s moral disintegration. But he was moved and astounded by the revelation, in St. Anthony, of the tragedy and pathos of man’s long search for some body of belief or philosophy by which he could explain to himself the strange great phenomena of life and death, and the inscrutable cruelties of Nature. The young translator was filled with a sort of astonished despair at his inability to make others see the book as he did — not realizing, in his youthful impatience, that the average mind clings to the concrete, and is puzzled and terrified by outlines of thought too large for its range of vision; that the commonplace intelligence cannot “see the wood for the trees,” and becomes confused and over-weighted when confronted with the huge outlines of so great a picture as that drawn by Flaubert in his masterpiece.
There were many points of resemblance between Lafcadio Hearn and the grandson of the French veterinary. A resemblance rather in certain qualities of the spirit than in social conditions and physical endowments. Flaubert, born in 1821, was the son of a surgeon. His father was long connected with the Hôtel Dieu of Rouen, in which the boy was born, and in which he lived until his eighteenth year, when he went to Paris to study law. One of the friends of his early Parisian days describes him as “a young Greek. Tall, supple, and as graceful as an athlete. He was charming, mais un peu farouche. Quite unconscious of his physical and mental gifts; very careless of the impression he produced, and entirely indifferent to formalities. His dress consisted of a red flannel shirt, trousers of heavy blue cloth, and a scarf of the same colour drawn tight about his slender waist. His hat was worn ‘any how’ and often he abandoned it altogether. When I spoke to him of fame or influence.... he seemed superbly indifferent. He had no desire for glory or gain.... What was lacking in his nature was an interest in les choses extérieures, choses utiles.” ...
One who saw him in 1879 found the young Greek athlete — now close upon sixty, and having in the interval created some of the great classics of French literature — “a huge man, a tremendous old man. His long, straggling gray hair was brushed back. His red face was that of a soldier, or a sheik — divided by drooping white moustaches. A trumpet was his voice, and he gesticulated freely ... the colour of his eyes a bit of faded blue sky.”
The study of the law did not hold Flaubert long. It was one of those choses extérieures, choses utiles to which he was so profoundly indifferent. Paris bored him. He longed for Rouen, and for his little student chamber. There he had lain upon his bed whole days at a time; apparently as lazy as a lizard; smoking, dreaming; pondering the large, inchoate, formless dreams of youth.
In 1845 his father died, and in the following year he lost his sister Caroline, whom he had passionately loved, and for whom he grieved all his life. He rejoined his mother, and they established themselves at Croisset, near Rouen, upon a small inherited property. It was an agreeable house, pleasantly situated in sight of the Seine. Flaubert nourished with pleasure a local legend that Pascal had once inhabited the old Croisset homestead, and that the Abbé Prevost had written Manon Lescaut within its walls. Near the house — now gone — he built for himself a pavilion to serve as a study, and in this he spent the greater portion of the following thirty-four years in passionate, unremitting labour.
He made a voyage to Corsica in his youth; one to Brittany, with Maxime du Camp, in 1846; and spent some months in Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, and Greece in 1849. This Oriental experience gave him the most intense pleasure, and was the germ of Salammbo, and of the Temptation of St. Anthony. He never repeated it, though he constantly talked of doing so. He nursed a persistent, but unrealized dream of going as far as Ceylon, whose ancient name, Taprobana, he was never weary of repeating; utterance of its melifluous syllables becoming a positive tic with him. Despite these yearnings he remained at home. Despite his full-blooded physique he would take no more exercise than his terrace afforded, or an occasional swim in the Seine. He smoked incessantly, and for months at a stretch worked fifteen hours out of the twenty-four at his desk. Three hundred volumes might be annotated for a page of facts. He would write twenty pages, and reduce these by exquisite concisions, by fastidious rejections to three; would search for hours for the one word that perfectly conveyed the colour of his thought, and would — as in the case of the Temptation — wait fifteen years for a sense of satisfaction with a manuscript before allowing it to see the light. To Maxime du Camp, who urged him to hasten the completion of his book in order to take advantage of a favourable opportunity, he wrote angrily: