And now we come to a novel that comes fairly late in the canon of Marguerite Emery-Vallette, more popularly known by her nom de plume of Rachilde. Written at the ripe old age of 40, nearly 20 years after her much hyped debut of Monsieur Venus and closing on 15 from her true masterwork The Marquise de Sade, Rachilde brings us The Juggler.
Popular opinion, driven by the revival of interest in her work by post-modern feminist critique, would have you believe this to be her apotheosis, her final “important” novel and one which encapsulates and subsumes all the themes and stylistic flourishes to which all her earlier, more scandalous work aspired. In effect, they claim, everything Rachilde had written was a build to, or decline from, this one defining moment.
To which I inform the reader: that is absolute and utter bullsh*t.
Once again proving you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, in attempting to bring some well deserved attention to a once popular female novelist of the Decadent era, who had been unfairly neglected and pushed aside by the tide of time and history as well as the snotty vagaries of critical review, these misguided would-be revisionist historians wind up missing the boat entirely, misunderstanding what the appeal and power of said authoress is or where her respective strengths and weaknesses lie, and in the plain fact of the matter, just don’t get it.
Moreover, I’m concerned for the mental, emotional, and sexual health of anyone who reads this bizarre missive and comes away identifying with the heroine in any real respect, much less finding her approach and philosophical standing towards sexual politics one with any currency in this or any other era, much less one worthy of adoption.
A small cast production, the story surrounds with few decidedly minor exceptions three people: one Eliante Donlager, her would be lover Leon Reille and Eliante’s crass ward “Missie”. Everything and everyone else is less than decoration, the equivalent of a walk on cameo role at best.
Leon, a 23 year old medical student, becomes enamored of the strangely exotic Eliante, following her around to social engagements and functions until we join them at the start of the narrative. Boldly making his presence and feelings known to her upon departure from one such unspecified event, she bemusedly and capriciously accedes to inviting him home. And from here, we enter the head shaking insanity that comprises the remainder of the book, and what passes for their “relationship” throughout.
A protracted see-saw of a comedy of manners begins, with the alternately coquettish and boldly acquiescent Eliante playing games with her young suitor, toying with his affections mercilessly (though maddeningly, without apparent malice or in fact any true motive beyond her own psychological scars. But we’ll come to that in due course…).
Cold as a fish in demeanor and carriage, she continues to throw out the bait and hook as we progress through an endless, dreary succession of their meetings both private and public, and an entire sub-narrative comprised of their letter writing campaign.
When in person, Eliante is oft inclined to the daring – throwing her legs upon Leon’s lap, allowing him to stroke her stocking tops and pinch her thigh, mischievously and spontaneously silencing his anger with passionate kisses, failing to adorn herself with the layers of undergarments and corsetry common to the day, and so on.
In correspondence and in word, she subjects him to lengthy bouts of psychobabble and puritanical philosophizing that would not seem out of place in the bizarre world of promise rings and purity pledge declarations rampant in the wacky world of today’s Bible Belt.
To make matters worse, she claims to be “dedicated to Eros”, “inflamed” (the implication being, with passion) by her “possession by a god”, and strangest of all, orgasmically involved with a Grecian urn (Keats doubtless had Mme. Donlager in mind when composing his famous Ode thereto…). Despite all this and more, Leon fails to run for the hills, in disbelief at this woman’s clearly unbalanced nature and a level of psychosexual issues that could keep a legion of psychoanalysts in session for months, but rather finds himself lusting after her all the more.
A bit of backstory is provided, wherein we learn that Eliante is Creole (and therefore something of “an outsider” to Parisian high society of the era) as well as being both rich and mentally, emotionally, and sexually scarred by a former arranged marriage to an elderly military type who himself was hideously scarred in a duel, yet refused to take any measures towards hiding or ameliorating his ugliness as some sort of badge of defiance.
We are introduced in due course to her ward, referred to throughout by the odd nickname of “Missie” – a gawky, plump, ill mannered and callow youth whom Eliante seems to take a perverse delight in trying to foist off on Leon as a fiancee, despite (or perhaps because of?) his obvious and ongoing distaste for the girl in word and deed.
Endlessly regurgitating the same delusional nonsense about being and retaining an idealized and “virginally chaste” status as his “lover” from a distance, she seems to take some vicarious pleasure in the idea of pushing this uncouth lass on Leon “to slake his filthy and perverse desires” and “bear his children”, while somehow retaining his “eternal devotion and love” thereby.
This flatly ridiciulous scenario continues for nearly two hundred pages before we come to the final chapter, with its somewhat convoluted sting in the tail “surprise ending”…but before we go there, let’s jump back in time for a second.
This sort of crackpot illogic of the narrative comes to something of a head in a scene late in the book, wherein Leon demands confirmation of a jealous comment from “Missie” that Eliante is nearly twice his age. Eliante, while understandably miffed, does so, then proceeds to further inform Leon that she descends from a Marquis whom his impoverished ancestors were employed under.
Leon, who knew and noted that there was a pronounced difference in age and income bracket between the two of them from the start and declared it not to be an issue, suddenly and quite hypocritically finds himself horrified by the reality of the situation. Why now all of a sudden? Who knows – like the rest of this novel, it makes no rational sense whatsoever, and bears not a scrap of internal logic or application to the real world.
In short order, we come to the aforementioned denouement, in which our heroine dances a sexy flamenco (whose sensuality ‘offends the sensibilities’ of “Missie” and a guest) before finally giving herself to Leon in a one night stand. Or does she? Because the novel ends on a rather ambiguous note, where Leon awakens from dream to find Eliante performing one final juggling act, ending in her death. Or is it (as is more likely) symbolic, and the woman just left for the island of Martinique from which she initially hailed? Regardless, in the end, as part of the “bargain” implied by her ostensible giving in to his desires, Leon has submitted to Eliante’s schemes at last, and married “Missie”, who bears him a daughter he hopes will have “(Eliante’s) eyes, the eyes of dream”. The end.
Rachilde, in effect, had gotten lazy. Perhaps she had even run out of ideas and things to say by this point, resulting in this rather sorry attempt at circling back to the start of her career and the rather silly (if at least interesting and somewhat engagingly perverse) success du scandal that inaugurated her literary journey.
But what The Juggler shares with Monsieur Venus is purely superficial: the very girlish naivete that informed the former work as a sort of teenage feminine pining after an asexual emo kid boy toy fails to resonate or carry any excuse coming from a married woman (and though she was loathe to live the role, mother) of 40.
Monsieur Venus works precisely because it is by and about the sort of Twi-hard pre-teen flush with the clueless but passionate yearnings of first love, with androgynous teen idol posterboys (many of whom eventually emerge from the closet to reveal the reality of their predilections and fashion style – examples of which abound throughout the last 40 years or more) representing the feminine self projected onto the desired but as yet undiscovered other of masculinity. In effect, nature informs the awakening of desire, but of something they cannot yet properly or concretely define without experience – resulting in a sort of hybridization which finds itself quickly left behind when the real thing comes along.
The Juggler, written by a woman of the world whose social and marital experience marks her as knowing better, comes off as cynical, narcissistic and disturbed on a number of important and defining levels: emotional, sexual, even mental.
As a possibly unintentional celebration of chastity, repression and puritanical mores, it marks Rachilde with the tar and feathered brush of being hopelessly and irrevocably bourgeoise which she strove so madly to escape from with her scandalous company, behavior, and writings.
The best you can say for the book lies in is its autobiographical subtext:
the outsiderness of Eliante and the whole debacle of the unwanted arranged marriage (which Rachilde’s military father would have subjected her to in youth, had she not attempted suicide in defiance thereof);
the emotional scarring and oppressive influence of a long deceased but influential male (in Eliante’s case, her late husband, in Rachilde’s, her late father);
and the cougar fantasy aspect of a “40 year old woman” (Rachilde herself was 40 at the time of writing – though the character actually turns out to be 35, the horror of her potentially being – gasp! – 40 is clearly a charged issue, and is revisited numerous times throughout the book) flirting with, but then backing away from expressing in any real sense, an impassioned liason with a man half her age (Rachilde was known for carousing with younger artists and creative types well into her marriage, though it is unknown whether there was any actual unfaithfulness to M. Vallette or consummation of any affairs thereby).
Most tellingly, while Rachilde was noted for writing “on the fly” and without any real eye towards serious revision, in this particular instance, she had revisited the material a few times, finally resulting in the edit we have today, which we are told by the publisher is “far superior to” the original published version.
While I cannot lay claim to judge the veracity of that statement, having only sat through the version they chose to translate, what I can say is that if it comes from the same revisionist sources who have chosen to lionize this among all of Rachilde’s available works, I find myself disinclined to accept this assertion, as much as I find myself put off by the very content of this rather prudish, anti-sex manifesto.
Taken all in sum, I find The Juggler, while still an interesting diversion for those so inclined, to be wholly reprehensible on the basis of its philosophy, conclusions and implications, and call out those who proclaim it as some sort of apotheosis of the writer in question or worthy of its apparent status as an important text in women’s studies as being at best deluded, if not completely insane.
This least of all Rachilde works I’ve perused to date comes without recommendation, and in fact with a warning to those who have blood in their veins with any inclination to burn hot, for those who recognize desire and passion to be the important, natural, primal driving force it is. Leave this crap to the prude and the celibate of the monastic life, and check out a real book instead. Like this one. Or this one. Or even this one.