book of the virgins, Decadence by Dedalus, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Journal of Decadence, madame la mort, others paradise, Paul Leppin, Rachilde, the funeral of Herr Muckenschnabel, third eye cinema podcast
This week, we’ll be looking into some books I’ve taken on over the past month or so whose respective value (or lack thereof) failed to merit individual or in-depth analysis. While penned by writers of proven (or assumed) prominence in Decadent circles, each and every one turned out to be overrated, overhyped, or simply failed outright by comparison to other works by the same authors.
To save you the time and expense of delving into these lesser children (for in a sense, each and every scrawling of a writer by trade, as every painting to an artist or every song to a musician, is in effect a birth and spawning, whose very existence in the public sphere gives way to further progeny by similarly inclined artistes who perchance to peruse and absorb such works), I offer my own humble discussion and analysis of these decidedly humble offerings. Or if you prefer, take this as a public notification, whose ultimate condensation into simple terms results in the dictum: buyer beware.
First and best of the motley crew we have assembled here for your delectation today, comes Austria’s own “uncrowned prince of Decadence”, Paul Leppin. Journal regulars should be familiar with my earlier missive praising with highest orders his incredibly sensuous prose style, and his mastery of both the novella (Daniel Jesus) and short form (Ghost of the Jewish Ghetto) found in Dedalus’ Road to Darkness.
Whether by dint of translation, content or pure aesthetics, Twisted Spoon’s collection of short stories Others’ Paradise, while hardly qualifying as time wasted, still serves to pale by comparison, and on any front.
The lack of the typical Dedalus essay relating to the historical background and literary analysis of the author and works in question always grates with other publishers (bar Penguin and Dover Classics, who similarly offer substantial informative discussion in both regards, encountered in my perusal of Gautier’s Mme. de Maupin, de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk), and the rather brief and sorry two and one half page “about the author”, whose unsubstantiated statements (as in the above noted assertion that “(Leppin’s) aversion to bourgeois values was reflected in his decadent lifestyle, which earned him the title ‘the uncrowned king of Prague bohemians'” – that’s it, no further detail, no explication of exactly who it was that crowned the man thusly) merely serves to rankle, and raises more questions than it deigns to answer.
Further, unlike Dedalus’ higher quality, bright white paper stock and easy to read font, Twisted Spoon uses what would appear to be the lowest quality of recycled pulp, a dull and mealy yellow in tone, which is quite difficult to read in all but the very best lighted of circumstances, and printed in a crappy Times New Roman font (which is supposedly “easy to read”, but is actually rather strain-inducing, particularly on a low grade paper stock of this sort.
Finally, for reasons likely of that detestable Newspeak variant coined as “political correctness”, “the Ghost of the Jewish Ghetto”, which is once again provided for the general public, has herein been retitled as “the Ghost of the Jewish QUARTER”, and the translation seems to be less vibrant and tactile than that provided by Dedalus in their earlier and far superior offering.
Now on to the content. Others’ Paradise consists of eight of Leppin’s short stories – the question as to why exactly the titular missive was chosen to represent the collection is somewhat baffling, as it is neither the lengthiest nor the most emblematic of the tales contained herein.
First we have “the Doors of Life”, which is about a gaggle of what would appear to be prostitutes once again situated in the Jewish quarter of Prague, so vibrantly described in Dedalus’ translation of “the Ghost…”.
One of the women, a Veronika Selig, comes with a past (or at least, is the only one of the seven otherwise unnamed women of whom we are privy to same) – having perhaps been married to a King Kaspar and having borne (and lost) a child, which left her in the situation wherein she currently resides…but even this is more than a bit hallucinatory and undefined, as King Kaspar is oft equated with (and in fact may actually have been some odd fantasy life built around) a Punch and Judy style puppet show which she obsessively attended in her childhood, and began to formulate a life and philosophy around.
Whichever the case may be, she leaves the company of the other women for the love of an itinerant violinist, Roman Maria, whose gypsy tones make the round of local taverns. She joins his act and becomes his lover, only to wind up unceremoniously dumped along the way for “Little Rosa”, openly defined as a prostitute. Veronika returns to the house of the seven women, and continues to stare out the window and daydream, lost in a reverie of self pity and lost love. End of story.
Next we have “the Wonderdoll”, about a mechanical waxwork that apparently “comes to life” to “love” a young man who obsesses over and falls for same. Eventually, he is found drowned in the nearby river, waxwork in arms. End of story.
“The House on the Riverbank” is of the same school of thought and narrative as “Doors of Life”, with three sisters falling for the same painter, who woos and rejects each of them in turn from oldest to youngest, each time breaking things off with praise of the succesively younger sister: “you are sweet, but your sister has eyes that flash in the darkness.” and then “you are patient, but your younger sister is a wild cat.” The two elder sisters drown themselves in despair, while the younger abandons herself to love (presumably meant ironically and sarcastically by our fatalistic author). End of story.
The titular “Others’ Paradise” concerns a lonely and depressed shoemaker who spends his days jealously resenting the happiness of couples whose feet pass by his shop each day. He discovers one young girl whose gait displays a sadness that mirrors his own, and “falls in love” with the idea of same (naturally, without taking any action whatsoever, only in love with this moribund ideal of “togetherness in sorrow”). One day, she comes by with a happy gait, the feet of a new lover alongside. The blacksmith cries out in despair and puts his fist through the glass of his own window in rage and sadness at his lot. End of story.
“Retribution” concerns a young man who lures a teenage runaway to a hotel and has his way with her, leaving her before morning. Later in life, miserably married off and with child, he reflects back on his life and where he went wrong, and realizes he is still wracked with guilt about his callous use of the girl, and imagines his sad life is in retribution for his youthful act. End of story.
As you can see, this is hardly the gleefully sexual and transgressive Paul Leppin of Daniel Jesus or even “the Ghost of the Jewish Ghetto”, but a more miserable figure, closer in spirit to the maudlin “life is but torment” nonsense of Remy de Gourmont or, as we shall see shortly, Gabriele D’Annunzio.
In fact, the only tale of merit herein, barring the somewhat botched reworking of “Ghost”, is “the Funeral of Herr Muckenschnabel”, which quite accurately points out how idiotic and wasteful it is to dedicate one’s life to voluntary enslavement under the auspices of Corporate America, and how happiness and meaning to life is only to be found in ones relationships, the pursuit of love, and the appreciation, expression and cultivation of the highest order of mankind’s aspirations: namely, aesthetics and the arts.
A cautionary fable, it follows the titular character through his mundane and pointless life as a clerk and accountant, and the meaningless duties of ‘industry’ to which he dedicates himself with earnest while hours of precious and irreplacable existence tick away in pursuit of little more than a paycheck.
“…This was the only event in his life he could recall in any detail. His existence ran its course as uniformly and smoothly as clockwork, and accustoming himself ot it without a word, its unfaltering precision never gave him a moment’s surprise. Even the documents that he found on his desk every morning had an identical face: a sluggish mechanism stared back at him as it continued its dull and passionless motion…
…yet sometimes, when a perticularly blue fragment of sky crept in through the bare window, something verging on a faint regret welled up within him…out there, beyond the…courtyard…the sun shone…the clouds stretched far across the land, across towns and villages…(wires) humming as the wind raced along them…what could it possibly be like there, where all those wires led? He had never left his hometown…the cable ran (across the sea) to America…(he) smiled as the…stories he read as a child came to him, arousing a remnant of the excitement he had once felt…mysterious adventures lurked in the bushes…heroic deeds loaded life with red storms…
Whenever (his) thoughts traveled this far afield, they would hurry back to reality. Tearing his eyes away from the sun and the golden wires outside, he would plunge his quill into the inkwell, before him the figures would fall into ranks like soldiers…life was simple and rational. Dreams and childish nonsense were no match for it. One had to be moderate and do one’s job. Geography…put useless thoughts into children’s heads and turned them into wild dreamers.”
Finally, all this comes to a head in the philosophical denoument of the tale, one universally applicable to all of us caught by a societal trap which demands we sell ourselves into drudgery in pursuit of sufficient funds to keep a roof overhead and food on the table, as well as the necessary vehicle and clothing to enable us to daily return to this voluntary enslavement, always promising but never delivering a longed for freedom and independence from same:
“His life, irrevocably regimented by office hours, was sliding unremarkably and inexorably towards an end…he saw the monstrous monotony with which death dismissed life. What lay between meant nothing: it offered, at best, something to observe. And as for the stories people told of a world where hearts burned with passion, greed, and love, that was no doubt a colorful web of lies…life was duty, work and duty, day in, day out, with death at the end.”
For this tale, and this tale alone, I can offer some extremely guarded recommendation to the book which contains it, and can only wonder in bafflement as to why it was not placed in greater prominence in the collection of tales hereof (though I would imagine trying to sell a book with a title involving a Herr Muckenschnabel would present quite a daunting task to any publisher interested in same).
In the end, barring this succinct and accurate explication of the failings of contemporary society, the corporate robber baron mentality, and the (de)lusion of a “middle class”, Others Paradise fails miserably (pun intended) by comparison with Dedalus’ superior collection of Leppin’s tales, substituting a triumphant celebration of Decadence in the face of the staid impotence of bourgeois society and its nonsensical mores with despair and longing, and as such cannot come recommended as a whole in any honesty. One can only hope for the aforementioned tale’s inclusion in a more worthy anthology at some point in the future.
Next up, we have another offering from one of the few female voices in Decadence, the esteemed if often spotty Rachilde.
Apparently, alongside her career as a novelist, she held something of a sideline as author of a series of short plays collectively ascribing to the heading of “quarts d’heure” – 15 minute naturalist pieces of business popularized and primarily performed by the Theatre Libre (a forerunner and progenitor of the notorious Theatre du Grand Guignol). Unlike the latter, however, there is no dint of the gruesome, horrific or transgressive to provide interest – like a tale by Victor Hugo and his disciples, things prove in due course to be quite dry and non-palliative to the reader.
After a quite lengthy introduction, we are given several of these little dramaturgies in miniature, none of which appear to have any real substance or point to speak of:
“the Transparent Doll”, about a madwoman who believes her dead child to still be alive and in her presence,
“the Voice of Blood”, a Twilight Zone level turd about a jaded couple who can’t be bothered to see what all the commotion is out on the street, only to discover that it was their own son’s murder they just ignored (ooh, wasn’t that clever? Insert facial expressions of disgust here),
“Pleasure”, about a young couple who decide to relate to each other everything which gave them pleasure (the male) or pain (the female), while a dead woman lies drowned beneath the water beside which they recline. There really is no point whatsoever to this one.
“the Painted Woman”, about a man who seeks forgiveness from his current mistress for having failed to stand up for a former lover who was executed as a spy,
“the Prowler”, about a household of women who whip themselves into a hysterical frenzy over the possibility of a burgular or rapist being outside, which ends with them fleeing out into the night woods, door left wide open in a sort of ridiculous irony,
and finally the titular play, regarding a certain Paul Dartigny, a Decadent fellow who tries a sort of Russian Roulette with a case of cigarettes, one of which he laced with nerium oleander, a poison that first drives the imbiber mad before delivering the fatal blow, and his houseguests, old friend Jacques Durand and the somewhat elegant prostitute Lucie, to whom he leaves his fortune. In his gradual decline into madness during the course of the performance, he meets and delivers a long soliloquy of adoration to the titular representation of his own demise, before passing on, leaving the houseguests to wryly discuss dispensation of his fortune. End of play.
As you can likely glean from the above, there is little of real interest to be found herein, and in fact, my condensations of the events under deliberation may actually come off as more interesting than the plays in question prove to be in practice. The only real tidbit of consequence comes in “Madame La Mort” itself, wherein Rachilde (an unwilling and emotionally detached mother herself) explicates her feelings on the inanity of childbirth, a sentiment of which I can only echo my agreement herewith:
“Wretched woman! You kill love with this idea of procreation, because love is the only god who cannot multiply without vanishing. Ridiculous whore, you trade your kisses for the base coin of pain! You are an animal who drowns pleasure in dung.”
All told, bar the mild interest of the titular play (which is also, perhaps tellingly, the most lengthy) and the long and informative introduction and literary analysis that precedes the plays themselves (which en toto barely exceed the length thereof!), Madame La Mort bears little interest except to the dedicated aficionado of Rachilde and her works.
Next we come to Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose abominably prudish mistranslation by one Georgina Harding (who must have been a direct inspiration for Dana Carvey’s ‘Church Lady’, all things considered) was discussed in my review of Dedalus’ atrocious Child of Pleasure.
While Hesperus Press’ translation of The Book of the Virgins is hardly in that sorry ballpark of conservative bourgeois values, the stories contained herein once again tend to the maudlin and depressive, and continue to leave this reader questioning D’Annunzio’s status as the premier Decadent of the Italian style.
Following a rather brief introduction, we get four stories from early in D’Annunzio’s literary endeavors. First up is “the Virgins”, which revolves around the sisters Giuliana and Camilla, two religious casualties who live in prudishness and misgiuided devotion to the church in a sort of communal misery.
When the story opens, Giuliana is dying of consumption, and given extreme unction by the parish priest. However, she soon recovers, and finds herself awakened to her own newfound sensuality, and the pleasures of the flesh – initially in simple things like the taste of fruit or the feel of wind and sun on her skin, but inexorably leading towards a flirtation and virginal desire towards a more visceral coupling with the handsome Marcello.
Being afraid of both her prudishly fanatical sister and the nasty subtle enforced conformity of local gossip, she engages a sleazy go-between to arrange a tryst between herself and her love interest, one Lindoro. In the event, Lindoro comes to her door drunk one evening and finds her half dressed, luxuriating in her newly discovered adulthood and dawning sexual feelings. He crudely violates her, leaving her with child.
Being a time long before Roe v. Wade (or some decidedly misinformed conservative attempts to repeal same of late), she goes to a local strega for a backyard abortion via emetic, and winds up dying of blood loss. The end.
After this uplifting tale of sexual libertinage, we get the ironically titled “A Sentimental Tale”, which involves another cloistered hothouse flower and virgin named Galatea, who spends her days housebound amidst a dusty if comprehensive home library.
A young scholar, one Cesare, comes to study there, and she begins to feel the vaguest pangs of longing and desire, which would seem to be both reciprocated and encouraged by the lord of the manse. However, Cesare’s lascivious gypsy blooded aunt Vinca soon arrives, perhaps unintentionally but nevertheless in the end seducing Cesare with her hotbloodedness, and they traipse off together, leaving Galatea alone in her misery, until she expires from despair. The end.
“In Lanciotto’s Absence” relates to one Francesca, a young mother whose husband is called away for several months. In his absence, brother in law Gustavo steps in and the two fall for each other, leaving the sickly mother Donna Clara sobbing for her son and granddaughter over this adulterous affair. The end.
Finally, we have “Ad Altare Dei”, which concerns a certain Giacinta and an unnamed narrator who have a flirtation and symbolic (if unconsummated in any actual physical sense) tryst while attending a rural religious service. The end.
While some measure of attention to sensual descriptiveness does appear herein, we are again left with a Remy de Gourmont style attention to despair over the human condition, and lack of any truly liberating transgressiveness against conservative societal mores – more of a bemoaning and bewailing of their power and authority, and the inability of human beings to break free of their tyranny and overbearing dominance of the cultural zeitgeist, however absurd and inappropriate their constriction thereof.
In sum, what we are left with are the overwhelmingly sad and overbearingly sorry remains trailing along like turds in the wake of the elegant horsedrawn carriages that comprise these same authors far more noteworthy works – Rachilde’s Marquise de Sade or even Monsieur Venus, Leppin’s Road to Darkness (and in particular “Daniel Jesus”), and, at least by reputation, D’Annunzio’s “Child of Pleasure” which is being re-translated at last by Penguin Classics this summer as “Pleasure”…can’t wait to get my hands on that one…
Moribund, despairing, and altogether inclined towards the fans of shoegaze and indie rock, rather than the triumphant defiance of punk and metal or the cultured decadence and darkness of gothic rock, this is decidedly NOT the sort of ballpark I’m playing in, and as such these lesser works hold little interest or recommendation to readers hereof, who are well advised to steer clear of these stinkers and attend to the aforementioned, far worthier works by the authors in question.