The Decadent Cookbook (1997)
The Decadent Gardener (1998)
The Decadent Traveler (2000)
As readers of the Journal are well aware, Decadence as a style, movement and literary genre hails from (and all but ends with the passing of) the fin de siecle of the 19th century.
Primarily concentrated in the late 1880s and throughout the 1890s, its authors and notable works began to peter off into inconsequentiality and human wreckage, with several passing on at a fairly young age (Lorrain, de Nerval, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, even Aubrey Beardsley), and others settling into the mediocrity of a more tempered bourgeoise existence (Rachilde), inanity and absurdism (Mirbeau) and the (apparent) opposition and bane of Decadence, religion (Huysmans, Wilde).
Despite its surprising relevance to the modern era and the striking applicability of its analyses and assessments of life, love, and the course of history to the modern day, this would seem to mark it as much of a time and place as its related cousins of a bygone era, Dandyism, Symbolism and Romanticism.
But not so! Somewhere in the realms of hallucinatory imagination, only semi-real in the sense of the love interests of a typical Gautier protagonist, there exist two men, perhaps not quite in the flower of their putative youth, but elegant and refined aficionados of the aesthetic, well versed in literature and the darker corners of history.
Two dandies, as effete as they are cultured, with a razor sharp wit marked by its dry British overtones, yet well acquainted with the true Decadence of the French school.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my two favorite literary personae of the modern age: Medlar Lucan (whispered to be a mask for author Alex Martin) and Durian Gray (rumored alias of author Jerome Fletcher).
Right from the outset, those in the know should recognize the sort of clever wordplay and web of allusion these two spin with exquisite skill and prestidigiatiory sleight of word:
A Medlar is a fruit which is considered “ripe” and edible only after it has been left to rot, the skin wrinkling and the interior reduced to mush, leaving the impression that the fruit has spoiled. Further, Medlars have been referred to in literature by the apt descriptor of “open-arses”. Lucan was a Roman poet and close associate of the emperor Nero, whom he later fell afoul of.
A Durian is a fruit from Thailand and Southeast Asia which bears the unique distinction of stinking of a rotting corpse (among other unpleasant descriptors), and has in fact been banned from public transportation in that corner of the world due to its rancid stench and its propensity to linger long after initially being savored. And naturally, the name is a play on Wilde’s Decadent anti-hero Dorian Gray, whose gradual descent into rottenness played out on a charmed portrait, while he remained eternally youthful, destroying the lives of those he touched…
To delve in this level of depth to the full and rich tapestry of allusion to which the authors aspire in their trilogy of works to date would require a book all its own, so I shall endeavor to encapsulate the high points herein.
The first in the series, the Decadent Cookbook, is one of the better entries (though not, as some have suggested, the best). Ostensibly in relation to Medlar and Durian’s brief foray into restauranteur territory with the Edinburgh establishment The Decadent (which echoing the reality vs. public “moralistic” image dichotomy daily played out among politicians, elected officials and authority figures everywhere, was quickly shut down by the very luminaries and dignitaries who were its most fervent patrons, forcing our heroes to take flight to parts unknown), we are treated to some truly insane “recipes” which I dare any rational human being to attempt.
The real point of the endeavor, naturally, is to dredge up some hilariously witty tidbits of history and literary scholarship apropos to each mad concoction, charged with an overbearing sense of black humor, sexual allusion, deviant behavior of all stripe, madness, death, and all sorts of good stuff to laugh about in a derisive sense (but much of which would have been horrible to have experienced, particularly in terms of references to the perversities of Ancient Rome or such grim flights of imagination as Mirbeau’s Torture Garden!).
The sheer breadth and oft pinpoint accuracy and laser focus of the authors knowledge and research is astounding – those interested in the seedier corners of history (both literary and actual) and the doings of outsiders, sadists, mad visionaries and utter lunatics would be well advised to peruse these works. The number of times this reader at least snickered if not audibly laughed outright while perusing these three books cannot be numbered, and I place at least the first two among my favorite books of relatively recent vintage.
On the opening page of the first chapter of the Decadent Cookbook, Medlar and Durian are already referencing Caligula,
“one of a series of emperors who turned Rome…from a city of strait-laced farmers and soldiers into a seething cosmopolis of aesthetes, gluttons and perverts.”
As you can see from even this brief passage, they further have a way with words that pleases both the logophile and philologist in me…
Ignoring the recipes (silly but rather pointless, in the end), we are treated to discussions of the more spectacular and ridiculously sublime pecadilloes of the Roman emperors, and are introduced by means of such historians as Juvenal to the vomitorium and other such pleasantries, being informed wryly by the authors that “Roman men, of course, were far less delicate in their (drinking) habits”.
A brief passage about the Grand Inquisitor is enlivened by a scene taken from David Madsen’s similarly wry, but far more crass Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf, perusal of which source material serves merely to highlight the refinement and culture underlining the humor of Medlar & Durian (however blunt and “shocking” to bourgeoise mentality the matters under discussion).
There is an amusing section on “the gastronomic mausoleum”, centered on such delights as gravlax (a Scandinavian salmon dish prepared by burying the fish for several days before exhuming and serving), and a section called “corruption and decay” which quotes from a (sadly imaginary) book I’d love to see, T.M. Heathcote’s The Lives of the Dandies, in which a guest is served a bouquet of rotten foods. Gruesome, perhaps, but absurdist to a level certain to be appreciated by fellow aficionados of Luis Bunuel and Marco (la Grande Bouffe) Ferreri.
We touch on Sade, and are given a series of recipes made up of foods which are or are made to look like the male and female pudenda. de Nerval and his pet lobster (which he used to take for public walks on a leash) is referenced. Huysmans and A Rebours is alluded to numerous times. And it all comes to a rather silly conclusion.
While quite recommended in its own right, I would steer the curious precipitously towards the far superior central entry in the trilogy, The Decadent Gardener.
Eschewing the nonsensical recipes of the former entry (which wasted all too much space and consumed a fair percentage of the page count, as well as falling flat in the senses of both humor value and cleverness), this time round, Medlar and Durian have fled to the estate of Montcullen in County Cork, Ireland, where they are commissioned by Lady Conchita Gordon to redesign the estate’s gardens. From here, we enter a state of abject hilarity and the furthest reaches of absurdism and aestheticism, as the two raconteurs and gadabouts set out to create a monument to Decadence in all its forms.
They self describe their efforts as being in the vein of one Daniel Robertson, a famed Irish garden designer who
“was much given to the drink and never able to design or draw so well as when his brain was excited by sherry. He suffered from gout and used to be wheeled out onto the terrace in a wheelbarrow, with a bottle of sherry, and as long as that lasted, he was able to design and direct the workmen. But when the sherry was finished, he collapsed and was incapable of working till the drunken fit evaporated.”.
Their grandiose plans proceed apace, until the local parish priest and a gaggle of villagers decide to pay call on Medlar & Durian as they put on a pornographic play in the “Sacred Garden”, (the imaginary) Sodom, or the Quintissessence of Debauchery by the Earl of Rochester (which is helpfully reproduced herein). When the lady returned to her manse, the two rogues had vanished once again, leaving behind a partially finished series of gardens and extensive notes and plans for completion of what would have been their masterwork.
Referencing everyone from the Bible to Sir Francis Dashwood of the Hellfire Club, we learn such important linguistic puns as the meaning of such Latinate phrases as “peni tento non penitenti” (better a stiff prick than penitence) and the colloquial meaning of the word fica (literally, a fig, but used in reference to “a woman’s quaint“), the philological derivation of the word “orchid” (from the Greek for “testicle”), and colorful local terms for fruit and vegetables (the Spanish radish, known in France as “le penis negre”).
We learn ancient fertility rites, the sadism and tyranny of such Arabic potentates of ancient times as Jahangir and his son Shah Jehan, the Decadent excesses of construction commissioned by King Ludwig the Mad of Bavaria, the intricately constructed automata of Hero of Alexandria, and the garden construction of Gabriele D’Annunzio.
Between the Paradis Artificiel and the Fatal Garden, we learn of a veritable grimoire of deadly plants, who offer the careless imbiber virulent poisons or hallucinatory drugs as a reward. We are further given plans for a Garden of Oblivion, which comes with this admonition from the authors to the lady who commissioned this work:
“your garden would not be complete without a cemetery. It must have urns, statues, ossuaries, catacombs, rotting sarcophagi, and BONES! The dead too must have their vegetable plot. So next to the cemetery, a poison garden. Everything here will be beautiful and deadly. You will have to lock the gates to keep children out. Priests too (or if they are very nasty, you might lock them in). Enemies of the spirit, cabinet ministers, etc, are – of course – CORDIALLY WELCOME.”
“…why not a Decadent pantheon? In other words, we ‘bury’ here all our favorite heroes and heroines. It will be a fictional cemetery, packed wth cenotaphs…just think of all the glorious names! Baudelaire, de Sade, Huysmans, Beardsley, Poe, Swinburne, Wilde…we have in mind something like the Temple of British Worthies in Stowe. This can be the Temple of British and Irish Unworthies – louts, gluttons, dandies, heretics, pornographers, etc.”
We are given plans for “the pools of Herod”, whom
“people believe…was nothing but a bloodthirsty tyrant in the pay of the Romans, who murdered babies and lusted after his step-daughter. But this is to do him a disservice. He was also a great builder of swimming pools…scholars doubt if he really did order the Massacre of the Innocents, but there’s no doubting the man’s decadent credentials – his mania for luxury and building in strange places, his paranoia, egotism, visionary aestheticism, and the final madness.”
In relation to the latter, we are presented with the Fountain of Imbecility, which features
“a madman with water squirting from phallic jets all over his head. Could be Herod himself, or a favorite politician…”
All in all, the best, most informative and funniest book in the series, and it comes with the highest of recommendations.
Unfortunately, the last book of the initial trilogy is probably also its least, as the clever interplay between forgotten (or suppressed) historical fact and/or literary extremism and an ostensible attempt to create (or recreate) these ideas in modern day reality is left behind, in favor of what essentially amounts to a totally modern fiction travelogue with two by now beloved characters.
While they provide a bit of the same line of thinking (as in their attempt to follow in the footsteps of Aleister Crowley’s Valley of the Kings working and transcription of Liber vel al Legis), far more of the running time is dedicated to the fictional world of Medlar & Durian than we’d been accustomed to in prior series entries.
While welcome in some respects, the balance feels off, like something has shifted irredeemably for the worse: for example, while their own orientation and relationship had been a bit more coy and slyly hinted about in both the Cookbook and the Gardener (though even to those not paying attention, the play was something of a dead giveaway), here it’s rather full blown and out in the open – they’re here to find young men, rent boys, what have you, and one of the few nods towards the ladies is deliberately laced with disgust (an endless, overblown scenario in which the ghost of Durian’s late relative holds him to a peephole in a bathroom to view ladies relieving themselves, which is then literally repeated with even more detail a few pages later!).
While I personally have no issue with ones own preferences and pecadilloes, I don’t really care to have it shoved in my face (and my own to be denigrated thereby). Think of the Decadent Traveler as the Act Up of Lucan and Gray – even those supportive of the gay rights movement couldn’t help but be put off to some extent or another by their obnoxious aggressiveness and rubbing their business in the face of the world at large.
Taking place between the two prior works, this fills in the gap between the putative authors’ flight from Edinburgh (after the closure of The Decadent restaurant venture) but prior to their commission to redecorate the Montcullen gardens at County Cork. On the run from debt collectors, the pair travel to ostensibly Decadent locations: St. Petersburg, Naples, Cairo, Tokyo, New Orleans and Buenos Aires.
Sadly, the only section of the Decadent Traveler that really aspires to the heights scaled by earlier entries in the series is the chapter detailing their adventures in Cairo.
We hear a bit about the evening in the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid, the visions and proclamations of then wife and current scarlet woman Rose Kelly and the subsequent appearance of Aiwass, who delivers the Book of the Law to Crowley, as well as bringing to light a nice tidbit some may have missed, from the later Magical Record:
“…thanks to Aiwa(ss), our lord god the Devil.’
Thus in that small flat in Cairo, Crowley had caught a glimpse and copied down the words of Satan!”
Then we are treated to a long and quite lavish bit from Gustave Flaubert (and his “little friend” Maxime du Camp) who documents his four month drip up the nile of 1850, where they smoke a pipe in front of the Sphinx (which “watches us with a terrifying gaze“), and spend time making love to the famous prostitute Kuchuk Hamen of the depilated pubis, the course of which event is discussed in surprising detail.
Outside of this rather amusing chapter, unfortunately, things are not so witty, incisive or enjoyable – about the best we get is a brief visit with Oscar Wilde, who spent some time in Venice after his release from Reading Gaol. Things would appear to look up momentarily when they check in by mistake at a Tokyo love hotel, whose bizarre appurtenances confuse them in an amusing manner, but things quickly fall flat.
Chapters devoted to St. Petersburg and Buenos Aires are utterly superflous (the latter providing the aforementioned ghost incident as its sole raison d’etre, which is repeated almost word for word in the addendum that immediately follows), and unless you’re really into two queens chasing after young nude men and their favors, there’s nothing to recommend about Naples or pretty much any of the book not directly covered herein.
The comparative aesthetic failure of this last venture led to a long presumed conclusion of the series – with some regrets, as the Cookbook and particularly the Gardener were so delightfully…well, decadent. But it was an understandable break, as the series clearly had “jumped the shark”.
That said, after 12 years of silence, Medlar Lucan and Durian Gray have reared their neurasthenic heads once again, with the Decadent Sportsman, currently scheduled for domestic release in August. And despite feeling somewhat let down by the tertiary entry in their ongoing journal of historical and literary decadence (as it ultimately displayed precious little of either), allow me to affirm that I, for one, am decidedly looking forward to catching up with the boys and their virtual companionship, and can’t wait to see what they’ve been up to in the interim…