Alexandre Dumas, Barbey D'Aurevilly, Catulle Mendes, Charles Baudelaire, dandyism, Decadence by Dedalus, Dedalus Book of French Horror: the 19th Century, Edmond Haraucourt, Erckmann-Chatrain, Eugene Sue, fin de siecle, French decadents, Jean Lorrain, Journal of Decadence, Les Diaboliques, Marquis de Sade, Theophile Gautier, third eye cinema podcast, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
And now we come to yet another of Dedalus’ dedicated series of ‘Book of Decadence’ anthologies, circulating under the somewhat misleading title of The Dedalus Book of French Horror: the 19th Century.
Like the Book of German Decadence, this is another surprising yet frustrating entree into the world of Decadent fin de siecle literature whose authorship remains on the whole untranslated for domestic consumption. While the bigger names contained herein such as Baudelaire, Dumas, Sade and Maupassant do in fact retain no small measure of visibility, equally interesting personages such as the sly, erotomaniacal Catulle Mendes and the fascinating Erckmann-Chatrain remain solely the dominion of French speaking literary scholars.
Kicking the proceedings off with an introduction marked by a reasonably thorough defense of de Sade and admission of his influence over the literary circles of fin de siecle France, editor Terry Hale also explains how an (at the time, still considered minor) pulp author like Edgar Allan Poe managed to exert such a powerful influence over the French Decadent movement:
“What makes (Sade) worthy of our attention is the economic, philosophical and political thought which informs it…it is this intellectual framework – frequently paradoxical…which makes Sade’s fiction so compelling…
In a sense Sade…(is) encountered everywhere in the nineteenth century, though the author himself remains elusive – an invisible presence…many of the authors grouped here…share (Sade’s) fascination with every form of sexual ‘aberration’ (while) from Poe (they took) the lessons of conciseness, psychological insight and the appeal of the scientific macabre. The French reading of Poe would be radically different from that which occurred in Britain and America.”
The collection is itself divided into a few more or less distinct sections – Frenetic Tales, Comtes Crueles, and Comtes Fantastiques.
Frenetic Tales would seem to be exceedingly brief little fables with a sting in the tail, somewhat in the tradition of the original Grimms Fairy Tales (before their hyper-sanitization and Disnification for modern audiences).
Among the more notable of these, Frederic Soulie gives us “the Lamp of Saint Just”, which concerns a woman on the verge of beginning a new life and marriage who has her world devastated by some barely explained bit of eminent domain, who then reappears, stricken with plague, to return the favor on the offending party at the occasion of his own wedding – but the sting is strangely softened by an unusual and unexpected “happy ending”.
Eugene Sue offers “A True Account of the Travels of Claude Belissan”, where a stuffy and rather vain sort finds himself both cuckolded and the object of amused derision by his beloved and another suitor. Rashly, he decides to renounce civilization and its inequities in favor of a philosophical ideal of “the noble savage” and a communistic idea of universal equality. Heading off to the distant shores of pre-colonial Tahiti, he discovers just how wrongheaded these ideas are, and meets a grim rejoinder to his utopian beliefs…
No less a personage than Alexandre Dumas relates the tale of “Solange”, where a scientist experimenting with electrical revivication of the dead falls for and promises to aid in the escape of the pseudonymous titular female from Reign of Terror France. Unfortunately, things do not go as planned…
Under the header of Comtes Crueles, we get the aforementioned Marquis de Sade himself, who proffers “Dorci, or The Vagaries of Chance”, a short tale of two noble brothers, a roadside murder, and who the perpetrator being brought to justice actually turns out to be.
Charles Baudelaire then relates the brief “Mademoiselle Scalpel”, a short vignette about a woman whose tastes in men come a bit more twisted than most, and Catulle Mendes tells of “The Penitent”, about a woman who gets her kicks out of turning on priests in the confessional.
While Sade’s effort would seem to fall under the same stylistic category as the “Frenetic Tales”, the others appear to be more vague and pointless in a narrative sense, more focused on atmosphere and a particular thrust. For example, Baudelaire’s tale intends to make the skin crawl a bit with the revelation of its ‘respectable’ heroine’s sick kicks, while Mendes’ is suffused with sensuality and unsupressed erotic intent.
Further entries under the same header include Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s “The Astonishing Moutonnet Couple”, which combines the psychopathic kinks of Baudelaire’s heroine with the direct sexual focus of Mendes, in a short recollection of how a couple stays faithful and satisfied in marriage by trying to get each other condemned to the guillotine under the auspices of the Reign of Terror.
Edmond Haraucourt’s “A Prisoner of His Own Masterpiece” concerns a man whose lover tires of him and takes a new lover on the side. Resolving to go out in a bout of suicide/murder, he covers his lips with poison and shares it with her in a final embrace. Things turn Poesque when he survives, paralyzed and locked in an embrace with her mouldering corpse…
The final section, Comtes Fantastiques, is far less interesting on the whole, being more influenced by the E.T.A. Hoffmann school of relatively benign fantasy rather than the darker, more Sadean or Poe-influenced efforts contained under the prior headers. That said, even this section of the book does contain its share of gems amid the comparative dross.
Henri Riviere’s “The Reincarnation of Doctor Roger”, concerns a man who believes himself to be righting a duelling wrong committed in a past life, but may be no more than an escaped lunatic. Guy De Mauppasant delivers “The Head of Hair”, where a man falls in love with his vision of the long deceased woman whose lock of hair he discovers in a piece of antique furniture – being Mauppasant, naturally he goes utterly mad in the process.
Jean Lorrain relates the tale of “One Possessed”, which feels like a dry run for Monsieur de Phocas and features that same hypnotically green eyed idol of Astarte.
And the writing team of Erckmann-Chatrain tells of “the Invisible Eye”, a tale of witchcraft and a rash of suicides, turned on its tables by an enterprising young man who takes an interest in the affair.
Finally, Theophile Gautier gives us “Mademoiselle Dafne”, an atmospheric but somewhat convoluted tale involving a debutante, a prince, and his scheming stepmother who contrives his death. Mouldering, ruined castles and long neglected subterranean passageways take precedence over the particulars of plot, but as always with Gautier, the evocative language and Gothic/Romantic flair of the setting raise his effort head and shoulders among his peers, even ones so distinguished as those in whose company he resides herein.
While several of the authors herein are, as noted earlier, quite well known and can boast some portion of their respective works as being readily available in English translation, it is the others, less well known, whose presence rankles. Because more or less across the board, this collection is marked by a particular quality and level of narrative skill practically unparalleled in scope.
The fact that an impassioned author like Catulle Mendes, a pair of gothic horror masters like Erckmann-Chatrain or a sarcastically amusing one like Eugene Sue remain untranslated outside their native tongue is, as with the case of such authors as Hans Heinz Ewers from Dedalus’ similarly superior Book of German Decadence: Voices From the Abyss, nothing less than a crime.
And speaking of crime, we have one of the only works of famed dandy cum Catholic apologist Barbey D’Aurevilly in translation, the infamous Les Diaboliques.
An excellent work that beggars the question: why have none of his other books been translated into English?, Les Diaboliques consists of 6 short stories (approximately 50 pages apiece), all based on the principles of love, style, and crime, but marked by a refreshing lack of punishment thereto.
“The Crimson Curtain” concerns the recollections of a former military officer and viscount who in his younger days carried on a passionate affair with the young daughter of two folks whose home is rented out as accommodations. Their relations take place under her parents’ noses, until one night she has a heart attack during a bout of lovemaking. He panics and runs through a number of ideas how to extricate himself from the situation before sneaking out to get the advice of a benevolent superior in his regiment, who handles the business. That’s it – we’re never informed (nor are the players in this little drama) how it all turned out, other than of the young man’s continued existence and success…
“Happiness in Crime” is the linchpin and centerpiece of the portmanteau, revolving around a Count promised to an arranged marriage with a vapid if attractive young lady, who falls for a tomboyish fencing mistress. While he goes through with the marriage (and a long affair with the fencer), they eventually conspire to introduce his lover to the household under the guise of maidservant, and engage the complicity of the family doctor and friend in covering up the eventual murder. They of course get away with it, and live happily ever after, “like a pair of panthers”, as the doctor notes…
Both “Beneath the Cards of a Game of Whist” and “At a Dinner of Athiests” similarly revolve around adultery and murder – the former a case where a mother and daughter fall for the same man, and wind up poisoning each other; the latter an entertaining tale of cuckoldry where the husband’s expected righteous fury culminates in both his own death (by the hand of her favorite of many lovers) and an appropriate one for the woman in question (the husband actually puts an end to her cuisse legeres by sealing her offending portion with hot candle wax – a literal case of being “punished where you have sinned” (as the husband puts it)!
While “the Greatest Love of Don Juan” is a slight comedic vignette of the titular character relating his favored conquest of ego, a virgin who believes herself pregnant by merely sharing the same seat as the famed lothario, “A woman’s revenge” rounds out the collection more soundly, with a Countess whose lover is brutally murdered in front of her eyes by her vengeful husband, only to “take revenge” on him by sullying the family name as a common prostitute and syphilitic casualty.
Admittedly, the relation of these stories can come off rather more grim than they actually are. But in point of fact, D’Aurevilly’s infectious joie de vivre and air of bemused jocularity delivers each of these tales with a nudge and knowing wink, making Les Diaboliques an absolute masterwork of French Decadent literature.
There are, as always with the Decadents, some quite apt and pertinent assessments of human foibles and interrelations. In “Happiness in Crime”, D’Aurevilly points out that
“Men are all the same. Anything strange displeases them, if it is done by another man, but if it is done by anyone in petticoats, they rather like it. A woman who does what a man does, though she may not do it half so well, will always have a marked advantage over a man…”
and later, he notes accurately the necessity of spending one’s free time with their chosen mate to keep romance alive…but also that conversely, too much time together can cause its own issues:
“You can no more paint happiness…than…the circulation of blood in the veins…the Comte and Comtesse de Savigny…create every day that splendid chapter of “Love in Marriage”…the ideal which they have realized…has disgusted me with the best marraiges I have known, and which the world called charming. I have always found these so inferior to theirs…colourless and cold. Destiny, of their star, or chance…has decreed that they shall live for themselves alone…they have that idleness without which love cannot exist, but which often kills the love from which it necessarily springs.”
and further, on how the “biological imperative” (which in reality, is nothing more than a sociocultural one) only serves to drive a wedge between lovers and quash passion with immediacy:
“Have they never had any children, Doctor?” I asked.
“Ah,” said Doctor Torty, “you fancy perhaps, that that is their curse – the revenge of Fate – what you call the vengeance or the justice of God! No, they have never had any children…they love each other too much. The fire which devours, consumes and does not produce.
One day I said to Hauteclaire,
‘are you not sorry not to have had any children, Madame la Comtesse?’
‘I do not want any,’ she said proudly. ‘I should love Serion less. Children,’ she added with a kind of scorn, ‘are good help for women who are unhappy.'”
As with the other works discussed in this essay, it is both surprising and a mark of shame on the editorial directives of today’s publishing houses that almost without exception, none of the famed dandy’s similar works have been brought over for exposure to a non-native French speaking audience. I have found it rare indeed for an author who produces one work of quality to somehow thereby fail miserably in the remainder of their published works – while there may be periods that stand out or fail, one does not simply forget how to write, play music, paint, or what have you. While latter works can either be dramatic improvements over youthful misfires or drift into repetitiveness and loss of fire where earlier efforts burst with vigor, there is no such thing, outside the reclusive J.D. Salinger, as a “one work author”.
And to offer works of such acknowledged force, insight and power as those discussed herein, without further attention to the author’s further oeuvre, is patently ridiculous, and a disservice to the reading public.