I don’t watch or read the news. Not anymore. I don’t want to know about current affairs. I’ve closed down almost all social media channels too. I’m leaving you to it, for my disdain for humanity was once at such a prodigious level that I was concerned about my mental and emotional well-being. Hooligan of heart; our souls are grim bestiaries. The world is a foul place. It reeks of death and decay. It stings my eyes and nose like cat piss; it clogs my throat like black smoke. It is only in cutting myself off that my anguish and bitterness has eased somewhat, like pus and bad blood being drained from a large boil. I wake up in the morning now, open the curtains, and look out upon nothing. Nothing, but the gentle twittering of birds and the calm flow of the river I live beside. It is a dull scene, but it is only in this way that I can stomach my existence, our existence; it is only without you, away from you, that I can tolerate my own wretchedness.
“The very sight of the old man engendered vermin. The dung heap of his soul extended so far into his hands and face one could not possibly imagine a more frightful contact. When he walked the streets, the slimiest gutters, shuddering at the reflection of his image, seemed to flow back to their source.”
According to his wikipedia page, French author Leon Bloy was ‘noted for personal attacks’ and prone to outbursts of temper; which, having read his Disagreeable Tales, seems like it might be something of an understatement. Perhaps only the work of Celine and Thomas Bernhard, and occasionally his friend J.K. Huysmans, could lay claim to being as vitriolic and hateful. In The Religion of Monsieur Pleur, for example, he writes of a man who exuded the stench of a ‘knackered beast’ and whose filth ‘did not assure him welcome in any abyss.’ In Two Ghosts, a woman’s face is said to have resembled ‘a fried potato rolled in scrapped cheese.’ Her odour, he continues, was that of ‘a landing in a hotel of the twentieth order – on the seventh floor.’ My sense of humour being of the sour kind, I found many of Bloy’s venomous barbs amusing and some of them genuinely funny. It is, of course, easy to say that someone stinks like shit, but there is a real skill – which the Frenchman had evidently mastered – in being able to fashion imaginative, and truly cutting, putdowns.
However, I imagine that for some readers Bloy’s narrative voice, and by extension his character, would be as disagreeable as many of the actions in the book. To criticise institutions, moral failings, etc, is acceptable, but to consistently highlight bad personal hygiene or appearance will likely strike the more sensitive amongst us as being too mean-spirited and lacking in manners. Certainly in England, where I live, we are especially uncomfortable with this sort of criticism. However, I found it both interesting, and a blessing, that Bloy does not position himself, at least in this book, as a saint with indefatigable reserves of love, understanding, and patience. He is petty, brutal; he is, by his own admission, ‘intoxicated by indignation.’ There is, of course, a sense of superiority in anyone who so lambasts and lampoons others, and while that isn’t an attractive quality in a friend, in a narrator it helped to hold my attention. Moreover, it should be noted that in many instances the unpleasant, slovenly physical state of the characters mirrors the state of their souls.
Bloy was, without question, a moraliser. His Disagreeable Tales, which are told in the form of short anecdotes, are judgements. The people who populate them are murderers, crooks, hypocrites, etc; they are venal, self-centred, idle, duplicitous, grasping and base. It is clear that the author saw the world, as I do, as something like a slagheap; and considered it his duty to comment upon it. In the first entry, Herbal Tea, Jacques spies on someone in the confessional who admits to poisoning a man’s tea and whom he recognises as his own mother. The son is said to worship the woman as the ‘paragon of rectitude and kindness.’ Many of Bloy’s stories are like this, where the ‘twist’ is someone being not what they appear to be. The most satisfying and surprising example of this is in The Religion of Monsieur Pleur. Here, the author sets the titular Pleur up to be a miser who will not spend his money; a rich man who willingly lives in appalling circumstances, such that the sight of him ‘engendered vermin.’ The reveal is that he is, in fact, exceedingly poor, having given all his money away to charity.
If I had one criticism to make of Bloy’s work it is that, as with Dickens, there isn’t a great deal of moral shading; the good are almost angelically good and the bad irredeemably bad. But, in spite of that, Disagreeable Tales is a lot of fun to read. It is well written – some of the imagery is fabulous – and gothic and grimy, and is, undoubtedly, still relevant today. Indeed, upon finishing it I, for a brief moment, thought about switching on the news. Donald Trump is, I’ve been told, in the U.K. With rightful, righteous indignation people will, I know, be greeting his visit. Yes, for a moment I wanted to share in that, to gorge myself on it, to myself decry that orange clown with the Weetabix hair. And, yet, instead I stood up, moved over to the window and looked out: nothing. Nothing except the gentle twittering of birds and the calm flow of the river that I live beside.