Decadence

MONSIEUR VENUS BY RACHILDE

‘I’m always the man,’ she sighed. ‘It would be nice to be able to be the woman for once.’ It was our second meeting, and I was already sure that she was dangerous. From the beginning, I had noticed how a terrible warmth, which in other circumstances might actually have been charming, spread over her face whenever she thought she had upset me or fingered a sore spot. Later, when she felt more at ease, and more certain of my compliance, she openly dictated to me, issuing threats of violence, or some other form of recrimination, as my motivation. Very quickly, I extricated myself from this situation. Indeed, I spent much of the small number of weeks that the relationship lasted plotting a safe exit; but, in terms of the book under review here, what I find most interesting now is how it was evident that she saw relationships in terms of control and power, and, more specifically, that she equated masculinity with brutishness and dominance. She never outright said the words, but I got the impression that, as she continued her role as the ‘man’, she saw me as, or tried to make me into, her idea of a ‘woman.’

“A very special case. A few years more, and that pretty creature who you love too much, I think, will, without ever loving them, have known as many men as there are beads on her aunt’s rosary. No happy medium! Either a nun or a monster! God’s bosom or sensual passions! It would, perhaps, be better to put her in a convent, since we put hysterical women in the Saltpetriere! She does not know vice, she invents it!”

Monsieur Venus was published in 1884, and, as with almost everything I read these days, was then banned [this time in Belgium] when it was judged to be pornographic. Moreover, it begins with a preface that states: we warn readers that at the very moment they are cutting these first pages the heroine of our story is perhaps going past their front door. All of which threatens, or appears to promise, depending on your attitude towards this sort of thing, sinister or unsettling content. Moreover, that preface specifically suggests that the female lead will be something of a monster, or certainly someone of whom one ought to be afraid. Indeed, the word ‘monster’ is used more than once in the text to describe Mlle de Venerande, and on one occasion she is even likened to the Devil. While, in terms of decadent French literature, what she does is rather tame, it’s fair to say that some of her actions could be said to justify the terms applied to her. In short, Raoule, as she is referred to throughout most of the book, falls for, pays for, and then systematically dominates and feminizes a young man, who, ultimately, she has killed. 

I’ve seen it written that Monsieur Venus is a forward-thinking novel in the way that it engages with the currently hot topics of gender roles and gender fluidity. Raoule, for example, does not simply take the name of a man, she also dresses as one, and acts like one. In the language of today, one would say that she is a woman, in biological terms, who identifies as a man; and others see her in this way too. Raoule’s aunt calls her niece her ‘nephew’ and even her suitor, the mustachioed hussar M. de Raittolbe, plays along, speaking to her, and behaving towards her, as though she is ‘one of the boys.’ Conversely, her object of affection, Jacques Silvert, is associated with typically feminine activities or qualities. His entrance into the novel is as a man surrounded by flowers, and his first sentence is to introduce himself as Marie [who is, in fact, his sister]. His physical appearance is described as ‘thickset at the hips’, with slim ankles and straight legs.  

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You will have noticed that in the preceding paragraph I wrote about ‘feminine activities’ and masculine behaviour as though these things are fixed, and I would like to point out that these ideas about gender are not mine. They are taken from the text, and sometimes from the mouths of the characters. In this way, it would seem that Monsieur Venus isn’t as enlightened, or ahead of its time, as some commentators would have you believe. To be a ‘man’ in Rachilde’s world is to smoke, to fence, to take and jilt lovers, to have short hair, and, most significantly, to dominate a ‘woman’, often in violent and brutish ways. Likewise, Jacques paints flowers, simpers, pouts, cries, is indolent, and so on. He also allows himself to be kept. In short, both characters are little more than outdated gender stereotypes, only with the roles reversed. To identify as another sex must not, surely, mean simply to take on the most negative behaviours and attitudes associated with that sex, but that is how it is presented here.

For me, to concentrate on gender fluidity when discussing Monsieur Venus is a mistake, for what it is really about is power and control. This is demonstrated throughout the novel in a number of ways. There is, first of all, the physical, emotional, and mental control exerted by Raoule over Jacques. He is frequently compared to a child, while she is clearly more mature [she is literally older, although that is by-the-by]. As with all bullies, Raoule does not go after a strong personality, such as M. de Raittolbe, but rather she targets the weak and vulnerable. Secondly, there is the power of money and class. Jacques is, to put it simply, very poor and Raoule is exceedingly rich; he is the son of a whore, and she of noble birth. Both characters, but especially Jacques, are ever conscious of the class and financial divide between them. He is in awe of her position in society, which naturally makes him her inferior, one that is expected to be compliant; while she is only able, at least initially, to control her lover, to even make him her lover, by paying for him.

However, while I remain convinced that Monsieur Venus does not have anything truly meaningful to say about gender fluidity, or homosexuality or bisexuality [both of which are hinted at, but never explicitly explored], I do think it touches upon something interesting with regards to what it was like to be a woman at the time. Not a lot is made of it, but Rachilde suggests that Raoule behaves the way that she does, that she takes on the role that she does, because she is frightened of being, or being seen as, vulnerable herself. This feeling of vulnerability is heightened when she falls in love, for to be in love is to lay oneself bare, is to give up, or have taken away, some of the power one has over oneself. Therefore, her actions, her transformation, could be seen in a different light. One might argue that Raoule makes herself one of the boys, even going so far as to mistreat her ‘mistress,’ so that the boys will identify with, and not mistreat, her. It is, in this way, a form of self-defence. She acts like a man to prevent herself from being treated like a woman.

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THE SHE DEVILS BY PIERRE LOUYS

Of all the women I have met, and fucked, since I became single, since I lost my love, Rachel had perhaps the best heart. Yet I treated her terribly. I say I lost my love, but that isn’t true. I still had it. I treated Rachel terribly because it was now all mine, and no longer shared. But that isn’t the real point of interest, not this time. Rachel was training to be a doctor and when we fucked she would explain the process, would break it down for me, medically. She spoke about her ‘vulva’ and my ‘glans,’ and I would cringe. She would happily swallow my come and then seek to enlighten me as to why it didn’t taste bad or, to be specific, like anything much at all. [A rare occurrence, apparently, that means the lack of something in my system; a situation that might indicate I have cancer]. Her sex talk was so clinical that it was profoundly unsexy; and it made me realise that the acts in which we engage are not everything, that the purely physical isn’t the whole of it, and that language and narrative are important too.

“Despite the fact that my sexual exercises are ordinarily as reserved and conservative as my language, my moral scruples do not go so far as to prevent me from fucking a mother on top of her daughter and then deflowering the same daughter on top of her mother.”

The She Devils was written in 1910 by Pierre Louys, who was, according to wikipedia, made a Chevalier and then an Officer of the Légion d’honneur for his contributions to French literature. However, the book wasn’t published until the 1950s and then, unsurprisingly, only under a pseudonym. I have read a lot of sexually explicit, or so-called erotic, novels recently but I have never before had an experience such as I had with this. It is, to put my cards on the table, the only book that has got close to arousing me. This had something to do with the content of course – although I would like to point out that not everything in it excited me, some of it even disturbed me – but was more about the presentation of that content. What I have found is that, generally speaking, this kind of writing is approached in a Rachel-like manner, which is to say that it is too anatomical; or, and this is equally off-putting, there is sometimes an attempt at imbuing the acts with poetry or beauty. I have, in fact, always felt when reading erotica previously that none of the participants – neither the characters nor the authors – were actually enjoying themselves.

Pierre Louys, however, wrote in a blunt, and enthusiastic, fashion such that when Teresa says she will empty the narrator’s balls ‘with a twist of my asshole’ you believe it. Blessedly, there are no ridiculous extended metaphors, there is no obfuscation, suggestiveness or innuendo; everything is up front [or down below or round the back]; and it was really refreshing and, yes, occasionally, genuinely, hot. Yet before you all rush out to buy The She Devils I do feel as though I ought to say more about the content, to be specific about what you will encounter, for it really is not, I would imagine, for everyone. There is, to begin with, a lot of anal; more anal in fact than vaginal intercourse. There is oral performed on men and women; there is lesbianism and group sex; there is come swallowing and come swapping; there is coming on tits and there is coming on faces; there is ass to mouth and rimming; there is fingering; there is…well, honestly, pretty much everything that you could think of, including, erm, bestiality and, um, shit eating. No, really.

For me, it was fascinating to discover that a lot of the things that we think make us kinky, or broad-minded, now were, it seems, being performed by people over a hundred years ago [at least]. There is sometimes a temptation to believe that dirty sex is somehow a modern invention, that prior to our generation everyone was fucking missionary style while still wearing most of their clothes. Indeed, if someone had an interest in the most eyebrow-raising elements of The She Devils – the scat and the scenes in which come is shit from one woman’s arsehole into another’s mouth, etc – we would possibly attribute it to a jaded population raised on the accessibility of internet pornography. In fact, I have heard the claim, which is often framed as a joke, many times, that internet porn has raised the stakes, made conventional sex boring, and introduced a number of extreme acts into the public consciousness that were invented purely for the visual medium; and yet this book suggests that this is not the case.

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I have thus far given no real indication as to what The She Devils is about. I mean, it is primarily about fucking, of course, and I think you’ve got that, but there is, despite its plotlessness, a little more going on than that. The set up is of a young man, aged twenty, who narrates the action, and who lives next door to a family consisting of a mother and her three daughters. The young man is horny, and the family are prostitutes. He has each member of the family in turn, and occasionally has more than one of them at the same time. Two of the daughters are underage – being eleven and fourteen – but I don’t want to labour too much over the pedophiliac aspects of the story, or the incest for that matter. I do, however, think it is worth considering some of the characters individually. The narrator is particularly interesting because he is the only one with reservations. When one of the girls wants him to call her a whore, for example, he will not, not even to excite and please her. Likewise, when one of the girls wants to indulge in a rape fantasy he declines, for resistance ‘freezes’ him. Moreover, he frequently gives voice to his disgust in relation to some of the things the girls want or are prepared to do and criticises their mother for intentionally raising them to be experimental nymphomaniacs.

The narrator is therefore the novel’s moral heart. He passes judgement. The title itself is a moral judgement: the women are devils. It is difficult to know whether Louys was aware of his chauvinism in regard to this, whether it was, in fact, intentional or not. What I mean by this is that the women – who all absolutely enjoy sex, the filthier the better, and who, in fact, make all the demands and lay down all the rules – are being criticised, literally demonised, while the man who fucks them, well, isn’t, or certainly is not to the same extent. The narrator reviles the girls’ mother, rightly considering her behaviour towards her daughters, and yet this doesn’t stop him, and as such he is complicit in their abuse. It’s possible that Louys was making a point about weakness or hypocrisy, about how the sexual urge is so strong that moral objections can be compromised or dismissed, at least during the act, but I’m not so sure. It seems more likely that it is simply an example of the old double standard where sex is concerned.

However, I do feel as though the novel deals sensitively and intelligently with the subject of prostitution. As suggested previously, the daughters were trained from a very young age by their mother to be whores. They are indoctrinated in the same way the little girl is in Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel, and, as with that novel, Louys writes about the harmful effects of what we are exposed and introduced to in childhood. So, yes, the girls enjoy sex, they enjoy beating themselves off too, but that does not mean that they haven’t been abused. Moreover, I found particularly moving a couple of the things that Charlotte – the eldest, and most sensitive, daughter – says about her trade. When discussing bestiality she states that a dog is less disgusting than a magistrate, and I think the intention was not to take a cheap shot at a certain profession, but to say something about men and the way they treat women, particularly whores. The animal, unlike the clients, doesn’t have any ill intention, it is not trying to hurt or exert power or dominance or control. Sex itself is not the problem, sex is not bad, it is the attitude that we sometimes bring to it that is. This is made even clearer when she says: ‘you think that things like that disgust us? No. It’s the men not the acts.’

THE TUTU BY LEON GENONCEAUX

‘You don’t ever talk to your friends about it?’ she asked. No, I replied, of course not. She – my partner at the time – laughed and said: you’re repressed. ‘We all go to the toilet; even girls, you know.’ Girls shit. I knew. I know. But did that mean it had to be a topic of conversation between us? Was I, in refusing to entertain the subject, denying her the level of intimacy that she deserved? Does every other couple comfortably share their excretory experiences? Maybe she was right: I am repressed. I don’t want to discuss bodily functions. Repressed, and probably a bad man. I remember someone once telling me about how her boyfriend would enter the bathroom and take a shit while she showered. Cool as you like. How often did this happen? Regularly, she said. Ah, I shouted, he waits until you are in the shower! He wants you to see and hear him shit, the dirty bastard! He wasn’t repressed. Certainly not. What a beautiful relationship they must have had.

“The only thing in the world that matters is us. Nobody will ever guess at the sublimities hidden within our hearts. Nobody else here on earth eats the brains from corpses and drinks the spittle of asthmatics. Let us act so that we might die in the satisfaction of having experienced, we alone, the True Sensation, of That Which Does Not Die.”

On the cover of the handsome Atlas Press edition of The Tutu it is stated that ‘it was written under the pseudonym of Princess Sappho, and is presumed to be the work of Leon Genonceaux.’ I do not often read the pages that precede a novel, but that ‘presumed’ tempted me, motivated me, to make one of my few exceptions via-a-vis Iain White’s introduction. I won’t retell the whole story here – or as much of the story as is known – but it is worth picking out some choice titbits. Genonceaux was responsible for publishing both Lautreamont and Rimbaud, the latter resulting in legal action against him. Marvellously, instead of facing up to the charge, he apparently went on the run. Later, he was charged again, on the grounds of publishing a book with an obscene cover, and again he fled. If someone is in fear of being arrested, is essentially in hiding, then putting one’s name to another obscene work – for The Tutu would almost certainly have been considered obscene – would not have been the wisest move. Hence: Princess Sappho.

However, as satisfyingly Borgesian as that all is, there’s more: some believe the book to be a hoax. On the first page of his introduction White writes that ‘it was published in the autumn of 1891’, but that ‘nearly all of the print run seems to have disappeared.’ Yet, in his final sentence, he asks: ‘what effect would it have had if it had indeed appeared in 1891, when it was written?’ Now, it is perfectly possible that I am misunderstanding his use of the term ‘published.’ To me that means that it made its way into the hands of the public, or at least had the potential to, if any of them had seen fit to part with money for it. Can something be published and not appear? Did White make a mistake? Or are we  – the readers – being played here? [If you have the answers to any of these questions, then please keep them to yourself, for I do not want to have to rewrite this review]. In any case, the confusion surrounding the book, and more importantly the sense of playfulness, is certainly in keeping with the contents.

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The Tutu is largely concerned with Mauri de Noirof, a dandyish sort who ‘always dressed with studied elegance.’ On the opening page he picks up a brick and wonders whether it ‘had a soul’ or whether it was ‘troubled by the rain.’ One understands immediately that he is something of an eccentric, a dreamer, a man perhaps at odds with his milieu. Indeed, his mother later says that she adores him because he is ‘not in the least like other men.’ And it is true, he isn’t, yet maybe not in the way that one is thinking; which is to say that he’s not a shy and sensitive little pup. The key to his character is, I think, evident in his chief ailment, which is his forgetfulness. Mauri’s bad memory – he orders cabs and makes appointments with women and keeps them waiting for hours – suggests to me, not that he has a serious medical condition, or that he is depressed, but that he is bored. It is as though he almost sleepwalks through life, barely allowing its events to trouble his consciousness. He says of himself that he is scared of life, but that didn’t come through to me. Alongside his boredom, I saw disgust and dissatisfaction, and it is the combination of all these feelings that, in my opinion, prompt his, let’s say, stomach-churning indulgences.

Of these indulgences, the most scandalous is his sexual interest in his mother, which is, moreover, reciprocated. Indeed, the book ends with Mauri bending her over a coffin, an act that is described as ‘impure and hideous.’ If one is bored, dissatisfied, and disgusted, then one might look to enliven one’s existence by doing something extreme, and, in an attempt to upset others, those others who disgust you, something shocking. Incest is, of course, considered unacceptable by society at large; and Mauri understands this, for numerous times his laments the law that prevents him from marrying the woman who brought him into the world. It is, therefore, the extremity, and shocking nature, of the act that makes it appealing, more so than the physical charms of his mother. Furthermore, this act is likely to not only shock the people who disgust Mauri, but it sets him apart from them in his own mind, for it is something that they would never do. It is his being capable of it that makes him superior to them.

Yet not all of the unpleasantness contained within The Tutu is attributable to Mauri. In fact, the scene most likely to make the reader gag is when a man eats the tail of a dead, maggot-infested, cat. There is also – if you would like a list, either as warning or recommendation – piss, snot eating, vomit, shit [ah maybe now you see where I was going with my introduction], a woman breastfeeding snakes and another who is, um, tongued by a corpse. All of this leads one to wonder about the author’s intention. Was he trying to poke his finger in the ribs of people like me, the unapologetically repressed? Was he saying that this is life – bodily functions, death, decomposition – and one should not turn one’s head away from it? Certainly I think that was part of it. But I also believe that he, in grotesquely humorous ways, wanted to urge his reader to make the most of their time on earth, which, as Mauri’s mother says, ‘ought to be an extraordinary sensation.’ This making the most of life, this experiencing of extraordinary sensations, need not mean drinking sputum and eating brains, of course, but rather not allowing oneself to, well, sleepwalk through it.

There is much more that I would like to discuss, especially the satire, but this review is overlong already, and the satire is rather obvious. Princess Sappho, or Leon Genonceaux, took pains to aim arrows at all of society’s pillars: marriage, religion, parent/child relationships, etc. Before concluding, however, I want to return to the idea that The Tutu might be a hoax. This theory holds up somewhat not only because of the obscure origins, and publication history, of the book, but also because it strikes one as modern in its construction. There is, for example, something of the surrealists automatic writing about the way the bizarre scenes seamlessly merge, so that one is not always sure where Mauri is or who he is talking to. There are, moreover, passages from other sources, including Maldoror; there is a conversation with God, a dream sequence, a picture, and a score. What one is left with, as one turns the final page, is less a feeling of disgust, although that is there there too, but more an admiration for the author’s own joie de vivre, for his enjoyment in his creation is evident throughout.

LES DIABOLIQUES BY JULES BARBEY D’AUREVILLY

I started reading Les Diaboliques on Valentine’s Day, which, in retrospect, seems appropriate. A year ago, almost to the day, I had broken up with someone I loved, and still love, deeply, but whose love I was not worthy of nor equal to. For quite a while I was uninterested in seeing anyone else, in the hope that someday she would give me an opportunity to prove myself, but as it became less and less likely my eye started to wander; or, perhaps more accurately, I started to become aware of the eyes trained on me, eyes that, as it has turned out, were full of madness and pain. There are a number of strange stories I could relate, some of which are simply too long and others I am unwilling to revisit here; yet if I was to say that the most recent woman in my life left the country and moved back to Portugal, within two weeks of our first meeting, it will give some idea of my romantic misfortunes.

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Les Diaboliques was written by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, who was considered to be something of a dandy, and was published, to some controversy, in France in 1874. Roughly translated the title means The She-Devils, and each of the short novels, or short stories, contained within it are concerned with amorous relations, and tribulations, between men and women, and each has a mystery element to it and/or involves an extreme act of violence. As is usually the case when I review a collection of shorter pieces, I will not write about each entry individually. Instead I will focus mostly on the opener, The Crimson Curtain, which has I believe been made into at least one film, and use this as a basis for discussing the book as a whole. Indeed, this particular story possibly best showcases all the elements, ideas and themes that makes d’Aurevilly’s work so consistently compelling.

The Crimson Curtain begins with the narrator travelling in a carriage with the Vicomte de Brassard, who is said to have ‘pretensions to youth’, despite being ‘well past that happy era of inexperience and foolishness.’ I have not seen it highlighted elsewhere, but age is significant in nearly all of the stories. In Don Juan’s Finest Conquest, for example, the Comte de Ravila de Raviles is a womaniser on the verge of retirement. The purpose of this focus on ageing could be to make a point about youthful indiscretions, of which we are all guilty, what with each anecdote told being one that looks back to an earlier period in the subject’s life. However, it is apparent that in the minds of the men themselves, when they are given the opportunity to speak for themselves, and perhaps for d’Aurevilly also, they were blameless, or at least must only take a small proportion of the blame, for the unhappy events that take place.

For me, the central characters being of a certain age, and almost all feeling a kind of ennui, is more a symbol of the changing, or changed, nature of French society. I do not, unfortunately, know enough about French history to be able to write with any authority on the subject, but it is clear by reading Les Diaboliques that the author was saddened, and possibly concerned, about the direction the country was taking, or had taken, and was nostalgic for an earlier time, for ‘a world long disappeared.’ Of the Vicomte he writes: ‘the sunset rays of this grand elegance, which had shone upon us for so long, would have made all the little rising stars of our day seem pale and meager.’ Note the mocking ‘little rising stars’, which is in direct contrast to the glowing way he describes the Vicomte. This sneering at the modern generation and society comes through on other occasions too, such as when it is derided for its ‘peace gatherings and philosophical and humanitarian absurdities.’

While all that is interesting enough, the meat of the story, and all the stories, is, as previously suggested, a love affair. What is most striking about these affairs, however, is the role of women in them. The women, far from being damsels in distress, subservient arm candy, lovestruck airheads, etc, are independent, of mind if not always fortune, and aggressive. They know exactly what they want and, yes, how to get it. In The Crimson Curtain, the young and impassive Alberte audaciously takes the lead and gropes the Vicomte under the table. She is the seducer, not the seduced. In Happiness in Crime, Hauteclaire Stassin is a master fencer, who runs her own fencing school and eventually runs off with a rich and married man. Here, as in The Crimson Curtain, one is given the impression that the man is the lovesick fool and the woman cold and calculating and strong.

“She was one of those women of good family who no longer exist, elegant, distinguished, and haughty, whose pallor and thinness seem to say, ‘I am conquered by the era, like all my breed. I am dying, but I despise you,’ and – devil take me! – plebeian as I am, and though it is not very philosophical, I cannot help finding that beautiful.”

However, the question is, are the female characters in Les Diaboliques admirable – for they are – by accident or design? Was it not d’Aurevilly’s real intention to lambast them for their immorality, rather than praise them for their strength and independence? Certainly, the title gives weight to that argument, and one could view all of the stories as simple morality tales, or warnings. Moreover, one should not overlook that the women are frequently described in negative, sometimes demonic terms. One, for example, has ‘cold black eyes.’ They are also said to be ‘shameless,’ ‘wicked’ and ‘diabolically provocative.’ Is it not, therefore, a consequence of the author’s desire to create an atmosphere of horror (both gothic horror and moral horror) that the women behave in such outlandish and unimaginable (outlandish and unimaginable for that time) ways? These actions are, one might argue, another sign of a country, of a society, in decline, no matter how entertaining they are for the reader. And yet, for all that, there is, at times, a discernible twinkle in the author’s eye regarding his femme fatales.

Before concluding, I want to make some comment upon the structure of the stories, all but one of which are told by one man to another or to a group. The use of the framing narrative, the suggestion of people getting together to natter and gossip, is important, and ultimately successful, because it perfectly suits the material. There isn’t one amongst us who has not engaged in this kind of tale-telling, who hasn’t sought out a friend or colleague to share a juicy story regarding another person’s love life. Moreover, it also sows some seeds of doubt as to the veracity of the tales. One wonders if they have been made up, or at least exaggerated or dramatised, in order to titillate the listener. And titillate they do. I used the term gothic horror previously, and it is worth pointing out that this extends far beyond a few choice phrases. In these six tales, a woman dies during sex, a wife is murdered, and a baby’s heart is thrown around during an argument. None of the men, however, get a blowjob in the rain from a woman with a bearded dragon – yes, a real bearded dragon – clinging to her chest, as someone I know recently did. I couldn’t possibly divulge names though.

SYLVIE BY GERARD DE NERVAL

Gérard de Nerval’s ‘un petit roman’ has been in my sights for a while, but this was possibly the worst time to read it. Last night, at 4am, I found myself crying in the dark. The tears, which today I find shameful, were so unexpected as to seem unreal. At first I thought they were the product of strained, tired and watery eyes, but then I realised that she had, once again, and almost without my being conscious of it, slipped into bed with me. She; but not she; she as the phantom I have conjured up in my imagination, who I could make do and say everything I want her to, but who, in my imagination, I cannot play false. If only I had shown her the same consideration when she would have happily pandered to my every affectionate whim.

Earlier in the day I had tried to reach out to her, and she had slapped away my hand. Yet at 4am, in the presence of her double, I was certain that I ought to call her or get up in a few hours and board a train so that I could reconcile, if not she and I, then at least the two versions of her. Perhaps in the sphere of reality, with all its flaws and faults, its awkwardnesses and disappointments, I could shed some of the layers of my love. But in the spotlight of day I was overcome by cowardice, such a predictable cowardice, and so instead I wallowed in Sylvie.

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[The Suicide of Gérard de Nerval by Gustave Doré]

The book begins at the theatre, where the narrator is said to spend each might ‘dressed in the elegant garb of an ardent suitor.’ He is, he thinks, in love with an actress, Aurelie; and one assumes, at this early stage, that Sylvie is going to be a love story, or perhaps anti-love story, about the romantic trials and tribulations of a central male character in frivolous, unforgiving Paris. However, in narratives of this sort – Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac being a particular favourite of mine – it is usually the case that our man starts out being green and hopeful, whereas this narrator is already weary and cynical when we meet him. Indeed, he is reticent to present himself to Aurelie, believing that ‘actresses were not women, nature having forgotten to endow them with hearts.’

This weariness is, I’d argue, vital in understanding his psychological impulses. When the narrator retires to bed he is, while half asleep and ‘fending off the bizarre concatenations of dream’, drawn back to his youth in his memories; his, as he now sees it, idyllic youth, when he would romp around with, dance and kiss, Sylvie, a local peasant girl ‘so fresh, so full of life.’ If one is satisfied in the present, if one is happy with one’s current lot in life, then one tends not to indulge in this kind of nostalgic reverie. As the novel progresses, and the narrator does what I was too scared to do, which is to say he returns to the scene of his memories, so to speak, one comes to see that Sylvie is, at least in part, about trying to recapture the past; or, more accurately, it is about the impossibility of recapturing a past which seems so much more enchanting and wonderful than what one has now.

The most heartrending thing about your memories is that they are cast in amber. The world of your memories stays the same, but the real world does not, nor do the real people who populate it. Indeed, when the narrator once again meets Sylvie, in the present day, he notices that she has changed; she is older, albeit still beautiful, no longer makes lace, and now has a sweetheart. Most tellingly, when he tries to engage her in reminiscence she seems reluctant, for she has moved on; the past does not hold quite so tight a grip on her as it does for him, because, of course, she is happy and he is not. Yet it is not only in relation to Sylvie that the heavy-hand of Time is felt. In one scene, the narrator visits his uncle’s house and finds that a cherished dog, ‘who used to accompany me on my wanderings through the woods,’ is sitting on the table, stuffed. Moreover, a local spot is ‘now no more than a ruin gracefully entwined with ivy, its steps loosened by the invading bramble.’

The reason that it is impossible to recapture the past is, of course, because it no longer exists. Your memories of the past are simply representations, copies, reenactments of something forever lost. It is, in this way, telling that the novel begins at the theatre where reenactment, where illusion, and the suspension of disbelief, are obviously important. There is, throughout Sylvie, a tension between reality and fiction, between what is real and what is not. Indeed, when contemplating the actress he loves, the narrator wonders ‘who or what she might really be.’ This is significant in two ways. Firstly, because, as an actress, she is of course playing a role, and he is unaware of her true character. Secondly, and most importantly, Aurelie is not Aurelie to him, but Adrienne.

“This vague, hopeless love I had conceived for an actress, this love which swept me up every evening when the curtain rose, only to release me when sleep finally descended, had its seed in the memory of Adrienne, a night-flower blooming in the pale effulgence of the moon, a phantom fair and rosy gliding over the green grass half-bathed in white mist. This resemblance to a figure I had long forgotten was now taking shape with singular vividness; it was a pencil sketch smudged by time that was now turning into a painting”

In one of his reminiscences, the narrator tells of meeting a girl at a festival dance. The girl, Adrienne, is asked to sing a song, and ‘as she sang, the shadows came down from the great trees and she stood there alone, lit by the first rays of the moon.’ This is, of course, much like an actress on stage, in the spotlight. At the end of the festival Adrienne leaves and is never seen again, having been sent to a nunnery. However, she continues to haunt the narrator, to the extent that he falls for an actress who reminds him of her. This is interesting not only because it, again, communicates something about how memory works, which is how we superimpose our memories upon other people and other things, but also in the way that it alters one’s reading of the novel.

It is not Sylvie, not even the memory of Sylvie, the double of Sylvie, who is the great love of the narrator’s life, as he claims at one point, but this unknown woman, this ‘mirage of beauty and glory.’ So, while de Nerval’s story is often said to be about memory, it is as much, if not more so, about imagination. Sylvie – domestic, kind, attainable – is, by his own admission, a symbol of reality, but Adrienne is the romantic ideal. Indeed, I believe the most significant scene in the book is when he is at the club with his friends, towards the beginning, and he talks of ‘drinking ourselves into oblivion from the golden cup of fable, drunk with poetry and love – love, alas, of vague shapes, of blue and rosy hues, of metaphysical phantoms.’ These vague shapes and phantoms wield their power by virtue of their mystery, by being not-knowable, by being necessarily, completely unattainable. Therefore, Sylvie is, at heart, a portrait of a man who is, in more ways than one, sadly and insistently grasping at thin air.

THE TORTURE GARDEN BY OCTAVE MIRBEAU

I am of the opinion that sadistic and masochistic impulses exist within everyone, but that often one or the other is more pronounced. What is interesting about these impulses, however, is that people are generally more comfortable with accepting, or acknowledging, the pleasure they experience as a consequence of their own pain than they are the pleasure gained from the pain of others. This is, you might argue, because the former is more socially acceptable; to enjoy being hurt, even to an extreme degree, does not suggest a kind of moral failing. Sadism, on the other hand, strikes us as sinister; it is linked in our minds to morally [or at least legally] impermissible activities such as murder, and is therefore deemed incompatible with a civilised society. Yet this does not mean, of course, that the pleasure ceases to exist, simply that we – the so-called civilised – endeavour to disguise it, we seek to mask it under the guise of curiosity, science, progress, righteousness, etc.

As someone who finds the suffering of others difficult to stomach I consider myself to have a very weak sadistic impulse, and yet one of my earliest memories is of playing maliciously with a small fly. I was on a bus and it was raining, and this had caused condensation to collect along the bottom edge of the window. When I spotted the fly I, almost absentmindedly, pushed it into the pool of water. Then I waited, allowing it to struggle. After a while I extricated it, only to push it back into the water at the moment at which, I imagined, it believed itself to be saved. I repeated this manoeuver until the fly stopped moving. And at this point I felt ashamed. Did I, however, feel ashamed because I had killed the fly or because I could feel society’s disapproving gaze burning into my back? Was I judging myself or was I scared of the judgement of others? Was my shame not, in truth, the realisation that I had allowed the mask to slip, that I had, in my naivety, allowed the ugly black cat to poke its head out of the bag?

Having read The Torture Garden, there is little doubt as to how Octave Mirbeau would have answered these questions. First published in 1899, his short novel opens with a group of men – who, owing to the private nature of their meeting, feel as though they have the freedom to express themselves without inhibition – discussing our – human beings – preoccupation with violence and death. Murder is, one of the men claims, ‘a vital instinct which is in us all.’ The reason our society has not descended into bloody anarchy is because we indulge this instinct – which is natural – by giving it ‘a legal outlet’, via war, colonial trade, hunting, etc. While this might strike some readers as being a drearily negative or cynical view of humanity, as someone who is drearily negative and cynical myself I was furiously, albeit metaphorically, nodding my head throughout.

However, not everyone indulges this impulse by means of actual physical violence. In some it finds an outlet via what Mirbeau calls ‘counterfeits of death.’ For his characters these ‘parodies of massacre’ are found in places such as the fair, where people shoot with ‘rifles, pistols, or the good old crossbow at targets painted like human faces’ and others hurl balls ‘knocking over marionettes ranged pathetically on wooden bars.’ In the present day one sees analogous behaviour in those who play unpleasant video games which involve butchering computerised civilians. It is, I believe, also the reason that many are so drawn to certain kinds of horror film, the torture porn genre in particular. Indeed, I have often had arguments with a friend of mine about this, a friend who watches and re-watches titles like Saw, The Human Centipede, Hostel, and so on. He is, in my opinion, undoubtedly deriving pleasure from these staged dismemberments and murders, precisely from these elements of the films, for what else do they have to offer? If he was disgusted – which is what I would consider a healthy reaction – he would avoid them, as I do myself.

“Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he will always see that word: murder—immortally inscribed upon the pediment of that vast slaughterhouse—humanity.”

While the discussion of these ideas is engaging, one does, after a while, reach a point where one yearns for some kind of narrative momentum. Fortunately, Mirbeau appeared to recognise this, and at the right moment introduces the character of the man with the ravaged face, whose story accounts for the rest of the novel. In this way, The Torture Garden’s opening section is a false beginning, is a kind of philosophical prologue that could be skipped, but which, I would argue, enriches what is to follow. The man, who isn’t named, is described as having ‘a bowed back and mournful eyes, whose hair and beard were prematurely grey.’ The ravaged face and prematurely grey hair is significant, because it suggests that something may have happened to age him, some distressing event that has impacted upon his physical appearance. This provides the book with some necessary mystery and excitement and motivates the reader to continue, for of course you want to find out exactly what occurred.

It is the man with the ravaged face who first brings women into the discussion. To have neglected them is, he claims, ‘really inconceivable in a situation in which they are of primary importance.’ This situation is, remember, our preoccupation with, and tendency towards, violence and murder, sadism and torture. His argument is that women in particular derive from these acts, or from the observation of these acts, not merely pleasure but a sexual pleasure; he, in fact, compares the actions of murder with those of sex, where ‘there are the same gestures of strangling and biting—and often the same words occur during identical spasms.’ One can guess, on the basis on this argument, that it is specifically the man’s experience with a woman that has changed him. Indeed, he confirms this himself a little later: ‘Woman revealed crimes to me that I had not known!—shadows into which I had not yet descended. Look at my dead eyes, my inarticulate lips, my hands which tremble—only from what I have seen!’ The name of this woman is Clara, and she is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature.

She is introduced as an ‘eccentric Englishwoman,’ who ‘talked sometimes at random and sometimes with a lively feeling for things.’ Yet despite the man’s intention to bed her she remains ‘impregnably virtuous.’ At this stage one considers oneself to be in familiar nineteenth century literature territory. There is the caddish gentleman with the ‘awkward past’, and the pure, but, one assumes, eventually willing, object of his desire. However, as already hinted, as The Torture Garden continues Mirbeau confounds your expectations, and makes of the woman the aggressor, the ‘villain’, and the man the love-sick, silly slave. Indeed, at one point Clara is compared to the dum-dum bullet, the notorious expanding ammunition that was designed to cause maximum damage in the intended target by creating a larger entrance wound and no exit wound.

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Before continuing it is worth noting that there is much in the novel about deceit, about people seeming to be, or acting as, something that they are not. Clara is an example of this, of course, but there are many others. The man with the ravaged face, for instance, first meets her in the guise of a scientist, which is simply a cover for leaving France, where he has disgraced himself. Furthermore, the men who open the novel are said to ‘present only lies to the public.’ Indeed, The Torture Garden is, amongst other things, a political satire and the idea that powerful men are not honest about who they really are is frequently touched upon. On this, there is a fairly long section which features Eugene, a corrupt politician who is intent on getting to the top by any means necessary, but who the narrator threatens to expose by revealing to the public his true character. In contrast to man, nature is said to be only and always itself, for it lacks ‘the ability for improvisation.’ This appeal to nature reminds one that earlier in the novel the murderous impulse was deemed natural. Yet I don’t think that Mirbeau was necessarily advocating indulgence of this part of ourselves, rather simply pointing that we are constantly engaged in subterfuge, in running away from, or disguising, who, or what, we are.

I wrote that Clara is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature and have perhaps not fully backed up this claim so far. For the man with the ravaged face she is a ‘monster’ and it is her behaviour in China, where she attends and revels in various tortures, that justifies this description. I don’t want to linger over the barbaric acts themselves, not least because reading about, and revisiting, them makes me uncomfortable. What is important, in relation to Clara, who is a devout sexual-sadist, is that she finds them beautiful, sensual. To some extent I can understand this, for torture is a concentration upon the body, it is working upon the body with almost loving, but certainly intense, attention; it requires an understanding of the body, and a theatrical, quasi-artistic, approach to murder. [Take the torture of the bell, which involves placing a man inside a large bell and ringing it until he dies]. In any case, how should one understand this woman? Is she natural, uninhibited humanity? She says of herself that she is not a monster, or at least no more than the tiger or the spider is.

There is much more to The Torture Garden than I have touched upon here, and much more that I would like to discuss, but this review is in danger of becoming monstrous itself. I do, however, want to point out that the novel is not quite as heavy and intense as I have perhaps made it sound. I mean, certainly large parts of it are, but there is humour too. For example, in one passage a man who kills a young boy by fracturing his skull is outraged at being sent to prison: ‘They dragged me before some judges or other, who sentenced me to two months in prison and ten thousand francs fine and damages. For a damned peasant! And they call that civilisation!’ Later the same man is asked why he kills black people: ‘Well—to civilise them—that is to say, to take their stocks of ivory and resins.’ Ok, so it’s a dark humour, but it made me laugh anyway; and they are precious to me, those sniggers and smiles, because, although I agree with Mirbeau almost completely in his opinions and ideas and conclusions, I also believe [or have deceived myself into believing] that life isn’t only baseness and vulgarity and violent, barely restrained, impulses, that it provides less alarming enjoyment too, such as a well-written book and a few pissy jokes.

LA-BAS BY J.K. HUYSMANS

For years I’ve been having a dream, a recurring nightmare, which features me and whoever I am in a relationship with at the time. In this dream nothing out of the ordinary happens, except that I am convinced that my partner is evil, is, specifically, possessed by something evil. Indeed, on one occasion I actually pushed the girl with whom I was sharing my bed away from me while I slept, believing her to be demonic. It is not, of course, difficult to interpret this dream, but, outside of any subconscious negative feelings towards my girlfriends, it is, I believe, still significant, because it involves something that, for no logical reason, absolutely terrifies me [and I don’t mean being in a relationship].

Despite not being religious myself, and not having been raised by religious believers, or ever having been particularly exposed to them, the satanic, well, possesses me. I’m as drawn to it, as I am petrified of it. I used to watch a lot of horror films at one time and, regardless of how poor the film was, if anyone started croaking out a bit of Latin and pulling gymnastic body shapes I was wanting to run out of the room. You might argue that my fear is atavistic, is a kind of psychological remnant of a time when the majority of people truly believed in this stuff, when they felt as though the prospect of hell was a genuine one. Who knows? But satanism is certainly the reason I was simultaneously attracted to, and wary of, J.K. Husymans’ La-Bas.

“Really, when I think it over, literature has only one excuse for existing; it saves the person who makes it from the disgustingness of life.”

The novel centres around a disillusioned author, Durtal, who is writing a book about the ‘virtuoso of suffering and murder’, and dabbler in the occult, Gilles de Rais. On the basis of what we learn about him, de Rais was a real life Maldoror; in fact, he is credited with one particularly unpleasant act – making a child think that you have saved him, so as to enjoy his shock when he realises that you intend to butcher him – that also features in Lautréamont’s Chants. These murders, which according to Huysmans number into the hundreds, were, it seems, part satanic ritual and part an expression of de Rais’ ennui. As the novel progresses, Durtal himself gets mixed up in satanism, which he justifies as being part of his research.

While I did approach La Bas with caution, the truth is that I needn’t have been concerned at all. The book is mostly plotless, is relentlessly, often drily, investigative and philosophical [with an emphasis on the historical], such that a significant proportion of it reads like an academic textbook. Therefore, all the tension and atmosphere that the subjects of child killing, dismemberment, and satanic practices, might have created is lacking. I freely admit to being a coward, and yet there wasn’t one moment during my reading when I felt especially unnerved or uneasy, not even the black mass scene, which is frequently commented upon. This is not, however, necessarily a fatal flaw, for there are numerous interesting ideas and passages in the book – such as the opening discussion about Naturalism, which I agreed with completely – but one will certainly be disappointed if one comes to it looking for thrills and shocks.

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Indeed, that La-Bas opens with a chapter dedicated to the merits or otherwise of Naturalism is telling, for it is as much, if not more so, a book about art and literature as it is about satanism. Huysmans states that Naturalism rejects ‘every high-minded thought’, that it is concerned only with appetites. It may, as Durtal notes, have rid the world of romanticism, and rescued literature from ‘tedious idealism’, but it is, nevertheless, a dead-end, because it is not concerned with the soul. What Durtal advocates is a kind of supernatural realism, similar to that created by Dostoevsky, of which La Bas itself could be considered an example. The book is, then, partly about the author’s dissatisfaction with writing, both his own and other people’s, and was born out of his quest to create a new or better form of literature.

Moreover, one ought to bear in mind that all of the main characters are outsiders, are in a sense lost and/or disappointed with themselves and with the times; they are, to quote Husymans, ‘lives out of alignment.’ Take Durtal, a man whose soul ‘is clogged up with filth.’ He is an author who has given up writing novels, and who detests the literati and the present generation as a whole. He is, in writing a book about de Rais, shying away from the modern world, retreating back into the middle ages. His work on satanism and spirituality in medieval France is an act of avoidance, but it is also clearly an attempt to find himself. There are an abundance of references in the book to the superiority of the old ways, and the vacuous nature of modern attitudes and behaviour, which is best represented in the bell-ringer, Carhaix. This occupation, which was once so significant, the sound of bells being said to ‘echo the state of the town’s souls’, is now near-redundant [prophetically des Hermies predicts that real bells will soon be replaced with electronic chimes] and has been stripped of meaning or profundity.

“He did not believe, and yet he admitted the supernatural. Right here on earth how could any of us deny that we are hemmed in by mystery, in our homes, in the street,—everywhere when we came to think of it?”

What Huysmans seems to be suggesting is that people in the middle ages were more spiritually, emotionally alive, be that to one extreme or the other. This, for me, explains the real purpose of the focus on Gilles de Rais, who was both exceptionally good at one point in his life and exceptionally bad. Of course, one does not admire a child murderer and rapist, who has a sideline in Devil worship, but one cannot accuse the man of not wholly living, of not feeling and experiencing life to the full. And I believe that this is the point of interest for Huysmans, far beyond what it meant to be a satanist. Indeed, the title of the novel is sometimes translated as The Damned, but it is not the purveyors of black magic who are condemned, it is the spiritually lethargic, increasingly mindless modern man.