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DISAGREEABLE TALES BY LEON BLOY

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.

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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.

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BLACK MIRROR: SELECTED POEMS BY ROGER GILBERT-LECOMTE

Rien. Nothing. I have the word tattooed across my fingers. Not to remind myself, because I never forget. That which awaits me? No, because there will be no me to experience it. It will be the absence of me. Nothing. The absence of all things. Including me. The void. I never forget, although it is impossible to contemplate it. For my thinking is always targeted towards something. Everything we do, every aspect of our existence, is targeted. Even when we think we are not doing anything. It is simply a lie we tell ourselves. We are always doing something. We live with the idea of the void, not the reality of it. There is no reality. It is nothing. Not even the word with which we attempt to pin it down. Does anyone understand me? I am scared of this phantom blackness. Less than a shadow, than the wind. Less than the stillness, the silence. It is the absence of shadows, of wind, of stillness, of silence. Rien.

I’ll speak of the dark 
To dank caves
Mushroom beds eyes glowing in the blackness
I’ll speak of the dark to coiled snails
I’ll speak of the dark 
To rain to soot
To the circle of moonwater motionless at the bottom of a well
To barrels rolling in the cellar at midnight
When the white lady moaned
I’ll speak of the dark
On the blind side of mirrors
I’ll speak of the dark
Of immortal torture
Of most ancient despair
In the absence of a universe

To discover something is to draw it out of the void, to give it existence. Before it was nothing, now it is. To discover is to create. You, in your discovery, are responsible for that thing. You are the creator of the universe, or at least those bits of it that exist, which is to say the bits that you have experience of. I came upon the work of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte in the same way that I happen upon most writers or books: by semi-accident. I found him, I created him, I dragged him out of the void, by following a trail. By now the marks left my footprints have been erased. Which is a pretentious way of saying that I have forgotten what led me to Black Mirror. A brief mention in an online article covering the surrealists, perhaps. Or Rene Daumal, whose work I admire, and with whom Gilbert-Lecomte founded the avant-garde Le Grand Jeu artistic group and magazine. A long-term morphine addict, he died, I’m told, at the age of thirty-six as a result of an infection caused by the use of dirty needles; and yet now I have breathed new life into him and written his poems.

Whether accurate or not, my understanding is that Gilbert-Lecomte published only one full length book in his lifetime. It is called La vie, l’amour, la mort, le vide et le vent. Or Life, Love, Death, Void and Wind. It is tempting to end my review here, with that. No other title summarises a writer’s body of work better. However, what that title hints at, but doesn’t fully convey, is the hysterical, gothic surrealism of some of the poems. In Notes for a Coming Attraction, for example, he writes of ‘horror in tar: the grin of certain dead people.’ Indeed, some of his lines wouldn’t look out of place in the liner notes of a death metal album. Like this from The Borders of Love:Veiled in a red fog and buzz/Of blood seared by the venomous spells/And prestigia of desire/Exciting in the bend of your nocturnal throat/The voracity of vampires.’ Throughout, there are references to the ‘icy slithering of ghosts,’ and lemmings bashing their brains out, and fingers that ‘sprout insanely squealing diamonds/drops of blood singing in midair,’ and so on. Some of the images are theatrical and ridiculous, a great many of them are beautiful, but, regardless of how you feel about this sort of thing, there is certainly an impressive dedication to a specific [gloomy and anguished] mood.

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Of all the things promised by the title of his book – life, love, wind etc – it is the void that dominates. Gilbert-Lecomte’s poems are filled with phrases like ‘black oblivion’ and ‘ethereal abyss’ and a ‘place of absence.’ There is barely a line in the collection that doesn’t mention blackness or darkness, which, in our attempts to understand the concept, to grasp it, are words that are invariably associated with nothingness. However, while fear is certainly a present emotion in the text, I did not get the impression that the poet directs it specifically at the idea of the void, at the state [although of course it isn’t a state] of non-being. In fact, he appears to always exist within it. In The Borders of Love, for example, he writes ‘Blind as I am/In the caves of being that are the antechambers of annihilation.’ Which suggests to me that rather than being, as I am, petrified of nothingness, of what happens after death, Gilbert-Lecomte’s despair is directed at his being [not the future lack of it]. 

This makes sense when one considers how troubled and difficult his existence was. On the Station Hill Press website, the publisher responsible for Black Mirror, it is written that ‘his life was a succession of jail and hospital confinements.’ I have also read that he was forbidden to marry a woman who was later deported to Auschwitz [and did not return]. And there was, of course, the years of drug abuse and addiction. Non-being might begin to look attractive in such circumstances, or certainly not something to be afraid of. It is notable, therefore, that so many of the poems allude to the womb, or explicitly mention it. For example, Gilbert-Lecomte writes of ‘caves of darkness,’ and being ‘at the bottom of the deepest cave,’ and of being ‘rooted in uterus/A ghastly fetus doomed to one more round/Of procreative desperation/Spinning on the wheel of the horror of existence.’ It is often [wrongly] claimed that our only experience of nothingness is pre-life, pre-consciousness, but again I don’t think that this is entirely what he had in mind. The womb, unlike life outside, is safe; to return to it is a comforting notion. Moreover, certain drugs, including morphine, are said to give you a feeling of contentment and safety that is womb-like. To my mind, Gilbert-Lecomte was preoccupied with the void, yes, but as a pacifier, and as something to aspire to, perhaps.

GAMIANI, OR TWO NIGHTS OF EXCESS BY ALFRED DE MUSSET

Our arrangement was that we wouldn’t talk at all, that as she entered my flat she would go immediately down on her knees without a word being exchanged between us. This was her fantasy. Throughout our communication, in the days leading up to her arrival, she always brought it back to this: don’t speak. She wanted to be treated like a whore. However, afterwards, after climax, once her mind had cleared, it became apparent that she was beginning to regret it. I have never done anything like this before, she said, in an attempt to excuse, or apologise for, her behaviour. Guilt and shame were working their insidious conjuring trick, transforming an event that was morally neutral into something bad, something negative, something wrong. What had been a pleasurable experience was already becoming that which she could not allow herself to contemplate or acknowledge. Yet, while she doubted and judged herself, I admired her. She had not only dared to dream, but dared to bring that dream to fruition.

“We, who are scarcely more than fantasies ourselves; will’o’the wisps who exist in this world only as the most fugitive of dreams; or nightmares, rather, in the troubled sleep of some lesser god.”

Gamiani is credited to Alfred de Musset, who is these days known – if at all – for his poetry. I’m sure that there are good reasons for linking him to the novel, but he certainly never himself took responsibility for it. This is not surprising when one considers the content, which involves a great deal of, at times unpleasant, sex. There are several scenes involving torture, although these are not particularly explicit; there is group sex, which seems par for the course with these sorts of things; there is some strap on action; and there is a little bestiality. These last two warrant further consideration, if only for the laughs. Of the strap on, de Musset muses that ‘the most generously endowed stallion in his moment of extremest power could not, at least as regards thickness and volume, have equalled that device.’ Most preposterously, he further notes that when a spring is pressed on its side it expels warm milk ‘halfway across the room.’ In terms of the bestiality, this centres around an enormous black dog called Medor who appears to be rather adept at cunninlingus.

However, it isn’t all warm milk, smooth tongues, and belly laughs; de Musset did have some interesting, if sometimes outdated, ideas about sex. The book begins with a man, Alcide, peeping on Gamiani while she seduces another woman [well, fifteen year old girl, to be precise]. He states that ‘what looked like rape was, I quickly understood, a kind of dance.’ This could of course be no more than a weak attempt to justify sexual abuse. Certainly, Rape or coercion crop up frequently in works of this sort, but that isn’t something I intend to discuss here. What is notable about this line is that it sets the tone for much of the sex in the book, or, rather, the attitudes and behaviour of the central characters towards sex in certain circumstances. Outside of marriage, under cover of darkness, sex is an animal, brutal activity, it is a ‘raging paroxysm.’ Anything goes, anything is permissible if it gratifies. Indeed, the gratification comes by way of indulgence; it is a consequence of truly letting oneself go. Yes, someone might play coy but what they really want is to devour and be devoured.

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While for much of Gamiani one would be forgiven for thinking that de Musset was an advocate of libertinage, of sexual freedom, ultimately the opposite appears to be the case. When, following the first night, Alcide wakes up next to Fanny [the girl with whom both he and Gamiani – singularly and in union – take their pleasure] he finds that he is a gentleman again and no longer a beast. In the light of day, his mind is not full of filth, but syrupy, sentimental, moralising twaddle. For example, he says of the kiss that he and Fanny share: ‘I felt her soul upon my lips.’ Lips that only hours before were wrapped around his dick. Yet, in the morning, he feels ashamed, and expects, imagines, Fanny’s shame. In the morning, this buffoon is in love.* In contrast, when he looks in upon Gamiani, who is now cast as an evil temptress, she is described as being in an ‘ignoble heap, her face distorted, her body unclean, distorted.’ This is the worst sort of patriarchal claptrap: the innocent and the whore; both to be enjoyed and both to be judged by impossible, hypocritical standards. Indeed, the finale to the novel sees both temptress and tempted die upon their sword; and by sword I mean, of course, a large penis.

The suggestion is that Gamiani is based on de Musset’s affair with the bisexual author George Sand. If so, it isn’t, as you might have noticed, a flattering account of that relationship. Gamiani is said to have ‘the grace of a empress’, to have good manners and effortless style, but it is clear, as I explained in the previous paragraph, that her story is meant to serve as something of a cautionary tale. She says of herself that she is isolated from feeling; that ‘hell prowls’ in her spirit. She is tough and voracious and obviously a symbol of what happens when someone is too in thrall to their libido. Gamiani cannot be satisfied; she desires ever more intense and extreme sexual activity in an attempt to find satisfaction, much like a drug addict will take ever larger doses in order to get high.  However, for me, and for many others I am sure, she is actually the [unintentional] heroine of the novel. I’m not suggesting that we all fuck dogs, but I do believe that we should look upon the urgings of the body in a more sympathetic, tolerant way. There are, in fact, a good many people I know who would be happier if they could do this, if they – if we – could finally, fully throw off the shackles of guilt, timidity and shame.

 

*love itself is not buffoonish, rather the fact that Alcide ‘falls in love’ partly out of shame and partly because he now feels he ought to protect Fanny.

120 DAYS OF SODOM BY MARQUIS DE SADE

I never thought that I would become tired of sex. In the last twelve months, however, I’ve done it more times, and with more women, than I had in all the previous years of my life combined; and recently I’ve noticed a change, a hint of boredom creeping into my lovemaking, like the shadow of a pot-bellied man crawling up a bedroom wall. I had once been so easy to please, so straightforward in my tastes, but now? If someone were to suggest the missionary position I would be horrified. The shadow of the pot-bellied man looms larger, and between his legs dangles a most flaccid and unimpressive cock. I have a preference for certain acts, of course, but I’ve never really had any kinks or fantasies. I’ve always found that sort of thing ridiculous, for it suggests to me a mind gone awry, a defect, a glitch in the system. Sex but not sex. Sex incognito. Yet last week I was talking to an underwear and fetish model. She was fresh off a job in which only her feet were of interest. ‘It’s because they’re forbidden, because they’re not the norm, because they’re kind of ugly and dirty; you’re not meant to sexualise them and so they become sexy,’ she said, and while I still didn’t feel any stirrings myself, for the first time I, in my jaded state, understood.

“Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace.”

The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom appears to be one of those works that many people have heard of but know little about in terms of the specifics of the story. I was one of the many. In fact, I was under the impression that there was no narrative at all, that it was simply a catalogue of sexual deviancy. And it is that, but there is a frame around the kinks and perversions, in which four libertines gather together – some by way of abduction – a group of men and women, but mostly boys and girls, in a remote castle. There, they have a number of aged prostitutes recount their experiences, which are progressively more extreme, and which they then re-enact with the other inhabitants. This is, indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel, because it makes an audience of the libertines, almost in the same way that you, the reader, are; and just as the power of suggestion works upon them, there is the chance it will work upon you too. Certainly, not everything contained within will appeal to everyone, or I would sincerely hope not, but there is such a range, and it is so imaginative, that I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something. I think there is a misconception about pornography that people only go to it with, and looking for, pre-established ideas about what turns them on. There is some of that, no doubt, but I also think that, for better or worse, it also suggests, it teaches, it moulds.

While 120 days of Sodom is not a character study, the four libertines are sketched in some detail, to the extent that one is informed of both the length and circumference of their dicks. The Duc de Blangis is fifty years old, and ‘may be regarded as the repository of all vices and all crimes.’ His brother is a Bishop, who is, we’re told, ‘treacherous and cunning,’ and a ‘loyal devotee of active and passive sodomy.’ The President de Curval is ‘the walking image of debauchery and libertinage,’ who has a ‘dreadful squalor about his person that he finds sensual.’ This gentleman’s erections ‘are rare and only achieved with difficulty.’ Finally, Durcet, a financier. He has a ‘woman’s build and all of her tastes.’ In considering the four men a number of interesting ideas and similarities emerge, many of which are expanded upon, or given more weight, as the book progresses. First of all, one may have noticed that each of the men are rich or of noble birth. While de Sade doesn’t explicitly discuss the issue of class, it cannot be a coincidence that every anecdote involves people in a position of power and prosperity. One might say that these are the only people who can afford to use prostitutes, but I believe there is more to it than that.

Throughout, the small number of peasants are the only characters shown in a positive, or sympathetic, light. They are pious, good-hearted, downtrodden, or happy-go-lucky, while the rich have peculiar tastes or are simply monstrous. For example, one poor old woman is dragged from her sickbed and abused by a wealthy man; her daughter, who her mother very much loves and who cares for her, is abducted by the man and likely murdered as part of a sexual act. In another anecdote a working man shits, not for his own gratification, but for a rich man who has paid for this service. So what, if anything, is de Sade saying, indirectly at least, about class? The rich are the only people who have the time and the means and the imagination for these kinds of perversions, that in fact the free time and great wealth enables their imaginations. Secondly, if one can buy whatever one wants, if one can (by virtue of one’s power and wealth) have whomever one wants, then one is likely to become jaded very quickly. Therefore, to be a libertine, to be aroused by, to engage in, extreme or unusual sexual acts is, in this instance, an end point, it is arrived at as a way of reinvigorating dulled senses.

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I have already used the term libertine multiple times, and that is because it is insisted upon in the text. Barely a page goes by in which it doesn’t appear more than once. To be a libertine is to indulge oneself, sensually, to excess, without regard to conventional moral principles. This is both the way of life and the philosophy of the four central characters; it is this that bonds them together. Far from having one particular kink, the men are interested in anything that is unconventional, anything that conventional society would deem wrong or disgusting, including rape, torture, incest, and murder. Indeed, anything criminal adds to their enjoyment, by virtue of how shocking, how frowned upon it would be. Perhaps this anti-conventional attitude is the reason why women are so scorned by the four libertines (and by the majority of the men in the book). Make no mistake, they are vehement misogynists, to an almost laughable degree. For example, there are numerous instances where a woman showing her vagina or breasts to a man sends him into a rage. It is, in almost every story, the arse they want! Always the arse! There are, indeed, several rhapsodic speeches on the subject, such as when one of the libertines salutes ‘divine arses! How I reproach myself for the tributes I stole from you! I promise you an expiatory sacrifice – I swear on your alters never to stray again for the rest of my life!’ The arse is of course not uniquely feminine.

“Only the law stands in my way, but I defy it – my gold and my influence place me beyond the reach of those crude scales meant only for the common people.”

As I sat down to write about 120 Days of Sodom there were a large number of themes that I intended to explore. My notes, in fact, totalled over a thousand words, and much of that I still haven’t touched upon, and will not, including the topics of nature and religion. I realise now that it is inadvisable, if not impossible, to discuss everything of note in detail. This review will have to serve as a kind of introduction, if it has any use at all. Bearing in mind the name of the author, one thing that it seems necessary to include is the role of sadism within the book. Surprisingly, sexual torture, and the pleasure gained from it, makes up only a small part of the prostitutes’ stories. However, the main reason for this is because the book is unfinished, and only one whore – she who is tasked with outlining the simpler pleasures – is able to give a fully fleshed account of her experiences. One is left in no doubt – and de Sade’s own notes attest to this – that there were greater horrors to come. Yet there is still, even within the ‘finished’ part of the manuscript, much that is disturbing, certainly when removed from the atmosphere of the text as a whole. For example, the inhabitants of the castle, aside from the four libertines of course, are not allowed to shit unless given permission and are not allowed to wipe or clean themselves. This is because the men have designs upon the shit, but also because they enjoy the power, they enjoy how unhappy it makes the boys and girls.

Throughout the book, de Sade makes it clear that almost none of the young people, nor the men’s wives, are willing participants. They shit in the captives’ mouths, and have them shit in theirs. They fondle, maul, and force them to suck and swallow, they rape and fuck arses and cunts. The disgust and pain their victims feel during these abuses is commented upon, albeit only in passing. It is this, more than the acts themselves, that turns the old lechers on. Within the castle there is a system of punishment, which the reader never has full access to, but which we are informed will be barbaric, potentially fatal. The victims, who are innocent both in terms of their overall situation and often in terms of the ‘crime’ they are charged with, are constantly reminded of the compassionless nature of their judges. The situation within the castle is, therefore, absolutely not the form of sadism that is currently en vogue, it is not a consensual exploration of mutual fantasies involving a master and a slave, a dom and a sub, although there is some of that within the stories the first prostitute tells. In any case, there were occasions when, rather than providing a libertine manual, I felt as though it was de Sade’s aim to torture his reader, to make them his victim; and yet, if so, he failed.

“If it is the dirty element that gives pleasure to the act of lust, then the dirtier it is, the more pleasurable it is bound to be.”

Before I finish, I want to return to a word I used earlier, which may have struck you as strange, or even disconcerting, given the context, which was ‘laughable.’ There is, without question, nothing funny about kidnapping, misogyny and sexual abuse. When I was reading A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet last year I was deeply troubled by its contents and had to quit before the end. 120 days of Sodom is, however, or was for me, extremely amusing in places, because it is ridiculous. There is a marked difference of tone between this book and Robbe-Grillet’s. First of all, one never believes in the characters or the situation. I could not buy into de Sade’s reality. The four libertines are cartoonish, vaudeville, over-the-top; they stop just short of twirling their moustaches and laughing in an exaggeratedly sinister fashion. Moreover, consider again some of what de Sade tells you about them: one of them can’t get an erection, one of them only fucks arses and has his own fucked, and two of them have prodigiously large dicks. It’s terribly hard to take any of them seriously.

These men all have an insatiable sexual appetite, to the extent that they appear to be turned on, to be able to fool around, all day, every day; and most of them come multiple times. They are truly Herculean! Consider, also, some of the acts, the shitting in particular. It is no exaggeration to say that the libertines devour three or four turds a day each, and none of them end up unwell. They even put their captives on a special diet in order to have them produce especially tasty shit. I don’t want to labour over the scat too much, but it dominates the book, and there came a point when, despite having no interest in shit myself, be it sexual or otherwise, I started to gleefully anticipate the ceremony. de Sade had put me into a state of near delirium or hysteria. Every anecdote would end, I knew, with one person shitting in another’s mouth. It was like being locked in a room where someone tells you the same joke over and over again until you’re on the point of insanity and joyously shouting out the punchline in unison with your captor.

In other areas, the repetition was more of a issue. I am aware that de Sade wrote the book in prison, and that it is, at noted previously, unfinished. It is likely, therefore, that even the ‘completed’ part of the text is only a draft of sorts, and so it feels churlish to criticise, but there are frequent passages that are interminable. For example, I do not know how many times one needs to be told that the Duc thigh-fucked Zelmire, but it is certainly less than forty. Nor does one really need to be told, over and over again, who took who into the cupboard, especially as you are never informed as to what happens in there. There are, moreover, other instances of this sort, whereby de Sade will keep things, certain acts or events, from the reader, because, he states, they are too extreme for this particular part of his narrative and would be out of place. Which begs the obvious question: why tell us at all then? In any case, my enjoyment was not spoiled by these flaws. I did not think, even for long periods during which I read it, that I would be able to say that I love 120 days of Sodom; and yet I do. Perhaps I am even more jaded than I thought. The shadow of the pot-bellied man looms ever larger.

FATALE BY JEAN-PATRICK MANCHETTE

There is money on the floor of my bedroom. Coins and notes. Whenever anyone comes over they joke about it. You must be rich, they say, to leave all this lying around. Untouched, unclaimed. I’m not rich, of course. Last week, however, I found four hundred and seventy pounds in Czech koruna on my bedside table. In my wallet is roughly two hundred pounds in Russian rubles. I’m not rich and yet my casual attitude towards money suggests otherwise, suggests a lack of need at the very least. And it is true, I don’t need it, not because I have so much as to make that word – need – meaningless, but because I was raised without it. I was raised without money, and so I am not in thrall to it. It’s almost as though I don’t understand its power. I feel detached from it; there is, for me, a sense of unreality about it. For eighteen years I lived without money, without ever buying anything, without ever coveting anything. When I was a child, for example, I thought that cars were mechanical creatures, completely independent of human beings. They existed on the roads, at a distance. It never occurred to me that you could own one. And I still don’t drive. Not once have I considered it, even though, quite clearly, I can afford the lessons.

“I am very interested in promotional items and free gifts,” continued the baron. “Also in trash. I have no income, you see, and a man with no income is bound to take a great interest in free gifts and trash.”

Published in 1977, Fatale begins with a hunting expedition, which, now that I think about it, is significant, is entirely appropriate, because a hunter is precisely what the central character, Aimee Joubert, is. Although you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She is described as being thirty or thirty five, as slim with ‘delicate features.’ She is, as with all noir leading ladies, attractive, appealing, sexual. Her smile, we’re told, is charming. But it isn’t just her smile that catches the eye. Naturally, many of the men in the novel are drawn to her; they want to help her, and fuck her too of course. Yet, as previously suggested, none suspect her of being a hired killer. This, for me, is what is most interesting about Aimee, for she bucks the trend of the wise-cracking, brazen femme fatale. In most noir novels that I have read one could not mistake these women for anything other than what they are: money hungry, immoral harlots who would kiss you hard and hit you even harder. That is part of the fun.

Aimee, however, although good looking and enigmatic, is fairly inconspicuous or certainly eager to blend in and observe. The hunter must not, of course, stand out too much, otherwise the prey might become spooked. It is also the case that often femmes fatales are weak women who act strong. Aimee, on the other hand, appears ‘fragile,’ and ‘feminine,’ while being, in reality, hard and durable, and almost manly [in private, at least]. She is, as noted, a killer for hire, but it’s not really that. It’s how, for example, she eats when she’s alone, voraciously, gracelessly, with food dribbling down her chin. It is how she speaks when the mask slips, bluntly, peppering her sentences with swear words. It is how she masturbates matter-of-factly. She is aggressive, but in a controlled way. She is, furthermore, well trained, expert, physically commanding. There is a scene in which she is shown to be using a chest-expander and throwing punches at a thick piece of cardboard.

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The opening of Fatale, the hunting scene, is significant in a second, more subtle way. Aimee dispatches one of the men, the fattest of the bunch. Manchette insists upon his obesity, making it his critical, identifying feature. He writes about his ‘considerable backside,’ and describes how, when climbing down into a damp, narrow coomb, his ‘paunch pulled him forward.’ It strikes me that this is because fatness is associated with greed, and therefore with money, and these two things play a prominent role in the novel. Soon after disposing of the hunter Aimee bribes a porter. The man ‘fell prey to the charm of her smile and the fifty franc bill she held out to him.’ This is the first occasion, of many, where Manchette connects sex with money. For example, in the book’s most commented upon scene, Aimee strips naked in the private carriage of a train and rubs her sweaty body with her ill-gotten loot. The point, I think, is to suggest that money, like sex, is base, is dirty.

Certainly, the well-to-do inhabitants of Bleville are, with the exception of the baron, crooked and corrupt. They will do, and have done, anything to preserve their position, to further their position, and to make more cash. This is the circle that Aimee wants to infiltrate and ultimately bring down. When she first arrives, she talks to a realtor about purchasing property, while he is looking at her exposed knee. Sex and money again. The realtor is said to warm to her because he likes people ‘who take money seriously.’ The realtor is corrupt, of course. Aimee is too, let’s not forget, in the sense that she earns her pay by foul means. A Bleville sign impishly reads: KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN. Manchette mentions it frequently. It’s his little, yet not exactly subtle, joke. Money and dirt. It is telling that the scandal that threatens the successful Bleville men, and their wives, involves rotten fish. Telling that one man dies, towards the end, in a barrel of it, and Aimee, who is not without sin remember, rolls around in it. There is also another moment in the novel that is, for me, worth highlighting, which is when Aimee visits her mother. She wishes the old woman dead and yet brings her a present of an expensive sweater.

To say more about all this would perhaps ruin the book for anyone who wishes to read it. I may have ruined it already. In any case, I want to write something, before I finish, about Manchette’s style. I’ve already mentioned that his femme fatale is not the typical sort, but that is not the only way in which Fatale stands out. The noir genre generally trades upon a very specific, easily imitable, prose style. It is, as I have repeatedly stated in other reviews, broad-shouldered, punchy, and full of memorable lines. Manchette went another route. There is, first of all, not a single amusing wise-crack in the whole novel. Manchette wrote in short, often banal sentences, with an attention to insignificant detail that reminded me of Robbe-Grillet or Georges Perec. We learn nothing of his characters’ internal life, and yet we do know how fast the train is running and what Aimee’s weight is. More impressively, the author had a Flaubertian way of suggesting certain things without revealing them. For example, when a baby dies Aimee becomes panicky and upset, but her reaction is never explained. One has to guess, and I like that. I liked Fatale, all told. I’ll often think of it as I walk around my room, my cold feet stepping on the Queen’s coin.

THE HIGH LIFE BY JEAN-PIERRE MARTINET

What a world, Mesdames et Messieurs. What a world. Like a festering, rotting pighead in space. And us? We’re the fat, and ever-fatter, maggots that feed upon it. Sometimes, quite often in fact, I see people smile, and I have to wonder ‘are they mad?’ Or am I mad? Don’t they see? Maybe that’s the way: close your eyes and smile. I’ve always known that our planet is a horror show, and so nothing surprises me. Take the men in the entertainment business, those men that are currently being outed for years of sexual harassment or misbehaviour…am I shocked? I am profoundly not shocked. It is as I expected. It is simply the case that we are looking now, yes, we are looking at them and inevitably we are finding brutality, misery, and a host of other horrible things. The whole world, I tell you, is like this. Peer into any corner, shine a light on it, and you will see the filth. Take off your gloves and draw your finger along the surface and tell me how it feels. Greasy and unpleasant, isn’t it?

The world is a blocked sink, and I refuse to put my hand in there and rummage around in the dirty water, amongst the soggy, disintegrating scraps of food. So I read. I withdraw into another world. Is it a better world? If it is, it is only by virtue of not being real, of not actually existing, so that there’s no chance of encountering the awful people who inhabit it. I take my solace where I can find it. I take it by degrees. Often, I’m not even reading. I simply hold the book before my ghoulish face as a kind of barrier, a protective screen. People tend to leave you alone if you look as though you are reading. But there are those who ask: what are you reading? Usually on trains. Sitting next to some enormous old woman who wants desperately to tell you about her gay nephew or her wretched granddaughter’s wedding. I, of course, tell the truth. I say: it’s a book about pushing an eyeball up a girl’s ass; or, it’s a book about trying to fuck a bear, only the bear has a flaccid cock; or, it’s a weird little book about a weird little man who works at a funeral parlour and fantasises about killing people.

“Dark, yawning grave, ogre’s vagina, tomb of sleep and night, night of marshes, marshes of silence, silence of death.”

The weird little book is called The High Life, and it was written by Jean-Pierre Martinet. You might think, upon finishing it: what a nasty slug he must have been to have conjured up something like that. Well, I don’t know anything about him. All people are ghastly so Martinet must have been too. I will deal with the major characters soon, if anything about them could be said to be major, but first let me say something about the minor ones: they’re vermin. The owner of the funeral parlour, for example, watches the narrator, Adolphe Marlaud, choke ‘with an irritated look’; a twelve year old girl, whom Marlaud attempts to prey upon, enters the parlour and starts to trash it; an old woman seems ‘beside herself with joy’ at telling the misfortunes of another; and Adolphe’s father, it is revealed, shopped his Jewish wife, the narrator’s mother, to the Gestapo. There are others, but I am sure you get the picture. The High Life is only twenty-eight pages long, but each page is packed, like a neglected baby’s soiled nappy, with filth of various kinds and consistencies.

Death is fairly prominent. I’ve already mentioned the funeral parlour and the mother whose fate was to be gassed at Auschwitz by the Nazis. But there is more: ‘abandoned corpses, partially decomposed young girls, mauve and green and white, calves murdered with the blows of a cleaver, at dawn, under a drizzling sky.’ What else? Adolphe’s lover attempts suicide; and Adolphe himself, as suggested earlier, develops a murderous impulse, offing the odd dog and cat along the way. But this – death – is perhaps the least disgusting aspect of the novel, if you want to call this dribble of piss a novel. The references to death barely tickle the nostrils, in the grander scheme of things. I’ve read worse; you’ve read worse; we’ve all most probably seen and thought worse. It’s the dreary relentlessness, the never dispersing, subtle smell of recently emptied bowels, that starts to unsettle the stomach. Even the style of the book is crude, with references to ‘shit, ‘jerking off,’ and ‘cum on the walls.’

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One doesn’t get to know Adolphe, in the Tolstoyan tradition. He is, in truth, barely alive as a character. Although that is the point, you might argue. ‘People generally called me a creep, or compared me to a bug,’ he says of himself; and bearing in mind his actions this actually undersells his unpleasantness. Marlaud is, in any case, very self-aware; he is not at all fooling himself. Martinet goes to great lengths to promote his character’s disagreeableness, and, although one wouldn’t call it sympathising, his woes. He is, first of all, only four feet tall [while his lover, incidentally, is over six feet in height]. He is a ‘runt,’ with a ‘urinous complexion’; he is a man so ‘ugly, so miserable’ that he has become a ‘lover of shadow and silence.’ You might want to make complex psychological deductions based on all this, but, quite frankly, I don’t have the inclination or energy. What struck me most, and what is in fact the novel’s main source of entertainment, was Martinet’s enjoyment, the glee he clearly felt in coming up with creative ways to describe, in piling on, the misery.

Consider the sex scenes with Madame C. Martinet, as Adolphe, writes about ‘her monstrous breasts unfurling upon me with the muted rumbling of an avalanche.’ And I must confess to having laughed a little. Likewise when she is said to have ‘ejected me from her tremendous vagina, leaving me on the floor like a dispossessed king.’ If there is a weightier concern, a serious point to all this, a transcendent theme, then it is in relation to power, specifically abuse of power or the feeling of powerlessness. Madame C. takes Marlaud, not against his will, but not exactly willingly either. She overpowers him, with her large body, but with her personality, with force of character, with desire, also. When Adolphe buys a gun to shoot the cats that bother his father’s grave – a man who, remember, denounced his own wife – he finds that he suddenly feels in control, even God-like. ‘I had no idea there was such strength in me,’ he says when he offs some butterflies. Which is funny, certainly, but sad and alarming too, for it seems to me that, as we as a species inch ever closer to collapsing under the weight of our own faeces, it says something revealing about how we have got ourselves in this position in the first place.

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVES BY BORIS VIAN

At one time I would actively avoid pain and unhappiness, torture and murder, in my reading. I called those who sought out that kind of thing literary ambulance chasers. And yet over the last twelve months I have found myself increasingly indulging in it too, even though it still disturbs and upsets me. I justified it to myself as a newly developed interest in the history of outré, extreme or anti literature, and the decadent, erotic and gothic genres; and while that interest is genuine I didn’t ask myself why, or what motivated it. Then, as I read Boris Vian’s discomforting I Spit On Your Graves, it occurred to me that it is, at least to some extent, because I am, and have been for over a year, deeply unhappy myself. In part, this is due to my personal circumstances, but I’m also angry and hurt by what is happening in the world at large. While I still feel compassion for others, I now realise that I am probably drawn to books that confirm this negative world view, the view that people are essentially full of shit and life is mostly viciousness, pettiness, vapidity and suffering.

“Nobody knew me at Buckton. That’s why Clem picked the place; besides, even if I hadn’t had a flat, I didn’t have enough gas to get any farther north. Just about a gallon. I had a dollar, and Clem’s letter, and that’s all. There wasn’t a thing worth a damn in my valise, so let’s not mention it. Hold on: I did have in the bag the kid’s little revolver, a miserable, cheap little .22 caliber pea-shooter.”

These days, Boris Vian is most well-known for the cute, some would say twee, love story L’Écume des jours. He wrote I Spit On Your Graves, which as previously suggested is decidedly not cute nor twee, in two weeks as a genre exercise. On face value, it is a passable, better than average, and certainly readable, example of hard-boiled noir in which a man arrives in a town and seeks to take revenge upon some of the inhabitants for the murder of his younger brother. The narrator, Lee Anderson, is engagingly, typically, broad-shouldered and mean; and the supporting cast also conform to expectations, which is to say that the men are hard-drinkers and the women – who make up the majority – are hot-to-trot. Moreover, while Vian didn’t have the best ear for noir dialogue and one-liners, there are a few memorable wise-cracks, such as when Lee says of Dexter’s father that he was ‘the sort of man you feel like smothering slowly with a pillow’ or when he is asked what he intends to do with the Asquith sisters and he replies that ‘any good looking girl is worth doing something with.’

What makes Anderson, and therefore the book as a whole, unusual is that he is a black man who looks like a white man. Nearly all noir is political, because it is so class conscious; it deals almost exclusively with the lower – a word I use economically, not necessarily morally – elements of society and with crime. However, not often, or certainly not when the book was written, is race a factor. In I Spit On Your Graves, race is used, first of all, as a motivation for murder, as Anderson’s brother was killed by white people and it is white people upon whom he wants revenge. Secondly, and more interestingly, it is also used as a weapon. Anderson is able to pass amongst the whites because he looks like them. Using the stealth of his appearance, he targets two young, local white girls, who he intends to bed and then dispose of. Crucially, he wants them to know that they were fucked by a black man before he kills them, as he believes that this will horrify them.

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It is worth pointing out before going any further that the book was originally published under the name Vernon Sullivan. This was not, moreover, an ordinary pseudonym. In a move that put him in the same position as his central character, Vian – a white Frenchman – took on the disguise of a black American, going so far as to pen a preface in which Sullivan outlines the intention or philosophy behind his work. That Vian would not want his own name associated with the book is not surprising, as a story this controversial and relentlessly grim might have been career suicide. However, I feel as though his decision to use a persona, especially that of a black man, was an unfortunate one. First of all, if you are going to write something like I Spit On Your Graves, in which I imagine Vian believed he was making serious, important points about his society, you ought to have the balls to claim it as your own, and not try and palm it off on the very elements of that society that you feel are unjustly treated. Secondly, using Vernon Sullivan strikes me as an attempt to give his opinions and ideas authenticity, as though he understood himself that a successful white Frenchman speaking for disenfranchised black America suggests a lamentable, almost offensive, level of arrogance.

In his preface, Vian has Sullivan express his contempt for the ‘good nigger, those that the white people tapped affectionately on the back in literature.’ He goes on to explain his intention to write a novel in which ‘negroes’ are shown to be as tough as white men. And, well, while I understand what Vian was getting at, vis-a-vis a patronising attitude towards black people in literature, he doesn’t show Lee Anderson to be merely tough, but rather he shows him to be all the stereotypes that were/are expected of a black male. He is athletically built, criminal, violent and sex obsessed. There is barely a paragraph that goes by in which the narrator is not lusting after one young teenage girl or other. Sex is – far more than revenge, or his brother, or injustice – almost all he thinks about. Furthermore, one also has to ask why all the girls that Anderson sleeps with, and in some cases rapes, are underage. I struggled to understand the relevance of that. It felt seedy, nasty, and pointless. To have made them of age, in their twenties for example, would not have altered the story at all, except to make it marginally less disturbing. But maybe that was the point: Vian wanted his novel to be as unpleasant as possible, but to what end I do not know.