Last Christmas I decided I was going to buy my mother some books. She has always been a reader, but I had never really taken any notice of what exactly she read. So as the end of December approached I steered one of our conversations towards literature and was surprised to discover that she likes ‘the nastiest’ thrillers, featuring ‘gruesome, stomach-churning murders.’ I suggested a couple of titles, ones that I own, which, as I don’t enjoy nastiness myself, are admittedly PG13 in terms of content, and was told that they were ‘not horrible enough.’ As a result of this conversation, I, being a dutiful son, went away and did some research and tried to put together an appropriate selection of books. Indeed, I was put in an absurd, and uncomfortable, situation whereby I found myself having to weigh up whether, for example, a bunch of women being tied to radiators and repeatedly raped was more or less nasty than the slaughter and dismemberment of children. Where, I asked myself, do these acts sit on the unpleasantness scale? And the thing is, I could have spared myself all that, for I actually already had a book in my possession, one that I had completely forgotten about, but which, I’m sad to say, would likely give my dear old mother quite a thrill. It is The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop.

Before I move onto discussing just how unpleasant large parts of this little book are, I want to return to something that I wrote in the previous paragraph, something that might strike you as odd or inconsistent. I wrote that I don’t enjoy nastiness myself – and that wasn’t a lie, being someone who refuses to watch The Human Centipede, for example – and so you might justifiably ask why I would therefore even contemplate reading a book called The Necrophiliac, which is, I’m afraid, appropriately titled. Well, part of the reason is that I have lately found myself running short on books to read, and have, as a result, turned to more genre fiction, the kind of thing that I have until now not fully explored. The Necrophiliac is, then, the final stop on my short foray into outré gothic literature, which has also seen me take on Maldoror and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Secondly, and more significantly, I was interested in Gabrielle Wittkop herself. I have written previously that I don’t care about authors and their biography, that I actively avoid all that stuff, but in this case I think it is relevant, and certainly goes some way to explaining the allure of her work [for me, at least]. Wittkop was a French writer, who married a deserting Nazi, one assumes in order to legitimise and protect him, but also to provide a front for his homosexuality. Moreover, Wittkop committed suicide in 2002, after having contracted lung cancer [which my mother also has]. This was, quite clearly, a ballsy lady, someone who really didn’t give a fuck what people thought of her, someone who was opposed to any kind of “social consciousness,”  and was intent on living her life, and dying, as she saw fit. And I find that attractive, and it made me more sympathetic to her book, it made me see it in light of her desire to not only piss off conventional society, but also exercise her freedom.

“She’s not one of the dead from whom I have any grief in separating myself, the way one deplores having to leave a friend.  She certainly had a mean character, I would swear to it.  From time to time, she emits a deep gurgling that makes me suspicious.”

So, how unpleasant is the The Necrophiliac? Very is the short answer. I must admit that I was close to abandoning it after only two or three pages. The book begins, one suspects intentionally, by giving you the impression that ‘the little girl’ being described is actually still alive – Lucien, the narrator, notes her ‘sly, ironic smile’ – and yet it soon becomes clear that she is not, as he declares that he cannot enter the ‘very beautiful dead girl’ right away, that he must wait a few hours until the body has softened. I was, without exaggeration, holding on by my nails at this point, but what follows will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. It is truly disgusting, truly vile. And it doesn’t stand alone. The scene in question isn’t simply a case of a book starting ‘with a bang’ and then settling down or becoming more approachable. There are numerous disturbing, and quite graphic, descriptions of sex with dead people, more than one of whom are children [including a baby]. Confronted with all that, this was the first time in my reading life that I had to make a concerted effort, a conscious decision, almost as though it was a test of endurance, to continue with a novel, when it would have been easier for me to have thrown it away from myself. Perhaps you have a stronger stomach than I do, but I make no apologies for what I have revealed [nor for my squeamishness]. Certainly no review of The Necrophiliac ought to play down its contents.

35mm original

[Skeleton netsuke, a miniature Japanese sculpture referenced in the novel]

I imagine that the book’s most ardent defenders [and they do exist, and I may be one myself, once I have had more time to digest it] will refer to Wittkop’s prose. There is an intentional discrepancy, a kind of disconnect, between the consistently appalling content and the sophisticated style. Wittkop, via Lucien, writes in impressively fluid, elegant sentences, that are reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov or the great Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampesdusa. Lucien is, in fact, almost charming, but certainly intelligent and persuasive company, such that you at times forget that he does, and truly enjoys, unspeakable things. Indeed, he often writes with genuine tenderness about his love for the dead people he desecrates [going so far as to claim that he doesn’t want to hurt the corpse of a little boy], and, as noted earlier, he treats them, speaks about them, as though they are alive, as though he has a legitimate relationship with them; he remembers them, he refers to them by name [which shows that they are not just a body to him], he eulogises them and the pleasure they gave or give him. I have actually seen the book referred to as a romance novel, and while that seems something of a stretch it could be said to be a love letter to necrophilia, to the special joys of union with a corpse. I must also point out that it is Lucian’s dry, straight-faced, very serious narration, that accounts for how the book is at points surprisingly funny. I’m not sure I have it in me to convince you of that, but there is definite humour in episodes such as when he calls little Lucian [which isn’t a euphemism for his penis, but rather himself as a child] a young romantic for eyeing some acquaintance and wishing that she were dead.

“Their fine powerful odor is that of the bombyx.  It seems to come from the heart of the earth, from the empire where the musky larvae trudge between the roots, where blades of mica gleam like frozen silver, there where the blood of future chrysanthemums wells up, among the dusty peat, the sulphureous mire.  The smell of the dead is that of the return to the cosmos, that of the sublime alchemy.”

If you have read Lolita much of what I have just been discussing will be familiar to you. The Necrophiliac is, without question, heavily influenced by Nabokov’s most famous, and best, work. That claim may serve to inspire more people to pick up and read Wittkop’s novel, but, for me, it is also something of a criticism, for it did, in places, veer almost into the realm of pastiche. There is, for example, a passage that is very similar to Lolita‘s ‘fire of my loins’ opening sentences [“Suzanne, my beautiful Lily the joy of my soul and of my flesh…”]. I guess the level of one’s admiration for the Russian, and one’s opinions about literary theft or influence, will determine how much this sort of thing bothers you. Another possible problem with The Necrophiliac is that it is just too short, clocking in at under one hundred pages, in a book that is less than standard dimensions. It may, for some, be a blessing that we don’t get to spend significant time with Lucien, but I would have preferred there to be more of a plot, so that the unpleasantness didn’t stack up, one after the other; I would have liked to be allowed to breathe a bit more, to enjoy the prose and some of the nice turns of phrase and interesting observations.  On this, it is also worth pointing out that Wittkop, as you would expect, only half-heartedly attempts to justify, or give an explanation for, her repugnant creation and how he came to be what he is. Lucien reveals that his younger self was masturbating [quite innocently, it seems] when he found out that his mother had died, and therefore one could see this as forming in his mind some kind of connection between sex and death. There are also some hints that, as with someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, he prefers the dead because they are, unlike the living, ‘silent’ and ‘agreeable.’

As I come to conclude, I am drawn back to my initial reaction to The Necrophiliac, which was to ask myself ‘Do I want to take this book to work?’* I think it was the first time I had ever contemplated this question. Do I want to be seen with this? Do I want other people to know that this is what I am reading? Do I, more specifically, want to field questions about it? I had visions of being in the staffroom and someone, as they invariably do, asking me ‘what are you reading?’ Ah, well, um…a book. ‘What’s it about?’ Er, oh…a man…who fucks dead people. ‘How interesting…are you enjoying it?’ Am I enjoying it? Did I enjoy it? Yes, yes I did. With one or two reservations.



For me there are a great many things that contribute to a rewarding reading experience, an almost ineffable series of qualities that a novel must possess for me to be able to enjoy it. Indeed, these things are what I am looking for when I am sat on my bed losing my mind for days on end, surrounded by shaky towers of books. Yet there is perhaps a single, fairly straightforward thing that elevates my favourites above the others, which is that I see something of myself in them. The more of myself I see, the more I cherish the book. I imagine most people feel that way. There is, however, one book that feels almost as though the author was possessed of the ability to see into the future, to fasten onto some kid from northern England and follow his progress, or deterioration, over the space of around twelve months. That book is Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac.

I don’t, of course, want to make the entire review about me [again!], but I find it impossible to think or write about Lost Illusions without referencing my experiences, without putting my gushing into some context, more so because the book is certainly flawed if I view it dispassionately, so let me tell a little story and get it all out; let my story serve as a kind of introduction. When I was nineteen I met and fell for a model who lived in London. Until I met her I was pretty uninterested in girls; I mean obviously I liked them and all, but I wasn’t crazy about them. Coming from where I come from, I didn’t really know that girls could be as elegant and beautiful as this particular girl. The more I liked her, the more time I spent in London until I was pretty much living there. For a while I enjoyed myself immensely; the girl was on the cusp of success and took me to lots of parties and events. I adored London. I was starstruck. If you’re a working class kid from Sheffield and you have this gorgeous girlfriend who is fawned over everywhere, and you yourself, for being with her, are fawned over also it is difficult to maintain perspective.

However, after a while things started to go awry. I began to notice that the people around her, and around me, who I had trusted were actually only looking out for themselves. Almost one by one I realised this. The scales falling from my eyes was a painful process, so much so that I almost went down with them. It was, I came to understand, impossible to have friends in London, or in those kinds of fashionable circles anyway, that the people who smiled at you were likely plotting to stab you in the back. Slowly I started to pick up their habits, to become cynical and two-faced and manipulative, because I thought that the only way to survive. Before too long I was living in a moral vacuum, where cheap sex, drugs and social climbing were the norm. It wasn’t until I returned home, back to Sheffield, that I came to understand how much I had changed. I lost something in London, something that, I guess, everyone loses at some point in their life. What had I lost? My illusions.

Lucien Chardon’s story arc is eerily similar to mine. He is a provincial poet, who moves to Paris, thinking that he will find fame and fortune. What he finds, instead, is that people in a big city will happily crawl over your carcass in the pursuit of their own wants and desires. He finds that everything, and everyone, in Paris is false, even if they appear absolutely to be the opposite. Lucien, like myself, is green and in the end Paris swallows him up. Of course, this kind of story is not particular to me, or Lucien, but you have to credit Balzac for nailing it. It shouldn’t, but still does, amaze me that human beings have changed so little over hundreds of years. The funny thing is that at the start of Lost Illusions I scoffed at Lucien Chardon. I inwardly belittled him, judged him harshly, and, quite literally at times, rolled my eyes at him. I suppose the reason for that is that not only was his story like mine, but his character also, and that embarrassed me. I even put the book down two or three times, actually abandoned it, because, I realised later, I wanted to distance myself from Lucien. Chardon is psychologically, emotionally, at war with himself. Part of him is thoughtful, artistic, sensitive, and another part is ruthless and ambitious and self-serving. This is what makes Lucien human to the reader; he knows what the right thing is, and feels drawn to that course of action, and yet, because he is so self-obsessed, is able to convince himself that what ultimately serves his own desires is the right thing and will, in the end, produce the best results for everyone, even if he has to trample on them in the meantime. This is, I would guess, why Balzac chose to call his protagonist a name that resembles the most seriously fallen, the most humanly flawed character in literature: Lucifer.

“I should do evil, with the best intentions in the world.”

Structurally Lost Illusions is really clever. In the beginning, Lucien plays court to Madame de Bargeton, the fashionable matriarch of Angouleme, and thinks, when he wins her, that he has done all the hard work, has won the finest victory, has raised himself to the top, only to find when they move to Paris that his victory is worthless, is nothing, and that there is a much greater, more difficult, war to fight: the fight to bring Paris under his heel. It’s a little bit like when playing a computer game and you destroy what you think is the end-of-level boss/bad guy, only to find that actually it was just some minion and the real boss is waiting for you around the next corner and he is fucking huge. What unravels after the opening section is, as noted, a tale of treachery and double-dealing of Shakespearean proportions, but I do not want to linger over all that. It’s great, of course, but I have written plenty about it already and any more would lead to serious spoilers. There are, however, numerous other fascinating ideas and themes present in the book.

Perhaps the most obvious concern is that of money; indeed it was Balzac’s most persistent theme, the one that found its way into nearly all his work. Lucien is of low birth, and so has barely a franc to his name. Yet his ambitions require capital. One needs money to make money. One needs money to grease wheels; one needs it to convince others of your worth. So it goes. As well as Lucien’s story Balzac gives some space to David Sechard, Lucien’s brother in law. David enters the novel as the son of old Sechard, the bear, who is engaged in selling his printing press to his progeny for an exorbitant price. David agrees, even though he knows the press isn’t worth what his old man is asking for it, and ultimately ends up in a dire financial predicament. Balzac, it seems to me,  was torn between trying to show the evils of money, while showcasing its absolute necessity. Many of the characters in Lost Illusions do horrendous things for it, yet the most kindhearted, most sympathetic suffer horribly from want of it. Related to what the author has to say about money is the idea that there is a tension between art and commerce. Lucien at one point in the novel has a choice to make between being an artist or journalist. One will require hard work, but will lead to artistic fulfilment [and perhaps fame and fortune eventually], the other will lead to quick and easy gains but artistic bankruptcy. The author appears to be suggesting that it is near impossible to be an artist in a world so obsessed with money, that the lure of money will lead genius astray.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, for me, is what Balzac has to say about old and new approaches. In discussion of the paper business and journalism, he makes the point numerous times that things are becoming cheaper, of lesser quality. Indeed, David is an inventor and he embarks on experiments in order to create a cheaper, lighter kind of paper. It’s not just paper either, but, Balzac points out, clothes and furniture are not as well-made as they once were, will not last as long. Even artwork is being downsized, made more readily available. It is a kind of cheapening in step with the times, in step with the moral character of the people. Even professions are not what they once were, with journalism being derided as a fully corrupt occupation, when it could, in fact, be a noble form of employment. Once again, I laud Balzac’s insight, his prescience, because isn’t this exactly how the world is these days? Everything is plastic, crap, will fall apart after a couple of days; and everything is up for sale. And aren’t the press a bunch of talentless hyenas, who praise and condemn with one eye on their own purse?

As i am sure is obvious by now I passionately love Lost Illusions, but, as I mentioned earlier, it is not without flaws. David, for example, is excruciating. He’s a complete nincompoop. No matter what Lucien does he stands by him, like the craziest kind of put-upon girlfriend. It’s fucking infuriating. No one, unless sex is in the mix somewhere, is that bloody gormless, that forgiving. Balzac took Dickens’ saintly women archetype and furnished it with a penis and even less good sense. Secondly, this being a novel written in the 1800’s, and it being Balzac in particular, Lost Illusions is a melodrama. So, if people constantly wringing their hands and bursting into tears every two pages over absolutely nothing grinds your gears then you might want to re-think reading it. The melodrama didn’t bother me though, it never really does; Shakespeare is melodrama too, let’s not forget. Finally, Lucien, we are led to believe, is a potentially great poet, even potentially a man of genius, and, well, what little of his poetry is presented to us is, uh, shit. That’s a bit of a problem. I did wonder if Balzac was portraying Lucien as a great poet in jest, bearing in mind much of his novel is concerned with falsehood and how the least talented often prosper [which Lucien did at one stage]. However, having read around the book a little, it does not seem as though that is the case, that Honore was in earnest about Lucien’s greatness and talent, even though to my mind it would have been better had he been intentionally rubbish. In any case, none of that compromised my enjoyment too much. For a novel concerned with writing, with talent and greatness, it is quite apt that it is itself a work of genius.