Which of these books looks more interesting? On the left, "The adventures of a woman who sets out to discover men, and discovers them thoroughly" - boy, that does not sound like the sort of thing I read. And what's up with the perspective of those balconies?
On the right, what's that? Maybe it's a Surrealist novel, or some Weimar decadence. How does Penguin describe it? "An influential novelist's shocking tale of sexual deception draws readers into the bedrooms and boudoirs of a French château in a compelling exploration of desire and sexual intrigue." Wow, how dull (and, it turns out, inaccurate). I'll go back to the first one.
The punchline is obivous, right, that they're the same novel, Théophile Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), written at the age of 24 by that dandified Bohemian on the left. It's a dirty-book classic, in at least two scenes actually kind of steamy. There's some fairly direct Lesbian stuff. One of the women is disguised as the world's most beautiful man, but the reader knows the score. I mean, it's not Zane, but Mademoiselle de Maupin is one of the reasons "French literature" became associated with dirty books.
How about Chapter IX, from a letter by the novel's hero, D'Albert, which begins:
"It is so. I love a man, Silvio. I long sought to delude myself; I gave a different name to the feeling that I experienced; I clothed it in the garment of pure and disinterested friendship... but I now recognize the profound and terrible road to which I am pledged."
By the end of the letter D'Albert has realized that the man he loves is actually a woman in disguise, so Gautier does not pursue the idea all the way to it's end. But still, 1835! The obscenity trials of Madame Bovary and The Flowers of Evil are more than twenty years later. Mademoiselle de Maupin never ran into that sort of trouble.
One reason why: the entire novel is an elaborate gag, an explication of an aesthetic theory. None of its surface is meant to be taken quite seriously. It's, I say, it's a joke, son, a funny. I'll try to write about that tomorrow.
Maybe I should include one of the naughty bits, just to prove my case, for the purposes of literary science. We're near the end of Chapter XVI, and the end of the book:
"Still, one lesson, no matter how intelligent one may be, cannot suffice; D'Albert gave her a second, then a third. Out of consideration for the reader, whom we do not wish to humiliate and discourage, we shall not carry this description too far.
Our fair reader would possibly pout at her lover if we revealed to her the sum total of the lessons imparted by D'Albert's love, assisted by Rosalind's curiosity. Let her recall the best occupied and most charming of her nights, the night which would be remembered a hundred thousand days, did not death come before; let her lay her book aside and compute on the tips of her pretty white fingers how many times she was loved by him who loved her most, and thus fill up the void left by us in this glorious history."
Is the whole novel written like this? Yes. Is that Rosalind related to the cross-dressing heroine of As You Like It? Yes, a performance of the Shakespeare play is part of the novel's plot. Isn't Gautier sort of forcing the male reader into a cross-dressing role in that last paragraph? Yes, definitely, and on purpose - "the tips of her pretty white fingers"! The more I look at that passage the dirtier it seems. I'd better stop looking.
Quotations from the 1944 Heritage Press edition, translated by It Don't Say.