Jules Laforgue’s story “Perseus and Andromeda, or the Happiest of the Three” (1887) was the highlight of French Decadent Tales. Laforgue, you will remember, was the inventor of vers libre among other poetic distinctions. I had not even know that he wrote any fiction.
The story is a retelling of the Greek myth in the title, but now from the point of view of Andromeda, trapped on an island by a monster, waiting to be rescued by a hero. The tone is light, sweet, and melancholy, worthy of a wrote who wrote an entire book of poems about clowns on the moon. it has the sort of reversed plot that is now common in fantasy stories, with the focus turned away from the usual hero, giving the heroine and even the monster their say.
‘What are you doing now?’
The Dragon-Monster, squatting at the entrance to his cave, turns round, and in turning all the rich, sub-aquatic, jewelled impasto along his spine shines out, and with compassion he raised his multi-coloured cartilaginously fingered eyelashes, to reveal two large, watery-glaucous orbs, and says (in the voice of a distinguished gentleman who has fallen on hard times):
‘As you can see, Poppet, I am breaking and polishing stones for your train; further flights of birds are forecast before sunset.’ (174, ellipses in original)
A little too much on the cutesy side, maybe, but the crash of tones is what turns a story of heroism into a tragedy – a tragedy for the wide-eyed monster, a victim of fate, or perhaps fatalism.
Let’s look at the hero:
Perseus rides side-saddle, his feet crossed coquettishly in their yellow linen sandals; from the pommel of his saddle hangs a mirror; he is beardless, and his pink and shining mouth might be described as an open pomegranate, the hollow of his chest is lacquered with a rose and his arms are tattooed with a heart pierced by an arrow; a lily adorns the swell of his calves and he sports an emerald monocle and several rings and bracelets; from his gilded cross-belt hangs a little sword with a mother-of-pearl dagger. (185)
What a dreamboat! Perfect for the pubescent princess heroine, herself wearing nothing but “espadrilles of lichen” and a “necklace of wild coral attached by a twist of seaweed round her neck,” yet in the end he is more interested in his mirror, and he also turns out to be a bit handsy, and maybe Andromeda really loved the monster all along. How sad that he is dead.
Along the way, the princess by reciting Schopenhauer, a poem from his book The Truth about Everything, and there is a sunset that Laforgue presents in vers libre.
Over there, on the dazzling horizon where the mermaids hold their breath.
The sunset sends up its scaffolding;
From footlight to footlight the theatre stalls rise up;
The artificers give the last nudge;
A series of golden moons blossom out, like the embouchures of cornets from where phalanxes of heralds would thunder out! (183)
Etc. Sexual awakening, love, beauty, music, the sky.
‘Fabulous, fabulous!’ gushes the Taciturn Monster in ecstasy; his huge watery eyeballs still lit up by the last streaks in the west.
Other than the invocation of Schopenhauer, I am not sure how this wispy thing is so Decadent. As if I cared. Unique.