Monday, September 1, 2014

The whole Baudelairean aesthetic is brought to life again - some French Decadent Tales

Now I’ll write a post or two about a collection of stories titled French Decadent Tales that came out last year as an Oxford World’s Classic.  It is a gift from translator and editor Stephen Romer to curious readers like me, since it is full of samples of many writers whose names I have tripped across but never read: Léon Bloy, Octave Mirbeau, Remy de Gourmont, writers like that, all active in the last third or so of the 19th century, a few slipping into the 20th.

What does decadence involve?  Some combination of weirdness, Schopenhauer , repellent attitudes towards women, mental illness, attention to prose style, prostitutes, artists, over-aestheticized attitudes, and some move towards the destruction of human values – unpunished murders, that kind of thing.  No single story has all of these features, thank goodness.  Perhaps I most strongly identify Decadence with outrageous or at least anti-conventional sexual behavior.  There is plenty of that.  Two stories featuring Don Juan, for example.  As Jean Lorrain writes in “The Man with the Bracelet”: “[T]he whole Baudelairean aesthetic is brought to life again” (141).

Two points to a collection like this.

The lesser point is the one mentioned above, to allow the curious but non-specialist reader like me to quickly encounter a bunch of third-rank writers of period pieces, for context or to see how once-shocking ideas quickly turn into clichés or if nothing else to now have something to associate with Catulle Mendès when I come across his name, which has happened frequently.

Many of the stories in French Decadent Tales are period pieces, meaning interesting and useful examples of the kind of thing writers were doing in Paris in the late 19th century, which in turn helps me understand greater works of art, novels by Zola or paintings by Degas.  In this sense the collection is a huge success.

The primary purpose is to direct my attention not to useful and interesting art and artists, but to unusually good ones.  The book works here, too.  The most famous writer in the book is Guy de Maupassant, who is treated well, with three stories that emphasize his Weirdness, along the lines of “La Horla,” rather than his snickering smuttiness.  His snickering story about Schopenhauer disciples is also included.

But I knew about Maupassant.  Who else was especially good?  The best thing in the book is a longish – 19 pages, where most stories are five or six – fantasy by Jules Laforgue, who I had only known as one of France’s great poets.  Original and exquisite.  The five miniatures by Marcel Schwob are easily in a different category than most of the writers.  Better prose, more concentrated ideas, more frightening conceits.  Then there are the three stories by Jean Richepin, among the more obscure writers included, who is light and satirical but frightening in his own way.  Many of the Decadents are just goofing around, churning out the magazine fiction of their time.  Richepin, and Schwob, too, in their own ways take the Decadents' ideas seriously, and thus are harder to brush aside.

I got a lot of good out of 200 pages and 36 stories, enough to hold me for a couple of blog posts.  That Laforgue story, definitely.  Romer’s introductory essay is so good that the book might be of interest to some readers who could track these stories down in French.  I have borrowed and will borrow from it liberally.


  1. Excellent post on a book that sounds right up my "armchair decadent" alley and quite a fetching cover on that Oxford collection as well. I loved your definition of Decadence in the second paragraph, by the way, and I appreciate your info about how useful Romer's foreword is. Our timing seems to be a bit off, though: I almost started a new Huysmans novel this weekend before seeing your post and then went all conservative with a Balzac instead. Please don't look down on me for playing it safe!

  2. Great review, and tells me all I need to know about this book i.e. that I do need to read it, and for the first reason you give - I need to actually be able to recognise these names that keep popping up! Thanks!

  3. Goriot ain't all that safe. That book is the granddaddy of these stories.

    Having said that, yeas, put this one on your library list.

    Kaggsy, I'll mention a caveat or two as I go along, but yeah, is this ever a useful book for filling in a piece of the literary history.

  4. Though I feel like I had an overdose of French Decadence with (Belgian) Léon Genonceaux's The Tutu last year, I'd be interested in having a look at this. Do Rachilde or any of the other (few) female French Decadents get included?

  5. No women. The translator mentions Rachilde with regret, but he says her texts are too long for this book.

    I think that is why Huysmans is absent, too.

  6. This sounds like a fascinating collection and a painless way to try new to many of us writers.

  7. mel, yes, the book does just what it ought to do.

  8. Schwob and Bloy... You've got two of Borges' recommendations right there!

  9. I just wrote up Schwob, who is amazing - nightmarish, but amazing. I have some doubts about the Bloy stories. Both writers would make good subjects for future research.