Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Out of consideration for the reader, whom we do not wish to humiliate and discourage, we shall not carry this description too far

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.


  1. Compared to Madame Bovary, I can't imagine how he got away with publishing that, except maybe by flying by on the coattails of Romantics before a more prudish era came in. Byron published the crossdressing romance Don Juan. That has more of a camp air yet some cantos were barely published at all in Britain.

    The French seem tolerant of the dirty novel compared to Victorian Britain, at least. Oscar Wilde, who had a finely-bound, liscentious library, imported his books from France.

  2. I'm going to raise my eyebrows here and compliment Gautier for managing to stop the sentence before it got even worse. And leave it at that as well.

  3. die geneigte LeserinMay 26, 2009 at 11:11 PM

    The story seems to be a close relative of the Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville. It's a seventeenth-century story, written by the cross-dressing Abbé Choisy, about a cross-dressing couple (she's dressed like a he, he's dressed like a she -- what will happen when they get married?!?). Yes, French literature does deserve it's reputation for being scandalous. And strange.

  4. It reminds me a bit of Cleland's Fanny Hill, except it's probably much better written. I don't remember what kind of reception that got, but maybe because it's easily dismissable as pornography it kind of slipped through the cracks a bit.

  5. Mademoiselle de Maupin is far less explicit than Fanny Hill. It's really comparable to Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy. Just barely smutty.

    The funny thing, Art Ravels, is that the Gautier novel has generally been more popular in England than in France. But it was read the way Dr. Grantly reads Rabelais in The Warden, behind a locked door, with the book kept in a secret drawer.

    M. de M. was one of the books in Wilde's library, a key text, actually. Gautier had a huge influence on Wilde. Today's post will make that obvious, I hope.

  6. I'm reminded of Nana by Zola. Though that was published later...

  7. I've never read any Zola - seems like he would be as far from Gautier as one could get. All art (created by me) is perfectly useful, isn't that Zola?

    Is the connection in the subject matter? Or sexual explicitness? Or is my understanding of Zola's aesthetic interests way off base?

  8. According to Amazon it's 400 pages long. 400 pages? With that sort of rich prose I could see that getting rather heavy going.

    Would you suggest this or My Fantoms (http://wutheringexpectations.blogspot.com/2009/05/i-have-liking-for-lobsters-they-are.html) as my next Gautier? How would you compare the two translations?

  9. 400 pages! That sounds odd. Through the magic of Amazon's Look Inside feature, I can say the Penguin edition has:
    1. Lots of notes and introductory matter.
    2. Nice big type.
    3. And it's worth mentioning that Gautier's Preface, really the key to the novel, is itself substantial.

    You're right, that kind of prose at 400 pages would be Too Much, and is in fact Too Much as it is.

    As for a recommendation, M de M is more important, especially that Preface, but the My Fantoms collection is easier to deal with - more fun. And the tribute to Nerval is a lovely, warm thing, a hundred miles from the conceptual prank of M de M.

    I don't even know who translated my M de M - it doesn't say! It seems fine. Richard Holmes, in My Fantoms, is expert. His biographical essay is typically excellent, too.