Monday, June 22, 2009

I've found the French Poe - the Cruel Tales of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam

And he's not Charles Baudelaire. He's Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Count of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, a genuine impoverished French nobleman turned Bohemian writer. I just finished reading his collection Cruel Tales (1883), which I enjoyed a lot, even though its contents might not be quite as good as its title.

I'm just beginning to understand the extent of Baudelaire's role in creating the French Poe - he translated Poe, yes, but also championed him, privately and publicly. Baudelaire, by the time he discovered Poe, was already a mature artist. "I've found an American author who has aroused in me a sense of immense sympathy," Baudelaire wrote to his mother (Mar. 27, 1852). But it's hard to say that Baudelaire was much influenced by Poe. It was too late for that.

Villiers de l'Isle-Adam is sixteen years younger, and would have read Baudelaire's Poe in his teens. The impact was obviously profound. "The Sign," for example, about a premonitory vision of death, includes specific references to "The Fall of the House of Usher" ("Was this really the house I had just seen? What antiquity was revealed to me now by the long cracks between the pale leaves?").

More curious, more surprising, are the signs of the influence of Comic Poe on Villiers, seen most strongly in his tales of new inventions: "The Apparatus for the Cehmical Analysis of the Last Breath," "The Glory Machine" (designed for the theater, it includes not just a clapping machine, but "other tubes, containing laughing-ga and tear-gas"), and the brilliant "Celestial Publicity," about the Lampascope, a device that projects advertising slogans ("Heavens, how delicious!," "Are corsets necessary?") onto the constellations, or the moon. The author predicts that candidates for office will be particularly interested: "One might even add that, without [this] discovery, universal suffrage is a mockery."

A year or two ago, I did not even know that Comic Poe existed. His influence on English-language writers seems non-existent. But here he is in Villiers, alongside ghost stories, paradoxes, and weirdnesses that contain their own flavors of Poe. Villiers does have a strain or two that is not indebted to Poe. I don't want to exaggerate any of this, but I'd never seen such a thing.

If the Cruel Tales are not quite entirely original, that does not bother me much; they were easily worth reading. I hope to read more Villiers, in fact. Certainly his novel Tomorrow's Eve (1886), which is a Pygmalion story starring Thomas Edison, not even forty at the time of the novel's publication. The robot woman speaks by means of the phonograph. Also, at some point I put 2 and 7 together and got 16, as happens in Weird France, and realized that Villiers's play Axël (1890?) supplied the title to Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle, so now Axël's on my list.

More on Villiers tomorrow, more of his own strengths. Many thanks to commenter tcheni for recommending Villiers.

Quotations from the Oxford World's Classics edition (1985), translated by Robert Baldick.


  1. I'll clearly be adding Villiers to my French lit. list. Thanks!

  2. I will be seeking Villiers out. I am enjoying looking over your many posts on Poe and hope to give them closer attention some evening.

  3. An impressive response to my "negative" Villiers post. Wait'll you see my "positive" post.