Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Villiers de l'Isle-Adam is French

Yesterday I called Villers de l'Isle-Adam the French Poe, and then overemphasized the Poe part. Today, I'll put too much weight on the French piece.

What do I mean by French? The title characters of "The Bienfilâtre Sisters," "belonged, as people say, to the class of girls who 'work as day-labourers at night'." They are women with a vocation, responsible, "sensible creatures" who "shut up shop on Sunday." "Their motto was 'Speed, Safety, Discretion'; and on their visiting-cards they added: 'Specialties'." (all of this from p. 4).

Then the younger sister yields to temptation, "her first lapse." She falls in love with a poor student. She gives up her career. Her family tries to bring her back, but there's no hope, it's l'amour fou.

That's what I mean by French. Cynical, perverse, slightly smutty (although "Specialties" is probably the dirtiest single word in Cruel Tales).

"Flowers of Darkness," barely over a page long, is merely an observation that the cute little flower-girls on the promenades are peddling cast-offs from funerals, so the women ("spectral creatures" under the gaslight) "thus adorned with the flowers of Death, wear, without knowing it, the emblem of the love which they give and that which they receive."

Executions, duels, morgues, all quite French, Death appearing everywhere Villiers looks, but not always entirely seriously. I should mention that few, perhaps none, of the Cruel Tales actually describe physical cruelty. This ain't the Marquis de Sade. The title is more, let's say, attitudinal.

Some of the stories have what amounts to punchlines. A chef gives "The Finest Dinner in the World." His rival says he can top it, and does, cynically. In "Sentimentality," a woman accuses her lover of lack of feeling, of stoniness, and breaks with him. He is perfectly calm, yet proves her wrong, sincerely.

The author of the defensive Oxford World's Classics introduction, realizing that he's having trouble making his case for Villiers, ends by arguing - asserting - that above all, Villiers has a unique voice. This is not quite true. He does not always rise above his influences, Poe and Baudelaire and Flaubert and Mérimée and probably many others I don't know. But he's still surprising, witty, creepy, elegant, weird, all in this one short book.

This concludes my excursion into Weird France, at least until I discover that I have something to write about all of this Charles Baudelaire I've been reading.


  1. Hrrmmm, well I see why people are adding it to their reading lists. He's makes for a colorful author.

    There must be some of 'wierd France' in Baudelaire that you could share, no?

  2. So far I do not believe that I have anything to say about Baudelaire.

    An irritating voice that I should probably ignore is saying "And that stopped you when?"

    But, Lord, yes, he's plenty weird sometimes. Vampires and wounds and gratuitous acts. "Let's Beat Up the Poor!"