French Decadent Tales by Stephen Romer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve dabbled in decadence, read some stories here and there and a novel or two by those writers known as “Decadent” writers. By today’s standards, many of these works have been, if not dry, so restrained as to make one wonder what makes the work decadent at all? This presupposes, of course, a certain notion of what decadence should be. Given our upbringing with cinema, our having been inured to violence and transgressive acts from our very birth, I don’t know that we of the current generation have a particular sensitivity to what was and was not historically considered decadent. You might be surprised, for example, at the many references to Greek and Roman classic literature and history found in these works, until you realize that many of the stylistic flourishes of these decadent tales were inspired by later Roman literature, when Roman civilization had passed its zenith and was, well, decaying. Decadence oftentimes does not equate with depravity, though there is plenty of that to be found throughout these tales. Nor is it always synonymous with indulgence and hedonism. In fact, some of these tales portray the very act of strict self-denial, a sort of spartan asceticism, as the ultimate expression of decadence itself! Decadence does not fit neatly into any particular box, except that of writers, generally of the late 19th-century, who held to a certain poetic style (not a strictly-metered style, but works that seethe wish poesis, generally). Many of these were French writers, hence the current volume. The introduction to this volume, which is quite good, lays out the different “flavors” of Decadence, along with some of the commonalities among decadent authors. But I will leave that for your reading.
I will also leave for your own reading and assessment, several of the stories throughout, particularly those that didn’t strike my fancy as well as the others. All of the stories were good at least, most were excellent, and a surprisingly large number were absolutely fantastic. Rather than waste your (okay, my) time on the more hackneyed pieces – which may have not appeared so hackneyed at the time, but which have not held up as well – I would like to concentrate on the best stories in the volume. And there are many!
Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's "The Presentiment" is fabulous and fabulist. A nicely chilling tale of death and the sacred where the line between occult and the veneration of holy artifacts is blurred like stitched-on patches on an old coat. A very old coat, indeed. Five dark stars!
"The Desire to be a Man," the second story by Villiers de l'isle-Adam should have been an episode of the Twilight Zone. I would not be surprised to learn that Rod Serling, at some point, read this tale while camping in the woods of the Finger Lakes region of New York and took furious notes. In my own imaginary world, that is exactly what happened. Thematically, Adams examines the emptiness of a man's soul and how his wish to fill his soul with meaning(?) have exactly the opposite effect. Artificiality is a hell that leads one to hell. An insightful, disturbing story that leads one to a lot of self-examination of person vs persona. Just the sort of thing Serling would have tackled!
Villiers’ "Sentimentalism" might as well be a primer for dandies, and not for the veneer of fine clothes and expensive tastes, but for the inner dandy, the emotional landscape and mind of the devotee. It is a strange sort of machismo, feeling deeply, yet not expressing reaction save through poetics. A sad story, both for the antagonist and his lover. Five stars. And I must say, Villier's work is powerful.
The stylistic accents and pacing make Mirbeau's "On a Cure" a very solid story. Existentialism, and the rejection of stark nihilism, is the philosophical current that runs throughout. This is a brooding little tale worth five stars, if you can see them for the height of the black mountains surrounding it.
Mirbeau’s "The First Emotion" is a story of desire, desire so intense it kills. A morbid, but wonderfully quaint story about the awakening of an inner life that leads to . . . Five stars.
The seemingly innocuous title of "The Little Summer-House," Mirbeau’s last story in this collection, is disarming. This is decadence in all its horror and brutality. Not a dainty story, but the narrator proves so, in a most cowardly and practical way. Though it's a story about "rich people problems," it is highly unsettling. An emotionally complex tale, once one gives a little thought to it.
If you ever enjoyed "Spy vs Spy" in mad magazine, you will love Jean Richepin’s "Constant Guignard".
Richepin’s sense of humor (and self-deprecation?) shines brightly in "Deshoulières,” which is simultaneously an outright mockery and perfect summation of dandyism.
Half of Guy de Maupassant’s stories in this collection were amazing. The other half were definitely lesser works. "The Tresses," one of the better ones, is woven through with themes of obsession, longing, unattainable desires, and . . .necrophilia sans corpus? This is a truly decadent tale: hedonistic, possessive, and without shame.
I very much liked Maupassant’s story "Night," but I can already hear the naysayers questioning the validity of the narrator. Some works don't need justification as their cold beauty over-rides the jaded modern desire for pure logic. Screw your logic. Five stars, impossible narrator and all!
Geffroy's "The Statue" is a cautionary tale about getting exactly, precisely what you want when self-centeredness and vanity are at the root of your desires. It is an intriguing bit of fiction, so rooted in realism that it's denouement must, of course, be rooted in poetic fantasy. Five stars for this very clever, but never "cutesy" story.
Lorrain's "An Unsolved Crime" lies, as might be imagined by the title, somewhere on a line between decadence and noir. There's a sort of de-sexualized "Eyes Wide Shut" conspiracy vibe here, replete with masked, robed figures, but this one featuring ether, rather than sex, as the lure. But then, it's not quite so straightforward as all that. Much of the mystery remains obscured. The way I like it!
Lorrain follows with "The Man with the Bracelet". It is truly what most people would call "decadent," forbidden pleasures in a sea of decay, squalor, whores, and cut-throats and the people who try to exploit them, all mixed together in a stew of self-loathing. This story puts the "decay" in decadence.
Both timely and "too soon," in "The Man Who Loved Consumptives" Lorrain’s characters debate whether the subject in question is a near-necrophiliac or a tender elegiac. Of course, given the Decadent's penchant for objectifying women, he is viewed as wise, a person who feels more deeply than the rest of humanity, and is lauded for his cleverness. Though I disagree heartily with the sentiment, this is a convincing story.
Rodenbach's "The Time" is a bit of chaos magic, but rather than sigils and ecstacy, it is time and death that cast the spell for the hapless narrator. Only after he has forgotten the weaving of synchronicities that would realize one desire, but only in the absence of another. Five stars.
"Danaette" is exactly what I signed up for when I picked up this volume. I should have known Remy de Gourmont would deliver such a work of exquisite beauty. After all, I included one of his stories in the Leviathan 3 anthology, so, I suppose I wear my love of de Gourmont on my sleeve. The prose is absolutely stunning. The imagery is jaw-dropping. The co-mingling of sin and innocence is a precise hallmark of decadence, in my mind, at least. This is the gold-standard. Five stars like white snowflakes, if you catch my drift.
Never have I seen Eros and Thanatos so intertwined as in Gourmont's story "Don Juan's Secret". In that little sub-sub-sub-genre of stories about death and sex, this has to top them all. My goodness, what a writer! I already knew that, but this clinches it: Remy de Gourmont has ascended to stand side by side with Marcel Schwob as the decadents' Decadent.
Given my previous experience with Marcel Schwob, I had high expectations going into this section. "The Brothel," a transgressive ghost story, if I ever read one, met those expectations. Five stars.
Schwob delivers the grue in "The Sans-Gueule," a story about two soldiers that have had their faces blown completely off and the woman who takes them home to try to determine which is her husband. This story was disturbing even for Schwob, which is saying something. I felt like I was watching a Tool music-video in my head while reading this. Really off-kilter stuff here. Five stars worth, in fact.
I would swear that the literary seeds that sprouted Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges were planted firmly in Schwob’s story, "Paolo Uccello, Painter". This is a precognizant proto-echo to those two great writers' work, combining the best of both before either was even born. It is an anachronistic miracle. Five transcendental stars.
The strengths of these stories more than make up for the weakest of tales in the book (and, to be fair, they are few). They elevate into something nearing the sublime, especially the works of Lorrain, de Gourmont, Schwob, and my newfound decadent crush, Villiers. Can decadence elevate? Absolutely. But, like the fable hero’s journey, one must pass through the underworld to attain heaven, comprehending existence in all its beauty and ugliness, thrilling and banal. The Decadents open a portal onto the path of this journey. Take a step . . .
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