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The Decadent Reader: Fiction, Fantasy, and Perversion from Fin-de-Siècle France

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In France at the end of the nineteenth century, progress and material prosperity coincided with widespread alarm about disease and decay. The obsessions of our own culture as the twentieth century came to a close resonate strikingly with those of the last fin-de-siecle: crime, pollution, sexually transmitted diseases, gender confusion, moral depravity, alcoholism, and toba In France at the end of the nineteenth century, progress and material prosperity coincided with widespread alarm about disease and decay. The obsessions of our own culture as the twentieth century came to a close resonate strikingly with those of the last fin-de-siecle: crime, pollution, sexually transmitted diseases, gender confusion, moral depravity, alcoholism, and tobacco and drug use were topics of popular discussion then as now.The Decadent Reader is a collection of novels and stories from fin-de-siecle France that celebrate decline, aestheticize decay, and take pleasure in perversity. By embracing the marginal, the unhealthy, and the deviant, the decadent writers attacked bourgeois life, which they perceived to be the chief enemy of art. Barbey d'Aurevilly, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Guy de Maupassant, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Catulle Mendes, Rachilde, Jean Moreas, Octave Mirbeau, Josephin Peladan, and Remy de Gourmont looted the riches of their culture for their own purposes. In an age of medicine, they borrowed its occult mysteries rather than its positivism. From its social Darwinism, they found their monsters: sadists, murderers, transvestites, fetishists, prostitutes, nymphomaniacs, and hysterics. And they reveled in them, completely upending the conventions of romance and sentimentality. The Decadent Reader, which includes critical essays on all of the authors, many novels and stories that have never before appeared in English, and familiar works set in a new context, offers a compelling portrait of fin-de-siecle France.


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In France at the end of the nineteenth century, progress and material prosperity coincided with widespread alarm about disease and decay. The obsessions of our own culture as the twentieth century came to a close resonate strikingly with those of the last fin-de-siecle: crime, pollution, sexually transmitted diseases, gender confusion, moral depravity, alcoholism, and toba In France at the end of the nineteenth century, progress and material prosperity coincided with widespread alarm about disease and decay. The obsessions of our own culture as the twentieth century came to a close resonate strikingly with those of the last fin-de-siecle: crime, pollution, sexually transmitted diseases, gender confusion, moral depravity, alcoholism, and tobacco and drug use were topics of popular discussion then as now.The Decadent Reader is a collection of novels and stories from fin-de-siecle France that celebrate decline, aestheticize decay, and take pleasure in perversity. By embracing the marginal, the unhealthy, and the deviant, the decadent writers attacked bourgeois life, which they perceived to be the chief enemy of art. Barbey d'Aurevilly, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Guy de Maupassant, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Catulle Mendes, Rachilde, Jean Moreas, Octave Mirbeau, Josephin Peladan, and Remy de Gourmont looted the riches of their culture for their own purposes. In an age of medicine, they borrowed its occult mysteries rather than its positivism. From its social Darwinism, they found their monsters: sadists, murderers, transvestites, fetishists, prostitutes, nymphomaniacs, and hysterics. And they reveled in them, completely upending the conventions of romance and sentimentality. The Decadent Reader, which includes critical essays on all of the authors, many novels and stories that have never before appeared in English, and familiar works set in a new context, offers a compelling portrait of fin-de-siecle France.

55 review for The Decadent Reader: Fiction, Fantasy, and Perversion from Fin-de-Siècle France

  1. 4 out of 5

    Glenn Russell

    You have to hand it to the French. They know how to write about disease and decay with a particular flair. This excellent anthology published by Zone Books is over 1,000 pages and contains 27 prose works (7 novella-length) from 11 fin-de-siècle French writers: Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Rachilde, J.-K. Huysmans, Villers de I’Isle-Adam, Jean Moréas, Guy de Maupassant, Catulle Mendès, Remy de Gourmont ,Jean Lorrain, Joséphin Péladan and Octave Mirbeau. What is most helpful for readers unfamiliar wi You have to hand it to the French. They know how to write about disease and decay with a particular flair. This excellent anthology published by Zone Books is over 1,000 pages and contains 27 prose works (7 novella-length) from 11 fin-de-siècle French writers: Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Rachilde, J.-K. Huysmans, Villers de I’Isle-Adam, Jean Moréas, Guy de Maupassant, Catulle Mendès, Remy de Gourmont ,Jean Lorrain, Joséphin Péladan and Octave Mirbeau. What is most helpful for readers unfamiliar with these authors and the decadent aesthetic are the essays, one essay providing an overarching exposé and interpretation of the French decadent movement and an essay introducing each and every author and their writing. Most enlightening. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917). In her introductory essay, Emily Apter tells us the 5 short stories here “all employ sordid rituals of masculine humiliation as devised by emotionally indifferent femmes fatales. These early texts may be read as preparatory sketches or rehearsals for Mirbeau’s Orientalist chef-d’oeuvre of male masochism, ‘The Torture Garden’, in which lurid descriptions of carnal subjection are anchored in feminine cruelty.” Ms. Apter goes on to explain how the author’s themes of sexual perversion and sexual obsession along with his “long-standing anticlericalism and aversion to the army, his identification with the poor and distaste for charity, his contempt for bourgeois values . . . made him receptive to the anarchist and republican sympathies of many artists and intellectuals in his circle.” In a word, Mirbeau found the conservative norms and middle-class values of his day repulsive, particularly the norms and values defining the sexually-charged relationships between men and women. Keeping all this in mind, let’s now turn to 3 of the 5 stories: Poor Tom The narrator tells us he loves his mangy, smelly, sickly old dog Tom, the dog that has been his soul-mate for the past 14 years. He even took Tom to bathe in medicinal waters for an entire season in an attempt to rid his beloved dog of sickness and suffering. The expensive baths didn’t help his dog and people thought him mad, but his love for Tom was so strong, so deep, so all-embracing, he was even willing to be taken for a madman. Then, a couple of months after the baths, he tells us he did something really mad – he married a woman named Clara. Clara comes to live with him and her first experience after walking in the front door is seeing his filthy, smelly dog. Clara flies into a fit of rage, cracks a stick on Tom’s boney back and demands he get the ‘dirty beast’ out of the house. Reluctantly, very reluctantly, the narrator consigns Tom to a barrel in the courtyard. The narrator goes on to tell us how for several months he was living without his dear old dog and living without a wife, all because Clara wouldn’t let him come near her since she accused him of smelling of dog. Then one morning, after having breakfast with Clara, something astonishing happens, We read, “She had a new flame in her eyes; around her lips, which were red and slightly parted, there was a stray trembling that excited me. And all rosy and languid, in a barely audible voice, she murmured: “Kill him . . . kill the dog.” Clara then bates him with the voluptuousness of her body, undoing her blouse and letting down her golden hair. Inflamed by passion, the narrator takes his old Tom out to the woods, shotgun in hand. The way Mirbeau depicts the protracted heart-wrenching scene between man and dog is deeply moving . The tragic deed done, the narrator returns home and speaks to his wife but is quickly cut off. We read, “Clara, joyful and enchanted, interrupted me, clapping her hands: “He quivered! . . . he quivered!” she cried, “he quivered! . . . Oh! Darling love, come quickly so I can kiss you!”” ---------- Usually I don’t reveal the ending of a story in a review, but, in this case, by way of example, I wanted to convey one aspect of what is meant by decadent literature’s theme of disease and decay. The Ring An old baron visits a doctor to ask about how much iron is in blood. And why is the senile, old French aristocrat asking such a question? Turns out, he wants to give the love of his life, a woman by the name of Snowball (you have to love this name Snowball; if it was modern-day America, her name would be Bubbles) a one-of-a-kind extraordinary gift – a ring containing iron made from his very own blood. The next day the baron goes to a chemist to have his blood extracted for the needed iron. The baron has the blood-iron ring made but there is a price: a few days later the baron is on his death bed. Snowball is called to his side. How does Snowball react to the baron’s sacrifice and gift of the ring? If you think in terms of a human counterpart to a rotten, decaying apple you will not be far from the mark. Decadence, anyone? The Octogenarian The narrator tells us how an old mother, pious and poor, spend her last few coins to visit her son and his family in Paris. The son refuses to take his mother in or offer her any help, but, in a spark of inspiration, conceives the perfect solution: his eighty-year old mother can go to the studios and pose as a nude model. The story shifts and the narrator sees the old lady in a sculptor’s studio. Octave Mirbeau writes four paragraphs describing in precise detail what he sees. Here is a snippet: “In spite of the wrinkles on her neck, the creases of shadow that hollowed out her throat between scrawny tendons and protruding breastbones; in spite of breasts, straining ignominiously with a strange flaccidity over folds of flesh that encircled her torso; in spite of her broken-down thighs or the floating skin that flapped against her like an old piece of loose, worn-out fabric; it was possible to recuperate an elegance of line, a nobility of contour, a beauty still alive, scattered among all these blemishes.” The author’s focus within a sculptor’s studio is no accident. The literature of the decadents finds its true home in the world of art and artificiality. To underscore this point, here is a quote from the introductory essay by the book’s editor, Asti Hustvedt: “The space best suited to decadent art is urban and interior: the artist’s studio, the theater, the masked ball, the boudoir, the laboratory, the dreamscape.” Take my word for it here – if you enjoy literary fiction, you will relish this book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tosh

    An incredible and beautifully designed anthology of French decadent literature. The gang is here: Barbey d'Aurevilly, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Guy de Maupassant, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Catulle Mendès, Rachilde, Jean Moréas, Octave Mirbeau, Joséphin Péladan, and Remy de Gourmont among others. Reading these novels, short stories one can see the mental state of the 19th Century giving birth to the 20th Century. Sexual activity (of all sorts), drug taking - it's all here and at that point An incredible and beautifully designed anthology of French decadent literature. The gang is here: Barbey d'Aurevilly, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Guy de Maupassant, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Catulle Mendès, Rachilde, Jean Moréas, Octave Mirbeau, Joséphin Péladan, and Remy de Gourmont among others. Reading these novels, short stories one can see the mental state of the 19th Century giving birth to the 20th Century. Sexual activity (of all sorts), drug taking - it's all here and at that point the future was an adventure. But then came World war 1/World War 2 and so forth. It's like driving a really fast racing car without the breaks.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Shawn

    This is a huge and fascinating book and I'm only partially through it as I write this. I've been appending my reviews to the actual, singular book versions of the novels contained herein, but will append my reviews of the excerpts and shorter material here. My reviews of the sections are as follows: Les Diaboliques: (the She Devils) by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly is here. Monsieur Venus by Rachilde is here. A Haven by Joris-Karl Huysmans is here. The Future Eve by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam is her This is a huge and fascinating book and I'm only partially through it as I write this. I've been appending my reviews to the actual, singular book versions of the novels contained herein, but will append my reviews of the excerpts and shorter material here. My reviews of the sections are as follows: Les Diaboliques: (the She Devils) by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly is here. Monsieur Venus by Rachilde is here. A Haven by Joris-Karl Huysmans is here. The Future Eve by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam is here La Faenza by Jean Moréas This is a single tale by a writer who, the introduction argues, did a lot for Decadent literary theory at the time, but whose actual writing perhaps didn't live up to his complex and complicated theory. I thought the story, in which a canny mistress/prostitute reinvents herself as a wealthy lady of class, only to end up reverting to her former nature and seducing her own soldier son, was suitably disturbing and lurid. stories by Guy de Maupassant Does anyone need convincing that De Maupassant is one of the greatest writers ever? If so, what's wrong with you? The introduction to this section makes some interesting observations about De Maupassant's approach to fetishism, a subject that was manifesting itself socially at the time (Psychopathia sexualis having been recently published) and which he interpreted artistically, hitting on some of the same points Freud would later. The stories are all first rate: "A Divorce Case", in which a husband fixates on hothouse flowers, "The Tresses" in which a clipped knot of woman's hair becomes the focus for obsession, "The Apparition", which may or may not be a ghost story, and "The Unknown Woman", about a female face in the crowd who is attained, to the dismay of the seeker. All great! stories by Catulle Mendès The introduction to this section makes an argument that Mendes was a bit of a yeoman Decadent, crafting tales to expectations already incited by better, more adventurous writers. Still, the excerpt from the novel Méphistophéla: Roman Contemporain, which takes the exploitational angle of presenting the truth about the hidden world of lesbians, only to end in something like a satanic, delirious, Maenadian orgy presided over by some all-consuming Lesbian Lucifer/Pan, is both insulting and fascinating. "The Lover of His Wife" is a bitter story about a foolish man who cannot rid himself of a fallen woman. "The Newlywed", in which an older man marrying a young, nubile trophy wife is, on their wedding night, informed about exactly what the terms of their marriage will be, was quite good in a sardonic, cynical way (almost made me think of a more sexually frank H.H. Munro). Interesting. Excerpt from THE RITUAL OF LOVE by Joséphin Péladan Again, this is prefaced by an introduction that downplays the writing of the subject, in this case pointing out that Péladan may have been an enormous figure of the time, writing prolifically (a huge cycle of novels), founding his own occult lodge, much discussed in the revues of the period, and yet he is all but forgotten now. The introduction by Jennifer Birkett paints Peladan as a figure so much of his time that most of his writing has become irrelevant to modern concerns, if fascinatingly so. His style is said to be dense, obtuse and clumsy. And that's pretty much right - there is something here for those fascinated with the way occult concepts and precepts being taught in contemporary lodges and organizations might appear in the popular culture of the time, and Peladan is a big talker and believer in the presentation of these occultic theories in practical matters. So if you wanted to know if sex-magic virgin-deflowering rituals were presented for the reader of popular fiction of the time, here's your proof. But it's awfully thick going. The last line of the excerpt is pretty damn funny, however, foreshadowing (at least according to Birkett) the eventual, deflated ending of Peladan's huge cycle of novels. Stories by Jean Lorrain Lorrain is another amazing find, writing stories from the underbelly of Paris in the tones of a lurid journalist, brutally honest about humanity at its worst (Jennifer Birkett's introduction is, again, thoroughly illuminating). Thus, in "The Man Who Loved Consumptives" we are shown a fetishist who fixates on the beauty of terminally ill women (he never needs to break up with them!), "The Man Who Made Wax Heads" gives us the dangers and attractions of sterile replications, "The Unknown Lady" reverses the sexes to show us a society woman who enjoys destroying lower-class men by enticing them to murder - then gets front seat at their date with the guillotine, and finally "One Snowy Night" tells a story about a man with a monstrously modern kink. All of these are such unflinching looks into the damaged minds of human beings and cynical exposures of society's ills that one's breath is taken away. Stories by Remy de Gourmont 3 of the 4 stories ("Eyes Of Water", "On The Threshold" and "The Dress") in this reader are reviewed here. De Gourmont is just great. The last story here, "Stratagems", begins with the line "Bitter wanderings among successive women" and is thoroughly modern. Jennifer Birkett provides yet another revelatory introduction, focusing on De Gourmont's misogynistic fascination with women, yet his intellectually honest inability to escape asking himself tough questions. Stories by Octave Mirbeau Emily Apter's introduction does a strong job arguing for Mirbeau as a decadent satirist and satirist of decadence, fusing current "clinical" approaches to sexology with misogyny and parody. "Poor Tom" is a heartbreaking story in which a shrewish wife demands that her new husband's lifelong pet, the titular dog, be killed. "The Octogenarian" goes into greatly detailed physical description as an old woman poses naked for a sculpture. "Dead Pearls" is a savage take on a female reprobate's just (?) rewards for her flagrantly dissolute lifestyle and how it all ends ironically. "The Ring" features another shrew and a lovesick fool, an old man who leads himself to death concocting the one gift which will show his ungrateful wife how much he truly cares (it ends badly - but blackly comic as well). "Clotilde and I" is somewhat the same, as a man realizes that his mistress is quite simply unsatisfiable (and that's not a vague reference to sex - as she never actually allows him to touch her!). Excerpts from Saint Lydwine of Schiedam. Translated From the French by Agnes Hastings In which a late period J.K. Huysmans, the man who gave Decadence its ur-text in AGAINST NATURE and later reconverted to Catholicism, writes a hagiography of a famous female Saint that reveals more about psychological masochism and physical suffering than any faith about God's "love through pain" (at least to an unbeliever like me). And there it is. An amazing book. Took me months to read, but certainly worth it!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kezia

    An uneven collection of novellas and short stories considered representative of the period. Clearly Mirbeau, Huysmans, and Rachilde stand out, and Maupassant is included though not often grouped with this school. (I could have lived without the Thomas Edison fanfic.) Introductory essays tend toward the pedantic, and as one must always do, read those after the text. What is interesting about the decadent genre is the alchemy of science, medicine, occult, sex, vice, and an emerging -- therefore th An uneven collection of novellas and short stories considered representative of the period. Clearly Mirbeau, Huysmans, and Rachilde stand out, and Maupassant is included though not often grouped with this school. (I could have lived without the Thomas Edison fanfic.) Introductory essays tend toward the pedantic, and as one must always do, read those after the text. What is interesting about the decadent genre is the alchemy of science, medicine, occult, sex, vice, and an emerging -- therefore threatening -- feminism. These femme fatales, while certainly misogynist portrayals, feel like a precursor to well-rounded female characters yet to come, as opposed to Victorian romantic heroines. At least women in decadent literature often have three-dimensional desires. Like Raoule, a dashing and modern heiress obsessed with a poor artisan she remakes, Pygmalion style. And Mirbeau's Clara of The Torture Garden [not in this volume], who is obviously related to the Clara of Poor Tom and the Clara of Dead Pearls. Even Huysmans' sickly and weak Louise is a nicely rendered character and a femme fatale of sorts since it's ensuring her health and security that motivates the plot. This brings us, unfortunately, to de L'Isle-Adam's love story between an English lord and an anatomically correct fembot that offers (we assume) all the benefits of a woman and none of the drawbacks. It's hard to set aside the over-the-top contempt for womankind, but when we do, what we have is overly long, tedious, and poorly structured. Comparing this early experiment in sci-fi with Rachilde's early experiment in gender role reversal, it's obvious which one comes out the winner: Monsieur Vénus is layered, suspenseful, provocative, all things Future Eve is not. And now, off to Là-Bas.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Hannah H.

    I like its subtlety and perversity.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Takipsilim

    External and internal decay laid out on the printed page. Gotta love the French, they do these stuff so well.

  7. 4 out of 5

    K.

    re-read osteoporosis

  8. 5 out of 5

    Celeste

    Delicioso, anticuado pero con los vicios actualizados de la sociedad moderna. Cuentos cortos, ideales para digerir en las noches de semana.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Giovanni Garcia-Fenech

  10. 5 out of 5

    Luigi Warren

  11. 4 out of 5

    Gabrielle

  12. 4 out of 5

    Maxwell

  13. 5 out of 5

    Richard

  14. 5 out of 5

    Andy.rogers

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rebecka Göransdotter

  16. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

  17. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  18. 5 out of 5

    Roberto Salazar

  19. 4 out of 5

    Bryan

  20. 5 out of 5

    Chad

  21. 4 out of 5

    Petulia

  22. 4 out of 5

    Joshua Darlington

  23. 4 out of 5

    Michael S. Holko

  24. 5 out of 5

    Dominic Pettman

  25. 5 out of 5

    jennet wheatstonelllsl Proc

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sean

  27. 5 out of 5

    M

  28. 5 out of 5

    Heidi Ward

  29. 4 out of 5

    J.B. Reynolds

  30. 5 out of 5

    Irina

  31. 4 out of 5

    Matt Knife

  32. 4 out of 5

    Jason

  33. 5 out of 5

    Seth

  34. 5 out of 5

    Erik

  35. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

  36. 5 out of 5

    Shelly

  37. 4 out of 5

    Fred

  38. 5 out of 5

    Markallen

  39. 5 out of 5

    Jay

  40. 4 out of 5

    Rat de bibliothèque

  41. 5 out of 5

    Bobby

  42. 4 out of 5

    Nima Shokat

  43. 5 out of 5

    Damien Peterson

  44. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  45. 4 out of 5

    kate

  46. 4 out of 5

    Jw

  47. 5 out of 5

    Scott

  48. 5 out of 5

    Adam

  49. 5 out of 5

    Juliet Jacobson

  50. 5 out of 5

    rachel misfiticus

  51. 5 out of 5

    Aimee

  52. 4 out of 5

    Wago Kreider

  53. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

  54. 5 out of 5

    John

  55. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

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