Friday, October 26, 2007

Monsieur de Phocas by Jean Lorrain

Jean Lorrain was born Paul Duval, the spoiled only child of a wealthy bourgeious merchant from Normandy. He was a sickly child and had a smothering mother. He adopted the nom de plum, Jean Lorrain, at the request of his father who didn't want the family name soiled by the scandal of a literary career.

He was called the "sole disciple" of his mentor the Barbey D' Aurevilly who had turned the lifestyle of the original dandy Beau Brummel into a philosophy and way of life a generation before and then popularized it with his novel Les Diaboliques which openly portrayed lesbianism for the first time since classical times.

He was a close lifelong friend of J.K. Huymans, whose novel A Rebours probably inspired Oscar Wilde to write A Picture of Dorian Grey. Huysmans novel La Bas, partly a biography of the infamous fifteenth century fuedal lord and child murderer, Gilles de Rais, made satanism fashionable in Paris cafe society.

Jean Lorrain lived openly as a homosexual in the late nineteenth century. He was devilishly witty, and fabulously attired and his fingers were always covered in huge jewels. He smoked opium and hashish, drank ether, injected morphine, and had a cultivated taste for rough trade.

Aristocratic dandys like his nemesis the Comte de Montesquiou didn't consider Lorrain a real dandy because he was not of noble birth. Montesquiou and the others were as flamboyantly homosexual as he was, and although his wealth allowed him to live as lavishly as any of them, his common birth always bothered him.

His novels were closely autobiographical. He was the quintessential dandy in his novels. The close resemblance of his characters to real persons and events led to him being sued for libel and challenged to duals. He had to dual Marcel Proust on one occasion, but it was over a review Lorrain had written attacking Prousts work rather than a novel.

In the beginning of the book. The infamous Monsieur de Phocas, the Duc de Freneuse arrives at the home of a young author unannounced. At their interview the bejeweled Phocas gives the young author his personal memoirs to edit and publish, explaining that he is quitting Paris and traveling to the orient never to return.

After this point the story is presented in the form of Phocas' journal entries. He begins explaining an obsession with eyes and masks, his contempt for people in general and his desire to commit murder.

"..I am delivered to despair and mortification because I have drunk the draught of poison congealed in the irises of your eyes. The eyes of portraits should be plucked out."

"To kill, to kill someone, oh how that would soothe me! That would extinguish my fever. I feel that I have the hands of an assassin."

He soon meets an artist named Claudius Ethal who has fled London and come to Paris allegedly because of a scandal following the deaths of some society women shortly after he painted their portraits. There had been rumours that he gave poison to his models so their skin would have a pale deathly pallor.

Ethal claims to have suffered from the same obsessions. He shows Phocas an exotic collection of masks and promises to cure him of his dangerous malady.

Ethal soon begins trying to push Phocas further and furthur into the abyss rather than curing him. He even suspects Ethal is trying to drive him to commit murder.

Ethal invites Phocas to his studio to see his work. As Phocas studies a sculpture of an emaciated adolescent, Ethal tells him how he met the model and created the sculpture ;

"His thinness interested me immediately, and the peculiar cast of his features - that expression of ardent languor which idealizes every consumptive face, furnishing them with such artistry. to cut a long story short, I approached Angelotto, confessed my interest and led him away to my lair..."

"I ought to have used him more sparingly rather than requiring him to repay my hospitality so quickly, but I sensed that he was living on borrowed time and might easily slip through my fingers."

"..I was besotted with the wild look in his huge suffering eyes. Angelotto posed, resignedly for hours on end. That hateful stupor - in which I sometimes thought I read a hint of reproach - never left his eyes, and his mouth was sealed by such mute defiance!"

"I took care of him the best I could between sittings. He never thanked me, but did exactly as he was told without saying a word. He died in my arms after twenty days.."

Ethal referring to the finished sculpture of the aforementioned "model";

"...but you must admit I have a masterpiece here."

Ethal introduces Phocas to the most decadent and dissolute denizens of Paris whom he calls larvae. He invites Phocas to a party at his studio that quicky becomes an orgy when two javanese servants bring everyone pipes filled with opium and then strip nude and dance to exotic music as the larvae smoke;

"The javanese servants had provided each of us with a small pipe crammed with greenish paste. A negro dressed entirely in white, who suddenly appeared between the tapestries, lighted each of them in turn with brightly glowing charcoals from a little silver brazier. Seated in a semi-circle on cushions set upon the Asian carpet, with our hands resting on squares of embroidered silk or Persian velvet, we smoked in silence, concentrating our whole attention on the progressive effects of the opium."

"While they silently shook themselves, with slow and cadenced undulations of their entire bodies, the scallop-shell breast-plates slipped gently from their torsos, and the jade rings slid along their bare arms. The two idols gradually divested themselves of their garments. Their finery accumulated at their feet with a slight rustling sound, as of seashells falling on sand. The tunics of white silk followed the slow fall of the jewellery. Now, as they stood on tiptoe, very slender in their exaggerated nakedness, it was as if two long black serpents shot forth from the cones of the two diadems had begun a lugubrious dance within the bluish vapors."

I don't want to give away too much of the story. It suffices to say, I loved this book. As far as I know only one other book by Jean Lorrain has ever been translated into english - Dairy of an Ether Drinker which is long out of print. I hope more will be translated soon.

Decadent novels like this one speak volumes about what life was like for homosexual men and women in those days. Nineteenth century decadence was a reaction to the hypocritical bourgeious morals of the victorian era. It was the sexual revolution of it's time. Homosexuals who were lucky enough found a sort of haven in the blase circles of the parisian sophisticates. They lived couragously at great personal risk. The decadents sounded the death nell of the old world of the romantic era before the dawn of twentieth century. Humanity owes the decadents tribute as brave champions of individual freedom and nonconformity, and as the creators of some of the greatest art, poetry, literature, and music in all of human history.

Jean Lorrains Monsieur de Phocas has been translated beautifully by Francis Amery and published by the wonderful Dedalus Books, whose mission it is to translate and publish european classics little known to the english speaking world and in many cases, such as this one, never before translated, as well as long out of print decadent literature.

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