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.

The Other Side by Alfred Kubin

One day as I was searching around the internet minding my own business, innocent and unsuspecting of any imminent peril, I stumbled upon a webpage called The Strangest Books Ever Written. There was a list for strange fiction and a list for strange nonfiction. Right there close to the top of the strange fiction list was The Other Side by Alfred Kubin.

After a bit of research I discovered that he was an early twentieth century expressionist artist and illustrator. He had a very gloomy life to match his macabre artwork. The Other Side was the only novel he wrote and it was widely considered to be one of the most unusual and macabre books ever written.

I was hooked, so I ordered it. It was available in a new english translation by Mike Mitchell from Dedalus Books.

In the beginning of the story a mysterious stranger arrives at the Munich home of a artist and his wife. After introducing himself the stranger explains the reason for his visit.

"I am not speaking in my own name, but for a man whom you, perhaps, have forgotten, but who still remembers you well. This man has at his disposal what is by European standards, untold wealth. I am speaking of your former classmate, Claus Patera. Please do not interrupt me! By a strange chance, Patera came into possession of what is probably the largest fortune in the world. Your old friend then set out upon the realization of an idea for which access to fairly inexhaustible financial resources is absolutely prerequisite. He resolved to found a dream realm. This is a complex matter, but I will be brief.

First of all a suitable tract of some 1,200 square miles was acquired. One third of the area is mountainous, the rest consists of plains and hills. A lake, a river and large forests divide up this small realm and add variety to its landscape. A city was established, villages, and farms. The latter were sorely needed as even the initial population was 12,000. The present population of the Dream Realm is 65,000."

He goes on:

"Patera, he continued, feels an extraordinarily strong aversion to all kinds of progress. To be precise, to all kinds of scientific progress. Please take this literally, for in it lies the main idea behind the Dream Realm. The Realm is shut off from the rest of the world by a surrounding wall and protected against any attack by strong fortifications. There is a single gate for entry and exit, facilitating strict control of people and goods. The dream realm is a sanctuary for all those who are unhappy with modern civilization and contains everything necessary to cater to their bodily needs. It is not at all the intention of the lord of this country to create a utopia, a kind of model state for the future. Although provision has been made to ensure there are no material shortages, the whole thrust of the principal aims of this community is directed less towards the maintenance of property and goods, the population, individuals. No, definitely not! ...But I see a smile of disbelief on your lips. It is difficult I know, almost too difficult for mere words to describe what Patera hopes to achieve with his Dream Realm."

The artist and his wife think it over and decide to go. They make a very long journey to the far east ending up finally at the outer wall of the Dream Realm. They pass through the single gate and board a train that takes them across dismal swamps and forests to Pearl, the capital of the Dream Realm.

On their arrival in Pearl, they immediately discover that all is not right in the Dream Realm. To begin with the sky is always overcast. Never can you see the sun or the stars. Everything looks drab and dingy in dreary shades of greenish grey. Nothing is new here. Everything from buildings to silverware is old and worn.

We later find out that all the buildings have macabre and violent histories. Structures where horrible crimes were committed have been moved to the Dream Realm from all over the world. Even the everyday objects seem to have an unwholesome past. It seems as if an unseen force is controlling both people and events in this bizarre place.

A village adjacent to the city is the home of a tribe of blue eyed holy men who are the Dream Realms original inhabitants. These people seem all to be in a perpetual trance. We learn that Patera visited these mystics before conceiving the Dream Realm.

Things become increasingly bizarre. People start becoming violent. Murders are committed with increasing intensity. Many people die of mysterious illnesses. Plagues of insects inundate the city. Wild animals start invading the city and attacking people. Then even domesticated animals become vicious and turn on their masters.

When our hero finally does find Patera, he seems to be in a trance, and his face keeps changing into first one person then another and another until finally it seems as if faces from all over the realm and even the entire world are passing across Pateras skull.

"His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like."

Any attempt to escape from the dream realm is futile. The violence continues to escalate as the evil force controlling everything consumes the city of Pearl in a chaotic apocalypse.

The book ends with our protagonist finding the "real" world too much like the Dream Realm for comfort.

"When I ventured back into the world of the living, I discovered that my god only held half-sway. In everything, both great and small, he had to share with an adversary who wanted life. The forces of repulsion and attraction, the twin poles of the earth with their currents, the alternation of the seasons, day and night, black and white - these are battles.

Kubin adds a drawing of an eyeless morbid Patera like face on the final page with the cryptic phrase:

"The Demiurge is a hybrid."

The dystopia described in this book, published in Austria in 1906, closely predicts events that occurred in the decades following it's publication, with often uncanny and disturbing similarity.

The rise of militarism and nationalism resulting in the first and second world wars, the rise of Nazism, Hitlers omnipotent god like influence on millions, the holocaust, even the horrible final hours of der fuhrer in his bunker in Berlin are closely foreshadowed in this prophetic book.

Analogies may easily be drawn to ideas like Jung's collective subconscious, the cycles of change of taoism,and the karmic principle of hinduism and jainism, and alarmingly to events in the present.

This book is a definite must read. It should be required reading in the hope that the warning signs of violent psychosis shown by an entire society may someday be heeded preventing future bloodbaths and perhaps accomplishing homosapiens next great evolutionary step into a truly self aware being, no longer controlled by ancient demons and evil forces.

Fortunately Mike Mitchell's translation of The Other Side has recently been released in an ebook format for only ten dollars. Paperback copies are scarce and costly.

Georges by Alexandre Dumas

I am very happy to report the publication of a great new novel... by Alexandre Dumas! How can there be a new novel by Dumas you ask? This novel has been lost and forgotten to us for more than a century. A wonderful new translation by Tina Kover has recently been printed in a beautiful hardcover edition by The Modern Library (Random House). Jamaica Kincaid has written a forward which is a masterpiece in itself.

Georges is the story of a boy from Isle de France, the son of a wealthy mulatto planter. Georges and his brother are sent to France by their father, to protect them from the wrath of the bigoted white planters on the island.

Through incredible self discipline and will power, Georges distinguishes himself intellectually and transforms himself through grueling training from a skinny ascetic to a strong and robust man, as well as a master swordsman and marksman. Georges becomes the toast of high society in Paris and London. He goes into military service and distinguishes himself courageously, being decorated with the legion of honor by the king of France.

Georges then returns to Isle de France to avenge the treatment of his noble father by the racist planters on Isle de France, intent to destroy the bigotry on the island or die in the attempt.

Not everyone is aware that Alexandre Dumas was mulatto himself, the grandson of a French nobleman and an Afro-Caribbean woman, Marie-Cessette Dumas, who had been a slave. This is the only work in his more than 300 volumes of novels, plays, and prose which deals with the subject.

In this novel Dumas explores complex issues of race in great detail. Written and set in a period when slavery had been abolished in Europe in the wake of Napoleon, but not in many other places around the world, such as the United States. It was still legal to own slaves in French and English colonies. Although slave trading had become illegal in this period, it was still being carried on by privateers.

Georges and his father owned many slaves themselves. Issues of race between the wealthy mulatto planters and the black slaves are explored extensively in addition to those between whites and people of color.

The taboo of interracial love is beautifully explored in a romance between Georges and the fiancé of his Nemesis, the despicable racist son of a white planter.

This novel deals very effectively with issues of race that are as relevant today as they were over a century ago. It also speaks volumes about a period little known to most people. The first successful slave rebellion in Haiti had just occurred inspiring victims of slavery around the world to heroically and courageously fight for their own freedom.

Even without all the socially redeeming value, Georges is one of greatest novels of the greatest storyteller of all time. This is a marvelous romantic adventure with a noble and virtuous hero avenging social injustice similar to The Count of Monte Cristo. It is, put quite plainly, a joy to read.

I will end with the irresistible beginning of Georges:

"Have you ever, on a long, cold, melancholy winter night - alone with your thoughts and the wind whistling through the hallways, the rain pounding against the windows - have you ever leaned your forehead against the mantel, absently watching sparks dance on the hearth, and longed to flee our wet and muddy Paris for some enchanted oasis? Somewhere fresh and carpeted in green, where you could lie in the shade of a riverside palm tree and doze off without a care in the world?

Well the paradise of your dreams exists! Eden awaits you; the water flows clear and bright there, falling and surging up in bright dust; the palm fronds wave gently in the soft sea breeze like feathers in a genies cap. The jambosa trees, laden with iridescent fruit, stand ready to offer you their sweetly scented shade. Come, follow me now."

The occult novels of Gustav Meyrink

Gustav Meyrink was born in Vienna on January 19th, 1868, sixty years to the day after Edgar Allen Poe was born (January 19th, 1808). He was the illegitimate child of an aristocrat named Karl Gottlob Freiherr von Varnbüler and an actress with whom he had an affair. His mother raised him in Munich and later he went to Hamburg to study. His father paid for his education, but never acknowledged him. In 1883 he moved to Prague to become a banker and lived there for twenty years.

In 1892, at the age of twenty four, he contemplated suicide. Just as he held the gun to his head someone slipped a spiritualist pamphlet entitled Afterlife under his door. He was so stunned by the coincidence he began to study the occult. Meyrink later became involved with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He had a brief career in banking which ended in a scandal in which he was actually charged with using the occult to commit fraud.

Meyrink worked as a translator after the scandal and then began writing short stories, first in a magazine called Simplicissimus and eventually publishing three compilations of his stories. In 1915 his first novel, The Golem, was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies.

In The Golem, an artist who has lost all memory of his past is visited by a mysterious being who entrusts a magical book to him to be restored. We follow him on a quest for his lost past as he experiences a series of supernatural encounters and mystical revelations in a wonderfully described turn of the century Jewish ghetto of Prague, filled with fantastic characters and even more fantastic legends.

I love Meyrinks descriptions as well as his characters and the way he weaves mystical lessons into the plot. Meyrink uses the novel to help us learn "things that cannot be taught".

Walpurgisnacht is a novella also set in Prague. In it evil forces possess the populace, inspiring a revolt that floods the streets of Prague with blood to the beat of a drum made from human skin.

The Green Face is set in the jewish ghetto of Amsterdam. His descriptions of the ghetto there are very similar to his desriptions of the ghetto of Prague in The Golem. He uses the legend of the wandering jew in much the same way he uses the legend of the golem.

In The Angel of the West Window a descendant of Sir John Dee inherits his papers and as he begins to go through them he becomes possessed by the spirit of Dee. A large amount of John Dee's actual papers are included in the story in this way. Characters from Dee's life keep showing up reincarnated in between hallucinagenic flashbacks to John Dee's time. The story progresses from Dee's castle in england, around europe to a medieval Prague of hissing alchemist Emperor Rudolf and mysterious kaballistic rabbis as Dee is exploited by the charlatan Edmund Kelly. A sort of biography in the form of an occult novel, the story is a fitting tribute to the man who inspired Shakespeares Prospero.

The White Dominican was Meyrinks final novel. In it he gives us the essence of his unique blend of taoism, buddism, gnosticism, and kabballah. Here's a sample:

Just as we cannot comprehend the meaning of a book if we just hold it in our hand and turn the pages without reading, so we will not profit from the course of our destiny if we do not grasp its meaning. Events follow each other like the pages of a book that are turned by Death; all we know is that they appear and disappear, and that with the last one the book ends. We do not even know that it keeps being opened, again and again, until we finally learn to read. And as long as we cannot read, life is for us a worthless game in which joy and sorrow mingle. When however, we finallly begin to understand it's living language, then our spirit will open it's eyes, and will start to read, and will breathe with us.

The novels of Gustav Meyrink have recently been wonderfully translated into english by Mike Mitchell and published by Dedalus Press.

Shikasta by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She was unimpressed. She mentioned that in the 1960's a representative had been sent from the Nobel committee just to tell her that they didn't like her and that she would never win. Apparently they have changed their minds.

Doris Lessing was born on October 22, 1919 in Persia. Her father was a soldier in WW1. He had lost a leg in the war and met her mother, who was a nurse, in the hospital when he was recovering . The couple moved to Persia where her father worked as a bank clerk. Doris was born there.

In 1925, when Doris was 6, the family relocated to colonial Southern Rhodesia to make their fortune farming. Unfortunately farming turned out not to be as lucrative as they had hoped. They were not wealthy.

Doris was sent to a convent school and later to an all girls boarding school. She dropped out of school at the age of 13 or 14. Doris worked as a nanny and later as a stenographer. One of her employers loaned her books and she began a course of self education that eventually resulted in her preeminence as a leading intellectual and free thinker.

In 1950 her first novel The Grass is Singing explored the failing marriage of a colonial south african white couple and the affair of the wife with her black servant.

In her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, a successful female author named Anna tries to live her life with the freedom of a man. Anna records her thoughts and experiences both personal and intellectual in four notebooks.

As she attempts to tie together the four notebooks in one golden notebook, Anna examines contemporary issues in the context of her own life and applies her powerful intellect to draw some very relevant conclusions. Relevant enough to make Doris Lessing famous and make The Golden Notebook required reading today.

Over the years many groups have wanted to claim Doris as one of their own. Feminists, communists, Sci fi fans, and adepts of Sufism, among others, have enthusiastically attempted to name her as their guru for decades. Doris herself has always reveled in the impossibility of catagorizing herself or her work with any kind of label.

Indeed the theme of much of her work is the individual repressed by social roles and conventions struggling to emancipate their self.

She has written powerfully about women struggling to escape sexist gender roles and social mores.

She has written extensively on racism and colonial oppression in South Africa where she grew up.

Her work examines social, sexual,and racial roles as they effect the individual and society on a level seldom explored even today.

So, Doris deserves every award they have to throw at her. However, although these days honors are being liberally lavished upon the venerable Ms. Lessing. Few have mentioned what I and many others including Ms. Lessing herself consider her best work. Shikasta!

The books full title is Re: Recolonized Planet 5, Shikasta, Canopus in Argos: Archives, and it is quite a mindblowing book to read.

After the books release in 1979, a cult following grew which resembled some kind of new religion. She later stated that if she "had invented a new cosmology, it was for literary purposes alone."

The fantastic premise of the book is based in part on principles from the teachings of sufism in the works of the mystic Idries Shah.

The book is written in the form of a report from an alien, Johor, sent from the planet Canopus on a mission to the planet Argos (earth). Shikasta, sanskrit for something that has been broken, is the name of the dimension we humans exist in on Argos.

Johor's report spans millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of human development from prehistory to the future. It is the history of earth from the point of view of an alien who has been sent to aid in the evolution of species on this planet, and to help humans to achieve their evolutionary potential to be compassionate and enlightened beings. To boost this process the Canopeans are beaming positive energy called SOWF, Substance Of We Feeling, to Shikasta.

More than one group of aliens has been dabbling on earth. A malevolent group of aliens from the planet Shammat are stealing the SOWF to power their evil empirial conquests. This is why Shikasta is broken. There isn't enough Substance Of We Feeling. Too many people and not enough SOWF. And those evil Shammatians are stealing the SOWF making matters worse.

Many aliens are sent to earth to help. Aliens incarnate on earth to accomplish their missions, being born as a human. Many of us are aliens sent here on a mission and don't know it. Desires and sorrows distract us from accomplishing our missions in life. If we do not accomplish our mission, we have to keep incarnating here over and over again until we do. If we are successful in accomplishing our mission we can hope to be sent on a mission to someplace nicer next time, as Shikasta is a particularly tough assignment, a very painful world to visit.

The report continues into some near future where superpowers collapse and global war, economic devastation, environmental disaster and chaos ensue, a little too prophetic for comfort.

After the collapse of the superpowers, the Chinese are the the only power left standing. The white race is put on trial by an international tribunal. Our friend Johar has incarnated here as George Sherban to plead a case for the defense and stop the war and bloodshed before humans wipe themselves out completely.

I wont give away the ending. I'll just say everyone really should read this book. It will alter your world view and inspire you as Doris Lessing has inspired a generation of free thinking human beings to accomplish their mission to help make the world a better place to live, to alleviate human suffering, and stop war, and that's why she deserves all our admiration and respect.

Having said that. I need some SOWF. I am really getting low lately.