"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, October 3, 2022

Monsieur de Phocas (1901) by Jean Lorrain

         The palpitations of life have always filled me with a strange destructive rage. Now there have been two occasions when I was surprised by the idea of murder in association with love. 

     Might there be a second self lurking within me?

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Readers unfamiliar with Monsieur de Phocas may prefer to read these notes only after reading the story.

Monsieur de Phocas (1901) by Jean Lorrain

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From the Introduction: The life and Career of Jean Lorrain by Francis Amery:

     [....] It cannot have come as a surprise to Amable Duval when his son finally announced that he was giving up the law in favour of a literary career; he agreed readily enough to provide a modest allowance, on condition that Paul used a pseudonym. Paul and his mother leafed through a directory in search of something suitable, and were delighted with their choice. In 1880 Jean Lorrain set himself up in Montmartre, eager to launch himself into the Bohemian life.

    This was the Montmartre of Toulouse-Lautrec, a world of cheap furnished rooms in which impoverished members of the literary avant-garde rubbed shoulders with cheap prostitutes and formed enthusiastic cliques in cafes. The café in which Jean Lorrain elected to spend most of his days was the Chat Noir. Paul Verlaine was known to drop in occasionally – and was later to launch the fad for 'Decadence' with a poem in Le Chat Noir, the periodical founded by the regulars – but the hard core of the group were then in the habit of describing themselves as 'Hydropathes' and 'Zutistes'. They included Jean Moréas and Jean Richepin. The Hydropathes were literary Satanists, great admirers of the historian Jean Michelet, whose curiously rhapsodic book La Sorcière (1862; tr. as Satanism and Witchcraft) had hailed the witches burned in days of yore as heroic and virtuous antagonists of a tyrannical church. They were enthusiastic apologists for the Devil, and conscientiously re-worked the mythology of witches' sabbats and black masses. Many of the poems Lorrain wrote under this influence are reprinted in Sang des dieux (1882) and La Forêt bleue.

    Sang des dieux, Lorrain's first book, had a frontispiece by Gustave Moreau. Lorrain met Moreau in 1880, and immediately became a devout admirer of his work. The two did not become friends – Moreau became a virtual recluse in his later years – but Lorrain visited the artist's studio in the Rue La Rochefoucauld, which was left to the state as a museum when Moreau died in 1898. Moreau's work revealed to Lorrain a whole world-view: a gorgeous symbolically-transfigured vision of a world dominated by lust and luxury (concepts which seem to be more closely related in French than in English, in the words luxure and luxe), where eroticism is inextricably linked with cruelty and death, placed in fabulously gaudy settings: a 'Sublime Sodom', as Lorrain's biographer Philippe Jullian put it. The hallucinatory world of Moreau's art is dominated by femmes fatales — Salomé, Helen of Troy, the Sirens – who are all, in some sense, incarnations of the same eternal person. In Flaubert's La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; tr. as The Temptations of St Anthony) — another favourite of the Hydropathes – the archetype of which all these other females are avatars is called Ennoïa; she features in person, of course, in Moreau's own versions of the saint's torments. In many different guises – including Astarté, the name of one of the many pagan deities demonised by the monotheistic followers of Jehovah – Ennoïa was to play a central role in Jean Lorrain's personal mythos, although 'she' had an understandable tendency to become androgynous or frankly masculine….

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Monsieur de Phocas is a brief, disintegrating thriller that comes around aesthetically to bite its own tail. The narrator's diary recounts his daily struggle to escape the poisons sickening his soul, class, and city. Paris here is not a century's capital but a disease vector.

Monsieur de Phocas begins with de Phocas (formerly the self-indulgent, dead-end Duc de Fréneuse) imposing himself on the first-person narrator of the book's opening chapters.

     'You see that I know my authors. Now, no one has suffered more than myself from the morbid attraction of these jewels; and, sick unto death – seeing that I am being carried away by their translucent glaucous poison – it is you in whom I now wish to confide, monsieur: you, who have understood their sumptuous and dangerous magic well enough to communicate to others its thrill and its malaise.

     'You alone can understand me. You alone can indulgently recognise the affinity which attracted me to you. The Duc de Fréneuse was merely an eccentric, monsieur; for all others save yourself, Monsieur de Phocas would be a madman. I mentioned just now the name of the city of Ys and the Demon which caused that city to be engulfed: the Demon of Lust, which seduced the daughter of the king. Such curses have the power to extend across the centuries. I tell you that this Demon is within me. A veritable Demon tortures and haunts me, and has done ever since my adolescence. Who knows – perhaps it was already in me when I was merely a child? Even though I may seem to you to be deluded, monsieur, I have suffered for many years the effects of a certain blue and green something.

     'Whether it is the gleam of a gem or a gaze that I lust after – worse, that I am bewitched by – I am possessed by a certain glaucous transparence. It is like a hunger in me. I search for this gleam – in vain! – in the irises of eyes and the transparency of gemstones, but no human eye possesses it. Occasionally, I have detected it in the empty orbit of a statue's eye or beneath the painted eyelids of a portrait, but it has only been a decoy: the brightness is always extinguished, having scarcely been glimpsed.

Naturally, A Manuscript

De Phocas, preparing to flee to the Orient and its fabled powers of regeneration, leaves his diary manuscript with the narrator. When it begins, we are plunged into the masque of de Fréneuse as he becomes De Phocas. A gossip says about him:

     That pallor of decay; the twitching of his bony hands, more Japanese than chrysanthemums; the arabesque profile; that vampiric emaciation – has all of that never given you cause to reflect? In spite of his supple body and his callow face Fréneuse is a hundred thousand years old. That man has lived before, in ancient times, under the reigns of Heliogabalus, Alexander IV and the last of the Valois. What am I saying? That man is Henri III himself....

De Phocas's diary of the 1890s begins as it will end,  filled with horror at what the Duc de Fréneuse sees in all aspects of everyday life:

8 April 1891

     The obscenity of nostrils and mouths; the ignominious cupidity of smiles and women encountered in the street; the shifty baseness on every side, as of hyenas and wild beasts ready to bite: tradesmen in their shops and strollers on their pavements. How long must I suffer this? I have suffered it before, as a child, when, descending by chance to the servant's quarters, I overheard in astonishment their vile gossip, tearing up my own kind with their lovely teeth.

     This hostility to the entire race, this muted detestation of lynxes in human form, I must have rediscovered it later while at school. I had a repugnance and horror for all base instincts, but am I not myself instinctively violent and lewd, murderous and sensual? Am I any different, in essence, from the members of the riotous and murderous mob of a hundred years ago, who hurled the town sergeants into the Seine and cried, 'String up the aristos!' just as they shout 'Down with the army!' or 'Death to the Jews!' today?

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     April 98.

     Masks! I see them everywhere. That dreadful vision of the other night – the deserted town with its masked corpses in every doorway; that nightmare product of morphine and ether – has taken up residence within me. I see masks in the street, I see them on stage in the theatre, I find yet more of them in the boxes. They are on the balcony and in the orchestra-pit. Everywhere I go I am surrounded by masks. The attendants to whom I give my overcoat are masked; masks crowd around me in the foyer as everyone leaves, and the coachman who drives me home has the same cardboard grimace fixed upon his face!

     It is truly too much to bear: to feel that one is alone and at the mercy of all those enigmatic and deceptive faces, alone amid all the mocking laughs and the threats embodied in those masks. I have tried to persuade myself that I am dreaming, and that I am the victim of a hallucination, but all the powdered and painted faces of women, all the rouged lips and kohl-blackened eyelids … all of that has created around me an atmosphere of trance and mortal agony. Cosmetics: there is the root cause of my illness!

     But I am happy, now, when there are only masks! Sometimes, I detect the cadavers beneath, and remember that beneath the masks there is a host of spectres.

     The other evening, in that café-cabaret in the Rue de la Fontaine, where I had run aground with Tramsel and Jocard, who had taken me there to see that supposedly-fashionable singer … how could they fail to see that she was nothing but a corpse?

     Yes, beneath the sumptuous and heavy ballgown, which swaddled her and held her upright like a sentry-box of pink velvet trimmed and embroidered with gold – a coffin befitting the queen of Spain – there was a corpse! But the others, amused by her wan voice and her emaciated frame, found her quaint – more than that, quite 'droll'…

     Droll! that drab, soft and inconsistent epithet that everyone uses nowadays! The woman had, to be sure, a tiny carven head, and a kind of macabre prettiness within the furry heap of her opera-cloak. They studied her minutely, interested by the romance of her story: a petite bourgeoise thrown into the high life following the fad which had caught her up – and neither of them, nor anyone else besides in the whole of that room, had perceived what was immediately evident to my eyes. Placed flat on the white satin of her dress, the two hands of that singer were the two hands of a skeleton: two sets of knuckle-bones gloved in white suede. They might have been drawn by Albrecht Dürer: the ten fingers of an evil dead woman, fitted at the ends of the two overlong and excessively thin arms of a mannequin …

Before too many chapters the Duc de Fréneuse/Monsieur de Phocas  has left behind the classical beauty of a marble Antinous in the Louvre and come into the orbit of a living avatar of "Antonio Moro's portrait of the Duc D'Albe's famous dwarf": the disgraced and banished English painter Claudius Ethal.

Ethal is infamous for a studio where guests and sitters are unknowingly exposed to hallucinogenic drugs that destroy their morals before taking their lives. He is notorious for depicting in oils the Baroness Desrodes as a frog. 

'What did she expect?' Ethal said. 'It is her own physique which is the root of the problem. She defies portraiture and demands caricature.'

Claudius Ethal presents himself to Duc de Fréneuse/Monsieur de Phocas as a saviour and liberator, ready to combat the Duc's maladies. In practice, he is more akin to Old Scratch or Tyler Durden. The remainder of Monsieur de Phocas inflicts one nightmare ordeal after another on the diarist: it is a remorseless version of Saki's "unrest cure."

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I share oddly weird fiction blogger NancyO's thoughts on the book:

There is just so very much to say about this dark, dark novel that like Ethal's bizarre hold on Phocas, will certainly cast a spell on its reader.  It is one of those books that refuses to let go, one that gets down deep into the psyche, making me wonder at several points where this story was taking me and sort of being afraid to move on because it was getting very deep into Phocas' head, which trust me, is a very scary place to be.   Once again I fail to do this book justice -- it is another one that absolutely must be experienced on one's own. And I loved it. Very much recommended, but certainly not for everyone -- it is not an easy read on many levels.

Not easy, but fascinating, funny, and over too soon.


30 September 2022

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