Friday, February 5, 2016

diving into decadence -- Monsieur de Phocas, by Jean Lorrain

Dedalus/Hippocrene, 1994
originally published 1901
translated by Francis Amery
270 pp


Monsieur de Phocas took me about ten days to read, a) because it is my  introduction to fin-de-siècle decadent literature and I wanted to get a feel for literature of the period (I'd read Huysmans' Lá-Bas, but that was some time ago) and b) because it is chock full of references to literature, to paintings, to sculpture, etc., that I'd never encountered before, so I felt compelled to look them all up. To be very honest, Monsieur de Phocas probably isn't where I should have started with literature of this period, because while doing a bit of digging about this novel, I discovered that in the opinions of some people, Lorrain's novel is somewhat "derivative" of the work of Huysmans' A Rebours, which will be my next choice of fin-de-siècle literature.  I suppose it doesn't really matter in the long run, since I loved this book -- if I don't know what I'm missing yet, well, that's okay. It certainly whet my appetite for more, and I've been buying books left and right to try to increase my knowledge of this type of literature.

The beginning of this story is related by an unnamed narrator, a writer who had written a tribute to an "engraver and his artistry," and who is visited one day by the Duc de Fréneuse.  After introducing himself  he reveals to the narrator that he is tortured and haunted by a "Demon" within him, haunting and torturing him ever since his adolescence and that
"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." 
He also reveals that it is a certain "gaze" that he seeks --
"the gaze of Dahgut, the daughter of the king of Ys. It is also the gaze of Salomé. Above all, it is the limpid green clarity of the gaze of Astarté: that Astarté who is the demon of Lust and also the Demon of the Sea." 
The duc informs him that  he is about to leave for a "long absence," a last journey in which he is "exiling" himself from France; at the same  time he also tells him that "The Duc de Fréneuse is dead; that there is no longer anyone but Monsieur de Phocas."  Finally we become aware of exactly what has brought Phocas there: he wants to leave with him his manuscript to which he has consigned
"the first impressions of my illness: the unconscious temptations of a man of today, sunk in occultism and neurosis."
Phocas desires to go to Asia, where he hopes he might be able to find a cure for his obsessions -- he has a need "to cry out to someone" the "pangs" of his anguish:
"I need to know that here in Europe there is someone who pities me, and would rejoice in my recovery if ever Heaven should grant it to me."
The unnamed narrator agrees, and the rest of this book is comprised of  Phocas' manuscript, free of narrator interjections, related in chronological order. The narrative goes on to tell of his repulsion of Paris society, for example, after a performance at the Olympia, he recounts the "marionettes" in the audience, including "the banal figures of the males" and "the artificial elephantiasis of wives, sculpted in jet." Taking up the theme of artificiality, he notes that he has a fascination with masks and masquerades, to the point of wondering if he'll be haunted by masks since he seems to see them everywhere, from his own peers in society down into the lower ranks of the population.   However, he discovers that he is not alone -- that there is another man, an English painter named Claudius Ethal, who also sees the masks and is haunted by them; he also "sees through the mask of every human face," and it is here that this book starts really taking off.    Ethal promises a "cure" but things begin to change when a second person, Sir Thomas Welcome, comes into the picture.  And where things go from there, well...

Salomé and the Head of John 

The real problem I'm having with trying to collect my thoughts about this novel is that there's so much here to think about; so much here I want to talk about, so much I really would love to share.  I didn't go and check, but there's enough in this one volume to feed several PhD dissertations so trying to come up with a focus here is really tough. Masks, narcissism, misogyny, eyes and the "gaze," instincts/nature, death and beauty, Paris itself, an underlying but to me obvious subtext of homosexuality  -- there's just a LOT going on here, so I'll leave it to readers to discover how these all help to shape this novel and how they play out thematically from beginning to end.  I would caution anyone who wants to read this book not to gloss over the art, the mythology or the literary references here -- there are reasons they are there and in my opinion, their importance culminates in a visit made by Phocas to the Musée Gustave Moreau, suggested, strangely enough, separately by both Ethal and by Welcome.

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.

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