MAD MACHINES: J.K HUYSMANS & RAYMOND ROUSSEL
I was going to be late, it should not bother me as she would not be ready, waiting for me in the lobby half dressed with a towel turban on her head, yet it did. A sad butterfly with one of its wires broken falls all up and down Saint-Germain-des-prés. Several times it lands at the base of a tree and is almost stepped on by a man who repeatedly stops to battle with pipe and matches and like me, seems to be following it down street.
I feel something on the back of my neck and shudder as I imagine antennae caressing the rising gooseflesh. No it is just a gaze from afar which it would have been best to avoid.
She was from Poland, now living in L.A. She fancied herself an artist, a photographer but it was really just her equipment which was not half bad; the rest of the appeal to her audience was her unflagging belief that all her black and white cleavage and side-breast shots made for compelling art comprised of more depth than the soft core titillation offered up. Of course there was a market for such things but most of those who contributed to it thought better than to imagine themselves another Brassai. She was the architect behind several overly dramatic nights not worth the rolling around that had ensued the theatrics. The last one, including her tearfully sitting in my window at dawn as if imagining herself in the scene from a film which she would only half understand, perfectly framed by the silhouettes of buildings rear lit by the rising sun saying something about "our first fight". I was half tempted to tell her to hold on a moment, pick the perfect record, cue the music and have her do it again but thought better of it as I did not know what would then happen in the next scene.
I now saw her down at the end of the street, I did not want to make eye contact but the more I resisted the more I felt the need to look up, completely ignoring the warnings of both Lot's wife and Eurydice. I looked and she made a bee line for me. Luckily, I had reached Casino's pied-a-terre. As I knew she would, Casino had forgotten to wait in the lobby for me. I rapped on the door waiting for the concierge to buzz me in; “Come on man, push the button, push it already...”
The door clicks and I go in, not opening it all the way but squeezing myself through in case it has a slow swing to it. There is a high pitched whine coming from the concierge's desk. From the lip of the desk up, a cardboard cut out of the concierge, the picture having been taken on one of his better days so that as long as the sun did not discolor the cardboard too fast, he would remain the picture of health. Behind this factotum was an Uher reel to reel, which having reached the end was now rewinding to once again begin spaced out comments on the weather, the strength of the Euro and several sporting events along with one or two comments on politicians colored with innuendo. I turn around but only peripherally catch the off orange of a wing leaving the window framed scene of the street outside. I jump as Casino clears her throat;
“I am surprised you remembered the door code.”
I shrug my shoulders and the concierge lets us know that our team lost.
Upstairs she says she still needs a few minutes, of course, why don't I fix us some drinks. I pour, shake and stir looking out the window. All the buildings, it is a big city but there are different types of big cities. Europe has the older type where every little bit of space is valuable and used. Eras stack up upon each other. There is one alley way so narrow one must inhale before traversing it. Halfway down it, in an alcove where perhaps a rue version of a household god was once nestled is a kiosk big enough for one man, if he is short, to stand selling coffee which is precariously balanced on a wooden beam also used to pen the worker in, held in place by resting upon a single nail in the wall and another board which forms an upside down “L” whose tension helps keep everything in place. I know so many of these little side streets by heart but like the city itself, it still manages to offer up new gifts even if it is only the surprise of a familiar rue traveled at a different hour than normal saying:
“Now, see how I look in this kind of light.”
The big cities in America are different. Being briefly back in San Francisco I walk around and it strikes me; it is another type of large. American metropolises posses a gigantism that is vertical. Unlike the old world, the rule of no two objects occupying the same space is obeyed. These cities, they spur one on to dream while never ceasing to remind that you must do so alone.
Paris has not punctured their skyline with spires of modernity. Ruined views aside, to have foot too far from ground is to loose the power of the terroir. It comes down to not a fear of progress but one of the potential loss of tradition.
The late 1800's saw the industrial revolution as a sort of bogeyman waiting to take if not the souls then the jobs of a great part of the populace in exchange for mass produced convenience. Two things which were emblematic of these fears were The Eiffel Tower (1889) and the novel by Emil Zola (1840-1902) which was the eleventh in his Rougon-Macquart series Au Bonheur Des Dames (1883) (“The Ladies' Paradise” in English).
This novel shows the first grand department store in Paris, which in a Saturn like feeding frenzy, systematically devours the rest of the merchant neighborhood to provide substance for its own growth spurts.
Zola was one of the chief progenitors of the realist (naturalist) movement in literature. This sought to portray people whose lives were motivated by natural catalyst as can be found in the real world, accurately. All classes of Parisian society were shown, even the upper echelon, warts and all. Zola had years of struggle while bringing forth this new genre. Despite hostility of some critics and the general public, it did win him allies who were working concurrently along similar revolutionary lines; such as the loose knit federation of painters now known as The Impressionists of whom Zola had been an early champion.
Eventually the tide would turn for Zola, a wider public acceptance granting him a sizable readership and the financial comfort which comes from such things. Despite a hard won level of success, Zola never forgot his first years of struggle. With power and a public listening he would involve himself in social justice causes (Dreyfus Affair 1894-1900) promoting other underdog artists with his journalism (Cezanne, Manet et al). In 1879 he bought an estate outside of Paris in Medan from which he would make sorties into the city by train when not writing.
It was here that Zola gathered around him younger, like minded authors whom formed a semi-formal group. 1880 saw Zola putting out a small story anthology by this group sometimes referred to as the Medanists.
The two members of Zola's group best remembered today are Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) who died young, leaving behind a relatively small but powerful body of work. And who showed very much both talent and the Zola-realist template off of which he worked. The other shinning light among this group was J.K Huysmans (1847-1907). He started out as a prose poet whose first collection (Le Drageoir Aux Épices 1874) was heavily flavored by the poet maudits, especially Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Two years later, his novel Marthe about a young prostitute would bring him into the naturalist's orbit.
He would do a series of novels in the realist vein right up until 1884. This was the year which saw his break from the realist movement and the publication of his most (in) famous work A Rebours (in English “Against the Grain” or “Against Nature”). The industrial revolution in Europe did not contain the “can do” optimism as often occurred in America. There were fears of loss of health, work and integrity as everything became assembly line mechanized.
Authors like Jules Verne (1828-1905) and Anatole France (1844-1924) already had some components in their writing which portrayed the allure and misuse of technology and the new philosophies blossoming in tandem with them.
A Rebours would be cautionary tale but done with light satire made more effective as it was tinged with darkness, the natural light of the sun being blocked out or dyed by thick fin de siècle tapestries and filigreed changing screens.
Some of the controversy of the book derives not from the philosophical musings of the main character but from his flashbacks to his Parisian debauches. There is the double taboo of scenes of not just paid for sex but homosexual in nature too. Oscar Wilde, who once said that the book never left his bedside, had the book used in evidence against him at his trial brought forth by one of his upper class lover's fathers, The Marquess of Queensberry (1894).
In the book the main character Jean des Esseintes is the last of a once important and noble family. He lives a life of no consequence squandering his family's fortune in Paris upon satiating his overly sensual nature. Finally after indulging in every debauch he can imagine he grows disillusioned and disgusted with society. He decides to sequester himself to his country villa. It is here that he tries to create his own sort of wonderland. The influence of Baudelaire with his theory of The artificial paradise is felt as is the over sensuous, hot house temperament as was in vogue during the hey-day of fin de siècle Paris.
Within the story can be found ideas for lists and contraptions which would influence other artists and future generations. Shades of Prince Prospero's seven colored rooms from Edgar Allan Poe's (1809-1849) Masque of the Red Death (1842) Jean creates vast rooms with different themes. There is a poisonous flower garden, a room resembling a monastery cell, one done up as an over luxurious Louis XV chapel. The one which resembles a cabin on a yacht is complete with mechanical devices to simulate movements, sights and sounds.
Jean creates a library where he assembles a collection of forbidden, bawdy ancient Latin poets whom he prefers over the more well known and respected ones. Over the course of the book he also lists contemporaries to both the author and the character, poets to read including Huysmans's friend Stéphane Mallarme (1842 1898) who was actually appreciative of the exposure from being included in such a talked about book.
As the book progresses, more ideas are put into action to isolate himself from the rest of humanity into a sort of artificiality. As he gets deeper into his inventions, Jean also wishes and tries to think of a way to not have to eat food as normal people are required to do. There is satire but it is more cerebral with none of the lightly veiled tongue and cheek as was found in past satirists such as Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Overall the portrayal of Jean is not terribly overblown. An archetype of his age whose over the top sensual desire for every moment to be felt to the extreme was based off of such contemporaries as Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) who also managed to inspire the character of Baron de Charlus in Marcel Proust's monumental Remembrance of Things Past. And who shared more than one commonality with Jean.
The ending is somewhat open to interpretation or perhaps only to one meaning which author and main character Jean would disagree on, a surrender, a return to real life or one final acidic barb wearily said by one who becomes too tired to further fight when the inevitable defeat looms in front of him.
In real life Huysmans would go onto a new series of novels featuring his literary stand in Durtal who would slowly over the course of the multi novel story cycle come to embrace a positive, faith based spirituality.
Huysmans would also help found The Academy Goncourt (2nd seat), long the promoter of important literature with the authors who have sat in the ten chair board and through the annual Prix Goncourt.
Never at the expense of some of his peers, as was occasionally the case with other artists who sought any sort of official recognition, Huysmans would receive a Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur (1892) for his work in the civil service and then in 1905 as an officer of the Legion for his achievements in literature.
Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890) same titled protagonist draws his life's philosophy from both Jean's attitude and the real life chorus of perfumed aesthete with whom Oscar frequently interacted. In the book, the main character starts down his road to ruin once he reads a “poisonous French Novel” which although never directly named, probably to avoid legal troubles for all concerned has long been understood to be Huysmans's.
The novel still after the passage of time reads well even while drinking in so deeply the atmosphere of its era. Aspects of the book directly influenced art in various mediums which followed. Some of the peripheral ideas from Huysmans's novel would find their way into an important, largely unknown (in America) novel by a writer who despite great influence on his peers now at best could be considered “an artists' artist”.
Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) was an artist who exerted influence and inspired some of the important artists who immediately preceded him. In this way he belongs to the pantheon that also includes Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) and Arthur Craven (1887-1918?).
Alfred Jarry's anarchistic approach to life was the medium he put most of his brilliance and effort into. He was his most important creation. Once he was no longer around, emerging from his odd apartment located between two floors and which had to be crawled into, to peddle his bicycle around Paris randomly shooting his pistol into the air, all that remains aside from interesting anecdotes found in biographies of the era is some writing/plays being mostly of interests to completionist students of the era.
Although they were both working in the same city, and had never met, Picasso (1881-1973) inherited Jarry's pistol. And From Jarry, Picasso was said to have been inspired by the agent provocateur attitude but he morphed it, made it his own. Very much the pinch of spice added to a Zarzuela which becomes quickly lost in all the other ingredients but helps to contribute to the whole.
Arthur Craven was at various times described as poet, boxer, publisher/editor (the journal Maintenant!) and lecturer. But like Jarry, his greatest work was himself. He left behind an even smaller tangible oeuvre, preferring anecdotes about his behavior as the means of preserving and immortalizing his work. Unfortunately as those who witnessed his antics died, matured or just stopped caring his legend greatly diminished. Giving lectures while drunk and stripping off all his clothes, jumping from the rostrum to engage a heckler in a fistfight, rubbing a semi inflated balloon to create a discordant horn like sound for an hour while not uttering a single word, he was a favorite hammer of the Dadaist and Surrealists, pounding away at conventions of what was art and the manner in which an artist should draw forth an emotional response from their audience. Today his shrunken legacy is recognized more for ideas spurred on in others as he lived his tilt a whirl life.
As much as his life too was a performance piece Roussel made more an effort to leave behind a formalized, albeit small body of work.
He started off as a child prodigy on piano being accepted into the Paris Conservatoire at only fifteen years old. Around this time his father also passed away leaving him a sizable inheritance. The sudden lack of potential parental disapproval freed him up to now write poetry which he usually connected with his piano playing.
An early poem “Mon Âme” was published in the journal Le Gaulois but the stress of editing his next long piece “La Doublure” caused him to have a mental breakdown. It took him three years to edit and then get published after which it failed to garner any positive notice. Unlike a lot of his troubled peers, Roussel sought the help of a psychiatrist. While his sessions seemed not to have “healed” him it did allow for an inner exploration and access to more grist for his artistic mill.
Roussel would self-publish repeatedly, dipping into his fortune to do so. Like Jarry and Craven he lived a life full of eccentricities but had money with which to carry out his flights of fancy. Eating every meal at one sitting to allow for more hours in which to work and traveling through Europe in a custom made caravan that included a bathroom and studio combined with the practice of funding all his literary ventures would eventually eat away at his finances.
His eccentricities though seemed less a performance art device to shake people up and more a quality of a character from one of his books. Like one of his own mad inventors Roussel would create artificial wonders, only utilizing pen and paper to do so.
Locus Solus (1914) tells the story of a scientist both mad and rich named Cantarel. He has retreated from the city proper to an estate outside of Paris. Here can be seen the influence of Huysmans's character Jean des Esseintes, although Cantarel being more of a formalized and accomplished scientist than Jean.
Cantarel has invited a handful of guests to come and stay while taking in all that he has created. Structurally the story harkens back to several classic works of literature and the device of having a story (s) within a story. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) is one of the best and perhaps first to use this device novelistically with his The Decameron (1353) which features a group of Italian nobles fleeing the plague to a cut off country estate, each day a theme is picked and all members of the party must tell a tale upon it. You as the reader hear the story they tell while also the stories of the narrators. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) who was a renaissance man, one of the many hats he wore being that of a diplomat came across The Decameron while on assignment in Italy. It helped inspire his Canterbury Tales (1387). Chaucer's book is a group of religious pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Sir Thomas Beckett. They all swap stories en-route treating the reader like Boccaccio had to stories within a story. Chaucer's book differs in that his characters were not of noble birth but possessed more an “everyman” veneer. The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) would also employ this device for his 120 Days of Sodom (1785) which was written while imprisoned in the Bastille. In his novel there are four noblemen who steal away to a remote castle to indulge in every debauchery both physical and spiritual imaginable accompanied by four brothel madams who tell the stories within the story.
The man of means who is morally out of step and bored by society can be seen to be an archetype in itself. From Boccaccio's fleeing noblemen and woman to de Sade's to Poe's Prince Prospero right up to Huysmans's aesthete. Roussel builds upon this template deftly making it his own. He uses some of the ideas of mechanized magic as could be found in A Rebours plus the increasing zeitgeist of an artificial age in which he lived. Like the characters in the novels which utilized the same narrative device which came before his, his characters' psyches are static. Their inner life is one way and what ever that way may be is what is needed to move the story along.
Unlike A Rebours there is more of an undulation between comedy and darkness, each serving to bolster the other. A chamber which allows the deceased to pantomime an important act from their life complete with a detailed reproduction of the room for the zombie to act in, a mechanized version of aquatic ballet carried out by seahorses in a solution that allows the faux mermaid to breaths unaided while creating siren like songs with her hair. Each wonder which is seen is presented initially in OCD like descriptiveness without telling the reader exactly what they are seeing. After the performance or function of each wonder is over, then Cantarel explains the hows and whys of each device. This aspect of the narrative would later be used in variation by René Daumal (1908-1944) for his book A Night of Serious Drinking (1938) which has its main nameless character slip into inebriation which serves as a catalyst for a journey that is one part Fritz Lang's Metropolis and one part Dante's Inferno the images of which all is explained and made clear to the reader at journey's end.
Roussel would remain a concrete inspiration on great artists who followed. He was a totem to the surrealists but one who did not depend upon their worship to maintain a place in society's memory.
Although Roussel was building off of an older novelistic model. He was and remains a genius of language. His writing involved complex word games that slowly morphed double meanings of enunciation and other linguistic acrobats into a cohesive narrative. This would inspire the writers of the “Nouveau Roman” group (Alain Robbe-Grillet 1922-2008, Julio Cortázar 1914-84, Nathalie Sarraute 1900-99 et al) and even more directly the OULIPO group who constantly used word games and genre style bending and blending games in their works. This simpatico group included Italo Calvino (1923-85), Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) and Georges Perec (1936- 1982) who could rightfully be considered heir apparent in linguistic acrobats having written novels which displace every single letter “E” only to have all the missing “E's” reappear in his next book. And his meticulous descriptions of both the mundane and fantastic as is to be found in every day life. A wizard of life's ephemera whose power is underlined by the fact that he leaves one wanting to read more even as the objects described are Gemini to those found in one's own home.
Roussel would die broke and enigmatically in a hotel in Palermo. He left behind the posthumously published How I Wrote Certain of My Books which provide a kind of blue print in how he built a mad machine called Raymond Roussel.
There is a click; she pushes the round mirror which serves as a door to the medicine cabinet shut. I see her dry swallow two capsules. Now she is ready to go. The elevator drops us down to the lobby. The wind has blown over the cut out; she stops for a moment to make sure she has her keys. There is a click as the concierge tells us that our team has lost.
image above 'Door Paris June 10' by Wayne Wolfson
CULTURE BUNKER ARCHIVE
- At Witz End
- Because We are all Like That: Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte
- Reading Burroughs Reading
- Busarus Saturday Morning
- And they were into music, for real: The Story of Slint
- We Like American Music: Titus Andronicus and The Red Krayola
- Drained by the Dish Doctor
- Stop Me If You've Heard This Dinosaur Joke Before: Morrissey and U2
- Happy Shopper #31: Natalia 'Saw Lady' Paruz
- Plugging in with Joe Bonomo