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French Decadent Tales (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 9 May 2013
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[A] beautifully translated anthology (Graham Robb, TLS)
About the Author
Stephen Romer is a specialist of French and British Modernism. He has published four collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Yellow Studio (Carcanet/Oxford Poets, 2008) was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot prizze. He has edited and co-translated Twentieth-Century French Poems (Faber, 2002), and has served as judge for the Tower poetry prize, the Popescu Prize for European Translation, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. He reviews regularly for the Guardian and the TLS.
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I enjoyed the relatively few Poe-esque stories - of which I was expecting more - yet overall I truly enjoyed about 25 percent of the book as the majority of the text seemed overwhelmingly artificial.
I conclude that the French are not masters of the Gothic in comparison to the British and Russian Gothic masters.
Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly - Don Juan's Crowning Love-Affair
Viliers de L'Isle-Adam - The Presentiment, The Desire to be a Man, Sentimentalism
Catulle Mendes - What the Shadow Demands
Leon Bloy - A Dentist Terribly Punished, The Last Bake, The Lucky Sixpence
Octave Mirbeau - On a Cure, The Bath, The First Emotion, The Little Summer-House
Jean Richepin - Constant Guignard, Deshoulieres, Pft! Pft!
Guy de Maupassant - At the Death-Bed, A Walk, The Tresses, Night
Gustave Geffroy - The Statue
Jean Lorrain - An Unsolved Crime, The Student's Tale, The Man With the Bracelet, The Man who Loved Consumptives
Georges Rodenbach - The Time
Remy de Gourmont - Danaette, The Faun, Don Juan's Secret, On the Threshold
Jules Laforgue - Perseus and Andromeda
Marcel Schwob - The Brothel, The Sans-Gueule, 52 and 53 Orfila, Lucretius, Poet, Paolo Uccello, Painter
Pierre Louys - A Case Without Precedent
So, as you can see there is a very good selection to choose from. Some of these tales you may be familiar with and read before, especially those by Guy de Maupassant, but others you may never have even heard of. Taking in love, the fantastical, murder, suicide, hedonism, and the macabre this is a good book for those who are coming to the Decadent period for the first time, as well as those familiar with this movement, as there is so much here all in one book. Some of these tales have a streak of very dark humour running through them and as you will find if you decide to get this, there are some real gems in here, such as the man with the headless shadow, whether a body is really dead before entering the oven at the crematorium, and what is the legal position of conjoined twins if one wants to marry, but the other doesn't.
I must admit that I have taken a bit of time putting a review on for this, the reason being that I already read it once over the weekend, but immediately started from the beginning and re-read it. As usual with OUP Classics, this has a good introduction, and explanatory notes. I would think that a lot more people than those who will actually buy this would enjoy this book, as it has so many different tales to offer, all of them very good.
I'm fairly familiar with the poetry of the Symbolists and Aesthetes associated with fin-de-siècle Decadence (Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Nerval) but haven't read much prose apart from Huysman's A Rebours (Against Nature in English), so this is an interesting introduction.
Decadence as a literary movement covers a lot of ground: influenced by responses to Darwin, Freud and, to a lesser extent, Marx, it is anti-capitalist, pessimistic, frequently neurotic, and passionately interested in excessive sensations and pathological mind states. Mental and physical extremes are sought to overcome the effete ennui of bourgeois life, and moral transgressions are tested, resulting in some of the more fetishistic elements of the stories here.
Many of these are short, often written to be published in literary journals, and shift between the frightening, the weird, the darkly humorous, and the strangely beautiful (for the latter, see Danaette by de Gourmont).
Romer's introductory essay is nicely scholarly but accessible to frame this collection, and the notes are useful: a good volume for anyone seeking a closer acquaintance with French Decadent prose fiction.
The stories are highly readable and give insight into the work of the school and represent a who's who of inspired writers such as Gourmont, Lorrain, Maupassant, Mirbeau, Richepin, Schwob and Villiers. They perfected the art of short story fiction. Maupassant is my particular favourite, but a particular strength of the collection is that for the newcomer there are exciting discoveries to be made into this part of neglected French literature.
It is a book can you dip into, whichever mood you happen to be in. What is without doubt, is that you will never be bored as there is something to interest, delight or fascinate you.
It is a collection which still has relevance today and I recommend it.
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