“I am taking you to the brothel, Messieurs,” declared the old puppet, “but the brothel of memories. There you will submit, and with the sharpest desire, to women you will not even see, to a deceptive obsession. I am taking you to the cloakroom of the dead. Standing before scraps of fabric, before dresses that will be empty forever and bodices of nothing, before the old rags of centuries and the tatters of dead lovers, I want to get you drunk on the sorrowful opium of what could have been and what is no more.”
— Jean Lorrain’s “Monsieur de Bougrelon”
Born as Paul Duval in 1855, the poet, critic, novelist, and all-around dandy known as Jean Lorrain remains one of the most neglected names of French Decadent literature, and particularly one of the least read in English — especially compared to his contemporaries like (my personal favorite) J.K. Huysmans, Octave Mirbeau, or more famous writers like the poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud, all of whom can loosely be grouped together under the umbrella of mid to late-nineteenth century writers and artists that came to be known as the Decadents and Symbolists. While horror genre fans may have heard Lorrain’s name, as Jean Rollin adapted one of his stories (about therapeutic blood drinking) for the great Fascination (1979), his work is marked by an obsession with everything outre: from homosexuality and satanism to cults, with more than a dash of cultural exoticism, and dens of iniquity as important locations.
His works like Monsieur de Phocas (1901), Histoires des masques (1900), and Le vice errant (1901) are perhaps an obvious precursor to the later (and also more famous) Jean Genet. And like Genet — obsessed with criminality and homosexuality in his own right — Lorrain’s life story is just as colorful as any of his writing. Somewhat similar to his American predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe, Lorrain was a voracious, if outspoken critic capable of writing some scathing reviews; rumor has it that his words about Proust led to a duel between the two — difficult to imagine as that may be and causing no lasting injury — apparently because Lorrain found Proust’s closeted homosexuality to be disdainful. (And according to the afterward in this edition, Guy de Maupassant and Paul Verlaine also challenged Lorrain to duels.)
He was apparently a prolific explorer — much of his output is actually travel writing, in a French tradition that includes everyone from Chateaubriand and Stendhal to Nerval and Hugo — and some of his greatest journeys took him beyond class lines into the regions of French life not explored by the bourgeois or upper classes. Robert Ziegler wrote that Lorrain, with “his love of make-up and disguises, scandalized the readers of his time with his forays into the suspect world of wrestlers and ‘garçon bouchers,’ actresses and addicts… [He] was best known for his… descriptions of ‘la pègre,’ the dangerous inhabitants of the Parisian underworld and the uncharted regions of the city that they frequented.”
A key example of this is Lorrain’s 1897 novella Monsieur de Bougrelon — available here in English for the first time — represents one of my favorite qualities of Decadent literature, which is to transform the seedy side of life into an alternate, surreal world, complete with drug use, alcoholism, prostitution, destitution, and a motley band of misfits, outcasts, and criminals. In this case, an eccentric man who introduces himself as the Monsieur de Bougrelon has a chance meeting in a brothel with two French tourists vacationing in Amsterdam, and takes it upon himself to be their guide to the city. He is enthusiastic, even maudlin, in his speech and demeanor, and tells them of his storied life: a French native, he fled his home country many years ago at the side of his friend, Monsieur de Mortimer, who was banished after fighting a duel.
Bougrelon is ridiculous in all extremes, but there is something magical, even beautiful about him. He takes the two men to visit wharves and whore houses, bars and art galleries, but he’s an anachronistic creation and seems to live entirely in the past, in a fantasy world of his own creation. The novella’s ribald humor and a marked sense of the grotesque are the very soul of Bougrelon himself, and this certainly isn’t the reserved (even cold and self-loathing) decadence of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. The importance of nostalgia is paramount to Lorrain’s work, and much of the plot revolves around Bougrelon’s “imaginary pleasures,” which are partly fantasies and partly fictionalized memories, upon which sexual obsession plays an important role. Bougrelon’s relationship with the absent Mortimer humanizes him and it’s implied, if not directly stated, that their love was romantic in nature.
At just over a hundred pages, the novel is packed with treasures — Lorrain excels at poetic and unusual turns of phrase — but I don’t want to give too much of the plot away and rob you of some of those riches, or of the novella’s subdued yet somehow also tragic ending. Suffice to say that you should expect such wonders as Bougrelon’s second appearance, when he more fully reveals himself: “This morning the Monsieur de Bougrelon had outdone himself. To honor us, the old dandy had put on such a remarkable fur hat and houppelande of Carmelite-brown cloth that he took our breath away. With frogging of olive silk, and with more decorative trim than a Hungarian hussar’s jacket, the coat was cinched at the waist and flapped around his knees, an unexpected outfit even in Amsterdam, where passersby still dressed like Admiral de Ruyter. In fact, it was everything one could want except a simple coat: Argan the Hypochondriac’s robe, a Caucasus leader’s caftan, a Warsaw Jew’s pelisse, something unnameable, something extravagant, and yet still reminiscent of the retreat from Russia, and epic rag that would have made a theater star’s fortune on the boulevard stage.”
Thanks to Spurl Editions, and a brand new translation by Eva Richter, Monsieur de Bougrelon will hopefully find its way to a new audience. Lorrain has been criminally neglected by English translators too long — though you can also find some collected volumes like Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker and The Soul Drinker and Other Decadent Fantasies in English — but this novella is an unforgettable portrait of the fin-de-siècle and an ideal entryway into Decadent literature. And if you’ve never encountered the Decadents before (though I really hope that’s not the case), this will be your introduction to the some of the greats: As I’ve already mentioned, writers like Huysmans and Mirbeau, as well as Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, but also poets like Algernon Swinburne, and painters like Aubrey Beardsley, Odilon Redon, and Gustave Moreau.
Though Monsieur de Bougrelon is a slim novella from a small press, I hope it means that in the near future we’ll see more of Lorrain’s work translated (and I should add that Richter’s translation is wonderful) or even updated editions of older volumes, because, as Bougrelon himself says, “A woman does not wait.”