Next: Monsieur de Phocas
|Anatole France called Remy de Gourmont (1858-1915) the 'greatest
living French writer'. The stories Francis Amery has collected and translated
under the not inappropriate title The Angels of Perversity are from the
first half of Gourmont's career, when, as a writer of short fictions he
established himself as a significant figure in the Symbolist movement.
Published by Dedalus in January 1992
Review by Glenn Russell
The Angels of Perversity is a collection of 30 short tales by French philosopher/aesthetician/literary critic/fiction writer Remy de Gourmont (1858 - 1915), a leading voice of the fin-de-siècle decadent and symbolist schools who was heralded as the `critical conscience of a generation'. Although handsome as a young man, a skin disease ravaged his face when Gourmont was in his early 30s prompting him to become a recluse and devote the next 25 years of his life to writing, enough writing to fill 50 thick volumes.
Back on his fiction, here is what translator Francis Amery aka Brian Stableford says about Gourmont in his 15 page introduction to the author's life and times: "His one and only subject matter was sex; he was deeply fascinated by the essential capriciousness of the sexual impulse, by the ill-effects of social and religious repression of sexuality, and by the intellectual strategies which might maximize the quasi-transcendental experience of sexual rapture." Thus, with this sexual repression and how men and women deal with their twisted sexual energy, we have the book's title. And to provide a more specific glimpse of what one will encounter in this provocative collection, I offer the following comments on three of the tales:
On the Threshold
When the men retire to his den, the marquis confesses to the narrator that he himself is like the heron: he never sleeps. He goes on, "My heart, at least, never sleeps. I am familiar with drowsiness, but I am a stranger to unconsciousness. My dreams are simply the continuation of my waking thoughts . . . And what do I dream about in this fashion, during all the interminable hours of my life? Of nothing - or rather of negation, of that which I have not done, that which I will not do, that which I could not do, even if my youth were given back to me. For that is my nature. I am one who has never been active, who has never lifted a finger in order to accomplish a desire or duty."
At this point, the marquis recounts his boyhood, where an orphan cousin was brought into his home, a beautiful blonde young girl of the same age. However, some years after, at the time when he became more rational, he had the experience that would define his life forever: he plucked a rose from his garden and saw that the rose faded and withered away within the hour. He concluded: no matter how much one yearns for roses, one must not pluck roses. He applied this principle to every aspect of life, including his relationship with his beautiful cousin. Indeed, although he lived side-by-side with his cousin for another 20 years and loved her with a burning intensity, he never `crossed the threshold', never acted on his feelings, never permitted himself to be subject to the disenchantment born of desire or action. And what of his beautiful cousin? She became weak and died of love for the marquis. And, so, he has lived alone for many years in his chateau called `Gallows-Tree House' with the black swans swimming among broken reeds and a heron clacking its beak and staring out of its cheerless and ironic eyes.
One can reflect on this tale in light of ongoing decadent themes: rotting civilization, moral transgression and emotional extremes. I wouldn't be surprised if Gourmont was inspired to write `On the Threshold' after ruminating on a famous aphorism of Arthur Schopenhauer, the favorite philosopher among decadent writers, "No rose without a thorn but many a thorn without a rose."
The Brian Stableford Website