Following my post about The Library of Babel, I decided to re-read some of the books on the list to refresh my memory. I’m starting with Histoires désobligeantes, by French author Léon Bloy (1846-1917), because a) it was so long ago I barely remember it, b) I strongly remember not liking it and I wanted to see if a re-read would change that, and c) it’s not available in English so perhaps it’ll be of interest to other readers. Well, regarding point b, I don’t know why I didn’t like it at first. I laughed, I laughed, and I laughed some more at the eighteen stories in my edition. It’s a mad trip down the gloomy recesses of an unhinged mind at war with polite society.
Imagine a sordid world, so over the top misers are ten times worse than Mr. Scrooge, and fathers and children spend their time killing each other in cruel, sadistic ways. A hopeless, sunless slum-world where happiness is impossible and love, or a pathetic caricature of the platonic ideal, is but a trigger for petty, revolting crimes more appropriate for The Sun than history books. And now imagine someone writing of this world in a sardonic, complicit, familiar tone complete with reverence for these damned souls.
Histoires désobligeantes (1894) is less a collection of short-stories than an endless litany of perversions, scandals, atrocities and corruption. I don’t even know where to begin. Murder is a big theme, particularly crimes within the family: patricide, filicide, infanticide. A few examples. In “Le Vieux de la Maison”, a poor woman turned Madame of a brothel is tired of putting up with her good but useless father. It’s 1871, the Paris Commune is being overtaken. One day she just accuses her father of being a communard and the soldiers kill him. “We were living charming days when this was enough,” the narrator enthusiastically adds.
Another story, “Terrible Châtiment d’un Dentiste”. Reminiscent of Poe, it’s about a paranoid murderer hallucinating with guilt; the protagonist, a dentist, kills the suitor of a woman he loves and then marries her; but mad with guilt he strangles their baby because it reminds him of the dead man. In “La Tisane”, a son overhears his mother confessing to the priest that she’s dropped poison in someone’s tea; he discovers he’s the victim too late. “La dernière cuite” concerns a son who cremates his father alive. In one of my favourite stories, “Une Martyre”, an overly pious mother drives her daughter and son-in-law to suicide with a series of anonymous poison letters that ruin their personal and public lives.
Main reasons? Love, money, ennui, respect, to protect appearances. In one, an honourable judge prostitutes his daughter to a former friend who’s blackmailing him with compromising photos and letters from his youth. There’s also cannibalism, of course: a cuckolded cheese seller serves bits of his dead wife’s rotten heart to the several man she slept with. And obviously good old 19th century incest. This wouldn’t be fin-de-siècle decadence without incest.
Not all stories are about murderers. Some are just about strange, desperate people who do strange or irrational things. A destitute artist unable to live on his art (like Bloy) burns down a house in a fit of despair. In another story a woman becomes a slave to her husband and his friends. In another one, a translator of Latin fiercely protects his library from his family of voracious readers.
“Le Parloir des Tarentules” is one of the best ones. The narrator has to put up with the bad poet from hell. He’s invited to his place to listen to him read his awful poetry. The first hour is pleasant, but the novelty wears off and then he has to endure four more hours of awful poetry. When he thinks it’s finished, the poet asks him to listen to more. “Judging from the tone, a man ignorant of the French language would have thought I was being offered a cup of chocolate, when in fact he was singing one thousand five hundred sonnets, more than twenty thousand verses!” The story ends with the poet forcing him to listen at gunpoint.
There’s no supernatural in the stories, save for one exception, another great story: “Les Captifs de Longjumeau.” A couple is incapable of leaving their house. Some invisible force always conspires to prevent them from visiting other people, getting on trains, driving cars, keeping appointments. Something always happens that forces them to go back. “Since we’ve moved to this cursed place, I’ve missed seventy-four funerals, twelve marriages, thirty baptisms, a thousand indispensable visits and trips. I let my mother-in-law die without seeing her again just once more, even though she stayed ill a whole year, and because of that we lost three quarters of the inheritance (…).” In the end their solution is suicide. Suicide is another recurrent theme.
Histoires désobligeantes is basically a book about people totally unfit to live with other people. All the relationships are skewed, built on hatred and power, they all deteriorate into grisly or disgusting behaviur. All these people are living on the edge, and the stories merely capture the moment when they tumble, happily, into the abyss. It’s a book about the people living on the fringes of society – killers, prostitutes, poor artists – and those hiding within its respectability – priests, devout women, businessmen, successful mediocre novelists. But Bloy isn’t judgmental, in many cases he’s actual appreciative of his human monsters. Léon Bloy lived most of his adult life in utter misery, subsisting on charity from friends. And his great love was a prostitute he tried to ‘save.’ He’s clearly comfortable in the slum. His anti-social protagonists become tragic heroes in their own mad, immoral worlds, There’s something Romantic about Bloy’s ferocity and love for misery, turning these people into rebels against bourgeois society.
Also the number of sexual and scatological references are many and hardly oblique. Even for a French decadent writer, this was pretty outré. I’m pretty sure one of the stories ends with a woman urinating in a church, in front of a congregation right after the priest’s sermon, or perhaps it’s vomit and I’m just assuming the worst. But there’s a reference to having to clean up the church, so something, I’m sure, was expelled from an orifice.
I’m just sad my Portuguese edition isn’t complete. The original one has 32 stories, and mine only has 18. Of those, 9 are also in Borges’ selection. But I’m still missing “La Plus Belle Trouvaille de Caïn”, “On n’est pas Parfait” and “Tout Ce Que Tu Voudras!” Still, I think Borges overlooked a few great ones too. Histoires désobligeantes is recommended for lovers of the macabre and readers with a dark sense of humor.