Wednesday, 19 December 2012
The strangest book I have read
Having been fairly well read as a 17-year-old, having tasted some science fiction, some horror stories, a fair few classics, and having grappled with existentialism with some success, I felt I was quite worldly-wise. Nothing could shock me; after all, I had read Never Talk to Strangers, and I was a Jesus and Mary Chain fan. What more could life teach me?
But then a friend lent me a copy of Maldoror by the mysterious Comte de Leatreamont (real name Isidore Ducasse). It is surely the strangest, nastiest, most shocking book imaginable. At the time, I read voraciously and with the intensity of a fairly pretentious youth, and this book left me scarred for life! To say it is unrelenting is an understatement; it is a litany of disturbed and disturbing images which leave the reader numb. I have experienced nothing since with a fraction of its power. It is incredible how it came to be published, especially in Paris in 1868, with the repression going on at that time (I believe there were issues about both its publication and distribution, but nonetheless they were resolved). I don't intend to write a synopsis or review of it, as so much has been written elsewhere, but I would recommend anyone with an interest in strange stories, literature in general, or indeed horror stories, to have a look at it. If only to have your own morals well and truly challenged.
I feel I should quote its opening sentence:
May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened and having for the first time being become as fierce as what he is reading, should, without being led astray, find his rugged and treacherous way across the desolate swamps of these sombre and poison-filled pages; for, unless he brings to his reading a rigorous logic and a tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar.
You'd better believe it. Of course, part of the legend of this book is the mystery surrounding Isidore Ducasse. Almost nothing is known of him, apart from that he was born in Montevideo in 1846, the son of a French consular official, and that he died in Paris at the age of 24. There are some sketchy details about his education, and a tantalising interview with one M. Paul Lespes, in 1927, when he was 81; he had been at school with Ducasse, and he mentions that Ducasse had admired Edgar Allen Poe. A couple of bare descriptions of him exist, and but one photograph (below). He had become caught up in the Prussian seige of Paris, and apparently died of a fever, as was common at that time. He left no letters, no memoirs or diaries.
(An interesting aside is that Ducasse apparently said, just before his demise, that Maldoror was about evil, and that he was about to begin its sister volume, which would be about good. The idea being that the two would balance each other out.)
Maldoror was probably the first surrealist novel, and as such has influenced Verlaine, Gide, Breton, Dali ... it is challenging in a way that books cannot be any more. Despite its amoral bleakness, violence and sadism, it is also poetic, humorous, frightening and atmospheric. There is a strange sense of outrage at its own excesses, too, which I found confusing but fascinating. Certainly, as the protagonist himself says, a bitter fruit, but one worth trying. With an open mind.