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Maldoror as Written by Raymond Queneau: Reading New Edition of The Tutu (1891), by Princess Sappho

By Harriet Staff

Tutu

At the blog for Artbook & D.A.P., Wakefield Press publisher Mark Lowenthal writes about the basically unknown nineteenth-century French novel The Tutu: Morals of the Fin de Siècle (Atlas Press 2013; translated by Iain White), by Léon Genonceaux (AKA “Princess Sappho”), who “properly introduced the work of both the infamous Comte de Lautréamont and Arthur Rimbaud to the French public.” Lowenthal notes that the book is “too good to be true: the missing, unknown link between the French fin-de-siècle and Alfred Jarry’s Ubu roi and all that was to follow,” and “intended to stand as the decadent novel to out-decadent all the decadents.” Genonceaux disappeared from view in 1905, as his publications led to legal battles. More on this find:

His escape from the legal proceedings over his publications also apparently led him to scrap his plans to publish The Tutu: Morals of the Fin de Siècle, just as it was coming off the press. Reading it now makes his decision understandable (even if it leaves the reason as to how the novel has languished unknown for over 100 years, with only five copies currently known to exist, a bit perplexing): The Tutu had obviously been intended to stand as the decadent novel to out-decadent all the decadents. The very pseudonym stood as a nose-tweaking to the censors (even if Genonceaux would quickly retract the tweaking once the legal troubles kicked in), as Sapphism was the theme to bring about the most legal woes upon nineteenth-century French publishers (most famously for Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal). Given that the theme is utterly absent from The Tutu, his desire to provoke by all means necessary seems clear. The novel’s broader storyline, however, is actually standard bourgeois fare: a young society man (the fancifully named Mauri de Noirof) finishes his schooling, loses his virginity, seeks marriage, finds a wife, tries to build a career, and eventually finds true love after his wife dies in the midst of an adulterous affair. Our young protagonist, though, is something of a kid brother to Lautréamont’s Maldoror. Our hero’s true love is his own mother, who finds him a wife after refusing to sleep with him (or allow him to marry a tree); his subsequent wife the obese barrel-shaped Hermine, who consumes auto-mined snot pellets in between endless glasses of Kümmel and Chartreuse; his career the abandoned fabrication of a pneumatic train tunnel; and his own adulterous affair is with a two-headed, four-armed-and-legged carnival performer named Mani-Mini.

All of this is steeped in one of the most extraordinary soups of effluvia this reader has ever encountered: excrement, phlegm, vomit and bodily corruption reach what I’d venture to call poetic heights in these pages (with two particular heights that actually managed to make me gag). The fundament is fundamental here, and perhaps tweaking the notoriously misogynistic philosopher’s nose, Genonceaux here utilizes the Schopenhauer so dear to the decadents in the form of Noirof’s mother, who utters such memorable phrases as: “The most beautiful of women are only composed, chemically speaking, of the quintessence of faecal matter;” or more broadly: “The soul is no more than the ferment of matter.” (A phrase arguably surpassing that of the anticipatory plagiarist Alfred Jarry, who would later write: “The soul is a tic.”)

Tick-tock, get The Tutu here. Read the full review here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, October 21st, 2013 by Harriet Staff.