Léon Genonceaux [Princess Sapho] - The most outrageous "decadent novel" ever penned. At once appalling and funny, it recognises no taboos whatsoever. The most mysterious novel of the nineteenth century, it is probably one of the strangest, and certainly one of the most fascinating



Princess Sappho (Léon Genonceaux), The Tutu, morality of the fin-de-siècle, Atlas Press, 2013. [1891.]

A great "lost novel". Published in 1891, it was never released to bookshops, since its author quickly realised it would see him jailed. The novel remained totally unknown for a hundred years and even then only a handful of copies came to light. Described by French critics as a cross between Alphonse Allais and Lautréamont, this is the most outrageous "decadent novel" ever penned. At once appalling and funny, it recognises no taboos whatsoever, and one can only speculate what its influence might have been had it appeared when it was written. The author was the publisher of Rimbaud's poems and Lautréamont's Maldoror. Hardback.

Had The Tutu appeared when it was written in 1891 it would have been one of the defining works of late nineteenth-century French literature. Juan Goytisolo is among its admirers, and noted that: “The Tutu has been described as the most mysterious novel of the nineteenth century, it is probably one of the strangest, and certainly one of the most fascinating… We find in it a clear presentiment (one cannot say influence, since no one read this book) of the audacities of Jarry, Roussel, Breton, Ionesco and Queneau…”
Its author, the publisher Léon Genonceaux (1856–?), is as much of an enigma as the two legendary enfants terribles whom he was the first to publish: Arthur Rimbaud and the Comte de Lautréamont. When he brought out The Tutu he was already in trouble with the police for “immoral publishing”, and realised that sending it to bookstores would certainly land him in jail. The book disappeared for nearly 100 years, and its author likewise — after 1905 nothing is known of him. Finally republished in the 1990s, The Tutu was hailed by reviewers as the bastard child of J.-K. Huysmans and Antonin Artaud.
Genonceaux appears to have been intent on outraging just about everyone, and The Tutu is gleefully Nietzschean in its dismemberment of contemporary morality. It is simultaneously a sort of ultimate “decadent novel” and outlandishly modern; it is also repellent, infantile and deeply cynical. Yet despite all its absurdities and extravagances, in the end it somehow manages to appear compassionate, poetic, funny… and even — most absurdly of all — rational.

The nineteenth-century French writer and publisher Léon Genonceaux (1856-?) is as much of an enigma as those two legendary enfants terribles whom he was the first to publish: Arthur Rimbaud and the Comte de Lautréamont. After he had done so, a conviction for publishing indecent literature followed, and Genonceaux fled to London, returning to Paris around 1900 and then disappearing forever around 1905, leaving behind a wild, stupefying masterpiece called The Tutu. The Tutu is one of those mythical beasts-a great lost book; a book that, if it had been published when it was written (in 1891), would have been one of the defining works of late nineteenth-century French literature. In fact it was published, but was never distributed to bookstores, and today only six copies of the original edition survive. Willfully scatological, erotic and gleefully Nietzschean in its dismemberment of fin-de-siecle morality, The Tutu is at once a sort of ultimate Decadent delirium and also a proto-modernist novel in the vein of Ulysses. Its existence was first posited in 1966 by a famous literary hoaxer, and until a handful of copies turned up some years later, in the early 1990s, it was presumed to be a fabrication. This is the first English translation.

The Tutu is a genuine literary mystery: a lost masterpiece. Published in 1891, it never made it to bookshops. Its existence was only revealed in 1966, by a famous literary hoaxer. It is the ultimate 'decadent novel', but also outlandishly modern; it is excessive, repellent, infantile and riotously funny. Yet despite its absurdities, its eccentricities and its extravagance, in the end it somehow manages to appear compassionate, poetic, tender... even rational.

A few years ago, during an ambulatory conversation interrupted by the need to step around some of the ubiquitous dog droppings that punctuate the streets of Paris, and which supposedly assure one’s return to the city should one happen to step in them, my French companion commented, “It must be said that we French have a very particular relationship with shit.”
As Exhibit A in support of this assertion, it would be difficult to do better than offer an exchange of letters from 1694 between Elizabeth Charlotte de Bavière, Princesse Palatine, Duchesse d’Orleans to her aunt the Electrice of Saxony, Sophia of Hanover (I will conveniently ignore that both wrote in German and neither was French by birth). In conversational tone, the Duchesse and her aunt rhapsodize about the pleasures of defecating, the optimal times and places, its benefits for health and beauty, its democratic ubiquity (“...the entire universe is filled with shitters”), and conclude that “one would as well not live at all, as not shit at all.”
One can skip directly to these letters online, but then one would be miss out on an even more indecorous narrative that surrounds their appearance in an eccentric 1891 French novel, The Tutu: Morals of the Fin de Siècle (Le Tutu: Moeurs Fin de Siècle), written under the pseudonym “Sappho” and described on the cover of a new English translation by Iain White as “the strangest novel of the 19th century.” According to White’s introduction, Le Tutu was all but lost for a century, published only in 1991 after being brought to light 25 years earlier in an article that revealed its existence and attributed it to Paris publisher Léon Genonceaux (whose Belgian birth I’ll also ignore; Paris does things to people). Genonceaux had accomplished literary feats high and low, including publishing the first unified collection of Rimbaud’s poetry, an important re-edition of Lautréamont’s  Les Chants de Maldoror (excerpts of which also appear in Le Tutu), and a swarm of salacious works that landed Genonceaux in repeated trouble with the authorities. His most serious problems occurred just as Le Tutu headed to press. He was forced to flee Paris, and the few copies he’d printed - only five of which are said to exist today - found their way into the world by being passed hand to hand.
As a particularly madcap example of the style established by Lautréamont and Huysmans, among others, The Tutu cooks up a full complement of Decadent ingredients, including an indulgence in death and the corruptions of the flesh, obsession with the morbid and sordid, irreverence towards morality and religion, pursuit of rare sensation, and an appreciation of oblivion:
A truly happy man is one whose brain has been emptied, whose legs, hands and ears have been cut off, his eyes put out and his sense of taste destroyed. He no longer senses, no longer thinks, he is animalised, he is out of this world.
Le Tutu also serves up all manner of bodily functions and grotesqueries, some of which, even given my tough stomach, leave me nearly enfeebled in contemplation of repeating them. But generally such provocations are so excessively over the top, so clearly designed for shock value and delivered with such capricious delight (imagine a late 19th century Parisian John Waters) that it’s difficult to be appalled for long.
As the novel opens, Le Tutu’s chief character, Mauri de Noirof, is headed home at five in the morning from a night of debauchery, so pickled that he cannot recognize his cab driver. This inability to recognize those he knows is a recurrent pattern. On the rare occasions when he goes to work (as a publisher), he’s convinced it’s his first day on the job despite everything seeming oddly familiar. Trained as an engineer, he’s also a diletanttish dandy, an amateur of grand, crazy ideas – having a clod cow walk a 500-meter-high tightrope strung between Paris and Marseille, for example – or the effort on which he settles his attentions, building tunnels for lightening-fast trains that can zip from Lyon to Paris in a mere 17 seconds (resulting in a rapid depopulation of Lyon, whose residents fall prey to the now convenient seductions of the capital). De Noirof launches upon a series of adventures, spurred on by his general dissoluteness and debauchery, not to mention an oedipal complex to top all oedipal complexes (he reads the Duchesse and Electrice’s letters to his mother in an Ubu-esque dialogue concerning his desire to marry and impregnate her, as all other women disgust him and as his talk of marrying a tree has left her unenthused). Despite a rich curiosity cabinet of conceits that would have pleased the Surrealists, Le Tutu’s narrative drive is loosely tethered to a fairly linear plot involving de Noirof’s attempts to marry himself to a wealthy, increasingly obese alcoholic and to navigate paternity of a child birthed by his mistress, a two-headed circus freak, while at the same time maintaining his devotion to his mother, with whom he dines on human brains while they dream of loving one another “on high”:
“The only thing in the world that matters is us. Nobody will ever guess at the sublimities hidden within our hearts. Nobody else here on earth eats the brains from corpses and drinks the spittle of asthmatics. Let us act so that we might die in the satisfaction of having experienced, we alone, the True Sensation, of That Which Does Not Die.” Then she added: “Give me some money.”
I’m not giving a lot away with these revelations; there is more than ample weirdness where that came from. And yes, a tutu is involved.
Elements of Le Tutu appear strikingly modern, for example the collage-like nature of the narrative, mixing varieties of text, theatrical vignettes, a musical composition by God (lyrics by The Word, with Saint Paul on third violin and Jesus Christ on cymbals), and dreams (including one in which God appears as a buff young hedonist recuperating from a 700-year orgy among the seraphim), or the kinds of language games played decades later by members of the Oulipo movement. In one scene, an exasperated de Noirof urges his prostitute girlfriend to communicate exclusively via the first syllables of words, a challenge to which she replies by asking how he’d handle a phrase like “the sky is no more pure than the depths of my heart” (a ripost that might well be put to Oulipians in general).
The decadent effrontery Genonceaux heaps upon bourgeois values is pleasantly, even hilariously, balanced by the sheer imagination and wit of The Tutu. One might well wonder, given the book’s odd history and the haziness surrounding its discovery - there are things it would be pleasant to believe - whether it could all be an elaborate, grandly accomplished hoax. But in the deliriously fertile, rebellious period of French literature from which it appears to have emerged, nearly anything seemed possible. And even if Le Tutu were to be a hoax, the fact should scarcely diminish any appreciative reader’s delight in this wild, demented, exultant book. This English translation should count as a significant literary event. - seraillon.blogspot.com/

My first encounter with London's Atlas Press was in the late 1980s, when I was given a copy of David Gascoyne's translation of André Breton and Philippe Soupault's Magnetic Fields. With that book, they immediately became the first publisher I decided to trust blindly, and I've done my best to read everything they've published ever since—which hasn't always been easy, given their on-again, off-again availability in the US. With ARTBOOK | D.A.P. now distributing them this side of the waters, it's a good time to start diving back into their catalog of extremist literature—now a full 30 years' worth of forays into what they call the "anti-tradition" of the more "belligerent avant-gardes" of the last 200 years.

And there really couldn't be a better place to start than their new release of the first English translation of the 1891 French novel, The Tutu, written by the pseudonymous "Princess Sappho" (and translated by Iain White, whose name always graces the most interesting of literary translation projects, from Marcel Schwob to Thomas Owen to Jean Ray). Among other things, The Tutu has introduced me to the fact that there was a name unknown to me in the lineage of such publishing heroes as Eric Losfeld, Barney Rosset, Régine Desforges, and other such frontline defenders of the freedom of speech: their predecessor, the enigmatic Léon Genonceaux. Apart from being the presumed personage behind the Princess Sappho nom de plume, he was also the publisher who properly introduced the work of both the infamous Comte de Lautréamont and Arthur Rimbaud to the French public. Doing so earned him legal headaches and a hefty enough fine for him to leave France before eventually disappearing from literary history altogether after 1905.
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.")
Genonceaux had obviously done more than just publish Lautréamont: he took the poet's baroque excesses to heart and with The Tutu aimed to raise the ante. (A few pages from Maldoror in fact make their way into the novel in the form of Noirof and his mother's favorite reading material, but our hero also pays his own visit to a God as debauched, if somewhat more refined, than that of Lautréamont.) Yet for all that, the novel manages to rise above being mere schoolboy antics: its writing is sharp and often quite humorous, its aims obviously satiric, the characters oddly sympathetic through their repugnance, and the pessimism almost joyous in its excesses. The book is also remarkably modern for something that was to have been published in 1891, with dialogue and narrative devices that evoked Raymond Queneau to me more than J.-K. Huysmans. (In fact, if I was to describe the novel in one sentence, it would be "Maldoror as written by Raymond Queneau.")
When I first read about this book's forthcoming publication, it had almost sounded like a literary artifact that Atlas Press would have had to invent if it hadn't existed. Now that I've read it, it still seems 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. This is one wild, fermented read, and deserving of attention from finer readers this fall. It has been released alongside Atlas Press' other fall title, Winter Journeys: an Oulipian collection of tales concerning the unknown Hugo Vernier—the missing-link French author who was plagiarized by everyone from Baudelaire on—who in retrospect makes for an interesting fictional colleague for Genonceaux this season. - Marc Lowenthal





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