Pierre Mac Orlan - It must be established as a law that adventure in itself does not exist. Adventure is in the mind of the one who pursues it, and no sooner is he able to touch it with his finger than it vanishes, to reappear much farther off in another form, at the limits of the imagination

Pierre Mac Orlan, A Handbook for the Perfect AdventurerTrans. by Napoleon Jeffries. Wakefield press, 2013.


Pierre Mac Orlan’s 1920 Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer was at once a paean to the adventure story, a tongue-in-cheek guidebook to the genre’s real-life practitioners and a grim if unspoken coda to the disasters of World War I. “It must be established as a law that adventure in itself does not exist,” Mac Orlan stipulates. “Adventure is in the mind of the one who pursues it, and no sooner is he able to touch it with his finger than it vanishes, to reappear much farther off in another form, at the limits of the imagination.” This handbook outlines two classes of adventurer: the active adventurer (sailors, soldiers, criminals) and the passive adventurer (sedentary parasites who draw sustenance from the exploits of the former). Roaming from battlefields to pirate ships to port-town taverns, and offering advice on reading, traveling and eroticism, Mac Orlan’s Handbook is ultimately a how-to manual for the imagination, and a formulation of the stark choice all would-be adventurers must face: to live or write.
Generally known as the author of Le Quai des brumes (the basis for Marcel Carné’s film of the same name), Pierre Mac Orlan (1882–1970) was a prolific writer of absurdist tales, adventure novels, flagellation erotica, and essays, as well as the composer of a trove of songs made famous by the likes of Juliette Gréco. A member of both the Académie Goncourt and the Collège de ’Pataphysique, Mac Orlan was admired by everyone from Raymond Queneau and Boris Vian to André Malraux and Guy Debord.

A little superb book by the great French 'unknown' writer Pierre Mac Orlan.  "Unknown' to English reading citizens because this may be the only book of his that is translated into English.  Mac Orlan is the ultimate figure in French literature that captures the lifestyle of a romantic writer who lived a great adventuresome life.   Or that is what one is lead to believe.  Nevertheless he was commissioned by the great Blaise Cendrars in 1920 to write a handbook for writers who want to either have adventure or more likely write an adventure narrative. 
In this short book he recommends cities that are good for an adventure narrative as well as taverns and bars.  I suspect that his nature is very much in tuned to this type of location.   He puts the adventurer in two categories:  the active adventurer and the passive adventurer.   The passive fellow or gal are more likely the readers, who want to read the exploits of the active adventurer.  He gives plenty of advice for both class of adventurer.
For one hopes that there will be further books that will be translated into English by this wonderful wit,  for whom writers such as Boris Vian, Guy Debord and of course Cendrars are huge fans of the man as well as his work.   Another excellent book from Wakefield Press. - 

A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer posits that there are two kinds of adventurers, active and passive ones -- and makes the case that it is far preferable to be of the passive sort, vicariously adventuring in one's imagination and through books of adventure stories. Simply put: "Adventure is in the mind of the one who pursues it". 
       The adventure story allows the imagination to run wild -- far better than actually running wild (though Mac Orlan acknowledges a few real-life (i.e. active) adventurers), what with all the inconvenience and discomfort attendant to that. In an age where "adventure has vanished from our living conditions", passive adventuring -- losing oneself in a book or a flight of fancy -- still offers a welcome escape, and one that it is easy to (generally) safely return from.
       Mac Orlan defends the adventure story and novel -- though he has quite specific ideas of what it should offer. He's disappointed that castaway-novels almost never include a woman on their desert isle settings -- and insists: "The passive adventurer must invite women -- and beautiful ones at that -- to set foot on deserted islands". Indeed, if there's a major flaw to adventure fiction he finds that it's that "bawdiness and perversity" have largely been banished from them.
       Mac Orlan also has his issues with some masters of the genre:
     Adventure books are dangerous. I make an exception for the books of Jules Verne, which are completely lacking in art and sensitivity and can only appeal to amateur botanists. The Earth seen by Jules Verne is like a huge natural history museum where every animal carries a label on its neck, and every plant a card in French and Latin with an identifying herbarium number.
     These books do not allow the imagination to wander beyond a permitted limit.
       The written adventure story should merely be a starting point; the real adventure unfolds in the mind, rather than simply following what is printed on the page, and the more there's left for the mind to do, the better.
       Translator Napoleon Jeffries' helpful Introduction also provides some background about the interesting and prolific author of this small text -- noting also that he's woefully under-represented in English, a mere three of his 25 novels, for example, translated.
       The Wakefield Press edition is a lovely little (pocket-sized !) volume that makes it easy for readers to carry it with them -- perhaps on their own over-active adventures, when they could use a reminder of how much superior the armchair/passive sort of adventure that reading is is ... - M.A.Orthofer

20th century French adventurer and secret-S&M erotica novelist, Pierre Mac Orlan, wrote A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer in 1920, a commissioned satire on the adventure novel. Mac Orlan himself traveled widely early in life, witnessed and nearly died in the Great War, and was a popular novelist by the time he was 35. In his glory days, he was the quintessential French writer: sexy, romantic, edgy, thirsty for danger, friend of such luminaries as Picasso and Appolinaire, and a serious beret-enthusiast. Now something of a literary figure obscured by history, Mac Orlan’s legacy is occasionally revived by the odd historian or translator. This month, Wakefield Press is releasing Napoleon Jeffries’ (Balzac’s Treatise on Elegant Living) translation of Mac Orlan’s A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer. Written as a “how to” guide, the work differentiates between active and passive adventurers, or in other words, those who pursue the adventure of danger in the world (Mac Orlan wryly supplies the example of WWI) and those who pursue the adventure of the mind. What is most humorous in the work though is Mac Orlan’s sardonic, not-so-subtle criticism of the manufacture of masculine identity through the theme of “adventure” – and the handbook is rich in zingers regarding drinking, screwing, and making trouble. In addition to that old French wit otherwise unparalleled in the 20th century, there’s a glimmer of Alfred Jarry absurdism here (though Mac Orlan is on the other extreme, mockingly clutching at pearls rather than making ornate fart jokes). The Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer is an obscure gem of social satire and literary criticism, fertile in poker-faced, smart-assed wisdom for experience whores and restless bookworms alike, and Mac Orlan’s vicious kernels of insight are as applicable to this century as the last. - Rachel Cole Dalamangas

It’s easy to be intimidated by a dude who has written upwards of 130 books, not counting flagellation erotica. But then you take a look at the sketch of him on A Handbook’s first page, labeled “Private First Class Pierre Mac Orlan, Military Cross,” and (if you are like me) immediately relax:

That’s the story of reading A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer. Peppered with (actual, academic) footnotes, headed by chapter titles like “The Various Categories of Adventurers” and “On the Role of the Imagination,” you get the sense starting out that you’re delving into some serious study of the adventurer’s role in early 20th century French literature.
Part of this weird effect comes from what Wakefield Press does with the book. Design is stark, almost academic—but handbooky, too, with that authoritative streak the pocket-guide folks always mean to bestow. The 13-page introduction (and this is for just over 50 pages of content) has actual history in it, from a brief discourse on the French novel at that time to a contextualization of the book within the aftermath of World War I. Even the translator’s remarks on A Handbook’s inherent, decontextualized value is a sober meditation on its potential synecdochic value with relation to the history of adventure at large.
But once we get into the text, the book turns out to be pretty fucking hilarious. Mac Orlan keeps you on the rocks for a while, taking pains to distinguish the “active” from the “passive” adventurer, the cavorting blockhead from the armchair fiend of imagination. It’s still possible, in these early sections, that he’s entirely serious about the theoretical structure he’s setting out. Until we start getting stuff like the list that accompanies an account of the Active Adventurer’s troubling youth:
The Sad Setting Adopted by the Young Adventurer
The frog inflated by a simple straw.
Goldfish swimming at the surface with the help of corks pinned to their backs.
June bugs pulling a tiny scrap of newspaper through the air from their backside.
The fly without wings.
The ridiculed dog.
It goes on. Details like this end up being a serious redeeming factor of A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer. There’s something about their oddball quality that tingles for having crossed the century in the way it has: slowly, as only three of Mac Orlan’s books had been translated into English before this one. It feels good that there were folks in 1920, too, who prioritized being funny and a pain in the ass, leaving more “serious” tomes to the hand-wringers.
Though with the tongue-in-cheek mode, as we know, a whole lot that is of interest can be conveyed anyway. There is certainly something being said about the dreamer here, when Mac Orlan outlines the strict “exercise” regimen the Passive Adventurer must undertake:
If one considers Passive Adventure as an art, some natural gifts have to be allowed for in future initiates. These gifts must be practiced and perfected. It is a question of intellectual gymnastics that include daily exercises and in particular the methodical training of the imagination.
The cool thing here is that he’s not affecting a take-down of anyone in particular. Sure, he’s giving a reasonable amount of hell to the person whose pulse begins to race at the words on a page that represent a steaming sea battle, or a life-altering meeting with the natives of a remote island. But this is more of a poke at the idea of adventure at large. (Ah, Napoleon…the introduction was right!)
While Napoleon Jeffries’ portion of the book remains fairly staid, aiding Mac Orlan’s straight face, even he occasionally jumps in on the fun in the text of a footnote. Eye the prioritizing of information in this one, one of many clarifications of Mac Orlan’s name dropping in the text:
26…Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877) was a politician, historian, and in Karl Marx’s words, a “monstrous gnome”; his best known work is the multivolume History of the French Revolution.
By the end of A Handbook, we’re digging it. Under the heading “Benefits an Adventurer Can Gain from Traveling,” Mac Orlan has included:
Luggage.
Seasickness.
The adventurer is exploited like a milch cow.
The adventurer is too hot.
Tortures pertaining to entomology.
Boredom.
Disgust.
The self-same chapter ends, totally inexplicably, with the single paragraph:
I am not speaking of mud, which in this circumstance is a noble element.
The details drive us through, once we’ve latched onto the tone. Again, it’s spiriting. We have lists, we have declarations out of nowhere. We have an ending where, though it occurs only “rarely,” the active adventurer returns to the home of the passive adventurer who has exploited his exploits (as it were), and beats him up.
It’s a zany, weird thing Wakefield Press has elected to give us here, and the more so for being dug from the beginning of the 20th century, where the pile of all Mac Orlan’s untranslated works lies. But I’m glad it exists for us. I’d venture that it is comparatively easy, as a writer today, to entertain someone who is navigating the same landscape of postmodern despair we all share. But to do it from 100 years back—to think of that almost cuts the lines, setting the despair to float away. - Dennis James Sweeney


Featured image, a portrait of Pierre Mac Orlan, is reproduced from <I>A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer</I>.Pierre Mac Orlan’s 1920 Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer was at once a paean to the adventure story, a tongue-in-cheek guidebook to the genre’s real-life practitioners and a grim if unspoken coda to the disasters of World War I. “It must be established as a law that adventure in itself does not exist,” Mac Orlan stipulates. “Adventure is in the mind of the one who pursues it, and no sooner is he able to touch it with his finger than it vanishes, to reappear much farther off in another form, at the limits of the imagination.” This handbook outlines two classes of adventurer: the active adventurer (sailors, soldiers, criminals) and the passive adventurer (sedentary parasites who draw sustenance from the exploits of the former). Roaming from battlefields to pirate ships to port-town taverns, and offering advice on reading, traveling and eroticism, Mac Orlan’sHandbook is ultimately a how-to manual for the imagination, and a formulation of the stark choice all would-be adventurers must face: to live or write.
Generally known as the author of Le Quai des brumes (the basis for Marcel Carné’s film of the same name), Pierre Mac Orlan (1882–1970) was a prolific writer of absurdist tales, adventure novels, flagellation erotica and essays, as well as the composer of a trove of songs made famous by the likes of Juliette Gréco. A member of both the Académie Goncourt and the Collège de ’Pataphysique, Mac Orlan was admired by everyone from Raymond Queneau and Boris Vian to André Malraux and Guy Debord.

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