Léon Bloy - Thirty tales of theft, onanism, incest, murder and a host of other forms of perversion and cruelty from the "ungrateful beggar" and "pilgrim of the absolute"
Léon Bloy, Disagreeable Tales, Trans. by Erik Butler, Wakefield Press, 2015.
Thirty tales of theft, onanism, incest, murder and a host of other forms of perversion and cruelty from the "ungrateful beggar" and "pilgrim of the absolute," Léon Bloy. Disagreeable Tales, first published in French in 1894, collects Bloy's narrative sermons from the depths: a cauldron of frightful anecdotes and inspired misanthropy that represents a high point of the French Decadent movement and the most emblematic entry into the library of the "Cruel Tale" christened by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Whether depicting parents and offspring being sacrificed for selfish gains, or imbeciles sacrificing their own individuality on a literary whim, these tales all draw sustenance from an underlying belief: the root of religion is crime against man, nature and God, and that in this hell on earth, even the worst among us has a soul.
A close friend to Joris-Karl Huysmans, and later admired by the likes of Kafka and Borges, Léon Bloy (1846-1917) is among the best known but least translated of the French Decadent writers. Nourishing antireligious sentiments in his youth, his outlook changed radically when he moved to Paris and came under the influence of Barbey d'Aurevilly, the unconventionally religious novelist best known for Les Diaboliques. He earned the dual nicknames of "The Pilgrim of the Absolute" through his unorthodox devotion to the Catholic Church, and "The Ungrateful Beggar" through his endless reliance on the charity of friends to support him and his family.
“His fire is nurtured by the dung-heap of modern times.”—Franz Kafka
“Bloy has come my way... He is an iceberg hurled at me to break up my Titanic and I hope my Titanic will be smashed.”—Flannery O'Connor
“Léon Bloy is a cathedral gargoyle who pours the waters of heaven down on the good and on the wicked.”—Barbey d'Aurevilly
An "Unsavory Tale" by Léon Bloy
Granted, the title is not necessarily enticing -- but at least Bloy is upfront from the beginning. And these are, indeed, tales of the disagreeable -- the often monstrously disagreeable. They're strikingly amoral, too: Bloy doesn't tuck edifying lessons into them. Yet Disagreeable Tales isn't mere profaning revel in the worst of man (as, for example, de Sade's endless cataloguing novels are).
The subject matter is striking. The first two tales alone see, respectively, a mother responsible for the death of her child, and a daughter responsible for the death of her father; in neither case is there any doubt about responsibility for the death, and yet the true cruelty, or at least final twist, is in it being accomplished (slightly) indirectly. The first tale, too, is typical of how Bloy tidies up his tales and what he offers in conclusion, the closing paragraphs reading:
"Finally !" she sighed, somewhat weary, and reached to ring for a servant.
Jacques had a severe aneurysm, and his mother had a lover who didn't want to be a stepfather.
The simple drama occurred three years ago in the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The house that served as its theatre now belongs to a demolitions contractor.
There are many other deaths, too, -- including one truly horrific parricide -- but even beyond that there's a great deal mired in the repulsive. Personal descriptions such as: "Her face resembled a fried potato rolled in scraped cheese" and "Your face is like a straw mattress they've all cleaned their boots on" abound. One character is introduced:
The very sight of the old man engendered vermin. The dung heap of his soul extended so far into his hands and face one could not possibly imagine a more frightful contact. When he walked the streets, the slimiest gutters, shuddering at the reflection of his image, seemed to flow back to their source.
Occasionally, Bloy explicitly acknowledges
I am getting to the culmination of the story -- which kills me, devours me whole, and defiles me beyond all conception.
But most of these tales speak for themselves in their abasement.
There's a surprising casual lightness and stylishness to the writing too, making more of them than just ugly tales. Bloy's short pieces move along quickly, a succession of short paragraphs that often summarize compactly and leap quickly ahead. He may revel in filth and obscenity, but Bloy does not wallow; he observes, records -- and moves on. And Erik Butler's translation nicely captures the language and style of the era that Bloy relies so heavily on (as Disagreeable Tales is very much a decadent literary product of the French fin-de-siècle).
There's a great deal of variety to the tales too -- quick summings-up of lives (that usually weren't exactly what they seem), anecdotes of decisive episodes. Bloy has some fun in making several of his protagonists literary types -- but there's no romanticizing of this path here:
He had been given literary genius in addition to everything else. It was the kindling of his torments.
And no matter how bad it gets, Bloy can always ratchet things up another notch:
Nor is that all, O, my God ! Behold the abyss of woe.
There's something ridiculous to all of this, too -- but then there has to be; to read it seriously seems almost unthinkable. Yet despite a light and occasionally even comic edge, this isn't really satire. Perhaps what makes for their staying power is an underlying sincerity to the stories; Bloy isn't a traditional moralizer, but there's a firmness of belief in society and men's failings, perhaps colored by his (surely complicated) religiosity, that underpins these tales: Bloy isn't just mocking, or aiming to shock; he really means to shake his readers with his depictions of the baseness of life at all levels.
Decidedly odd, these Disagreeable Tales are nevertheless weirdly appealing. - M.A.Orthofer
“(He) was an utterly generic man – the next best, in a host of insignificant and vacant individuals, to happen by; he seemed one of those people who exist in the plural, so fully do they express atmosphere, collectivity, and sameness... His face seemed to be cast by a spade; it belonged to the innumerable number of fake he-men from the South no interbreeding can refine – but in whom everything, even the uncouthness, is just for show...”
From 'A Dentist's Terrible Punishment,' featured here with twenty-nine other raucous faux anecdotes, this passage reminded me of one of British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent rhythmically alliterative, but ultimately empty, speeches. I had to smile, in a way that the tale's author Leon Bloy (1846-1917) would surely have approved.
This is a theatre of blood from the perspective of a catholic outsider. A born contrarian, who seemed to lose as many friends as he gained, Bloy swung from a youthful hatred of the Catholic Church to converting to it in adult life under the pervasive influence of local novelist and short tale author, Barbey d'Aurevilly; a dandyish figure of the previous generation whose open literary non-conformity would soon inspire Bloy's own. Proudly unclubbable as Bloy became - being also unemployable - left the permanently destitute writer with little choice but to plead for financial aid from friends and found acquaintances. This left him with the unenviable moniker, 'the ungrateful beggar,' yet one, if connected to his output, that might also be deemed a selling-point. Among what he produced (three autobiographical novels and eight volumes of journals) nevertheless stand as a barefaced antidote to stuffier English cousins.
Oddly, what all my biographical sources leave unwritten is Bloy's disparaging, satirical humour; at least highlighted in this collection. Here, he punctures the sinecures of self-serving middle-class complacency with as much black vehemence as any contemporary anarchist. Translator Erik Butler, in his Introduction, at least acknowledges this:
“A few years after Bloy's birth, in 1851, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte staged the coup apropos of which Karl Marx, glossing Hegel, made the famous observation that historical events occur twice: 'the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.' The less-than-great man's reign, which began with harshly repressive measures and, ten years later, introduced the so-called Liberal Empire, was imposing but hollow. The 'real' Napolean had been a revolutionary general who succeeded in conquering half of Europe. Napolean III, as his nephew called himself, measured up only in appearance.”
Understanding this context helps understand the trigger for Bloy's ripe, lampooning venom. I'd argue he did too well, if not protesteth too much. The paradoxical effect – far from accusing the guilty back into the fold – surely only highlighted to his readership the hypocrisies in organised religion all the more.
While the tone – at least in this collection – is openly misanthropic, by the standards of the day it is surprisingly un-misogynist; the women characters of their class as well delineated – and taken down – as his men, with the latter on the receiving end of marginally greater contempt.
Yet, again, how can even today's politically-correct critics not find irresistible wit in, “Her face resembled a fried potato rolled in scraped cheese...her whole person exuded the odour of a landing in a furnished hotel of the twentieth order --- on the seventh floor.” ('Two Ghosts').
As with most of Wakefield Press's reissued translations, (and Butler has done a deliciously sinuous job), I can give near fulsome recommendation; as long as you are prepared to keep a wryly jaundiced tongue in a capacious, accepting cheek. - Mark Andresen
In his first homily as Pope Francis, in March 2013, the Pontiff included an obscured voice of the French fin de siècle. Restating one of the most entrenched principles of Catholic dogma, Francis declared, “When one does not profess Jesus Christ, I recall the phrase of Léon Bloy—‘Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.’ ” Though it may have struck religious scholars as unusual, the reference to Bloy indicated the Church’s cautionary role against the millennial idolatry of technology and humanism. Bloy, who wrote a series of pamphlets, novellas, and essays during the increasingly scientific climate of the Second Empire and the Belle Epoque, included himself among the cabal of symbolists and decadents who had taken Satan as the object of their literary obsessions—specifically, the resurgence of the devil in the popular French imagination.
As a popular aphorism of late nineteenth-century Paris has it, “one was forced to choose between worshipping Satan or God.” At the very least, this was true of the city’s congregation of artists and literati. In Satanism, Magic and Mysticism in Fin-de-siècle France (2012), Robert Ziegler writes, “Perhaps the most spectacular manifestation of fin-de-siècle supernaturalism was the country-wide explosion of reports of the meetings of secret cults and the bloody rituals of Satanic societies.” As a succès de scandale, Ziegler points to the 1892 serialization of Doctor Bataille’s (a pseudonym for hoaxer Léo Taxil) two-thousand-page Devil in the Nineteenth Century (Le diable au XIX siècle), which consumed the Parisian public with salacious descriptions of black masses and orgies. The cultural fervor reached such a pitch that the Church, in La revue du diable (1894), instigated its own series of public excommunications for sorcery and other forms of occultism. “However, the Decadents,” Ziegler continues, “also intuited that Satanism was not just an issue of fact, and that—more than an entity whose existence was demonstrable—the devil was the product of fear of nostalgia … As Satan migrated from the domain of ontology into the realm of fiction and fantasy, he grew in stature, his avatars multiplied, and his majesty was enhanced by style and artistry.”
In other words: in fin de siècle France, Satan had never looked so good.
Born in 1846, only two years before the Spring Revolutions engulfed Western Europe’s monarchs and dethroned the Orleanist regime in France, Léon Bloy was raised by an antimonarchial, anti-Catholic father who imparted such beliefs on his adolescent son. By the 1870s, Bloy had intimately acquainted himself with Baudelaire, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Huysmans, and Barbey d’Aurevilly, in whose writings he discovered a kindred nostalgia for an aristocratic medievalism, which opposed the bourgeois materialism of the modern zeitgeist. These so-called decadents, accompanied by artists like Félicien Rops and Odilon Redon, transmuted the urban pessimism of Zola’s naturalism into a preternatural landscape of demons and saints engaged in an eschatological battle for the soul of humanity.
As the decadents’ most fanatical exemplar of medieval indulgence, Bloy observed the anchoritic vows of both poverty and suffering for the whole of his professional life, a choice that alienated him from bourgeois Catholicism and the institutions of literary Paris. It also earned him the dubious honorific of the Ungrateful Beggar among his friends and enemies.
“Woe to him who has not begged!” he writes. “There is nothing greater than begging. God begs. The Angels beg … The dead beg. All that is in light and glory begs.” Like Huysmans, he briefly joined the Trappist order but was evidently turned away by the cloister to better serve the cities’ unconverted. The Irish Catholic scholar Shane Leslie writes, “Poverty, suffering, symbolism—these were the three corners of Bloy’s heart; but they dealt not in secret places, for he lavished the full fury of his style upon their elucidation.”
Such Dolorism was, for Bloy, inspired in part by the vision of Melanie Calvat, a shepherdess in the mountains of southeastern France in 1846, the same year of Bloy’s birth. Known as Our Lady of Salette, the Marian apparition that appeared to Calvat admonished lapsed Catholics and nonbelievers and warned them of her constant intercession upon Christ to stave off apocalypse and the certain condemnation of man. Bloy’s text Celle qui pleure (1908) was dedicated to upholding the soteriology of the miracle of La Salette and, along with La femme pauvre (1897) goes some way toward elucidating his thorny, salvation misogyny.
Perhaps his most explicit selection of harangues and exhortations, the newly reissued Disagreeable Tales (Histoires désobligeantes, 1894) represents a unique literary genre—inspired by Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Cruel Tales (1883), Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Les diaboliques (1874) and the short sketches of Poe and Lautréamont. In the introduction to the first English edition, from Wakefield Press, the translator Erik Butler writes,
The collection proceeds … in the framework of anecdotal narratives. Often, a title will serve as a punch line that comes back at the story’s end or, alternately, as an affirmation the narrative as a whole calls into question … Bloy’s narratives feature theft, onanism, incest, murder, and a wealth of other perversions, and they are served with gusto befitting the most decadent of literary blackguards.
In fact, the thirty short vignettes within Disagreeable Tales resemble a hybrid of the narrative short story and the didactic fait divers—brief, crime reports that regularly appeared in Le Petit Journal and Le Petit Parisien beginning in the late nineteenth century. According to an 1872 edition of Le Grand Larousse Universel, the term fait divers included “small scandals, carriage accidents, horrible crimes, lovers’ suicides, roofers falling from the fifth floor, armed robbery, showers of locust or toads, storms, fires, floods, comical tales, mysterious kidnappings, executions, cases of hydrophobia, cannibalism.”
Among the more sordid accounts reported by Bloy in the fait-divers tradition are “A Dentist’s Terrible Punishment” and “It’s Gonna Blow!” The former concerns a lovesick swain who wins over a betrothed woman by secretly murdering her beau, only to suffer spiritual recriminations when their eventual child bears an uncanny resemblance to the murder victim. Bloy’s use of gothic irony is taken to the level of the diabolical, however, when the villain strangles his own progeny in the crib. The latter story, whose title is illustrative of Bloy’s knack for punchy headlines, begins with a round-table discussion on the veniality of the modern soul but quickly degenerates into a “well-known and perfectly honorable” artist’s confession of arson and murder of an innocent family. As with most of Bloy’s stories, the motivation behind these horrendous acts proves incidental to his larger, thematic fixation on an ecumenical crisis of spirit. As one of the narrators of “Blow!” morbidly contends:
We enjoy the synoptic catalogs to which are consigned—in Arabic numerals, of course—the murders and rapes that have helped us to endure the monotony of our days … It would be no less interesting, you may agree without paling in indignation, to undertake to disclose the universal villainy of respectable people.
Such hyperbolic sensationalism mirrors Bloy’s almost-Pauline attitude toward the agnosticism of the Third Republic’s ruling and middle classes, which he decrees as far more monstrous than the indigent and lumpen.
Other entries—like “A Recruit,” “Whatever You Want! … ” and “The Prisoners of Longjumeau”—veer closer to the conventional Gothic parable, in which the presence of a demonic force becomes the narrative catalyst for the moral ruination of one or more characters. In the first and second examples, the diabolical figure appears, respectively, in the person of a “putty faced” wanderer (in the Mephistophelian tradition) and as the reanimated corpse of a solicitous prostitute. Only in “Longjumeau”—the sort of interiorized travelogue inspired by Xavier de Maistre and anticipating the works of Borges and Cortazar—does the spirit of evil manifest in a nonpersonified “Enemy of mankind,” who, “with a cordon of invisible troops,” accomplishes the bizarre, decades-long capture of a pair of honeymooners in their own home. In what becomes a recurrent conclusion for many of the Disagreeable Tales, two of these devilish encounters end in suicide and the other with a presumed possession.
What distinguishes Bloy’s “tales” from those written by Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Poe, and Lautréamont is the marked absence of any sensualist or proto-surrealist tone with its ecstatic invocations of the flesh, like those that characterize Romantic literature since William Blake. Rather, Bloy’s bilious allusions to excrement (“ordure”), genitalia, rot, disease, and waste descend from a negative theology, which extols a mystical, self-mortification nearer to the postsurrealist existentialism of Georges Bataille’s My Mother (1966) and The Dead Man (1967), or Jean Genet’s A Thief’s Journal (1949). For Bloy, all physical pleasures are diversion or, worst yet, satanic temptation, so it is only through intense suffering and punishment that his characters can expiate their sins.
It was precisely this kind of extreme Dolorism that prompted Bloy to publically cheer the death of Pierre Curie, the sinking of the Titanic, and the fire at the Opéra-Comique—actions that would give even his most ardent supporters pause. In the introductory text to Disagreeable Tales, “The Voluntary Fanatic, Or the Conspiracy of Silence,” Bloy writes, through his occasional alter ego Caïn Marchenoir: “‘Ask our peers. Everyone will tell you that I’m a monster, that there’s no way to escape from my ferocious jaws … When I’m not killing, I must injure. Such is my destiny. I’m fanatically ungrateful.’ ” The Ungrateful Beggar nursed his aspirations for monstrosity for the remainder of his life, often to the detriment of his colleagues—most of who would abandon his confidence before his death in 1917. For those highly critical of Bloy’s dogmatism, his oeuvre was positively medieval. But, perhaps, more perceptively, Kafka reckoned of the medievalist that he “[was] nurtured by the dung heap of modern times.” - Erik Morse
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. -