Saturday, October 27, 2007

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (cont.)

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 3: The Picture of Dorian Gray: the 1890 and 1891 texts. Ed. by Joseph Bristow. Oxford University Press, 2003. 0198187726. lxxvii + 465 pp.

[Continued from Part 1.]

New chapters in the 1891 text

The main difference between the 1890 and 1891 texts is that the latter has six new chapters. First there's chapter 3, where Lord Henry goes to visit his uncle and talks to him about Dorian's mother; then he goes to dinner at the house of his aunt Agatha. This chapter is pleasant enough, but it seems pretty isolated — one could omit it and not change anything else, and nobody would notice that anything is missing.

Then there's chapter 5, with the scenes involving Sibyl Vane and her mother and brother. Her brother is a completely new character in the 1891 text and, if I'm not mistaken, isn't mentioned at all in the 1890 text. Otherwise, this chapter generally made me as a reader less sympathetic towards Sibyl and her mother than I would have been from the 1890 text where this chapter was missing. Sibyl is so much in love with Dorian and expresses herself in such saccharine terms that she is quite unbearable. Her mother, on the other hand, is an old former actress who, now that she cannot act much on the stage any more, compensates this by behaving theatrically in her ordinary life, which is also very annoying. Sibyl's brother James makes a much more favourable impression, although he is almost too earnest and serious. It's as if Wilde deliberately made him so very down-to-earth, to provide a contrast with Sibyl and their mother.

A major new addition, a whole subplot really, are chapters 15–18, coming soon after Dorian murders Basil, the artist who had painted his portrait all those years ago, and blackmails an old acquaintance into disposing of the corpse. Dorian then goes to a dinner-party at one Lady Narborough's, which is of course yet another opportunity for a few pages of clever conversation and witty epigrams. But Dorian doesn't feel too well; apparently the murder has been getting on his nerves somewhat; so he leaves early and to go to an opium-den in some sleazy part of London (and apparently he also keeps opium at home, p. 322, “green paste waxy in hue”; and see the editor's introduction, p. lv). This opium habit of his was not so prominent in the 1890 text (I'm not even sure if it was mentioned at all).

In ch. 16, Dorian meets, in an opium den, Adrian Singleton, a young man whose life he had apparently ruined (though it is not quite clear how — perhaps by introducing him to drugs? — anyway, in the 1890 text, Adrian is mentioned only once, in the conversation between Basil and Dorian shortly before the murder; Basil mentions the rumours that are circulating about Dorian, how many people he had associated with are now in disgrace etc., and Adrian is mentioned once among the others, p. 129). This chapter ends with the encounter between Dorian and Sibyl's brother James, who tries to kill him for causing the suicide of his sister at the beginning of the novel. However, this was almost twenty years ago and Dorian hasn't aged since then, so he manages to convince James that he cannot be that man, who would have to be almost forty years old now.

Most of ch. 17 consists of a conversation among Dorian, Lord Henry and a Duchess of Monmouth; a conversation in which clever epigrams are flying back and forth like lightning-bolts and the whole scene reminded me somewhat of swordfights in old swashbuckling movies (Scaramouche comes to mind). But at the end of the chapter, Dorian sees James Vane's face peering at him through a window, and faints. In ch. 18, there's a hunt and a man is accidentally shot by one of Dorian's guests; it turns out that the victim is none other than James Vane.

Wilde also inserted a couple of pages of text (pp. 349–50) into the conversation between Dorian and Lord Henry in ch. 13 of the 1890 edition and then split this chapter into two, resulting in chs. 19 and 20 of the 1891 edition.

So the main differences betwen the 1890 and the 1891 texts can be summarized thus: a couple of chapters of witty conversation in Wilde's trademark style, plus the whole James Vane part of the story. I must say that I didn't really miss these things when reading the 1890 text, but at the same time, adding them probably does improve the novel. They make it seem as if fate was playing a cat-and-mouse game with Dorian, first giving him a good fright when James Vane comes on his trail, and then an immense relief when Vane ends up being shot a few days later (and, in a further twist of irony, this wouldn't have happened if Sir Geoffrey had listened when Dorian asked him not to shoot!). This also provides a better motivation for Dorian's last (and unsuccessful) effort to become good (by not seducing the country-girl Hetty). The James Vane episode is also helpful because it further underscores that Dorian led a charmed life; he could get away with murder and with driving people to suicide, even in the face of such a dogged pursuer as James. It was only his own conscience, rather than any external human agency, that finally brought Dorian's morally bankrupt life to an end.

Minor changes from the 1890 to the 1891 text

In the other chapters, the ones that existed both in the 1890 and in the 1891 texts, most of the changes are small. Wilde often changes a word here or there, and sometimes adds or removes a sentence, but it isn't obvious to me that most of these changes really make much of a difference, neither improving the text nor making it worse. But I guess I haven't got a delicate enough sense for language to be able to really judge such things :)

One well-known change between the 1890 and 1891 editions (I remember it mentioned e.g. in Hesketh Pearson's biography of Wilde) is that the frame-maker whom Dorian asks for help in moving the portrait is named Ashton in the 1890 edition but Hubbard in the 1891, because Wilde felt that “Ashton is a gentleman's name” while “Hubbard positively smells of the tradesman”. The editor's note on p. 441 says that these comments by Wilde were reported in the 1917 memoir In Good Company by Coulson Kernahan (Wilde's editor for the 1891 edition of Dorian Gray; p. li).

Another change is in ch. 10 (or ch. 8 of the 1890 text), where Dorian's old housekeeper, Mrs. Leaf, is described more affectionately in the 1890 text (“Mrs. Leaf, a dear old lady in a black silk dress”), while in the 1891 text the conversation between her and Dorian is shorter and colder. See the textual notes to 268.13, 268.14 and 269.8–10; Wilde removed four short paragraphs of the conversation. I wonder why he thought these changes necessary. He basically went out of his way to kill a pleasant and perfecly sympathetic minor character and turn her into little more than a theatrical prop.

Near the end of ch. 10 (ch. 8 in the 1890 ed.), when discussing the style of the book that Dorian receives as a present, the 1890 text refers to “the French school of Décadents” (p. 103), but in 1891 Wilde replaced this by “Symbolistes” (p. 274). See also the editor's note on p. 442.

At the beginning of ch. 11 (1891 text; p. 276, l. 4), Dorian buys “no less than nine large-paper copies of the first edition” of the book that Lord Henry had given him as a present. But in 1890 (ch. 9, p. 105), he was satisfied with a mere five copies :)

Near the beginning of ch. 4 (1891 text; p. 208, ll. 26–8), Lord Henry's wife says that he has seventeen or eighteen photographs of Dorian; but in the corresponding place of the 1890 text (ch. 3; p. 35, ll. 25–6 and p. 36, l. 1) he has as many as twenty-six or twenty-seven.

In ch. 12 (1891 text, p. 293), Wilde added a couple of paragraphs to the conversation between Basil and Dorian (starting with “ ‘Stop, Basil. You are talking about things of which you know nothing,’ ”); I think this is a welcome addition and tells the reader a bit more about the scandals and rumours with which Dorian has become associated.


I used to think that Caligula had appointed his horse to the position of consul, but now I see that I got these things slightly mixed up: Caligula only “meant to make him consul” (p. 413, the quote is from Suetonius, Caligula 55), while it was Elagabalus that had really “raised his horse to the honours of the consulship” (p. 414; the quote is from Gibbon, ch. 6).

There are two interesting passages, one in ch. 3 (1891 ed.), and one in ch. 4 (1891 ed., or ch. 3 of the 1890 ed.), about aristocrats not being able to afford things. The Duchess of Harley says of the Americans: “I must confess that most of them are extremely pretty. And they dress well, too. They get all their dresses in Paris. I wish I could afford to do the same.” (P. 201.) And Lord Henry's wife Victoria says on p. 209: “You've never been to any of my parties, have you, Mr. Gray? You must come. I can't afford orchids, but I spare no expense in foreigners. They make one's rooms look so picturesque.” I know that these passages are meant to be humorous, but I wonder if Wilde wasn't also picking up on a real historical trend at the time, namely the slow but steady decline of the British aristocracy from their formerly undisputed position at the top of the political, social and economical hierarchies. In the late 19th century they were increasingly unable to compete with the much wealthier industrialists, the wealthiest of which were of course to be found in America. See David Cannadine's fascinating book, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.

A curious passage from ch. 11 (1891 text, p. 114): “In Lodge's strange romance ‘A Margarite of America’ it was stated that in the chamber of the queen one could behold ‘all the chaste ladies of the world, inchased out of silver [. . .]’ ” I suppose this is a joke (if a slightly misogynyst one), right? If all the chaste women can be portrayed in a single room, then there clearly can't be very many of them...

The obligatory bit of grumbling: it's great that in the commentary, the page headers tell you to which page of the text the commentary there refers to; but I wish that the headers of the text itself told you which chapter you're in, but they don't; they just tell you whether it's the 1890 or 1891 text. I noticed just a handful of typos: “one fo the grooms” (p. 344, l. 40); “Jean-Baptise Poquelin” (p. 453, note to 335.18); and the critical note to p. 348, l. 35 mentions “p. 348” instead of “p. 350”. Well, that's still three mistakes too many for a book that costs as much as this one :)


I won't write much about the literary aspects of the novel, because so much has been written about it already by people who can do it better than I could ever hope to anyway. I found that I enjoyed re-reading it after all these years, but I also got a feeling that all these delightful and outrageous epigrams and witticisms for which Wilde is so famous and with which The Picture of Dorian Gray is peppered as densely as perhaps any other of his works start to eventually get slightly tedious. “Ah, yes, yet another epigram by the ever-witty Lord Henry, just the sort of thing he is always saying (and very likely the sort of thing that has been said by three other characters in other works by Wilde), oh, how very clever, what utterly delightful cynicism, yawn, yawn, yawn.” It all starts to feel somewhat predictable and overly familiar, but of course this complaint of mine should not be taken seriously — it isn't fair to Wilde. None of these things bothered me when I read Dorian Gray for the first few times; they were fresh and delightful to me then. And they are still enjoyable now, it's just that they aren't new any more, they are all familiar and they are things that I've heard so many times before; so that although the charm is still there, the novelty is all gone, and consequently reading Dorian Gray for the eighth time wasn't quite so delightful as hitherto. But I must say that I was mostly annoyed by this in the beginning of the book; later, as the story gathers up pace, Lord Henry's epigrams are no longer so prominent as in the beginning of the book, and so they didn't really annoy me any longer at all (especially in the 1890 text; in the 1891 text, some of the new chapters, 15, 17 and partly 18, are chock-full of epigrammy goodness :)).

But, as I said, please disregard my grumbling. Wilde, after all, had an answer for it as well: when a man says he has exhausted life, one knows that life has exhausted him (ch. 15, p. 319). Now admittedly I haven't exactly lived yet, nor am I likely to in the foreseeable future, but I cannot help feeling that there's a kind of exhaustion at work here just the same :) Anyway, to anyone who enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray, I recommend this edition very highly. Between the editor's introduction, his extensive commentary, and the critical apparatus with its delightful possibilities for comparing the 1890 and 1891 editions (and the manuscripts), there's so much fascinating material here, besides the text of the novel itself, that it's definitely worth the price.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 3: The Picture of Dorian Gray: the 1890 and 1891 texts. Ed. by Joseph Bristow. Oxford University Press, 2003. 0198187726. lxxvii + 465 pp.

Ah, The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is the book that got me hooked on Wilde. I had to know it really well for an exam at the end of secondary school, so I read it six times during the last year. I found that I enjoy Wilde a lot, so I later read his collected works in an inexpensive paperback edition, and then when I eventually saw that the OUP would begin publishing a variorum edition of his collected works, I decided to start buying it volume by volume as they would be published. But I wrote about this before, and there's no point in repeating myself. Anyway, I'm just saying that if it hadn't been for The Picture of Dorian Gray, I probably wouldn't be reading the OUP edition of Wilde right now.

This novel exists in two versions — first, Wilde published it in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, and later he expanded it to nearly twice the length to make it suitable for a standalone book. This OUP edition contains the text of both versions, as well as a critical apparatus in which this text is collated with various manuscripts and typescripts. In addition to that, there's a very interesting and extensive introduction by the editor, as well as wonderfully detailed explanatory notes at the end of the book. This is the third volume in the OUP edition of Wilde's collected works (the first two contain his poetry and De Profundis); although they are all expensive, I didn't regret buying any of them; but with this volume, my feeling that it was really worth the price is even greater than with any of the first two volumes.

The editor's introduction

I particularly enjoyed the editor's introduction, which describes the circumstances of the composition and publication of both versions of the novel, with an emphasis of what these things looked like from the perspective of the business side of publishing. The book version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in a small-paper and a large-paper edition; the former was a standard format at a standard price, while the latter was expensive and aimed at connoisseurs. “Certainly, the practice of issuing the same work in differently sized volumes dates from the 1600s. Yet this mode of publication appears to have become defunct by the turn of the nineteenth century. The trend for using the same plates for both a small-paper edition and an edition de luxe came into its own with the marketing of Pre-Raphaelite poetry.” (P. xxii.) There's also an interesting mention of the three-decker novels and the reasons for their demise at the end of the 19th century (p. xxi).

The introduction also notes the differences between the advertisements in the American and British editions of Lippincott's Magazine. The British edition contained, among other things, an ad for “ ‘Wansborough's Metallic Nipple Shields’ (‘at 1s. a pair’)” (p. xv). Sounds like something that Madonna might have a use for... :)

Another very interesting part of the introduction discussess the reviewers' responses to Dorian Gray. It's interesting how, when the novel was first published in the Lippincott's Magazine (in 1890) simultaneously in the UK and the USA, the negative criticism was all coming from the UK: “the New York Times observed that the controversy that Wilde had aroused with the publication of his story remained largely incomprehensible to American readers.” (P. l.) The editor adds: “I have found no evidence of outright hostility towards The Picture of Dorian Gray in the American press.” (Ibid.) On the other hand, many British newspapers were complaining about the supposed unwholesomeness of the novel, its lack of a clear moral and the presence passages that could be interpreted as allusions to homosexuality (pp. xliv–xlix). Wilde defended himself in letters to the editors of various newspapers, emphasizing that “his story refused to spell out what ‘Dorian Gray's sins are’ for the reader. ‘He who finds them,’ he added, ‘has brought them.’ ” (P. xlviii.)

In addition to these things, the introduction contains a discussion about the various kinds of revisions that Wilde (and his editor in the Lippincott's Magazine) made to the text at various points, both before the magazine publication and later when he was working on the longer version that would be published as a book in 1891.

By the way, it seems that Wilde had also done some translation work in the early part of his career. The editor's introduction (p. xliv) mentions his 1886 translation of A Fire at Sea, a short story by Turgenev. But I wonder — did Wilde understand Russian? I'd never heard of anything of that sort. Maybe he translated from a translation into some other language, rather than directly from the original. — Anyway, the editor also says (ibid.) that Wilde received offers to translate Euripides and Herodotus in 1879 (which sounds reasonable — after all, he had studied the classics, this was his area of expertise), but it isn't clear to me whether anything came of this or not.

Interesting things from the editor's notes

The editor's commentary and notes at the end of the book are wonderfully detailed. As an example: they even include a discussion of whether the various flowers mentioned as blossoming around Basil Hallward's studio in Chapter 1 really could all have blossomed at the same time :) (The conclusion is that this is improbable, p. 366.)

Sometimes the notes explain things that I would think are obvious to everyone. On p. 387, the note to 71.28 explains that when Dorian says to his servant that he is “not at home” to anyone, this means that he is “not available to receive visitors”. On p. 390, the note to 96.3 explains that Bologna is a “city in north-east Italy”. I don't know whether to praise the editor for this thoroughness of the notes and the unwillingness to expect too much from the reader, or to criticize him for thinking that the readers are such ingoramuses that they need to be told what Bologna is.

Wilde is well-known for frequently reusing the same witticisms and epigrams in several different works. One of the good things about this edition is that the editor's notes at the end of the book identify these cases, pointing out the passages that he reused in his plays and other works. I was, however, very surprised at one gaping omission: in chapter 11 (or chapter 9 of the 1890 text), he refers to one of the curious musical instruments collected by Dorian as “the mysterious juruparis of the Rio Negro Indians, that women are not allowed to look at and that even youths may not see till they have been subjected to fasting and scourging” (p. 112). Wilde later reused this idea in Salome, where Herod says: “I have a crystal, into which it is not lawful for a woman to look, nor may young men behold it until they have been beaten with rods.” But the editor's notes in this volume don't point out this reuse. Too bad — it's so wonderfully bizarre, and one of my favourite passages from Salome.

The editor's notes also identify the sources of various factoids that Wilde amassed in such quantities here in chapter 11 (or 9), as well as elsewhere to some extent. For example, he learned of the juruparis and other exotic instruments from an 1875 book, Musical Instruments by one Carl Engel. The sources of his facts about gems and outrageous anecdotes about Roman emperors and Renaissance tyrants have similarly been identified quite precisely.

Critical apparatus: 1890 text

I'm usually not particularly interested in studying critical apparatuses (whatever the correct plural of this word is), but in this case I took a glimpse at it anyway, and was often rewarded — it's a gold-mine of interesting comparisons between the 1890 text, the 1891 text and the various extant manuscripts and typescripts.

Thus the critical notes often reflect the minor battle of the wills between Wilde and J. M. Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott's Magazine in which The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published. For example, on p. 11, l. 13, we see that Wilde first wrote “he is” in the manuscript, then crossed it out and replaced it with “we are”; but then in the subsequent typescript, Stoddart crossed out “we are” and replaced it with “he is”, and this version was then published.

Stoddart also changed Wilde's spelling from British to American and made various other small modifications (e.g. toning down Wilde's use of capital initials: “Opera” → “opera” on p. 84; “Agate” → “agate”, “Cornelian” → “cornelian” and other names of gems on p. 114; “Science” → “science”, “Scientific Reviews” → “scientific reviews” on p. 145).

In addition to that, he occasionally tried to make some of Wilde's passages somewhat tamer: e.g. he changed “I don't suppose that ten per cent. of the lower orders live with their own wives” to “live correctly” (p. 11, l. 16). In ch. 9, there's a passage that discusses Dorian's descent into depravity: “he would [. . .] go down to dreadful places near Blue Gate Fields [i.e. probably to opium-dens], and stay there [. . .] until he was driven away.” Here, “until he was driven away” is Stoddart's text; Wilde had originally writen more luridly, “till they almost drove him out in horror, and had to be appeased by monstrous bribes” (p. 118, l. 25).

In a passage about a fictitious Lady Devereux on p. 122, l. 9, Wilde decided to change “the strange stories that were told about her lovers” into “[. . .] about the death of those to whom she granted favours”, but Stoddard changed it back to the earlier version :) On p. 124, l. 11, Wilde refers to a tapestry of “the Borgia on his white horse, with Incest and Fratricide riding beside him”, but Stoddard deleted Incest and kept only Fratricide. Stoddard also removed an allusion to homosexuality on p. 120, l. 2, and one to the depravity of Caligula (and of the hero of the novel that Lord Henry gave to Dorian as a present) on p. 123, l. 8. He removed a passage in which Lord Henry regrets that Dorian decided not to seduce a simple country girl named Hetty (p. 155, l. 19).

Another deletion by Stoddard, for which the reasons are less clear to me, is on p. 157, l. 2, where Lord Henry talks about missing his wife, who had left him for another man. It's true that his tone is somewhat aloof, as usual for him, but he does seem to have been genuinely fond of her. Thus I don't know why Stoddard removed this passage — keeping it would have made Lord Henry seem a better person. Perhaps he felt that Henry was an amoral cynic anyway and as such his positive sides shouldn't be emphasized, so that he can be safely seen as a negative character?

I guess that Wilde didn't disagree very much with these changes by Stoddard, as he retained practically all of them in the 1891 text; he didn't restore the passages that Stoddard had deleted.

Some interesting things were deleted by Wilde himself (or at least the critical apparatus doesn't say that it was Stoddard), e.g. on p. 124, l. 5, we hear of “Filippo, Duke of Milan, who slew his wife, and painted her lips with a scarlet poison” — but why? It turns out that Wilde had originally included an explanation in the manuscript, but then deleted it: “that her guilty lover might suck swift death from the dead thing that he fondled”. Wilde restored this passage in the 1891 text (p. 290, l. 4).

The Shame of Oscar Wilde

Yes, yes, I know that that's really the title of a book :) But here I'm referring to Wilde's spelling mistakes in the manuscripts, which are of course all faithfully noted in the critical apparatus. He had a tendency to write “do'nt” and “ca'nt” instead of “don't”, “can't” etc. (Another curious spelling, which however doesn't seem to be regarded as a mistake and is consistently used in the 1891 text, is “sha'n't”. This is not how it would be written nowadays, but I must admit that the extra apostrophe actually makes sense, because after all there is indeed an omission of “ll” between “sha” and “n”. This spelling appears e.g. on pp. 272, 291, 315, 321 and 352.)

The manuscript of the 1890 edition also contains many French phrases which were then replaced by English ones in the printed edition, partly because the readers of Lippincott's magazine couldn't be expected to understand French and partly because Wilde's own French was somewhat shaky (which is quite surprising, to me at least) and there was a risk of embarrassing mistakes (see the editor's introduction, p. xxxvi). In the 1891 edition, he misspells “fin de siècle” as “fin de siêcle” in chapter 15 (and it isn't just a printer's error — it also appears in Wilde's manuscript; see p. 318, l. 25).

Basil's feelings towards Dorian

One particularly interesting thing one sees from the textual notes is the evolution of Basil's attitude towards Dorian. In the manuscript of the 1890 text there are many hints that Basil felt a homosexual attraction towards Dorian. Many of these passages were removed or toned down in the 1890 printed edition by the editor of Lippincott's magazine; see e.g. 91.4, 93.19. Then, when preparing the 1891 edition, Wilde didn't restore any of these passages, but rather toned down the remaining ones even further (see 217.24, 261.31, 264.10, 264.12–14, 264.17, 266.2), so that for example I, as a naive reader who has until now always read only the 1891 text, had never before even thought that Basil might have had homosexual feelings towards Dorian. (See also the discussion of this in the editor's introduction, p. liii.)

Another change between the 1890 manuscript and the printed edition (as well as the 1891 edition) is about the book that Lord Henry gives as a present to Dorian, and which fascinates him so much (ch. 9 in the 1890 text, ch. 11 in the 1891 text). In the manuscript, Wilde provides a fictitious name of the author of the book (Catulle Sarrazin), as well as of its hero (Raoul, the title being ‘The Secret of Raoul’), but in the printed version these are all removed. See the editor's notes, pp. 392–3, for an interesting discussion of how Wilde came to select those names in the first place. Anyway, it is well known that the book that Wilde really had in mind here was Huysmans' À rebours.

[To be continued in a few days.]

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

BOOK: J.-K. Huysmans, "Marthe"

J.-K. Huysmans: Marthe: The Story of a Whore. Translated by Brendan King. Sawtry: Dedalus, 2006. 1903517478. 149 pp.


This is Huysmans' first novel, and his second book altogether, published in 1876, preceded only by A Dish of Spices a few years earlier.

The book also includes an introduction by the translator, with interesting information about the beginnings of Huysmans' literary career. After A Dish of Spices, he began writing short essays and sketches for magazines, but some friends eventually persuaded him to try writing a novel (p. 10).

Marthe was published in slightly unusual circumstances; Huysmans had largely finished his manuscript when he learned that Edmond de Goncourt, a respected writer of the older generation, was also working on a novel with a similar subject, i.e. dealing with the life of a prostitute (it was eventually published in 1877 as La fille Élisa). To avoid being accused of plagiarism, Huysmans decided to hurry his book through the press to get it published before Goncourt's. Because of censorship in France, he had it printed in Belgium at his own expense. (As a civil servant, he was also concerned about the reaction of his employers to the book if it were published in Paris.) He tried to personally smuggle a considerable part of the print run into France, but the books were seized by the customs officials :) (p. 13).

This first edition did not attract much notice, and newspaper reviewers tended to be hostile, but it was warmly praised by several famous writers to whom Huysmans sent copies, such as de Goncourt and Zola. Thus Marthe was an important step towards establishing Huysmans as a noted and respected naturalist writer. (Incidentally, Zola also wrote a prostitute-themed novel not long afterwards — Nana, first published in 1880.)

The story

As far as the contents are concerned, Marthe seems pretty much your typical sordid naturalist novel.

<spoiler warning>

Marthe grows up in powerty, her parents die soon; she spends her adolescent years at exhausting work in an artificial-pearl factory (in the usual naturalist fashion, Huysmans cannot resist including a detailed description of the manufacturing process — it involves large quantities of fish scales; pp. 37–8). Following the example of the other girls she works with, she takes a lover; things go from bad to worse, a few lovers later she ends up in a brothel, finds this kind of work rather revolting and runs away.

She gets a job in a (very) downscale theatre, more for her looks than for her singing or acting abilities. She even gets herself a reasonably decent boyfriend, a young journalist named Léo. After a while she moves into his flat, but this turns out to be the beginning of the downfall of their relationship, as they cannot help getting more and more on each other's nerves. This is exacerbated by their dire poverty, as the newspapers Léo writes for aren't exactly thriving, and the theatre where Marthe worked goes bankrupt. Léo learns of Marthe's past when the police come to take her to a medical examination, which she is required to undergo regularly as a former registered prostitute (apparently a public-health measure to prevent the spread of venereal diseases).

Meanwhile, Ginginet, an old actor, Marthe's former theatre manager, and inveterate drunkard, has inherited a bar and set himself up as a publican. He persuades Marthe to come live with him as his mistress and bartender, and even manages to get her struck off the prostitute register. However, their relationship is stormy and full of violence, with Marthe mostly as the victim; and they are both pretty hard drinkers. Eventually she leaves, briefly returns to Léo but leaves him as well after just one night, as they both realize that their former relationship is well and truly dead. Soon she ends up in a brothel again.

Ginginet, meanwhile, has drank away his inheritance as well as his health and his voice; he dies as a beggar in the streets, and in the last chapter of the book we witness his autopsy for the benefit of medical students. We also hear that Léo has got married; he doesn't particularly love his wife but it seems that they'll manage to put up with one another somehow, and he definitely (if cynically) appreciates the convenience of having someone cook your meals and mend your clothes.

</spoiler warning>

Why was it ever written?

Well, I haven't really read any naturalist novels before (nothing by Zola, for example), so this is in a way my first encounter with genuine naturalism (not just its traces in Huysmans' later works). I must say it is about as bad as I was led to expect by what I've heard or read about it until now. I don't see why anybody would take the trouble to write such a novel, not to mention why anybody would think it worth being published. (Ah, but I forget; the first edition was published at Huysmans' own expense anyway.) It's all so ceaselessly negative; it's just bad things, bad people, bad actions, all the damn time.

From what I've heard, at least some naturalists, Zola for example, thought of their works as something that should point out society's faults and act as kind of call for social reform. But it isn't clear to me that Huysmans had any such aim here. The narrator of the story doesn't seem to particularly sympathize with the characters (in particular, one ofter seems to feel in the narrator's tone a kind of contempt for Marthe and for the way she always ends up returning to the life of prostitution; in fact the narrator seems to be a bit cynical about women in general, and is somewhat of a misogynist).

(See also the introduction, p. 19: “While Zola used Naturalism as a political tool with which to offer a critique of contemporary society, Huysmans saw it as a means to an aesthetic end.” And Huysmans himself writes in a preface to Marthe (p. 28): “I write what I see, what I feel and what I have lived, writing the best that I can, and that is all.” But that's a mighty poor excuse, if you ask me.)

In fact the writer seems to have gone out of his way to make much of the characters' misfortune a result of their personal faults rather than of social problems; for example, Ginginet inherits a bar just when his theatre fails — surely an act of providence if ever there was one — but he promptly goes and drinks day and night until he squanders everything and ends up a pauper. Similarly with Marthe, one cannot help feeling that at least some of her problems stem from her unstable character; she seems to want to be abused (ch. 8, pp. 97–8). Nowadays some people say that many prostitutes, especially victims of abuse, later come to suffer symptoms very similar to those of shellshock, or post-traumatic stress disorder; perhaps something similar is going on in Marthe's head as well.

Anyway, in the end you can of course always conclude that all the problems of the characters in this book stem from their hopeless poverty and from living in a society with no safety net; but I'm afraid that the book doesn't do much to encourage such a conclusion; it will only be made by people who are, like me, predisposed to blame the society as a whole for all the problems that beset the individuals who live in it.

Perhaps you could also argue that in some ways Marthe tries to act as a traditional morality tale. Surely Ginginet's career requires no further comment, it is already a perfect warning against the evils of alcoholism. And as for Marthe, she herself says to Ginginet near the end of the book (end of ch. 11, p. 123): “All the same, my dear, if we could live our lives over again, you know it would have been better to sweat and slave in an honest job, it would have paid better!” And Léo writes, most callously (ch. 12, p. 129): “whores like her have this much good about them: they make us love those who resemble them least; they serve as a foil to decency.” But on the other hand, it's hard to take this novel seriously as a traditional morality tale. It contains just negative examples, no positive ones, and the narrator seems too neutral: he doesn't strongly take sides for good and against evil, for example; nor would I really expect Huysmans to do such a thing at that time in his career.

Huysmans, an aspiring old salt?

I was surprised by the frequency with which maritime metaphors occur in this book, something that I don't remember seeing in Huysmans' other works. But maybe I was simply careless; the translator says on p. 148: “The notion that human beings periodically need to shelter from the storms of life is expressed through another maritime metaphor that recurs throughout Huysmans' work. The title of his 1887 novel En Rade, for example, literally means ‘in dry dock’ or ‘at harbour’.”

“This girl hadn't needed to strike a reef: she'd gone down with all hands on the open seas.” (Ch. 2, p. 45.)

The prostitutes trying to attract customers were “trying to reignite that flame in their glance for a few moments, so that some passing man might walk their plank and board them.” (Ch. 3, p. 49.)

“blondes who, seven sheets to the wind, were roaring with laughter and drinking wine” (ch. 4, p. 56).

Ginginet “had drowned his spirits in such a huge lake of cheap wine that he was lurching like a ship in distress, taking in not water but wine on all sides” (ch. 8, p. 93).

“The poet would have found her unsufferable if she hadn't served as a kind of harbour, in which he could refloat his stranded ship.” (Ch. 10, p. 113.)

The prostitutes “drank absinthe, shuffled their cards again, and waited until it was time to set sail, whether for Lesbos or for Cythera.” (Ch. 11, p. 116. Incidentally, does this mean that they also had female customers? I would naively imagine this to have been unthinkable in the society of that time.)

Funny passages and other miscellanea

“ ‘But what paper do you write for?’ — ‘The Monthly Review.’ — ‘Don't know it. And when does it come out?’ — ‘Generally every month.’ ” (Ch. 1, p. 34.)

“He lived by his pen, which is as much to say he starved” (ch. 4, p. 58).

“She dressed like all whores, sitting on the edge of the bed” (ch. 4, p. 60). WTF? Decent women must dress standing up, or what?! I can't help imagining Huysmans' office being stormed by disgruntled old grandmothers (armed with umbrellas and handbags, of course) who, due to weakness and a poor sense of balance, cannot dress standing up any longer :)))

During a performance in Ginginet's theatre, the audience pelts the stage with apple-cores. Ginginet consoles the authors of the play: “ ‘Young men,’ he said, ‘the profession of dramatic author may not provide you with bread, but at least it'll grant you plenty of apples.’ ” (Ch. 4, p. 65.)

“there were greengrocers where you could buy milk and lead soldiers” (ch. 8, p. 91). Oh yeah, lead soldiers — part of a nutricious breakfast!

On Ginginet's acting career: he spent “years declaiming on the boards, mouth like a chicken's arse and eyes bulging like billiard balls” (ch. 8, p. 93).

“Big-bellied and short of breath, he had bushy sideburns and his face offered that astonishing peculiarity, a nose the colour of aubergine, while the rest of his face seemed to be stained that striking red used by enamellists, Cassius purple.” (Ch. 9, p. 102.)

“hitching up his trouser-legs with a fine semblance of absent-mindedness, he revealed to the woman he was keeping that he was wearing long pink tights. As she failed to go into ecstasies over this clownish elegance, he pulled a little at his leggings and, pouting his lips, said: ‘Can you see how supple that silk is?’ ” (Ch. 10, pp. 107–8.) Nowadays pink is considered a very feminine colour, but I've read in a number of places that this is relatively recent, and as little as a hundred years ago pink was considered a vigorous, lively, manly colour. Well, the passage above seems to confirm it in a way.

At some point (ch. 4, p. 56), the novel refers to a painting, The Bean King, by Jacob Jordaens (I think we can by now safely say that Huysmans was constitutionally incapable of writing a work without any references to the visual art of the Low Countries). There's an interesting translator's note explaining what the painting is about (p. 141), and the painting itself is shown on p. 139. It is rather hilarious, especially “the pot-bellied slattern wiping her child's backside while a dog sniffs at it” — clearly the 17th century was a very weird place :) If a party gets so rambunctious that you don't hesitate to wipe your child's arse during it, in plain view of everyone, then this is surely a party that you shouldn't have brought your child to in the first place. (At least this is probably what most present-day parents would think, not that I necessarily agree.)

Wallowing in filth

There are a few passages of memorable wallowing in filth, the kind that the naturalists were so fond of.

“piss-coloured velvet of the sofa” (ch. 1, p. 29).

“a sinister staircase that creaked at every footstep and was impregnated with the foul stench of drains and the smell of the lavatories whose doors swung open in the slightest breeze.” (Ch. 2, p. 43.)

“one of the lowest dives in the Rue de Vaugirard. [. . .] the floor, powdered with rouge, was starred with dried spit, phlegm, cigar butts and pipe dottle” (ch. 5, p. 76).

“window displays in which shrivelled fish turned brown and fell apart, and bloody rabits were framed by a wall of lacklustre dishes and salad-bowls that disgorged prunes wallowing in a mire of their own juices.” (Ch. 8, p. 92.)

“a dirty junk-shop at the door of which hung dresses whose crinoline flesh had rotted away and whose wire carcasses tinkled in the wind.” (Ch. 11, p. 120.)


All in all, there are many commendable things about this edition. The introduction and the translator's notes are interesting, there are even a few helpful plates, and the translator has made a good effort to have the characters speak in a colloquial tone that was no doubt also used by Huysmans in the original. What I disliked most was the general sordidness that pervaded the whole novel, but I guess that this is simply inevitable in a naturalist work.

Another thing I disliked was the typeface in which this book, and several other Dedalus books, is set. It's a horrible romantic typeface, similar to Bodoni; the vertical strokes are so thick that it feels as if the whole book was set in boldface. (And it's not like Dedalus doesn't know how to use prettier typefaces; the one they use in the last few pages, for their advertisements, is much nicer.) But, of course, I must admit that in a way the typeface is aptly chosen; the late 19th century, when the novel was written and in which it is set, was dominated by just such typefaces. And it is, after all, appropriate that an ugly novel about the sordid aspects of life in an ugly 19th-century city should be set in an ugly 19th-century typeface; to set it a humanist face would be an affront to everyone involved :)

(Yes, yes, I admit, I'm a bit of an aspiring typeface snob :))

Anyway, I think this book can be recommended to fans of naturalism (along with a hearty swig of prussic acid, to put you out of your misery) and to Huysmans completists (along with another look at À rebours, to remind you why you started reading the guy in the first place), and to pretty much nobody else.


  • Edmond de Goncourt's La fille Élisa; and Zola's Nana, both mentioned in the introduction of this book. I will need to find English translations, of course.

  • Evenings at Médan (1880), a collection of short stories contributed by Zola and five other naturalist writers. (Mentioned here on p. 18.)

  • Eugèene Sue: The Mysteries of Paris. (Mentioned here on p. 143.)

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Naj jedo inflacijo

Izjava Dimitrija Rupla o inflaciji v zadnji Mladini je preprosto priceless :)))

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