What are the chances of finding a book you’ve been searching for over many years in a small, dark charity shop deep in the Tuscan hills? Pretty remote, I’d say. But then again, one of the most famous lines of this particular book speaks of the ‘chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table’, so perhaps it isn’t that strange.
This simile is from Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) by the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont (translated into English by Paul Knight in Penguin Classics), one of the most influential books of the first half of the twentieth century in France. Originally published in 1869 in Brussels (the printers in Paris thought it too hot to handle), it’s a novel, or rather an anti-novel, written by a twenty-something Frenchman, born Idisore Ducasse on 4 April 1846 and brought up in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay in South America. Sent by his French diplomat father to study in the south of France, Ducasse died aged twenty-four on 24 November 1870, having published only this book and one other — the equally strange Poésies.
I had wandered into the charity shop in search of books to read during a scorching summer heatwave and found a battered Penguin Classic copy of the novel at the back of a shelf where it had obviously been languishing for some time. Like many writers, I have a mental list at the back of my mind of books I enjoyed in the distant past and would love to be re-acquainted with. I was first amazed by this book as a student many years ago and was anxious to see how well it had weathered over time.
Ducasse/Lautréamont’s protagonist Maldoror is a figure of absolute evil who has declared war on God and mankind, whom he holds in utmost contempt. His battle with God involves struggles with a great number of weird sea creatures including the ‘man with the head of a pelican’ or copulating with a female shark in the ocean.
Maldoror is written in six books of sixty strophes or cantos, the sixth book being perhaps the most extraordinary. Here the author declares that he will write a typical ‘realist’ nineteenth-century novel in thirty pages, which he duly does, introducing the reader to the life and times of a young man called Mervyn (apparently after a character in a Sir Walter Scott novel), the scion of an aristocratic English family who falls foul of Maldoror and meets a gruesome end, being bundled into a sack, beaten to death, then tied to a rope and flung against the dome of the Panthéon in Paris, where ‘one can, at any hour of the day, see a dried skeleton hanging.’
In the years following its first publication, Ducasse’s book went almost entirely unacknowledged. There was little appetite for a book with such a bewildering array of literary registers that seemed to break all the rules of the traditional novel, undermining and experimenting in almost every line. As for example, his use of far-fetched similes. The famous one already quoted is part of an extended comparison which describes the ‘hero’ Mervyn as being ‘as handsome as the retractility of the claws in birds of prey; or, again, as the unpredictability of muscular movement in sores in the soft part of the posterior cervical region, or, rather, as the perpetual motion rat-trap which is always reset by the trapped animal and which can go on catching rodents indefinitely and works even when it is hidden under straw.’
Throughout Maldoror, Ducasse challenges us to leave aside conventional ways of confronting a work of fiction, and instead remain open to whatever journey the author takes us on. The very first lines of the book put any reader on guard: ‘Unless he brings to his reading a rigorous logic and a tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanation of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar.’ In this way, Ducasse says he intends to ‘cretinise’ the reader, challenging them not to expect any of the rules of conventional narrative, but creating a text that will nevertheless hold our attention.
At the same time, Ducasse constantly undermines the idea of the writer as God, in control of his creation. Some of his wilder passages have been traced back to an encyclopaedia covering ornithology and botany; elsewhere he subverts narrative ‘tricks’ also to undermine any idea of the writer as Romantic demiurge. At the start of one strophe for example, he writes: ‘A man, a stone, or a tree is going to begin this fourth song’. Elsewhere he boasts: ‘I’ll establish in a few lines how Maldoror was good in his early years when he lived a happy life. There, that’s done.’
It was not until fifty years after Ducasse’s death that his Maldoror suddenly resurfaced. In France the Dadaists and Surrealists came to see it as one of the key texts of the nineteenth century, pointing to a new direction for literature. In his First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, André Breton lauded him as an essential forerunner of the movement, and wrote scathingly of novels where ‘everyone wants to display their little “observation” about life’. He goes on to declare: ‘The realist attitude seems to me to be hostile to all intellectual and moral development. It horrifies me, because it’s made up of mediocrity, hatred, and dull self-satisfaction’. Breton and the other Surrealist writers insisted creative composition could not be reduced to the rational, and praised Ducasse for his ‘automatic writing’ where the imagination, chance, and subconscious desires came to the fore.
The Surrealists were also attracted to Ducasse because so little was known about him, that he had appeared and disappeared like a shooting star. Because of this, his ‘pure’ fiction could not be contaminated by his biography. There was no temptation to substitute the direct challenge of confronting his work with details of his life, there were almost no letters or reminiscences from friends or foes, he did not have a literary career, and was definitely not part of the literary chattering classes. As with the work of the young poet Arthur Rimbaud, his literature was not there as comfort fodder, but to spark dramatic changes in any reader’s approach to life.
This rejection of literature as something that was a commodity to be traded in and commercialised was dramatically illustrated a couple of years after the publication of the first Surrealist manifesto when a cabaret called Maldoror opened in Montparnasse in Paris. Seeing this as a direct affront to the Comte de Lautréamont, a group of Surrealists descended on it and smashed it up before the police arrived to arrest them.
The Second World War and its horrors ushered in a very different mood in French literature. Writing in L’Homme révolté (The Rebel in English), Albert Camus dismissed Lautréamont and the Surrealists’ idea of revolt as ‘adolescent’ and ‘nihilist’, unable to lead to any real change, or to build anything worthwhile.
In England of course, Surrealism was almost always treated as eccentricity rather than a revolutionary way of reinvigorating literature. In 1936 at the first International Surrealist Exhibition in London it was Salvador Dali in his deep-sea diving-suit that caught the attention rather than anything more profound. Perhaps the closest to the aims of the movement, and to Ducasse, is to be found in the painter and writer Leonora Carrington’s deliciously dotty The Hearing Trumpet, finished by 1950, where she herself complains: ‘Surrealism is no longer considered modern and almost every village rectory and girl’s school have surrealist pictures hanging on their walls. Even Buckingham Palace has a large reproduction of Magritte’s famous slice of ham with an eye peering out. It hangs, I believe, in the throne room.’
If for several decades Maldoror’s reputation dimmed alongside Surrealism as a whole, it was to experience another resurgence in the nineteen-sixties and seventies in France, when it was taken up again by exponents of the nouveau roman and the structuralist critics. In the introduction to his English translation of Maldoror, Paul Knight lists some of the questions they saw as central to the writing of fiction, including the relation between text and reality and ‘the dangers and absurdity of expecting an easily digestible meaning’ in an arbitrarily constructed fiction.
Perhaps in the end what was most pleasing about my stumbling across Maldoror and his exploits after so many years was on the one hand to understand why I am often so impatient with today’s novelists, who sometimes seem content with a painstaking ‘observation’ of everyday life, renouncing any wider or wilder ambitions. And on the other, how rereading a book brings with it a whole constellation of other readings, of half-remembered facts and moments that, as one grows older, enrich our approach to literature.