19 November 2014

Princesse Sapho: Le Tutu: Mœurs fin de siècle (1891; repr. 2008)

'Holy Shit!'. That's my translation of the expression 'Merde alors!', which is Geneviève Duchêne's translation of the title of Julián Ríos's seven-page Afterword to Princess Sapho's novel Le TutuRíos wrote this in Spanish, and although I don't know the original title of the Afterword I trust that the word 'shit' was in it: 'Holy Shit' is a very apt reaction to a book that very early on contains four pages of correspondence between the Duchesse d'Orléans and the Électrice de Saxe, in which the word 'shit' ('merde') or a form of the verb 'to shit' ('chier') is mentioned at least once in virtually every sentence. An example:

'If you think you're kissing a beautiful mouth with very white teeth, you're really kissing a shit mill; the finest meals, biscuits, patés, pies, partridges, ham, pheasants – they're just to make chewed shit'. (My translation.)

The front cover of this edition of Le Tutu calls it 'LE ROMAN LE PLUS MYSTÉRIEUX DU  XIX SIÈCLE' ('THE MOST MYSTERIOUS NOVEL OF THE 19TH CENTURY'). It's not just mysterious: it's very odd indeed. As well as the correspondence there are also over five pages of Lautréamont's Chants de Maldoror printed here, a few pages of conversation in play form, and a page of celestial music. This was printed in 1891, and yet it seems to predict several things, such as Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus (1914), surrealism, and even texting. 

Léon Genonceaux printed this work, but then he disappeared very shortly after and the novel wasn't even distributed to bookshops: in fact very few copies of it were distributed at all, and the Bibliothèque nationale de Paris only acquired a copy of the first edition a few years ago. Furthermore, the book was forgotten until Pascal Pia wrote about it in an edition of La Quinzaine littéraire of April 1966, part of which is published as a second Afterword in this edition. In this article, Pia suggests that Léon Genonceaux himself wrote the novel, and gives a number of well considered reasons for this. However, Jean-Jacques Lefrère, after some amount of speculation and reasoning in a third and final Afterword, concludes inconclusively. What is certain is that Le Tutu was finally published by Tristram in Auch (32) in 1991 – exactly one hundred years after the original printing – and it released two more editions, in 1997 and 2008.

The novel follows the the story of Mauri de Noirof, who is obviously a satirized version of the publisher Maurice de Brunhoff  incidentally the father of Jean de Brunhoff, the author and illustrator of the Babar the elephant books. A few more characters are modeled on actual people, although the next most prominent one is Jardisse, who is a satirized version of Henri d'Argis, the author of the novels Sodom and Gomorrhe.

The back cover notes the eccentric, extravagant, and even monstrous nature of all the characters in the novel. At least one reader has also noted its emetic qualities. Mauri is a young opportunist who frequents brothels and who marries Hermine, a rich, fat alcoholic fond of picking her nose, rolling the crows into little balls and eating them. He never has sex with her   he is in love with his mother, who is also in love with him, although their relationship is for some time unconsummated. Instead Mauri has sex with Mani-Mina, a two-headed, four-armed and four-legged circus phenomenon.

The result of this match is Paul-Uc-Zo-Émilie, a four-headed creature Mauri feeds with his own milk – the product of a miraculous creation by Doctor Messé-Malou, who has also invented a tree that grows people and which he feeds by pissing at the roots.

Paul-Uc-Zo-Émilie dies, as did his mother before him, and towards the end the mysterious Jardisse is found dead in bed with his secret lover Hermine, his stiff arm tightly around her neck. Hermine too dies a few minutes later, and Mauri and his mother finally consummate their relationship by making love on a train – on top of Hermine's coffin.

There are many other things I could have detailed – such as the eating in a café of part of a dead, worm-invested cat found in the gutter, or Mauri and his mother meeting regularly to tuck in to a plate of rotting brains washed down with the spit from asthmatics, but I've probably already given taste enough of this truly bizarre novel.

The book contains an insert of quotations from reviews of the book, including La Quinzaine Littéraire, L'Événement du Jeudi, and Le Canard Enchaîné. Libération calls it 'a specimen of literary pathology'. Quite. A must – if your constitution is up to it. It was published in English translation last year (as The Tutu) under Atlas Press's Anti-Classics imprint.

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