Thursday, 29 March 2007

You dirty, DIRTY surrealist!

Recently, while browsing the portals of a certain message board, I came across an enquiry from a chap (sorry “Male Identifier”) who was setting up his own publishing concern. Not just any publishing concern, mark you, but a publishers of decadent erotica (by which is generally meant “Porn with a Man Ray cover”).

Now, in my time searching through the highways and byways of what we are still dumbly calling “The Underground” (I’ll come up with a better name soon, I promise) I’ve stumbled across quite a lot of this haughty brand of grot. Creation books have published a fair amount of it in their time, as have companies like Daedelus and Atlas, and, as something of a completist, I’ve chanced upon a few superb examples with which to line my oak bound drawing room (which is, of course, well hung with erotic etchings and always has a half-full decanter of brandy to pounce upon).

I suppose the classic example of decadent erotica would be Bataille’s peerless (geddit?) “Story of the Eye”, a masterpiece of unsettlement, ranging as it does from a violent pornographic assault on a priest, to beautiful evocations of adolescence, to vividly rendered fetishisations of eggs, eyes and full moons. Incidentally, it also remains my favourite summer read: once a year without fail. Make up your own minds about that one.

Other examples would have to include Mirbeau’s astonishing “Torture Garden”, Aubrey Beardsley’s “Under the Hill” (of which I have a fabulous Olympia Press edition, which you are welcome to come round and look at, but must handle while wearing gloves), Pierre Louys’ “The She Devils” and Apollinaire’s “Les Onze Mille Verges”.

(You may have noticed that De Sade is notable by his absence. This is because I, along with many others, find him incredibly fucking dull. His philosophies are fascinating and influential, certainly, but his novels are yawn-fests.)

What sets decadent erotica apart from less floral company is its heightened sense of aesthetics. Never merely concerned with the contorted pumpings of imagined couplings, it seeks to plunge the reader into the realm of the senses. Here the smell of posies or sight of blood on a knife can be enough to set brains and (to use a charming piece of period terminology) engines a-tingling. Decadent erotica is founded on the state of delerium: an occasionally violent sensorium where pleasure and pain are inescapably bonded. Sex and death, innit?

Of course as a genre it contains its fair share of clichés. I swear if I ever read another high-minded romp set in a chateau again I’ll spunk myself inside out. But the best examples (such as the ones I’ve mentioned above) transcend cliché to occasionally staggering effect.

One book I came across during my browse through the shelves was Louis Aragon’s “Le Con D’Irene” (oh, come on, you don’t need me to translate that for you surely?), a book I remembered reading a few years ago but decided to pull down and read again. Aragon was one of the main architects of Surrealism: one of the more committed communist members who split from Andre Breton in the late 20s to further his revolutionary aims, and his is still one of the first names thought of when conversation turns to that most essential of all early twentieth-century art groups.

“Le Con D’Irene” is one of the harshest stories of sexual obsession I’ve ever read. Relatively short (you could read it in about an hour) it is nonetheless dense and opaque, almost to the point of bloody-mindedness, and needs patience and perseverance on behalf of the reader. It concerns the travails of an unnamed narrator, who, due to financial dire-straits, has been forced to move back in with his family in a similarly unnamed town. Locked in a bell jar of tedium, his imagination begins to take hold, and he finds himself obsessed with the cunt of an imaginary woman, the titular “Irene”.

So-far-so-good, but what sets this little gem apart is its style. It swings radically from unexpurgated automatic prose to descriptions of nights spent in dingy brothels. From descriptions of dreams to wholesale imaginings of Irene’s family situation. Curiously enough, the life he invents for his imagined love is described in almost documentary detail, giving the reader the impression that, despite her imaginary status, Irene and family are the only touchstone to the “real” in the whole book.

With the leaps in style come leaps in authorial voice: from the presumed authoritative narration of the young man, to the unforgettable scenes narrated from the point of view of Irene’s crippled grand-father: sitting watching the sexual couplings of the people around him, unable to do anything to assuage his desires as he lusts after his own grand-daughter.

As a study of sexual obsession it is second to none. Aragon’s prose drips off the page and he proves himself adept at taking on many different voices and styles (and hats of to the books translator, Alexis Lykiard, as well). Reading the brief but excellent introduction at the beginning of my edition also throws light of Aragon’s personal life at the time. When he was in the throes of obsession following a suicide attempt, after the collapse of his relationship with muse, writer, publisher and activist Nancy Cunard. This failed affair cannot have been far from his mind when he wrote the following:

“I sometimes tried desperately to see you, by shutting my eyes or just the opposite, by opening them very wide upon the darkness of the room. But you were there suddenly. Your walk. Your dress. It seemed you chose to come at precisely the time when I was writing at my narrow table, with only the wall facing me”…..”Sometimes you’d draw near to me. My heart would pound. I knew that to turn around would make you vanish. I did not turn around. I wrote. Little by little you grew bolder. I felt your breath. I did not turn around.”

What sets the book apart from the other examples of this kind of erotica is its lack of sybaritic excess. There is very little cruelty in “Le Con D’Irene.” The pain described is all the worse for it being deflected inward, giving the story a feeling of hopelessness and loss that can be quite overwhelming.

However, the book is also pretty funny at times. No more so that during Aragon’s inspired rant celebrating the erotic lives of fish, which comes out of absolutely nowhere and leaves this unforgettable little couplet:

“Fish fish fish fish
But man also sometimes makes love”

Cheers, Louis.

Normally I would recommend a novel this rich to be read in small doses, but unfortunately, due to its short length, that isn’t really an option. No, best just raise it to the lips and drink it down in one. preferably out of some kind of bejewelled goblet while watching eunuchs dancing naked to lute music. Mmmm, feel the decadence.

“Le Con D’Irene” can be found in the anthology “Flesh Unlimited”, published by Creation books.

1 comment:

videodromer said...

I love the Cone d'Irene but I'd like to post some passages in English too. In my opinion this book possesess the perfect balance of desperate desire. The narrator is not clumsy as he might seem at first glance: he's just a diver perfectioning throughout the book. He sort of distillates a philosophy of impotence at the end, that might be the mental realization of desire or the impossibility of it. I think that towards the end when he becomes "philosopher" he becomes more predictable and more annoying too.
Question: Can I borrow some of your material or if I'm not too daring some "new" passages too? They don't need to be long, just to complement the Italian part I wrote down. I'm not good enough to translate literature.
p.s. I "copied" the book's introduction already.

Thanks in advance.
Anna Laura