“(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.