Tuesday 8 November 2011

Clarimonde and Other Stories by Theophile Gautier, Tartarus Press

You cannot be forgiven if the only Vidal you know of owns a chain of hair salons.  More forgivable might be the assumption that the one true Gautier is also in Fashion.
  After all, most readers of the strange and uncanny rarely venture toward the authors of Europe.  I know it has taken me some blinkered years to look beyond my immediate shelves.
  This is hardly surprising.  This French author, active between the 1830s’ and 1860s’, was only accepted into his own country’s literary canon in 2002, according to the only other recent English translation of Theophile Gautier’s work; My Fantoms, published by the New York Review of Books in 2008.
  Quite why is something of a mystery.  It cannot be the regard of fellow vagabond dissentients such as Charles Baudelaire whose blasphemous, poetical The Flowers of Evil dragged him back to a religiously censorious court on numerous occasions, while still managing republication in his lifetime.  Neither can the issue be with the work itself, which, also Byronic in inspiration, was no more controversial.
  The most likely reason is what Brian Stableford alludes to in his new introduction to Tartarus’s latest release; the ‘moral rigour’ of his subsequent admirers.  Or, as it might be interpreted; ‘Gautier would’ve been such a great writer if only he hadn’t been so infernally kinky.’  The grudging, belated acceptance of Baudelaire by the literary Establishment was enough; a second prick-kicking Romanticist on the subs bench was probably better left there.
 Yet, what might have been considered kinky then intoxicates now.  Read this for the prose style alone, which, for anyone who has read his one anthologised story ‘Loving Lady Death’ (‘La Morte Amoureuse’) - re-translated as the title tale here -  will already have experienced his stunning, sensual evocation of place and time.  This continues in the other eleven tales.
  ‘King Candaules’ astonishes, as, by its end, you realise it is, effectively, a feminist fable against male pride and presumption.  Penned by any other hand, the wife would have been deservedly executed in a coda of preening masculinity.  In Gautier’s, his Queen gets precisely what she wants and on her own terms.  In ‘One of Cleopatra’s Nights,’ a young man also makes the mistake of feeding his obsession.  But, again, he is not punished for sinning in the eyes of any Church; only for the callousness of the advance.
  Elsewhere, the female protagonist Jacintha, in ‘Onuphrius,’ and the female Mummy in ‘The Mummy’s Foot’ each coolly take charge of their destinies after volatile male presumption.  While in ‘Jettatura’ the male lover is again spurned, and ultimately destroyed, seemingly by his own paranoia, fired by the pagan superstition of those around him.  (A contextual nod back to the paranoiac fantasies of E.T.A. Hoffmann – one of Gautier’s biggest influences). There is little doubt from these that Gautier, unlike many in his field before or since, openly adored women - a refreshing change.
  I must comment on the book itself; one of the most beautiful of Tartarus’s releases in recent years’; purple boards with a lemon silk bookmark and an apposite detail from Jean-Andre Rixens' Pre-Raphaelite-ish ‘Death of Cleopatra’ upon its signature, cream-coloured cover.  Steeping each copy in essence of violet or lavender might have gilded the lily, but not been a touch out-of-place.

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