Saturday 5 January 2019

Pan Review Of The Arts No. 10 - Decadents Of Europe

Editorial: Too often, our Anglocentric culture overlooks the past glories of its surrounding environs. Consequently, English translations and, crucially, their unsung translators, are also its victims. Therefore, I hope 'Pan' can act as a modest corrective, enabling near extinct names to finally breathe fresh life. A topic I'll be returning to here on a semi-regular basis. One English name for rehabilitation has been curated by editor, Nina Antonia, who explains how those who proclaimed sensuality and individualism were, at the same time, attracted by the strictures of Catholicism.

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Of Kings And Things by Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock, Edited by David Tibet / Incurable – The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson, the Decadent Era's Dark Angel, Edited by Nina Antonia, Strange Attractor Press

Back in the Spring of 2018, Snuggly Books released the first-ever paperback issue of Stenbock‘s Studies Of Death (1894). As something of a novice to the author, I was surprised by the existence of a second; The Child Of The Soul. So, now, thanks to the efforts of David Tibet, Ray Russell and Mark Valentine, the original seven tales have been joyously expanded to fifteen, alongside poems, songs, sonnets and a single essay.
  The engaging economy in Stenbock’s anecdotal approach informs every tale. Studies, as a whole, is a classic, less concerned about Death itself than the loss borne of others‘ greed ('The Egg Of The Alabatross' and 'The True Story of a Vampire') and self-realisation borne of sacrifice ('Hylas,' 'Narcissus' and 'Death Of A Vocation'). The second collection's content is, generally, less concise; however, gems abide. Highlights include 'The Other Side'; a fine werewolf tale, strong in its rendering of the uncanny, with a surprisingly modern sensibility. In 'Faust' – a satirical take on Marlowe and Goethe‘s classic fables – a monk receives a visitation from an 'angel' proclaiming light whilst ill-harbouring darkness. In 'The King's Bastard (or The Triumph Of Evil),' two power-hungry subjects infiltrate the court of a benevolent King and his two unwitting sons to achieve their own nefarious ends. 'A Secret Kept' – a tale of madness – harbours an intruiging backstory, being the real-life case of Jack the Ripper, a suspect of whom Tibet infers was a friend. A short, previously unpublished play – 'La Mazurka Des Revenants' – makes up for in proto-Ortonesque wit and panache what it lacks in innovation.
  The 'Poems, Songs and Sonnets' which make up the second half are a mixed bag. The songs and sonnets are enjoyable, but the initial poems leave much to be desired and very much for the already committed. Metre and rhyme scheme feel clumsy and inconsistent to say the least and you wonder – beside the quality of the other work, in the context of Stenbock’s eccentricities – if this was intended.
  In truth, it is the short tales that represent the beating heart of Stenbock’s philosophy; one of betrayal of the innocent and self-created, by those either with Establishment power or, at least, exploit access to it. Taken as a whole, Of Kings And Things is an important release in the annals of the fin-de-siecle. The richness of the majority of its contents make this a seminal contribution to the movement’s public archive.

I have often wondered quite why writers of the fin-de-siecle felt such an affinity for Catholicism. Considering their committed individualism, beside the religion‘s dictats and strictures, there seemed a paradox. On enquiry, Nina Antonia offered this explanation:
  “Catholicism, which is a cult of beauty as well as God, appealed to those with an aesthetic imagination. Christ as death other faith as far as I’m aware is quite as theatrical as Catholicism, it’s high drama all the way... Brompton Oratory for example is like a stage setting of death but it’s very beautiful and emotive. The Decadents sensed that we were tipping into an age of vulgar materialism – as creative beings they understood that the soul needs spiritual sustenance; or, at least, they did back then.”
  Antonia adds how Lionel Johnson, a little known poet of the era, was rebelling against his ‘rigid family piety’ for one ‘incense laden’ that ‘isn’t all English.’
  Antonia follows-up 2017's impressive debut novel, The Greenwood Faun (Egaeus Press) with this biographical offering from the source. Youthfully handsome and faun-like himself, Johnson adhered more committedly to Catholicism, so distancing himself from more his indulgent contemporaries. Like his drinking partner, fellow poet Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson refuted such labels as decadence in reference to himself, despite a life devoted to art, aestheticism and absinthe. Was this religious hypocricy, since he was hardly averse to the bottle or relationships with other men? More likely, it’s from the impression given of a reticence, a need for privacy, and a need to protect his conviction in the face of others' mere lip service.
  A student first of Winchester College, then of New College, Oxford, he retired to his latter rooms – - quietly fostering his alcoholism - emerging only for solitary walks – to pen the poems, on friends, contemporaries, melancholy and, inevitably, death, for which he'd soon become known. (Although heartening to read that he was as big a failure at Maths as myself, failing to pass his Oxford entry exam three times before being given a shoe-in by the authorities thanks to his, possibly exasperated, family connections).
  Sharing mutual acquaintances of the fin-de-siecle with Stenbock (but never part of this circle) Johnson was something of a loner and, unsurprisingly, reads as rather more conservative. He appeared no miserablist, however, also having an alleged 'extreme humour,' which intimates mood swings symptomatic of depression.
  The poems dominate the middle of Incurable – one-hundred pages worth - flanked by a few essays and 'ephemera,' making this the first major collection of Johnson's work in decades. Highlights include the essay, 'On the Appreciation of Trifles,' showcasing him at his most paradoxically Wildean. Similarly, among the poems, 'Summer Storm' (dedicated to Harold Child), is a direct hymn to Pan. Personal favourites include 'Light! For the Stars Are Pale,' 'The End,' 'Winchester' and 'Gwynedd.' Being non-theist, I'm less enamoured by the staunchly religious entries. Being an intrinsic part of who Johnson was, however, means these need to be objectively embraced.
“Have you ever head a Latin Mass?” adds Antonia, reflectively. “It’s exquisite; like an opera for the soul.”

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Lilith's Legacy – Prose Poems and Short Stories by Renee Vivien, Translated by Brian Stableford / The Double Star And Other Occult Fantasies by Jane De La Vaudere, Translated and with an Introduction by Brian Stableford, Snuggly Books

Like Jane De La Vaudere – and most of the Symbolists – Renee Vivien is a self-reinvention. A Londoner, born Pauline Mary Tarn, her nursery education was in Paris, until the sudden death of her and younger sister Antoinettte’s father when, from the age of 9, they and her mother returned to the English capital. Longstanding friction between herself and her mother forced her solitary return to Paris in her early twenties, where she took up, first with American socialite Natalie Barney, then with the married Helene de Zuylen who became her muse and occasional writing partner.
  Lilith’s Legacy represents all Tarn’s short works, published under her best known pseudonym. (A second volume - Faustina & Other Stories – due from this publisher soon, will feature those penned with de Zuylen under the joint pseudonym, Paule Riversdale).
  The lesbianism as featured is very much out and proud, (you will find few contemporary British authors' getting away with the term 'gaping vagina' in print), despite the fact she was, publicly, rather more cautious and, according to Stableford, even ambivalent. This was surely due to the (to herself unexpected) ostracization from some part of Parisien society in the last few years of her young life. The image of her on the reverse cover, however, displays her individuality with asexual abandon.
Her prose is redolent with a benevolent relationship with death; like many of her contemporaries, a fate to be welcomed rather than feared. There is, however, an admirable lack of self-pity in tone; that it is not, necessarily, the worst of all worlds. In tandem, it relates her obsession with love (amour) and, clearly, how its autobiographical resonance impinged upon her own relationships, fictionalised here. You don't have to know of them in any detail to read in plain sight between its lines.
  According to her biog., burdened by debt and illness, Vivien took an overdose of laudanum in a failed suicide bid during a return visit to London in 1908. She died back in Paris the following year at the age of 32. Her biog. states the cause as "lung congestion" from a bout of pneumonia, complicated by anorexia, alcoholism and drug abuse.
  A word on the gorgeous cover, startling in its matching primary colours of green, yellow and blue. Utilising a painting by pre-Raphaelite artist Evelyn de Morgan, it shows Clytie – the water nymph of Greek mythology - emerging from amongst sunflowers; a subject that directly references Vivien's personal take on sapphic love.

These are precious translations in that they represent the only collection of the author’s short tales available in English. Brian Stableford does a sterling job of extracting and interpreting the little information that exists on Jane De La Vaudere, somehow managing to make the lack of background material non-issues. (The back cover teases here, revealing a Gallic-looking woman of high cheekbones and sallow, forlorn eyes, curled hair pinned in the late-19th century style, wearing a kimono and holding an open parasol).
  Born Jeanne Scrive in 1857, in what Stableford refers to France‘s upper bourgeosie, the premature death of both parents suggests she - and possibly her sister Marie - were sent as orphans to the local convent. Scrive subsequently met and married one Camille Crapez who, having inherited the Chateau de la Vaudere, Sarthe, from his mother, styled himself Crapez de la Vaudere. An understandable aversion to publicly utilising her new husband’s prior surname, she followed in his stead, Anglicizing her forename to Jane.
  Like Renee Vivien, La Vaudere became as much art installation as author. Prior to the occupations of novelist and playwright for which she is most known, La Vaudere had focused upon a career as an artist, exhibiting at the Paris Salon.
  Openly influenced by Poe, these formative tales are also an advancement in reflecting La Vaudere's interests in new theories in psychology and mysticism; specifically sexuality and astral projection, which would go on to inform the fiction of Crowley. Thus, La Vaudere represents part of a near-forgotten tradition that bridges both. The nine presented here are all excellent. The first, 'Emmanuel's Centenary,' opens with a statement of her philosophy throughout: „we are certainly reincarnated...(and) the soul that animates us remains...govern(ing) matter in order to organize the living form of human beings. Everything changes, is counfounded and renewed, in the immutable law of amour that governs the world.“
  The hunger for love beyond the material form is the darkly romantic Poe-inspired theme, even down to a character in 'A Vengeance' named Berenice and the disguised preservation of a corpse. Elevating the tales above derivative cash-in is the quality of their telling as much as La Vaudere's primary readings and patent interest in the aforementioned theories, revealed in plain sight.
'Yvaine' – the longest tale here – harbours the delicious moral ambiguity of the best of the German imagination as a mad genius, down on his luck, relates a claim on the right of visceral revenge against a supposed 'wrong' perpetrated against him. In 'The Dream Of Myses,' an Egyptian priest, guarding the corpse of his late Queen in her tomb, has developed an obsession to reawaken her with the power of his love. When a local girl falls for him, he gradually feels compromised in his devotion, fostering a resentment which proves disastrous.
  The art of the possible, hidden among the short fiction of the past, still holds huge appeal. Recent reissues by the larger publishing houses of the work of Robert Chambers, Blackwood and others proves this. With this in mind, the intriguing 'Double Star' proved rather more accessible a range of adventures than anticipated. A warning to the curious; don‘t pass these by.

PROTA 11 will be here in March.


  1. As a longtime fan of Symbolist/Decadent literature and art, thank you for bringing these publications to light. I might also mention that the collection, "Hashish", by Oscar A. H. Schmitz was recently released by Wakefield Press in an English translation.

    1. Thank you, John. This is a title that's been on the old Amazon Wish List for some time, but, as yet, I've not gotten around to it. Still intend to purchase.

    2. Just reading 'Hashish' now, John, on your recommendation. It isn't disappointing...

  2. For obscure European Symbolist/Decadent writers you can't do better than Jean Moréas.

    Nick Louras has written about him here:

    With translations of his Symbolist Manifesto and correspondence here:

    1. Thank you, Kate. A new name on me, as I'm still discovering. I'll check out those links. Much appreciated.

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