Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Douglas Messerli | "Writer's Nose" (on Anne Gédéon Lafitte, Marqius de Pelleport's The Bohemians)
by Douglas Messerli
Anne Gédéon Lafitte, Marqius de Pelleport The Bohemians, trans. from the French by Vivian Folkenflik, with an Introduction by Robert Darnton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)
In the late 1780s the marquis de Sade sat, before his transfer to the insane asylum at Charenton, imprisoned in the Bastille, writing his memorable “erotic” fiction, Les 120 Journées de Sodome. What we are told in this newly rediscovered fiction, Les Bohémiens, is at the very same moment, another marquis, the Marquis de Pelleport, was sitting in a nearby cell penning his own erotic and sometimes slanderous work, as strongly dedicated to open and libertine sexuality and anti-church sentiment as de Sade’s notorious fiction.
Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in English for the first time since its original 1790 publication, The Bohemians was nearly lost to history. As Robert Darnton, in a substantial introduction writes, “Only a half-dozen copies are available in libraries throughout the world” of the work which “opens a window into the world of garret poets, literary adventurers, down-and-out philosophers, and Grub Street hacks” that might never again have been available.
Pelleport was himself, as the final chapters titled “The Pilgrim’s Narrative” reveals, just such a figure. Like many others of the day, he wrote what might now be compared to the popular tabloid newspapers, gossip of famous people that was so scandalous that, on occasion, the wealthy paid to squelch its publication. Moreover, Pelleport got involved with numerous other scams, including the attempt to transport of wine for which he had not paid, and other petty criminal acts.
In the fiction’s numerous digressions—Darnton suggests among the author’s influences are Don Quioxte and Tristam Shandy—many of these autobiographical elements are hidden, but are unimportant in the flow of the narrative. The author himself mocks his own digressions, often taking the part of the reader to argue for and against the loose narrative structure he has chosen. It is apparent, however, that that structure—despite the editor’s or publisher’s assertion that the work is a “Novel” on the front cover—are perfectly at home in the picaresque genre which the work follows, a structure in which the characters are constantly on the move, awaiting each day for a new adventure.
A great deal of the fun of this writing issues from the authorial voice questioning, justifying, and simply playing with the reader’s expectations. For the reader unfriendly with pre- and post-modern literary techniques, this book will surely appear as a self-conscious parody of fictional tropes. Chapter Seven, for example, joyfully begins:
Have you ever been to Saint-Malo? I know nothing of the
place, to tell the truth, and for once my ignorance proves
my good faith; for you are not someone I would fib to, like
travelers who lie with more imprudence if they their
listeners have never been within a hundred leagues of the
place in question. Ah well! Take me as I am: a man who
has crossed the equator twice.
Similarly, Chapter Thirteen takes on the possible impatience of the readers for all the narrative intrusions:
You grow impatient, dear reader, you seem annoyed to see
the heavy curtain of rational discourse lowered onto the stage.
If I took your word for it, my actors would have no interval
to catch their breathes. I am thrilled to hear the stamping of
your feet and your neighbors’ canes in interruption the
orchestra, while provincials in the audience call: “Begin!
The “put-down” of the reader continues for a few more paragraphs.
Moreover, The Bohemians, like many works of its day, contains no coherent narrative. A band of would-be philosophers wander about the countryside, all arguing their ridiculous philosophical positions with one another when they are not busy stealing livestock and vegetables from nearby peasants or giving themselves up to the sexual pleasures of the women who accompany them.
If the work of gay-artist David Wojnarowicz so severely shocks the sensibilities of some American viewers that the Smithsonian Museum can be made to remove his work, A Fire in My Belly, then the Marquis de Pelleport will thoroughly offend conservative readers in his hilariously over-the-top depiction of an orgy held by the Bohemian troupe accompanied by a group of Capuchin monks and even a donkey. Despite the narrator’s outrageously overblown metaphors of chivalric love with which he describes all the possible combinations of sexual acts, de Pelleport allows us to almost smell the sweat of lust and dust which permeate his tribe of absurd thinkers, leading a convent head later in the book to insist he can literally smell the Capuchin upon them.
As I have mentioned, the last chapters concern Pelleport’s life itself, a sad tale of woe he blames on his career as a writer. His adventures, however, also focus upon a rope bequeathed to him by monk which, with a quick pull, suddenly enlarges his nose, thereby attracting all women to him immediately—presumably since the protuberance hints at the size of his sexual organ. He is, at first, quite delighted, until this writer’s nose leads him further and further into danger before he becomes so utterly impoverished and entrapped that he ends up—well, we already know where—in a cell neighboring the great sexual sado-masochist.
In all, de Pelleport’s tale is a true treat for the ears. The only problem is that, at times, it is so literate, so embedded with literary metaphors, classical stories, and references to obscure texts that the editor and translator found the need to include some 44 pages of small-print footnotes, explaining their meaning to the modern reader. These are highly useful; but the flip back and forth between text and its academic trappings leads to a somewhat arduous and laborious trip through de Pelleport’s sassy satire.
Los Angeles, December 19, 2010
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, XVI, No. (Spring 2011).