In his 2002 essay ‘Who’s a Dandy?’, the journalist and MP George Walden described the final days of Beau Brummell. Living in French exile after a falling-out with his patron, the oafish Prince Regent, Brummell had spent time in a debtor’s prison, and cut an increasingly shabby figure. By the 1830s, he was a pathetic sight, in the true sense: “an imperious Englishman dressed in tattered clothes… held upright by little more, it seemed, than stiff-necked pride”. To survive, he was reliant on the goodwill (and credit) extended to him by local shopkeepers; each night, he held grand balls in his hotel room, his imaginary guests announced by a sympathetic porter.
This feeling of decaying grandeur seeps through Jean Lorrain’s extraordinary novella Monsieur de Bougrelon. Originally published in 1897, this new edition from Spurl is the first time that Lorrain’s decadent masterpiece has been made available in English translation. The plot can be summed up swiftly. Two French tourists sit in an Amsterdam dive bar, the type sung about by Jacques Brel and Scott Walker; we may imagine them as the hipsters of their day, warmly congratulating themselves on their sophistication. After a couple of days in the Dutch capital, they already fancy themselves jaded – the Nes, for example, ‘where good, shapely, strapping men, very blond and very pink, innocently approach you from dive bar entrances, their plump bodies bulging out of their long porters’ cloaks and their faces radiant’ has ‘lost its mystery for us; we had already visited it too many times’. Their smugness is interrupted by the appearance of a shabby figure in the doorway, the titular Monsieur de Bougrelon, a man who has truly lived what they have only dabbled in.
This is one of the great entrances, up there with Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man. Bougrelon appears ‘swaggering, with his waist cinched in a big piped riding coat, his shoulders broad and his chest thin, and an enormous top hat tilted to one side, not to mention the terrifying cudgel he held in his hand’. His demeanour is that ‘of a prison guard, of an old leading man’. Like Brummell, he is a shabby wreck of a man, who still clings to the vestiges of past glories. A close inspection reveals ‘his pants, attached by boot straps, twisted screw-like into his heeled boots, which were thin and polished, though ripped open at the toe’. His features, beneath the powder, reveal the cost of a decadent life: ‘bloodshot eyes blackened with charcoal… his mouth toothless beneath the double-comma of his waxed moustache’.
Bougrelon proceeds to take the men under his tattered wing, acting as the Virgil to their Dante as they descend into the inferno of Amsterdam:
‘I am taking you to the brothel, Messieurs… but the brothel of memories. There you will submit, and with the sharpest desire, to women you will not even see, to a deceptive obsession… I want to get you drunk on the sorrowful opium of what could have been and what is no more’
The travellers are forced to confront the nature of their trip – the urge to re-enact, to experience safe synthetic replications of past transgressions – to recognise the true cost of prolonged immersion in this lifestyle and to decide whether they will commit themselves or remain as dilettantes. Over the coming days, Bougrelon guides the tourists to bars, galleries and fishmarkets, expounding his decadent philosophy, and leaving his companions to pick up the bills.
Bougrelon is drawn to spectral, artificial landscapes: an exhibition of bygone fashions he refers to as ‘the boudoir of dreams’, a sailors’ tavern recreated in an inland basement. Everything he sees is filled with memories of past lovers.
He creates relics and fetishes compulsively, draping himself in symbolically important items, including a ‘fantastic muff’ made from the pelt of a pet dog. It is the power Bougrelon imbues these items with which seemingly gives him the strength to carry on; like Brummel, it appears that his persona, forged in a crucible of self-determination and projected forward with every atom of his being, is carrying on the struggle where his weak flesh had long since given up the ghost.
There are times when Lorrain’s allegorical depictions of ‘imaginary pleasures’ will be problematic for the modern reader, in particular a section detailing a Lady who keeps a ‘colossal Ethiopian’ as a servant, bathing before him and enjoying the titillating danger of potential rape – eventually the potential is realised, and she is killed. The salacious tone in which this anecdote is recounted, and the casually racist portrayal of the servant’s brutish lust, are unsettling to say the least.
His view that decadence is inextricably linked with death holds true, however. Dandyism is portrayed here as an obsession which inevitably leads to self-destruction. In his collection Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson portrays a series of characters who have all become defined by one characteristic peculiar to them: he terms these characters ‘grotesques’. Bougrelon is a grotesque by this definition: his identification with ruins has turned him into one. He is almost as illusory as the pleasures he seeks, materialising and vanishing like a ghost.
Jean Lorrain himself was no stranger to ruin and ignominy; in fact, he revelled in it, declaring ‘what helps me live is knowing that so many people find me odious’. Dubbed ‘Sodom’s ambassador to Paris’ by biographer Phillipe Julian, he was, in the words of Philip Winn, ‘an extravagant dandy, avowed ether addict, known homosexual and hopeless gossip’ (it is said that when his grave was exhumed in 1986, his body still smelled of ether). Like a hideous inversion of Des Esseintes, he decorated his Paris flat ‘with such lack of restraint… that it promptly gave him nightmares and he had to move out’.
It is rumoured that much of Bougrelon’s character was inspired by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, the novelist and critic who initially codified the rules of dandyism in his 1844 essay ‘Dandyism and Beau Brummell’ (later translated into English by our acquaintance George Walden, alongside his own work on the subject). d’Aurevilly called dandyism a ‘way of being’, but also acknowledged its impermanence, referring to it as ‘a sunset’. This informs the intangible, ethereal nature of Bougrelon’s appearances, and the overall decadent tone of Lorrain’s work.
Monsieur de Bougrelon is a wonderfully evocative, hallucinatory narrative. Written at the height of the fin de siècle to fin all siècles, it not only contains the knowledge of its own downfall, but embraces it. Bougrelon allows the reader, via their proxy, the tourists, a glimpse of a lifestyle which is now tantalisingly out of reach, giving the lie to our self-congratulatory ideas of style and excess, whilst never shying away from the diabolic price of entry. This ‘century of money and gross appetites’ which Lorrain sees approaching on the horizon is no place for the inefficient, unproductive culture embodied by Bougrelon, yet he remains a spectre haunting the European consciousness. Ultimately the reader is forced to question which phantasm is more potent: the ghostly dandy, grandiloquent in his rags, or the approximation of sophistication offered by the culture industry for the enjoyment of tourists.
Jean Lorrain born Paul Alexandre Martin Duval, was a novelist, critic, and dramatist, and one of the most conspicuously Decadent figures of fin-de-siècle France. Masks and disguises are recurring themes in his work, as is Parisian low life, satanism, ether, homosexuality, and the aristocracy. In 1897, he wrote Monsieur de Bougrelon, and shortly after, Lorrain left Paris to live in Nice. His stay at the Riviera began an intense period of creativity. In 1901, he wrote his best-known work, Monsieur de Phocas, which he followed a year later with his fantastical aristocrat saga, Le Vice errant. His health declined due to syphilis and his abuse of drugs, and he died on June 30, 1906, of peritonitis, at the age of fifty-one. It was rumored that when Lorrain’s grave was opened in 1986, the body of “Sodom’s ambassador to Paris,” as biographer Philippe Jullian called him, still smelled of ether.
Eva Richter is a writer and translator based in California. http://cargocollective.com/EvaRichter/About-Eva-Richter
In his house at R’lyeh, Thom Cuell waits dreaming.
Monsieur de Bougrelon is published by Spurl Editions. Author bio courtesy of the same.