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Disagreeable Tales by Léon Bloy
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Disagreeable Tales (1894)

by Léon Bloy

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“I am the Parlor of Tarantulas!” he cried in a voice destined for the straightjacket, making the little factory women hasten their steps on the street.” Thus begins one of the short intense tales in this collection authored by French Decadent Léon Bloy (1846-1917). Bloy despised the materialist, mechanized Americanization of European society and culture and yearned to connect with the spiritual dimensions of life, and thus, similar to fellow French Decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans, turned to Catholicism. Subsequently, although these tales are soaked in the juice of perversion, cruelty or depravity, a good number have decidedly religious overtones. However, the ones I particularly enjoy have nothing of religion. For the purpose of this review and to share a taste of Bloy’s finely tuned, highly polished prose, I will include several direct quotes in capsulizing two of my favorites:

The Parlor of Tarantulas
The narrator recalls as a young man in his twenties meeting a larger than life poet who wore his mane of shaggy, white hair like a lion. “His small face of smashed bricks staring out from under the snowflakes boiled more and baked redder each time one looked at him. . . . a poetaster, altogether incapable of resigning himself to any attention, however distinguished in kind, that did not grant him first place, or, better yet, exclusive consideration.” A reader has the impression Bloy is describing a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the late 19th century myth of the self-styled literary genius as madman.

One evening the narrator accepts an invitation to visit this white-haired, flaming-eyed lion. Most unwise since he is forced to listen to every word of the muse-inspired poet’s five act play. We read, “At first the exercise did not displease me. The reader had a bizarre, gastralgic voice, which rose effortlessly from profound basses up to the sharpest, childlike tones. He spoke like this and truly played his drama, performing gestures that included falling to his knees in prayer when events so required. The curious spectacle amused me for an hour – that is, for as long as the first act. The unconscionable monster went so far as to take whole scenes from the top when he feared I might not have felt all their beauty; no word of admiring protest could restrain him. . . . I had to swallow it whole, and it took to midnight.”

And after this five hour ordeal the narrator makes a move for the door. But no, there’s more, much more -- the leonine artiste insists his young visitor listen to every word of his sonnets, all one thousand five hundred of them! So, the visitor takes a seat once again, suppressing a groan of despair. And when the young narrator makes the mistake of falling asleep, he is woken by a cowbell. Then, to make sure there isn’t a repeat violation, the poet opens a drawer, pulls out a revolver, loads it carefully and places it on the table. The narrator tells us the torture lasted until sunrise. The tale ends with two more unexpected twists true to the spirit of French Decadence.

The Old Man of the House
With signature Decadent spleen and humorous cynicism, Bloy begins his tale: “Ah! How Madame Alexandre could pride herself on her virtue! Just think! For three years she had tolerated him, that old swindler – that old string of stewed beef disgracing her house. You can just imagine that if he hadn’t been her father, she’d have long since slapped a return ticket on him: off to rot in the public infirmary!”

Bloy’s language has the acerbic bite of Friedrich Nietzsche or Maxim Gorky; matter of fact, with his beetling brow and pronounced moustache, Bloy even looks a bit like Nietzsche and Gorky. And, that’s acerbic bite, as in hearing of dad’s fatherly touch when Madame Alexandre was just a mere girl: “Readied for field exercise from a tender age, at thirteen she assumed the distinguished position of a virginal oblate at the house of a Genevan millionaire esteemed for his virtue; this man called her his “angel of light” and perfected her ruination. Two years were all the debutante needed to finish off the Calvinist.”

And then when the old man is forced to live with his daughter to stay alive (she runs a house of prostitution), Bloy observes caustically, “Unaccustomed to commerce and no longer commanding his old tricks, he resembled an old fly without the vigor to make its way to a pile of excrement – a creature in which even the spiders took no interest.” And then to underscore the scorn and cruelty with which Madame treated her old father, Bloy pens; “He was given a scarlet leotard with decorative braids and a kind of Macedonian cap which made him look like a Hungarian or a Pole facing adversity. Then, he received the title of count – Count Boutonski! – and he passed for a wreck decorated with glory, a ruin of the latest insurrection.” Madame’s ruthlessness and brutality continues right up to the breaking point. No wonder Franz Kafka wrote of Léon Bloy, “His fire is nurtured by the dung-heap of modern times.”

(Thanks to Goodreads friend MJ Nicholls for bringing this fine collection to my attention.) ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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