December 8, 2008


Léon Bloy was a chronically impoverished French writer of the Fin de Siècle period whose brutal existence saw many of those closest to him go insane or die of disease, starvation, or suicide. His own lot, and that of his family, was one of perpetual privation. He was constantly forced to move from place to place, and his works, though praised, earned little income. In his youth, Bloy fought in the Franco-Prussian War, and was a chum of Balzac and Baudelaire. He served as personal secretary to the decadent author Barbey d'Aurevilly who was, along with fellow decadent J. K. Huysmans, one of his mentors. A spiritual bellwether and social crusader, Bloy blazed a flaming path through the cultural atmosphere of his day, a Diogenes-like presence holding up a mirror to reflect corruption and moral ugliness of every sort, rubbing, as one critic put it, "society's nose in its own ordure." He became famous throughout Europe for his ferocious polemical pamphlets and for the tireless fervor of his essays and articles. He kept extensive journals over a twenty-five year period and an enormous correspondence with friends, fiancées, and fellow literati. He is one of the most important, influential, and fascinating figures of late-nineteenth-century literature, yet he is little known or read today. He died in Bourg-la-Reine in 1917, in the house which once belonged to the poet Charles Péguy.

A prolific, driven author, Bloy’s corpus as a whole gives voice to his idea that history is a dream built on the illusion of time. Bloy is said to have regarded the world as hell, where each individual is a demon charged with torturing the next; certainly he considered the world a sort of prison; one of his recurring quirks is his fetish for referring to his characters as "penitents." Bloy has often been compared with the Old Testament prophets, calling on sinners to repent. Huysmans spoke of his "holy rages" and his "inextinguishable hunger for justice in the face of the perpetual infamy of mankind." An odd admixture of Thomas Carlyle, Karl Kraus, William Blake, and Allen Ginsberg, Bloy was a terrorist with a pen and his fire, Kafka said, "is nurtured by the dung heap of modern times." Elsewhere called a "co-signatory of God’s vengeance," Bloy takes a look at planet earth and pronounces: this property is condemned.

Bloy's obsession with what Remy de Gourmont called "the purification of the sewers" of this world, probably finds better expression nowhere in his canon than in his ensemble of short stories called Histoires désobligeantes (Unsavory Tales). This album of the damned, with its frauds and vanitarians, its rotters and ingrates, its unwitting excommunicants, its swindlers and cheaters, its philosophers and fools, is a masterpiece of black humor and a treasure trove of fatal ironies worthy of Bierce or Poe. Here, we find "The Party Favor," in which a cuckolded husband serves up the heart of his young wife in a cake acting as the centerpiece at a banquet for her lovers; "Mr. Weeply's Religion," in which a miser turns out to be the undeclared benefactor of an entire impauperated neighborhood; the Kafkaesque "Captives of Longjumeau," who can never leave their city; and "The Taint of Lucre," which concerns a unique clairvoyant whose powers are lost when he comes into a fortune. The missing link in the line of descent of the "cruel tale," Histoires désobligeantes has influenced writers all the way from Francois Mauriac and Alfred Hitchcock through Patricia Highsmith and Liliane Giraudon. Curiously, this signal achievement of Bloy's potent art has never been made available to the English-speaking world.

-- "Lions of Literature: Leon Bloy" by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert.

I am honored to publish the first "Lions of Literature" column on A Journey Round My Skull. "Lions of Literature," which Alter-Gilbert envisions as a series (with future subjects such as Swinburne, Colette, Papini, and Quiroga), deserves a permanent spot in a journal or paper.


Coming next:

--Leon Bloy: Pilgrim of the Absolute, A Chronology by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert.
--A-G.'s translation of "The Infusion," an "unsavory tale" by Leon Bloy.

--Gilbert Alter-Gilbert Interview 1
--Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, Latin-American stamp collection

Leon Bloy, Mr. Intensity


  1. Thank you so much, Will. Much I didn't know there (including what he looked like). I can't wait for 'The Infusion'. That collection must be translated!


  2. Is that your prose about Bloy or part of G A-G's introduction? If it's yours, I hope you'll offer such helpful descriptions of the books you post on a regular basis.

  3. Calhoun (hey Nate) -- I just added another attribution to make it more clear: this is all Gilbert.

    You know better than anybody that if I had to write descriptions, I would never have started a blog! But you have to admit, even without ever stating an opinion or writing personal descriptions, I do deliver the goods! (Having said that, sorry you didn't like those last two Cortazar.)