December 11, 2008
December 9, 2008
An "Unsavory Tale" by Léon Bloy
Translated from the French by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert
(first English translation)
Jacques felt downright slimy. It was odious to stay there, in the dark, like some sacrilegious spy, while this woman, a perfect stranger to him, made her confession.
But then, he had failed to leave right away, as soon as the priest in his surplice had come in with her, or, at least, to make some noise which would have announced the presence of an intruder. Now it was too late and, no matter what he did, the wretched indiscretion could only worsen.
Idle, searching, like a louse, for a fresh lodging-site, at the end of a long, dog day, he had had a whimsical notion, not unlike so many other whimsical notions, of entering the old church and of sitting in the cool, dark corner behind the confessional, so as to doze, while watching the great rose window as it gradually dimmed.
After a few minutes, without knowing how or why, he found himself playing witness to a stark and startling confession.
It's true that the words were indistinct; they were, in fact, spoken in a whisper; but the colloquy, towards the end, grew markedly excited.
A few syllables, here and there, detached themselves and emerged ungarbled from the opaque flood of penitential chatter, though the young man who, through some miraculous irony, was the very contrary of an unscrupulous cad, dreaded, in all earnestness, to eavesdrop on some profession of guilt he would never have dreamed himself destined to overhear. Suddenly his worst apprehensions were realized. A violent maelstrom surged all around him. Towering waves roared and rumbled as they washed over him, as if rolling off the back of some submarine monster which had suddenly risen from the depths and broken the surface of a placid sea, and the listener, consumed with terror, heard these words proffered breathlessly:
"I tell you, Father, that I put some poison in his tea!"
Then, nothing. The woman, whose face wasn't visible, rose from the prayer stool, and silently slipped into the thicket of shadows. As for the man, he who'd been unwillingly cast in the role of priest, he kept as still as a corpse and several slow minutes elapsed before he opened the door and left, in his turn, taking the heavy steps of a man who has been thoroughly stunned.
It wasn't until he heard the persistent clinking of the beadle's keys, and the injunction to adjourn resounding through the chapel, that Jacques finally bestirred himself, so dumbfounded was he by those earlier whispered words still echoing inside him like Pandemonians in chorus.
He had recognized, unequivocally, the voice of his mother!
Oh, it was impossible to be mistaken! He had likewise recognized her silhouette, when she rose to her full height a few feet away.
Now what? The world was exploding in front of his eyes. Life had become some sort of twisted trick!
He lived alone with this mother, who had almost no visitors, and who never went out unless it was to do her errands. He venerated her with all his heart, as a peerless example of propriety and goodness.
As far back as he could remember, there had never been anything devious about her conduct or demeanor; not a bump on life's road, not a single misstep. It had been a beautiful shining path, winding out of sight, beneath a cloudless sky. And this, in spite of the fact that the poor woman's earthly existence had been full of forlornity and freighted with woe.
Since the death of her husband who was killed at Champigny and whom the young man barely remembered, she had never stopped mourning, and devoted herself exclusively to the education of her son, who never left her side for so much as a day. She shrank from the idea of sending him to school and, in dread of who knows what sorts of dubious persons he might come in contact, she took the burden of his instruction entirely upon herself, until his soul had been built with bits of hers. He drew from this regimen a restless disposition and uniquely vibrant nerves, which engendered in him a sensitivity to the most ridiculous aches and pains -- but also, perhaps, to very real dangers.
When he reached adolescence, the expected escapades and predictable pranks from which he was no more immune than anyone else his age, made her still sadder, but without altering her inherent tenderness. There were no reproaches or muted scenes. She accepted, like so many others before her, what was inevitable.
In the end, everyone spoke of her with respect, and it had been he, alone, of all the world, her cherished son, who had been forced today to find fault with her and to hold her in contempt -- and he did so on bended knee, with tears in his eyes, the way the angels would fault God if He didn't keep his promises!
Truly, he must be going mad! He wanted to hurl himself in the street. His mother! A poisoner! It made no sense, it was absurd a thousand times over, it was absolutely impossible, and yet, there could be no doubt. Hadn't she come forward to declare herself? It was tearing him apart.
But a poisoner of whom? Good God! No one of his acquaintance had been poisoned to death. It couldn't have been his father, who had been sprayed in the stomach by a machine gun. Neither could it have been himself whom she had tried to kill. He had never been sick, had never needed any medicinal infusions, and knew he was adored. The first time he came home late one evening, and the reason wasn't certain, she had been sick herself with worry.
Could she have been referring to an event that took place before he was born? His father had married her for her beauty, when she was barely twenty years old. Could this marriage have been preceded by some sort of gambit implicated in a crime?
Not likely. He knew the family's history and it was an open book; it had been told to him a hundred times and the testimony was definite. Whence, then, this terrible avowal? And why, oh why, did he, of all people, have to have been the one to hear it?
Surfeited with horror and despair, he straggled home.
No sooner had he come through the door, than his mother ran to embrace him:
"How late you're getting in, dear boy! And how pale you are! Are you coming down with something?"
"No," he replied, "I'm not ill, but this hot weather wears me out, and I don't feel much like eating. And you, Mother, are you feeling out of sorts? You stepped out, no doubt, for a little fresh air? I thought I saw you in the distance, along the embankment."
"I did go out, in fact, but you didn't see me on the embankment. I went to make confession -- something, I believe, you haven't done for a long time, sad to say."
Jacques was astonished not to be keeling over, stricken with apoplexy, as always happened at such moments in the novels he read.
It was true, then: she had been to make her confession! He hadn't been sleeping in the church, and this abominable catastrophe wasn't a nightmare as, a minute ago, he had begun to think.
He didn't keel over, but he grew very pale, and his mother looked alarmed.
"What's the matter with you, dear?" she wondered. "You're suffering, you're hiding something from your mother. You must have more confidence in the person who loves no one but you and has no one but you . . . How you're staring at me! My precious boy . . . What's the matter with you? . . . You're frightening me!"
She clasped him lovingly in her arms.
"Listen to me, my son. I am not a snoopy woman, as you know, and I don't want to judge you. You don't have to tell me anything, if you don't want to, but you must take care of yourself. You should get in bed right away. In a while, I'll fix you a fine repast, something very light, which I will bring to you myself, alright? And if you have a fever tonight, I'll make you a nice INFUSION...
Jacques, at this point, was rolling on the floor.
"At last," she sighed, somewhat wearily, while extending her hand towards a bell.
Jacques had had an aneurism and his mother had had a lover who didn't want to be a stepfather.
This simple drama was enacted three years ago, in the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The house where it was staged is scheduled for demolition.
Léon Bloy, collector of detestable characters, hospitably reserves, in his vast museum, a special place of honor for the French bourgeoisie. He inks his dark portraits with lugubrious tints which call to mind the nightmares of Quevedo and of Goya. But he was not only a terrorist of the pen; he was also capable, as the present book bears out, of crafting, in one of the most curious of these tales, one that prefigures Kafka; the argument could even be made that it was written by the latter, except that the ferocious manner of its execution couldn't belong to anyone but Bloy. Our times have given birth to the expression "black humor," the implicit attitude of which no one, up to the present day, has put into practice with greater efficacy and verbal richness than Léon Bloy." (trans. A-G)
Titles of the Unsavory Tales in Borges' edition, which includes 12 of the original stories (titles trans. A-G):
- The Infusion
- Mr. Weeply's Religion
- The Captives of Longjumeau
- A Mediocre Idea
- A Dentist's Terrible Punishment
- Whatever you like!
- The Final Blow
- A Martyr
- The Taint of Lucre
- Nobody's Perfect
- Cain's Luckiest Strike
Covers for various editions of Histoires Désobligeantes
(Unsavory Tales; never published in English)
The French artist Philippe Lamarre has illustrated a number of the Unsavory Tales on Le Croquis de Cote. These are copyright Philippe Lamarre.
I particularly love this Bloy-like character stomping face:
To settle the matter once and for all, I called on the American Mustache Institute to identify Bloy's mustache style. It is a "walrus" (as you might have expected), however, "it's girth almost propels it into a hybrid walrus-horseshoe."
-- Gilbert Alter-Gilbert interview 1
-- "Lions of Literature: Léon Bloy" by Alter-Gilbert
--"Musings and Thunderings" of Léon Bloy
-- "The Pilgrim of the Absolute" by Alter-Gilbert
This place stinks of God!
How could we know what God wants to do with us when we cannot even know what we are nor who we are?
There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is. No one knows what he has come into this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, his ideas, or what his real name is, his enduring Name in the register of Light…History is an immense liturgical text where iotas and dots are worth no less than the entire verse or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable, and profoundly hidden.
Love does not make you weak, because it is the source of all strength, but it makes you see the nothingness of the illusory strength on which you depended before you knew it.
The Eiffel Tower is a truly tragic street lamp.
My existence is a sad country where it is always raining....
My only recourse is the expedient of placing at the service of truth what has been given me by the Father of Lies.
We suffer from that which does not exist. That which is does not cause suffering.
There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; suffering has to enter in for them to come to be.
Suffering passes, but the fact of having suffered never passes.
Consider that Jesus suffered in His heart with all the knowledge of a God, and that in His heart there was every human heart and every form of suffering from Adam until the consummation of the world. Ah yes, to suffer for others can be a great joy if one has a generous soul, but to suffer in others is to really suffer!
Freedom is the respect God has for us.
The worst evil is not the crime committed, but the failure to do the good one might have done.
Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.
I die of the need of justice.
I pray like a robber asking alms at the door of a farmhouse to which he is ready to set fire.
I am simply a poor man who seeks his God, sobbing and calling Him along all roads.
From Gilbert Alter-Gilbert:
One of the most intriguing, as well as overlooked, cultural figures of Belle Epoque France, Léon Bloy was a thwarted mystic, raging social reformer, and literary anarchist whose personal hardships were sublimated in dozens of novels, biographical studies, short stories, and poems, and in hundreds of articles, essays, and rants often circulated on the streets of Paris as scathing tracts and pamphlets. As a writer he was formed by many hatreds and humiliations. He spent his life in squalid poverty, waiting for a beatific vision which God denied him. His own suffering, and that of those around him, spawned in him a Hugoesque compassion for the downtrodden and the poor, and he became a savage critic of the prevailing order, the warts on whose epidermis he pointed out with a maniacal single-mindedness and a passionate intensity. Describing himself as a "grandiloquent wretch," Bloy was an outlandish medieval anachronism in the era of the newly erected Eiffel Tower, and managed to offend nearly everyone who was anyone in the Paris of his day. Behind his vilifications and vituperations, however, was not only an authentic genius fueled, like Juvenal's, like Swift's, by righteous indignation, but a genuine martyr, who wept in sympathy for the plight of "fallen humanity," and who felt himself the haunted conscience of all mankind. A great moral ironist in an age of negations, Bloy "called down the wrath of God upon the paltry convictions and the precarious equilibrium of a complacent society which put its trust in science and bourgeois virtues, while seeking the kind of tranquility that comes from silencing one's soul and forgetting God."
"Léon Bloy is a cathedral gargoyle who pours the waters of heaven down on the good and on the wicked." -- French novelist Barbey d'Aurevilly
"Léon Bloy possesses a fire that brings to mind the ardour of the prophets -- an even greater ardour, I should say. Of course that is easily explained: his fire is nurtured by the dung-heap of modern times." -- Kafka, from a letter to a friend (quoted in Manguel's Black Water)
Léon Bloy wrote "the only work of [his] day in which there are evident marks of genius, if by genius one means certain flashes 'in depth.' " -- Belgian Nobel-winner Maurice Maeterlinck
Bloy was "an abusive, ungrateful parasite, a past master of vituperation. . . ." -- late Irish critic Ernest Boyd
A-G. notes that Bloy was a singular influence for Flannery O'Connor!
From wikipedia: "In his novel The Harp and the Shadow, Alejo Carpentier excoriates Bloy as a raving, Columbus-defending lunatic during Vatican deliberations over the explorer's canonization." [Conversely, Huysmans praises Bloy's book about Columbus, The Man Who Revealed the Globe, in a letter to the author in 1884: ". . . what a lofty and sad book . . . You have created a beautiful, an absolutely beautiful book. . . . The Devil who explodes in those unforgettable passages is splendidly horrifying and, I would add, disconcertingly and terrifyingly supernatural."
Bloy is quoted at the beginning of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, and Greene wrote in 1939:
We read [Bloy] with pleasure to just the extent that we share the hatred of life which prevented him from being a novelist or a mystic of the first order (he might have taken as his motto Gauguin's great phrase -- "Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge") and because of a certain indestructible honesty and self-knowledge which in the long run always enables him to turn his fury on himself.
Jacques Maritain wrote in December, 1949:
The French writer Léon Bloy, who called himself the Pilgrim of the Absolute, and who was a dear friend of mine, took pleasure in telling the following story: Once, in his youth, he was sitting at the table of a café with another poet, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. A passer-by, who was a practical man, accosted the poet: "Hello, my dear fellow," he said to him with a patronizing smile, "always a poet, a beauty lover, always climbing in the clouds?" "And you," answered Villiers with a malicious smile, "you, my dear fellow, always going your way downwards?"
Léon Bloy liked also to comment on the sententious sayings used in the common language. Many people who are good heathens but want to be assisted by religion on their deathbed, are apt to say: "Je ne veux pas mourir comme un chien; I don't want to die like a dog." Léon Bloy commented: "I have never understood why a man who lives like a pig does not want to die like a dog."
From Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence:
..."Videmus nunc per specul[um] . . ." The Latin is the truncated beginning of I Corinthians, 13:12: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face." Or "For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I have been known." In a fine example of literary resonance, of kindred spirits unknowingly echoing each other, another lover of learning, Jorge Luis Borges, devoted a brief essay to the same line from St. Paul. In "The Mirrors of Enigma," writing of Léon Bloy, Borges concludes:
"It is doubtful that the world has a meaning; it is even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning, the unbeliever will observe. I understand that the hieroglyphic world postulated by Léon Bloy is the one which best befits the dignity of the theologian's intellectual God. No man knows who he is, affirmed Léon Bloy. No one could illustrate that intimate ignorance better than he. He believed himself a rigorous Catholic and he was a continuer of the Cabalists, a secret brother of Swedenborg and Blake: heresiarchs."
Another Borges quote (which catapults Henry James back to the top of my reading list):
I have visited some literatures of the East and West; I have compiled an encyclopedic anthology of fantastic literature; I have translated Kafka, Melville, and Bloy; I know of no stranger work than that of Henry James. [p. 248 of Selected Non-fictions]One more by Borges, from "Kafka and His Precursors":
My notes also include two short stories. One is from Histoires désobligeantes by Léon Bloy, and refers to the case of some people who amass globes, atlases, train schedules, and trunks, and who die without ever having left the town where they were born.Remy de Gourmont in The Book of Masks :
...Bloy is one of the greatest creators of images who ever walked the earth; these images hold his work together, the way a rock holds eroding earth together; these images give his thought the sharp silhouette of a mountain range. To be a very great writer, Bloy lacks only two ideas, because he already has one -- the theological idea.
Bloy's genius is neither religious, nor philosophical, nor human, nor mystical; his genius is theological and Rabelaisian. His work seems to have been written by Saint Thomas Aquinas in collaboration with Gargantua. His books are scholastic and gigantic, eucharistic and scatological, idyllic and blasphemous. No Christian can accept them, but no atheist can take comfort in them.
In "Léon Bloy and Jacques Maritain," Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis quotes a passage which "distills for us the essence of Léon Bloy" Per Bloy:
At bottom, what should you do to avoid being an idiot or a swine? Merely this: you should do something great, you should lay aside all the foolishness of a more of less long existence, you should become resigned to the fact that you will seem ridiculous to a race of janitors and bureaucrats if you are to enter the service of Splendor. Then you will know what it means to be the friend of God. The Friend of God! I am on the verge of tears when I think of it. No longer do you know on what block to lay your head, no longer do you know where you are, where you should go. You would like to tear out your heart, so hotly does it burn, and you cannot look upon a creature without trembling with love. You would like to drag yourself on your knees from church to church, with rotten fish strung from your neck, as said the sublime Angela de Foligno. And when you leave these churches after speaking to God as a lover speaks to his beloved, you appear like those poorly designed and poorly painted figures on the Way of the Cross, who walk and gesticulate full of pity, against a background of gold. All the thoughts that had been pent up unknown within you, in the caverns of your heart, run out in tumult suddenly like virgins who are mutilated, blind, starving, nude, and sobbing. Ah! Surely at such moments the most horrendous of all martyrdoms would be embraced , and with what rapture.
Andrew Mangravite, from The Book of Masks:
Characterized by Philippe Jullian as "the Catholic polemicist who shuddered in horror while reading Lautréamont" and yet created tales that are "a literary counterpart to Antoine Wiertz's pictures."From The Goncourt Journals (March 17, 1885):
Léon Bloy was one of those writers who vividly embodied the paradoxical nature of "Decadence." He remained a devout, rather stiff-necked, Roman Catholic even when the content of his stories verged on the Luciferian: an illustration of Mario Praz's contention that "Sadism and Catholicism, in French Decadent literature, become the two poles between which the souls of neurotic and sensual writers oscillate."
Pelagie brought me a letter today which had been given her by a gentleman who was waiting downstairs for my reply. This letter was signed by Léon Bloy, the star writer of the Chat noir, who, less than six months ago, concluded an article on my brother and myself with these words: 'the survivor of the two blackguards.' In his letter he told me that seeing Henriette Marechal had brought about a change in his attitude to me, which had hitherto been extremely hostile, and he ended up by asking me, after a series of dramatic statements, for fifty francs, 'which he would pay back, if he could, or which he would not pay back.' Upon my word, I feel perfectly capable of giving these fifty francs to a literary enemy, however virulent he may be. But if I gave them to an insulter of that ilk, who showed no mercy to my dead brother, I would consider myself a coward -- and it seems to me that you must have tremendous cheek to come in person to ask for money from a man with every reason to slap you in the face.
R. E. Hager, from The Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature:
In his revolt against the turpitude and injustice of the world, Bloy momentarily became an active atheist and socialist, but under the influence of Barbey d'Aurevilly, his friend and literary mentor, he returned to his faith. The vehemence, bitterness, and scorn so often condemned in his work are, in fact, the outcry of a man of sorrow overwhelmed by the spectacle of a society indifferent to its spiritual destiny.... By nature a poet, totally oriented toward absolute values and intolerant of mediocrity, he sought through verbal violence to awaken his contemporaries to the reality of the supernatural combat in which their lives were involved. In his intemperate attacks on his fellow creatures, Bloy so antagonized both Catholics and non-Catholics that his work suffered from a conspiracy of silence. Yet many of his pages, for sheer power of language and poetic beauty, will always rank among the finest in French literature. Today, he has his admirers and might be considered to be the object of a cult.
-- Gilbert Alter-Gilbert interview 1
-- "Lions of Literature: Léon Bloy" by Alter-Gilbert
--"Leon Bloy: Pilgrim of the Absolute" by Alter-Gilbert
-- "The Infusion," a story by Bloy, trans. Alter-Gilbert (coming tomorrow)
Hilarious illustration captions in this series courtesy A-G.!
Mexican comic book biography of Léon Bloy intended for the moral education of youth by the Catholic Church; part of the Exemplary Lives instructional series, circa 1971. From the collection of Gilbert Alter-Gilbert.
Suffering "hunger and thirst, nakedness and oppression," never having a fixed abode, this was the fate which Bloy both lived and mulled over and over in his work. Bloy’s desperate effort to reach God, multiplied by the signs of His absence, manifested itself in a constant crisis of frustrated transcendance and its imperious necessity. The writer retraced the torments of an unbearable state of waiting, which he pushed to the point of blasphemy. So that, in his discourse, he substituted verbal violence, steeped in a rhetoric of excess, for demonstrable logic or apologetics; this aporia of exegetical speculations multiplied to infinity the spiritual tensions and ironic outcomes of his fictional stand-ins; Bloy’s subversive method mixed laughter with an inspiration both biblical and farcical; he neutralized contraries: the sublime and the grotesque, the scatological and the eschatological, Lucifer and paraclete. -- Pierre Glaudes
1846 Born Léon Henri Marie Bloy, the second of six rebellious sons of Voltairean freethinker and stern disciplinarian Jean Baptiste Bloy and his wife Anne-Marie Carreau, pious Spanish-Catholic daughter of a Napoleonic soldier.
1856 Young Léon is routinely whipped by his punitive father, whom he accuses of hypocrisy and of maintaining his household as if it were a prison; a moody and melancholy child, Léon often spends hours in his darkened room with his head in his hands, crying uncontrollably for no apparent reason.
1858 Each morning, Léon and his siblings are awakened by a large, ceiling-mounted bell rung by their father; they eat in silence, then are given their daily parental orders; Léon fantasizes about freedom.
1862 A truant and a nullity in the classroom, thoroughly indifferent student Léon is kicked out of school for "academic intransigence"; his exasperated father, thinking him an ineducable lunkhead and a layabout, finds a job for him at a train station where he daydreams and continually plots escape.
from Visages des contemporains (1913)
1863 Passes through what he professes is a period of "pride, sensuality, laziness, and envy" and cultivates an intense hatred for the Catholic Church and its teachings.
1867 Makes his way to Paris where he is befriended by celebrated author Barbey d'Aurevilly, popularly known as the Constable of Letters, and is taken under the aging dandy's wing in what Bloy terms a period of avid "apprenticeship" during which his mentor relentlessly "gnawed away at the pig’s head" of his puberty; a willing pupil under the tutelage of d'Aurevilly, he undergoes a dramatic religious conversion, in the process of which he becomes an insufferable fanatic.
1868 A formative time during which he makes the acquaintance of Ernest Hello and corresponds with Blanc de Saint-Bonnet; looking back later, he describes himself at this period as a "communard before the Commune, a socialist, a revolutionary, and a demoniac."
1870 Enlists in the army, along with his five brothers, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, during which he serves as a sniper.
1871 Returns to Paris; forsakes work as an office clerk for the life of a literary bohemian; frequents salons and coffee houses where he consorts with Coppée, Verlaine, Rolland, Mendès, Bouchee, Richepin, and Bourget.
1872 Bloy assumes the role of valiant crusader against injustice and hypocrisy; he adopts a unique stance as an anti-clerical Christian, and finds himself in the grip of a ceaseless inner struggle; something in him hatches out in the form of a fledgling writer and pamphleteer.
1873 Becomes editor of The Universe, a journal in which he manages to rankle almost everyone he knows by acting like "an inquisitor quick to denounce the chimeras of egalitarianism and progress and the spiritual shipwreck of society," even spoiling fecund friendships because of his severe, uncompromising criticisms; he declares that "every man, if he is to be honest, must be a persecutor – a persecutor of himself, of the human race, of God…"; he is ostracized, becomes more and more isolated and seriously considers joining a monastery.
1876 Carries on a "tumultuous and tragic" love affair with Anne-Marie Roule, a sometime prostitute who becomes his mistress – in a sort of supernatural frenzy, which has been described as an "out-of-control mystic adventure rich in manifestations and secret communications with the Other Side," they share a number of profound occult experiences, as a result of which she becomes insane and is permanently committed to an asylum.
somewhere between smoldering, simmering, scorching, and scalding
1877 Death of both parents; Bloy's struggles with doubt and faith intensify; he wrestles with self-recrimination; inconsolable over the wretched fate of his mistress, he delivers himself for an interval to a Trappist monastery; next he seeks the counsel of a mysterious Carthusian who advises him to resume his role as a combative author.
1878 Returns to his proper calling, and takes up the pen with a vengeance; he pitilessly scourges Gambetta, Zola, Renan, and Victor Hugo and lambasts the traditional Catholic bourgeoisie with disconcerting and inopportune wholesale attacks; he is despised for his nasty humor and beastly fervor and is spurned by the Academy and rejected by literary officialdom; he watches with wistful envy as his old confederates, one by one, are heaped with accolades, tributes and high honors.
1885 Has attained widespread notoriety as an explosive personality and a verbal catapultist always at the ready to sling loads of righteous ire against the "Great Vermin" of the press and public he perceives as arrayed against him in a conspiracy of silence; he resolves to write for "no one but God."
1889 Death of friends and colleagues Barbey d'Aurevilly and Villiers de L'Isle-Adam; Bloy tones down his fiery outbursts, and the violent coloring of his writing subsides to some degree; new meditations result in several major works stemming from his visionary interpretation of human history as transcendental and divinely inspired; every event is seen as an enigmatic mirror within which God is reflected by contingent realities and historical facts constitute the lexicon of a sacred text which craves decipherment; because he considers life itself a book authored by God, Bloy rails against his literary brethren as "profaners of the Word"; he strives to interpret the symbolic significance of major historical upheavals and to translate the language of the Book of Life into one that can be understood by men; he circulates pamphlets which formulate a view of history as part of a Divine Plan; he depends on the forcefulness and beauty of his prose to win over readers and snatch an occasional kindred soul from his native darkness, so as to propel him on the path to the Absolute.
1890 Marriage to Jeanne Molbech, daughter of a Danish poet who is a friend of Ibsen; though she knows Bloy to be a beggar, Molbech is drawn to him, captivated by a strange charisma and what she perceives as his "superiority"; ever devoted, she will publish, after his death, the love letters he wrote her during their courtship; Bloy enters a phase of prolific creativity, but his dazzling output is all but ignored.
1894 Bloy refuses to participate in a duel to which he is challenged by a hothead he has insulted in an argument; Bloy regards dueling as a barbaric practice, but his refusal results in accusations of cowardice, which bring him still greater isolation, including expulsion from the pages of Gil Blas, the journal where many of his stories have appeared.
1895 Bloy has become a pariah and the misery of his existence hits a new low; his family subsists on handouts and his two young sons die of malnutrition; his wife and daughters, too, are afflicted with infirmity and hunger.
1898 The publication of The Ungrateful Beggar is met with reserved approbation and receives the enthusiasm of Jacques Maritain and his wife, who are deeply impressed with Bloy and quietly become his torchbearers.
1906 Bloy continues to churn out volume after masterful volume; his spirit is never subjugated, even if intermittently subdued.
1910 A begrudging world finally comes to recognize his greatness and acknowledge the impassioned sincerity and steadfastness of his convictions; his destitution persists.
1914 When World War I breaks out, Bloy writes his most pessimistic work, including Among the Shades, feeling that his interpretation of history and his predictions for the consequences of man’s misdeeds have been vindicated.
1917 November 3, in the house once occupied by Charles Péguy, Bloy dies peacefully at the hour of the Angelus, seeker, soothsayer, sinner, saint.
-- Gilbert Alter-Gilbert interview 1
-- "Lions of Literature: Léon Bloy" by Alter-Gilbert
--"Musings and Thunderings" of Léon Bloy
-- "The Infusion," a story by Bloy, trans. Alter-Gilbert (coming tomorrow)
- Pilgrim of the Absolute, ed. Raïssa Maritain; intro. Jacques Maritain; trans. John Coleman and Harry Lorin Binsse (Pantheon, 1947). [Ed.: This is the one to get, and luckily it is the easiest to find. In "Léon Bloy and Jacques Maritain," Leiva-Merikakis quotes from Bloy's journal concerning Bloy's first impressions of the Maritains: "The young man is one of those idealists who do not know God but who let themselves be dragged by the hair or feet up the staircase leading to the Light... The young woman is a very charming and frail being in which there dwells a soul capable of making the oak trees kneel."]
- The Woman Who Was Poor: A Contemporary Novel of the French 'Eighties, trans. I. J. Collins (Sheed & Ward, 1939).
- Letters to his Fiancée, trans. Barbara Wall (Sheed & Ward, 1937).
- She Who Weeps: Our Lady of La Salette; an anthology of Bloy’s writings on La Salette, trans. and ed. Emile La Douceur (Academy Library Guild, 1956).
- "Anything You Want!..." from Histoires désobligeantes (1894), trans. Moira Banks, in The Book of Fantasy, ed. Borges, Silvina Ocampo, A. Bioy Casares (Viking, 1988).
- "A Burnt Offering" ("La derniere cuite") from Histoires désobligeantes (1894), trans. Terry Hale, in The Dedalus Book of French Horror: The 19th Century, ed. Terry Hale.
- "The Party Favor," trans. Martin Nozick, in Great Nineteenth-Century French Short Stories, ed. Angel Flores (Dover, 1988; orig. published by Doubleday in 1960 as Nineteenth Century French Tales).
- "Salamander the Vampire" from Sueur du Sang (1892), trans. Andrew Mangravite, in The Book of Masks: French Symbolist & Decadent Writing of the 1890s (Atlas Press, 1994).
- "The Captives of Longjumeau" from Histoires désobligeantes (1894), trans. Albert Manguel, in Manguel's anthology Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature (Clarkson Potter, 1984).
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.
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.
--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
December 7, 2008
In August 2008, I featured an interview with Gilbert Alter-Gilbert and excerpts from his many book-length translations:
- Manifestos Manifest by Vicente Huidobro (read the post)
- Strange Forces: The Fantastic Tales of Leopoldo Lugones (read the post)
- The Mirror of Lida Sal by Miguel Ángel Asturias (read the post)
- Streetcorners: Prose Poems of the Demi-Monde by Francis Carco (read the post)
- Scarecrow and Other Anomalies by Oliverio Girondo (read the post)
- Dead Man & Company by Marie Redonnet (read the post)
Lugones' life was a constant inner struggle: he was at war with the world and with himself. Starting out as an anarchist and then a zealous international Socialist, he passed through the political and intellectual wringer until he came out an ardent Catholic nationalist. And in his literary ideology he went from a kind of neo-gongorism through romanticism and symbolism to realism. Hopelessly embittered, he finally committed suicide.In an email to me, A-G. expressed his own thoughts about Lugones' suicide, which I share here:
I don’t think political confusion or some sort of sublimated doctrinal conflict in and of itself led to his suicide. I think he did himself in partly because of dismay over his scrambled love affair [discussed in interview 1] which was the final insult to a long-festering sense of the stupidity of confining social strictures and, secondly but no less urgently, because of fierce frustrations over stymied attempts to sway his countrymen to his ideological positions, yes, but only because these frustrations magnified and conflated into a whole panoply of feelings of being misunderstood and unappreciated -- classic alienation syndrome -- which escalated to a sheer maddening disgust for life and for the limitations of the world as it is. This was because he had a kind of Nietzschean superman complex. At the risk of sounding even more Freudian, I think he was hopelessly disillusioned with the behavior of his fellow men, inasmuch as they didn’t understand him or agree with him, and he felt an insurmountable contempt for their stunted nature.Lugones appears often in Borges' works (in 1955, Borges stated that "Lugones was and continues to be the greatest Argentine writer."). Using the index to Selected Non-Fictions, I gather here some snippets of Borges & Lugones:
- Borges quotes Lugones line about the tango, "that reptile from the brothel."
- In "The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader," Borges quotes Lugones blasphemy on Cervantes (from The Jesuit Empire): "Style is his weakness, and the damage caused by his influence has been severe. Colorless prose, redundancies, flimsy narrative structure, panting paragraphs unwinding in endless convolutions that never get to the point, and a complete lack of proportion compromise the legacy received by those who consider its style to be the immortal work's ultimate achievement; they have only scratched the surface whose rough edges hide its true strength and flavor."
- Borges includes Lugones' The Statue of Salt (not in English) in his Library of Babel (a series of short volumes of fantastic tales, each selected and introduced by Borges).
- Borges includes Lugones' The Jesuit Empire (not in English) in his last project, A Personal Library (another series of books selected by Borges).