Jean Lorrain's Monsieur de Phocas was published by Tartarus Press in September 2015.
Information about Jean Lorrain:
Jean Lorrain (1855-1906), born Paul Alexandre Martin Duval, was a French poet and novelist of the Symbolist school.
Lorrain was a dedicated disciple of dandyism, and openly gay. He contributed to the satirical weekly Le Courrier français. Lorrain wrote a number of collections of verse, including La forêt bleue (1883) and L'ombre ardente, (1897). He is also remembered for his Decadent novels and short stories, such as Monsieur de Phocas (1901) and Histoires des masques (1900), as well as for one of his best novels, Sonyeuse, which he links to portraits exhibited by Antonio de La Gándara in 1893. He also wrote the libretto to Pierre de Bréville's 1910 opera Éros vainqueur.
- From Wikipedia
Information about Monsieur de Phocas:
Monsieur de Phocas by Jean Lorrain
With an Introduction and Afterword by Francis Amery (Brian Stableford)
Monsieur de Phocas (1901) has been ranked with Huysmans' À Rebours (1884) as the summation of the French Decadent Movement. In the novel, Jean Lorrain presents experiences of the darker side of his life in Paris as the adventures of the Duc de Fréneuse (Phocas) and his relationship with the svengaliesque English painter Claudius Ethal.
Jean Lorrain, born into a shipping family in Normandy in 1855, changed his name to keep his family out of the literary controversy he courted. In his writing and life he cultivated a kind of fascinated loathing for the decadence of fin de siècle Paris: in the words of Hubert Juin, he ‘loved his epoch to the point of detestation.’
Frances Amery's sumptuous translation brings to life the grotesque, glittering world of Monsieur de Phocas's journal, and Amery's masterly Introduction and Afterword describe Lorrain's place in Montmartre, Paris and the wider literary world.
Illustration on jacket and boards by Alastair.
A REVIEW OF JEAN LORRAIN'S MONSIEUR DE PHOCAS
Jean Lorrain's Monsieur de Phocas is a stunningly decadent and depraved literary novel, the contents of which offer a lot to enjoy and explore for readers who want to read something out of the ordinary. It's a fascinating literary novel about human frailties, obsessions and perversions.
During the recent years I have developed an ever growing fondness for this kind of a decadent literary fiction. When an author combines decadence and depravity with beautiful prose, it often results in an addictive reading experience. It's great that Tartarus Press has published this novel, because readers seldom have an opportunity to read this kind of decadent masterpieces.
One of the reasons why I'm fascinated by this kind of fiction is that nothing seems to be too delicate an issue for talented authors to write about when they concentrate on writing decadent fiction. This novel demonstrates that you can write about almost anything when you're brave enough to break a few unwritten rules that have become the norm for literary fiction and dare to shock readers. I think that this breaking of the rules will be of interest to many speculative fiction readers, because speculative fiction readers are perhaps more used to reading something different than readers who read mostly mainstream fiction.
Jean Lorrain's Monsieur de Phocas is one of the most intriguing, mesmerising and memorable novels I've read in a long while, because once you've read it, you won't be able to forget it. It lingers on your mind and you'll be thinking of its contents for a long time after the final page has been read. It's a perfect literary marriage of decadence and depravity, visioned by an author who himself had personal knowledge and experiences about many things described in the story.
It's slightly difficult to categorise this novel, because it's literary fiction that contains many elements and themes that are often found in sub-genres of literary speculative fiction (especially in literary strange fiction). It defies easy categorisation, but it's possible to categorise it either as literary fiction or literary horror fiction because of its contents.
Here's a bit of information about the story:
A man meets the Duc de Fréneuse who informs him that he has forsaken his old name and is now called Monsieur de Phocas. He asks the man to read what he has written down on paper about his illness and temptations. The man becomes the confidant of the Duc de Fréneuse and begins to read his manuscript. The manuscript contains strange and morbid revelations about the Duc de Fréneuse's life and his fascination with an English painter, Claudius Ethal. The Duc bares his most intimate secrets in the manuscript. He reveals what has happened to him and to what lenghts he has gone to free himself of his obssesion...
This is the beginning of an intriguing story that gradually grows into a glorious display of uninhibited decadence and magnificent grotesqueness that drips with evil and depravity.
The prose is stunningly beautiful, poetic and florid. Francis Amery (Brian Stableford) has clearly done his best to convey the atmosphere and the happenings of the original novel to English-speaking readers (there was something in this translation that reminded me a bit of Guido Gozzano's 'Requiems & Nightmares', which was translated by Brendan and Anna Connell). The rich and florid prose highlights the decadent happenings in a mesmerising way, and the descriptions of different people and happenings are amazingly vivid. Some of the scenes are wonderfully lush and strangely enticing with hints of something macabre.
This novel shares intriguing similarities with Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' and Joris-Karl Huysmans' 'Against Nature' ('À Rebours'). If you've read either or both of these classic novels, you'll easily recognise that there are a few similarities between them and this novel, but you'll also notice that this novel is different from them. I won't go into details about these similarities and differences, but I'll mention that this novel is an interesting reading experience, if you've read Wilde and Huysman.
Duc de Fréneuse (aka Monsieur de Phocas) is an interesting character, because he is bewitched by jewels and gems and is plagued by a certain colour that gazes out at him from various eyes and from the eyes of the statues and portraits. This colour becomes his obsession and he tries to capture it by collecting jewels, but it doesn't help him. Neither does his various and sinister dealings with painters, drug users, androgynes, actresses, other men's wives, artists, perverts and sexual deviants, because he is still a haunted man and can't find peace. He believes that he is haunted by a Demon of Lust, and seems to be mad.
The author writes captivatingly about how the Duc de Fréneuse is almost helplessly fascinated and repulsed by the malevolent and odd English painter, Claudius Ethal. Claudius Ethal is a notorious man who has removed himself from England and has set up home in Paris. He leads the Duc to a sinister world of decay, incestuous happenings, violent acts and degradation. As the Duc de Fréneuse tries to find a cure for his illness and obsession, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the depraved world of Claudius Ethal.
It was interesting to read about how conjoined the Duc's feelings of fascination and repulsion were, because he was unable to resist the lure of Claudius Ethal, because the painter might have a cure for his condition. Because he looks to others for possible salvation, he believes that the painter could offer him a cure.
The revelations about Claudius Ethal's dealings with the British aristocracy are wonderfully macabre and weird. By shocking his clientèle with his acts and paintings, he exhibits signs of disturbing behaviour and insanity speckled with ingenuity. He's a man who perverts ideas and explores different kinds of pleasures that most people shy away from.
I enjoyed reading about what happened between the Duc, Claudius Ethal and Thomas Welcome. When Thomas Welcome informs the Duc about alternative ways to cure his illness, things become increasingly intriguing, because Ethal tells him that Welcome is even sicker than him. What follows afterwards leads the Duc towards a path that ends in brutal murder.
Duc de Fréneuse's nightmare about an abandoned city inhabited by prostitutes who are plague-stricken and whose flesh is rotting under their masks is simply amazing in its shocking grandeur. This scene reminds me a bit of Edgar Allan Poe's classic 'The Masque of Red Death'. This novel also has a few other scenes that have a Gothic Poe-esque feel to them.
This novel contains intriguing sensuality and grotesqueness that will simultaneously fascinate and shock readers. The descriptions of some of the decadent happenings are so vivid and amazing that you are momentarily transported to another place and time when life was different and people had different values. You'll find yourself astonished by the story and its nuances.
What makes this novel is especially compelling is the fact that it's partly a brilliantly grotesque and inventive black comedy. There are scenes and happenings in this novel that border on the line of being deliciously ironic, but are almost as sharp as pieces of glass. These scenes are simultaneously shocking and entertaining, because the author evokes remarkable feelings of fascination and repulsion in the reader and provokes the reader's imagination.
There's a sense of darkness and grotesqueness in this novel that I found fascinating. The author fluently weaves a web of dark sensuous wonders and terrors over the reader when he writes about what happens between the Duc and the painter.
The milieu is refreshingly different, because the events take place in France. It gives this novel a nice touch of elegance.
The Introduction and the Afterword have been written masterfully by Francis Amery (Brian Stableford), who seems to have a passion for the author's works. They give insight into the author's life and works, and allow readers to examine and explore the novel in a deep way. The translator delivers useful information about the author's life in his Introduction. He tells of the author's life, family, friends, career and homosexuality in an informative way. He also tells of the author's contemporaries who had an impact on him. The Afterword is an excellent and interesting essay about the novel.
The illustration on boards and dustjacket is 'Anger' from 'The Temptations of St Anthony' from Fifty Drawings by Alastair. It looks beautiful and fits this novel perfectly.
Jean Lorrain's Monsieur de Phocas is one of the finest examples of turn-of-the-century French decadence, because it's a literary masterpiece and a tour-de-force of brilliantly dark imagination. It deserves to be read by as many quality-oriented readers as possible, because it's one of the best and most unforgettable novels of its kind. If you're a speculative fiction reader or you enjoyed reading literary fiction, don't hesitate to buy this novel, because you'll be deeply impressed by it and its literary values.
This novel will strongly appeal to readers who are familiar with the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe and Brendan Connell, but it will also appeal to those readers who are fascinated by the weirder side of literary fiction. When you delve into the wonders and sensual terrors of this novel, you'll find yourself wholly immersed in the story. I highly recommend this novel to all who enjoy reading literary fiction, because it's a ravishing feast of decadence and depravity. It's unique in the best possible way.