Villiers De L'isle-Adam, (Jean-Marie Mathias Philippe) Auguste (Comte) de
VILLIERS DE L'ISLE-ADAM, (Jean-Marie Mathias Philippe) Auguste (Comte) de
Nationality: French. Born: Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, 7 November 1838. Education: Educated in Brittany. Military Service: Served in Franco-Prussian War, 1870. Family: Married Marie Dantine in 1889; one son. Career: Moved with family to Paris, 1859; journalist and playwright, from 1860s; founding editor, Revue des Letres et des Arts, 1867. Died: 18 August 1889.
oeuvres complètes. 11 vols., 1914-31.
oeuvres, edited by Jacques-Henry Bornecque. 1957.
Contes crueles et Nouveaux contes cruels, edited by A. Lebois.1963; edited by Pierre-Georges Castex, 1968.
L'elu des reves (stories and novellas), edited by Claude Herviou. 1979.
oeuvres complètes, edited by A. W. Raitt and Pierre-GeorgesCastex. 2 vols., 1986.
Les Contes cruels. 1883; as Claire Lenoir (selection), 1925; asQueen Ysabeau (selection), 1925; as Sardonic Tales, 1927; as Cruel Tales, 1963.
L'Amour suprême. 1886. Akëdysséril (novella). 1886; as Le Secret de l'échafaud, 1888; as Akëdysséril et autres contes, 1978.
Tribulat Bonhomet. 1887.
Nouveaux Contes cruels. 1888.
Histoires insolites. 1888.
Nouveaux Contes cruels et Propos d'au-delà. 1893.
Histoires souveraines. 1899.
Trois Portraits de femmes (Hypermnestra, Isabeau de Bavière, andLady Hamilton). 1929.
Maison Gambade père et fils succ. 1882.
L'Ève future. 1886; as Eve of the Future Eden (bilingual edition), 1981; as Tomorrow's Eve (bilingual edition), 1982.
Elën (produced 1895). 1865.
Morgane. 1866; as Le Prétendant, edited by Pierre-GeorgesCastex and A.W. Raitt, 1965.
La Révolte (produced 1870). 1870; in The Revolt and The Escape, 1901.
Le Nouveau-monde (produced 1883). 1880.
Axël. 1890; translated as Axël, 1925.
L'Evasion (produced 1887). 1891.
Deux essais de poésie. 1858.
Premières poésies, 1856-1858. 1859.
Chez les passants (stories and essays). 1890.
Reliques (fragments), edited by Pierre-Georges Castex. 1954.
Correspondance générale, edited by Joseph Bollery. 2 vols., 1962.
Histoires insolites, suivies de nouveaux condes cruels, et de lettres à Charles Baudelaire, illustrated by Louis James. 1963.
Nouvelles Reliques (fragments), edited by Pierre-Georges Castex and J.-M. Bellefroid. 1968.
Contes et récits, edited by Jacques Chupeau. 1970.
Lettres: correspondance a trois (Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Leon Bloy, J.-K. Huysmans), edited by Daniel Habrekorn. 1980.
Textes politiques inedits de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. 1981.*
Villiers de l'Isle-Adam by William Thomas Conroy, 1978; Life of Villiers by A. W. Raitt, 1981; The Aesthetics of Artifice: Villiers's L'Eve Future by Marie Lathers, 1996; Jeering Dreamers: Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's L'Eve Future at Our Fin de Siècle: A Collection of Essays, edited by John Anzalone and Marilyn Gaddis Rose, 1996.* * *
Villiers's generic range was broad. He began as a poet. From 1858 to 1859 he produced Deux essais de poésie (Two Attempts at Poetry) and Premières Poésies (First Poems). By the 1860s he was writing novels, plays, and short stories. His first novel was the unfinished Isis and his first play Elën. His first short stories were "Claire Lenoir" (1867) and "L'Intersigne" (1867; published as "The Sign," 1963). Although his poetry displays some evidence of his genius, it is predominantly derivative. His novels are slow-paced and lack sustained drive, the narrative energy being impeded by verbose observations and strained melodramatic actions. As for his plays, they are largely poeticized closet-dramas much too long for practical production on the stage. Performed but rarely, they were poorly received. His drama Axël, however, has been highly praised by some critics and considered a literary monument because of its introduction of symbolism. There is no doubt, however, that Villiers's full genius came out in his short stories, especially in his elegantly written satiric-ironic stories collected in Les Contes cruels (Sardonic Tales, and Cruel Tales), his real masterpiece. His other collections of stories are less consistent in quality and have not been translated into English.
A descendant of an aristocratic but poor family, Villiers disclaimed the bourgeois world for its materialism, gross sensuality, scientism, money grubbing, and vox-populi politics. He dreamed of escaping from this cesspool of corruption to an ideal world of the spirit. A Roman Catholic, he was also deeply interested in occult forces and powers as well as in German idealistic philosophy and the music drama of Wagner. As to literary influences, Villiers was influenced by E. T. A. Hoffmann's tales and especially by those of Edgar Allan Poe as translated into French by Baudelaire. Because the fiction of these authors concerns itself with the theme of escape from mundane reality, it strongly appealed to Villiers.
Villiers's "Claire Lenoir" at first seems a commonplace case of adultery, but by its end it turns out to be the wildest kind of science-fiction melodramatic horror tale that in some ways resembles Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Told in the words of the sinister bourgeois doctor Tribulat Bonhomet, the story tells of the unhappy marriage of Claire and Césaire Lenoir. Claire's taking of a lover, Sir Henry Clifton, has caused much anger on the part of her husband. When Bonhomet visits the married couple to treat Césaire for his addiction to snuff, his incompetence causes the husband's death.
When Bonhomet meets the widow Claire a year later, she has become blind and wears big, round, blue spectacles to conceal her nearly sightless eyes. The doctor also learns that Sir Henry Clifton has been killed in the South Seas by a black savage. Claire dies in the presence of Bonhomet. Her last words are uttered amidst shrieks that she has experienced a horrible vision of some kind. The doctor removes Claire's spectacles and probes the pupils of her eyes with hideous instruments. He sees on her retina the image of a black savage whose features resemble those of Césaire. The savage is brandishing the severed head of Sir Henry while chanting a war song. This episode suggests the idea of metempsychosis: has Césaire's soul been reincarnated in the body of a black savage? Was it the revengeful spirit of Césaire inhabiting the savage's body that killed Sir Henry? When people die, is what they have seen at the moment of death preserved on their retina until decomposition sets in?
According to A. W. Raitt, "Claire Lenoir" consists of "an astonishing amalgam of themes and techniques" to serve "an intransigent philosophical idealism." This kind of presentation became typical of much of Villiers's later fiction. His method is to present some basic ideas to serve as a background for melodramatic actions. In "Claire Lenoir" these ideas came from several sources: Poe, Hegel, scientism, Hinduism, and occultism. Villiers's creation of Tribulat Bonhomet was meant to represent philistinism; he was Villiers's Babbitt and " l'archétype de son siécle, " through whom he could express his contempt of the bourgeois world. Finally his method included a carefully controlled and elegant style. Villiers designed "Claire Lenoir" to satirize the overconfidence and overoptimism the bourgeoisie expressed in "scientism."
"The Sign" is a satire that hits people's skepticism regarding the existence of a supernatural world that holds sway over the natural world and that dismisses preternatural phenomena as hallucinatory. It pits the philosophy of the real against the philosophy of the spirit: a Parisian aristocrat, Baron Xavier, against a Roman Catholic priest, the Abbé Maucombe, of the Breton village of Saint-Maur. To get away from the pressures of urban life, the baron journeys to visit his old friend, the priest. While staying at the priest's rectory, the baron experiences the play of preternatural phenomena, and he has two visions that prove premonitory. While the baron is talking to the priest, whose face depicts health, the former sees that the latter's face is suddenly transformed for a second into that of a dying man. On another occasion the baron hears a knock at his bedroom door. When he opens the door he sees a tall, dark figure of a priest possessed of fiery eyes standing before him in the corridor holding out a black greatcoat. Terrified, the baron slams the door shut.
The baron is unexpectedly recalled to Paris to meet an emergency. Back home he receives the news that his friend, the priest, died three days after he had left for Paris. When the baron had left, an icy rain had begun to fall. Since he had left his greatcoat at an inn near the railway station, the priest had offered him his and requested him to return it when he reached the inn. The priest had acquired his coat in the Holy Land where it had "touched 'The Sepulchre."' "The Sign" has echoes of Poe, but Villiers's treatment of his theme is original and his point is made with a perfectly straight face.
In "Véra" (which means faith, truth) Villiers seeks to disorient the reader sufficiently to force him to at least entertain the possibility of immortal life after death in an age of skepticism. His fascinating story is apparently based on Solomon's premise: "Love is stronger than Death." "Véra" is the story of the passionate physical love of the young Count d'Athol for his beautiful wife, Véra, when one evening love overcame her heart and death struck her down quickly. The count, however, is unable to accept reality, and he immediately dreams her back into life.
Set in Paris, the story begins with Véra's funeral and burial in the family vault. Having stayed with his dead wife for six hours, the count returns to his mansion on the Faubourg Saint Germain. He goes immediately to the chamber where Véra died. There he reminisces about his and Vera's love for each other. He recalls the evening when the two of them "had plunged into the oceans of those languid and perverse pleasures in which the spirit mingles with the mysteries of the flesh," and it is at this point that he dreams Véra back into existence again. Having done so, he acts—and instructs his old servant to act—as if Véra were alive and had never died. The count entertains this fantasy for a considerable period, until one day while holding a dialogue with Véra he suddenly addresses her: "'But now I remember! What is the matter with me? You are dead!"' These words strike the atmosphere like a sound frequency breaks glass. At once Véra and all the objects in the room that the count had perceived vanished into thin air. If the tale at first seems high romanticism in the vein of Hugo, its romanticism is smashed to pieces at the conclusion. Also the tale shows that by the 1870s Villiers had advanced beyond Hegel's phenomenology of spirit, or the certainty of our perceptions, to a new illusionism, or the view that nothing can actually be known except one's own thoughts—everything else, including our perceptions, being illusions.
These outstanding early stories illustrate some of Villiers's styles of representation, tone of treatment, final effect, and themes (except for the comic grotesque) that had been used by Poe. In "Claire Lenoir" the representation is bizarre, the tone satiric, the effect one of horror, and the theme that scientism cannot be applied fruitfully in all fields of knowledge. In "The Sign" the representation is mixed naturalistic-occult, the tone straightforward but uncertain, the effect ambiguous, and the theme the idea that occult phenomena may possibly exist. In "Véra" the representation is fantastic-idealist, the tone romantic, the effect one of beauty, and the theme the idea that an individual's imagination may prove wildly delusive.
Other outstanding stories include two whose effect is of terror and suspense: "Catalina" (in L'Amour suprême) and "La Torture par l'esperance" ("The Torture of Hope," in Nouveaux Contes cruels).
"Catalina" is set in the Spanish seaport of Santander. The narrator is there to visit a naval officer friend. The friend is obliged to return to his ship, while the narrator is invited to sleep in the officer's hotel room in the presence of Catalina, a "flower girl of the wharf." During the night the narrator hears "old wood splitting" and a pendulum appears to be swinging back and forth in his room, while Catalina is shivering with terror in her bed. People are fleeing the hotel, and the narrator asks them to explain their flight. They answer that he is mad "to sleep with the Devil in the room!" He ignites a rolled-up newspaper to light up the darkness in the room. To his horror he sees a huge python that had broken free of most of its ropes, a fine treasure his friend had brought from his stay in Guiana, one of the specimens he was bringing to the Madrid Museum. The narrator and Catalina flee from the scene. It was evidently the swinging of the python against the walls of the hotel room that had deceived the narrator's senses. Or was it merely a dream, a horrible nightmare, produced after a reading of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum"? What about Catalina—had she been possessed by the devil? Ambiguity is the watchword! What is clear is that sense experience can be distorted by the imagination, and that is the theme of this marvelous story.
"The Torture of Hope" is set in Spain in the sixteenth century during the time of the third Grand Inquisitor, Pedre Arbuez d'Espila. It is the story of the next-to-the-last torture of a Jew of Aragon, Rabbi Abarbanel, accused "of usury and pitiless scorn for the poor." Having been tortured daily for over a year, he is informed by the Grand Inquisitor himself that his torture will end on the morrow because then he will be included in the auto-da-fé.
Left alone in the darkness of his prison, he sees the light of lanterns through a chink between the door and the wall. This fancy makes him wonder if the prison door is closed. That thought also arouses "a morbid idea of hope in his chest." To test his theory he drags himself across the floor to the door where he slips his finger into the chink and finds the door unlocked. Pulling the door open, he slides out to find himself in a long corridor.
After advancing slowly, sometimes terrified by footsteps that pass by him in the darkness, he keeps hoping to find an escape route. Finally he comes to a door that opens outward. He cries, "Halleluia!" But in a few minutes he finds himself grabbed by the Grand Inquisitor. Now the rabbi realizes that his "escape" is actually his next-to-last torture and that this "torture of Hope" had been cleverly designed by the Grand Inquisitor as a practical joke.
Two other stories are worthy of mention, examples of Villiers's "bitter irony." In "Les Demoiselles de Bienfilatre" ("The Bienfilatre Sisters"; 1874) two sisters, Olympe and Henriette, professional prostitutes, sit at a table in a Paris cafe, waiting for customers. The daughters of poor concierges, they became ladies of the evening. They conduct their business in a business-like way. They owe nobody, and they put money aside for a rainy day and retirement. All is well until Olympe disobeys her moral duty in respect to her class and profession by falling love with a customer. Her conscience troubling her, she confesses her "sin" to a priest—she had been guilty of having a lover for mere pleasure! The story, then, comically illustrates the moral relativity that is a reality in the world.
In Le Secret de l'échafaud ("The Secret of the Old Music") the members of the Paris Opera are assembled to learn the "new music" of a certain composer said to have invented it, but who is now forgotten. The conductor is obliged to announce that, because of the obsolescence of the instrument called the "Chinese pavilion" and the lack of a professor who knows how to play it, it is impossible to perform the new German music.
Then the cymbalist speaks up and declares that he knows the whereabouts of "an old teacher of the Chinese pavilion" who is "'still alive."' Forthwith, a deputation leaves the opera to find this venerable master. They bring him to the opera house. He tries to play the work of the German composer (who hated the Chinese pavilion) but finds the score too difficult. So indignant does he become that he collapses and falls into the bass drum, where he disappears "like a vision vanishing from sight." This story obviously is a satire directed at the bourgeois public for their reluctance to accept the "new music" of Richard Wagner, Villiers's favorite composer.
Villiers also wrote stories of the grotesque in the manner of Poe's "Loss of Breath" or "The Man that Was Used Up." The grotesque present persons, things, or actions in an exaggerated fashion that is laughingly absurd. One outstanding grotesque is "L'Afflichage céleste" ("Celestial Publicity"; 1876), in which the idea of projecting powerful streams of magnesium or electric light into the sky, in the form of advertising slogans, is proposed to profit the advertiser and make the sky productive.
As a writer of short stories Villiers cannot match Hoffmann's imaginative depth nor Poe's rhetorical power. Unlike Maupassant and Chekhov he cannot go far in creating a human being but only a caricature like Bonhomet. His tales have none of the somber, dark romanticism of Hawthorne nor the light, adventurous romanticism of Stevenson. Villiers, however, is a precursor to the Argentinean fiction writer Borges. Like Borges, Villiers sought to undermine the reader's confidence in mundane reality. But unlike Kafka he never touches on the existentialist predicament of the modern individual's alienation, which was his own position. Further, his predominant interest in ideas to the detriment of storytelling for its own interest and his straining to achieve an unusual style are faults that prevented him from being a major short story writer. Nevertheless, he has his own virtues: he conferred an intellectual dimension on the short story, and he is a master satirist. At its most tempered, his elegant style has both power and beauty. Although Villiers is altogether a lesser writer than such masters as Poe and Chekhov, he has his own unique genius, as A. W. Raitt has said, "for imparting simultaneously emotional excitement and intellectual stimulation," and he has "a voice which is unmistakably his own." If Villiers is a minor writer, he is a "great minor writer."
—Richard P. Benton