Review: ‘French Decadent Tales’

9780199569274I just finished reading semi-recent collection/translation of short stories from the French Decadent movement. The title is helpfully entitled: French Decadent Tales. No confusion there.

And no confusion within, either.

I read it over some time – three months, in fact – because otherwise, the stories can quickly run into each other. It’s a great beach read, but bring something else to read in between each of the stories. Reading it over some months also means that the stories are not so clear in my mind anymore.

The first half of the collection is strongest in the memory and is undoubtedly where most of the gems can be found. These stories are ripe, gothic, (in the sense that the Cure and Bauhaus are gothic, not a gothic church, nor even necessarily a gothic novel; they are far too gem-like for the wordiness of a Radcliffe) and indulgent. Don Juan’s Crowning Love-Affair is sad, stately paced, erotic, and disturbing. Presentiment reads like a lost tale of Poe, rediscovered, with the odor of an unfallen but still suicidally melancholy House of Usher and The Dandy of the Unpredictable is amusingly perverse.

The best ones are of a piece with the German writer, E.T.A. Hoffmann and his tales (which my father gifted me with when I was in junior high). Don Juan is a recurring theme and figure here and it is hard not to recall the ghostly companion in the opera box in Hoffmann’s tale.

But the collection, on the whole, is uneven and it did not win me over from the side of French poetry to the side of French prose. The obsession with death is sickly sweet in large does and the proto-Freudian conflation of sex and death/Eros and Thanatos can feel overwhelmingly in such compact forms, pressed close against each other.

Oh. And happy Friday the 13th.

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