Jean Lorrain

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Literature, Publishing

Amsterdam, 1900 (Essay)

Amsterdam, 1900: Guided by Monsieur de Bougrelon

By Sander Bink

This essay first appeared in Dutch at rond1900.nl.

In a decadent villa in Amsterdam North, on our crowded desk at the rond1900 offices, for a while a nice little book was waiting for us to review: Monsieur de Bougrelon by Jean Lorrain, for the first time in English translation. You, the well-read Decadent, of course already know of this gem of a novella, which was first published in 1897 and is set in fin-de-siècle Amsterdam. If you are a good Decadent you have read it in the original French in a first or early edition, or otherwise you might have read it in the 1978 Dutch translation Denkbeeldige genietingen (Imaginary Pleasures). Although this translation by Jeanne Holierhoek is, as far as we can judge, quite good, it was still made some forty years ago and a new translator might do it just a little differently today, thus keeping the text alive for a new generation of readers. Unfortunately in our small country it seems to be quite uncommon to translate classic French Decadent writers, let alone translate one of their texts anew. Dutch literary publishers seem to have very little interest in the French Decadents in general, despite their lasting modernity and literary value.

So we recommend that you buy this recent edition by the delightful new independent publisher Spurl, to keep your Lorrain collection up to date but also because it is a good-looking book and the modern translation keeps the text fresh and sparkling. Their site also links to the justly unanimous rave reviews of Bougrelon, which contains a detailed afterword by the translator Eva Richter.

And since quite useless details are our specialty here at rond1900, we wish to add something to that already-quite-interesting afterword. As you might know, Lorrain is one of our favorite writers, whom we wrote about earlier. But the reason for this review’s delay is that we wanted to tell you all about Lorrain’s stay in Amsterdam and to what extent he fictionalized this experience in his novella. That Lorrain visited Amsterdam in 1896, together with Octave Uzanne, is a fact, but we would like to know in which hotel he stayed, with whom he had contact, which places he visited exactly. Did he, for example, visit our decadent Amsterdam North? In Bougrelon the North Holland Canal is mentioned, as well as Monnikendam, and did Lorrain himself visit the nowadays-very-hip Tolhuistuin, which is mentioned in Chapter Six? That would be a nice literary coincidence, as about the same time Gerard van Hulzen immortalized this location.

That Lorrain must have at least had some Dutch connections we hope to have shown in a previous article about Wilde’s favorite painter Leonard Sarluis for The Oscholars (no direct link available). Lorrain was part of a Dutch-French social circle that must have included Alfred Jarry, Carel de Nerée, Antoon van Welie, Louis Couperus, and Sarluis. Unfortunately we have not found any documents or letters that could have shed more light on Lorrain’s stay in Amsterdam and his possible (literary) connections there. Some of his stories were translated for the avant-garde periodical De Kroniek, so he was possibly in touch with main editor P. L. Tak.

But we did find, thanks to the digitized historical newspapers, a very curious case of the reception of Jean Lorrain in the Netherlands. In or around 1900, Van Holkema and Warendorf published an Illustrated Guide to Amsterdam and Environs. Its anonymous author appears to have been a great fan of Monsieur de Bougrelon but deems it necessary to introduce the work to his readers, as apparently it was not that well-known.

This guidebook, nowadays a rare book itself, is one of the earliest Dutch mentions of Lorrain’s masterpiece. Maybe even the very first, but regardless it is the most extensive mention.

In Chapter Nine the author takes the liberty of borrowing Lorrain’s character to guide the reader to some of Amsterdam’s hot spots, like Kalverstraat and Buffa the art dealer’s gallery. It makes for some interesting and amusing reading. For your reading pleasure, we here translate and quote the first part of that chapter. The entire book can be read (in Dutch) here.


Illustrated Guide to Amsterdam and Environs

Chapter Nine

Walks through Amsterdam
Guided by Monsieur de Bougrelon.

Do you happen to know the hero of the amusing little book that Jean Lorrain wrote about Amsterdam and which bears its hero’s name as the title, Monsieur de Bougrelon?

As I look at you, rows of national tourists seeking joy as well as comfort, who each year set out to see the world’s eighth wonder, which is to be found in the world’s ninth – our great capital, right? – and if I would browse through your city bags, purses, suitcases, florid valises, travel baskets, German baskets, coffrets, sacks, pompadours, satchels, and bahuts with the curiosity of a landlady looking through the belongings of a new tenant who is already a month behind on the rent, then I would probably find a copy of Warendorf’s Travel Library, which you have been reading as compensation for the monotony of the journey, or an illustrated magazine like Die Woche, but I won’t even find mention of Monsieur de Bougrelon’s name in the newspaper that is wrapped around your “sandwich for the road,” a sandwich that is a symbol of the tenderness of a mother, sister, wife or girl, but which is nevertheless doomed to never reach its destination.

The “sandwich for the road” has become like the Chinese man’s prayer, which keeps existing but has no more meaning. Like the tragic remains of ancient times, of carriages and track boats, it has survived, a gray old man with a wrinkled face, a stranger amid modern comfort and modern luxury. The “E pluribus unum” of each station has become an epitaph for that “sandwich for the road,” as Amsterdam offers so many opportunities for one to refresh oneself well and at little expense that you are right to offer it to the boy who sells you The Nieuwe Rotterdamsche, Weekblad, Telegraaf, and Handelsblad, thus stopping his vocal trumpet. You are right to rush to a restaurant as soon as you arrive. Well, no, you are not right: why would you want to do that without our great friend, Monsieur de Bougrelon?

Look at him standing there in his long fitted frock coat, a large top hat bought at Meeuwsen’s Hat Shop rather crooked on his head, a truncheon-like walking stick in his hand, a pretty scarf tied around the most gracious of collars, a pair of Dent’s gloves from Mr. Sinemus’s store on Leidsestraat, and with a face you swear you have seen someplace before.

He already took hold of us, already joined us, already introduced himself, already pointed out the way around the tunnels of the Central Station to us, which is built too high, as compared to the museum, which is built too low.

Monsieur de Bougrelon, placing his walking stick with force into the ground that comes from the seas, leads the way to the Hotel Van Gelder on Damrak. This is quite a suitable place for you to stay, as your fellow Dutchmen possess three characteristics that make them excellent for hotels: they are solid, simple, and tidy. Look here, does not everything shine brightly? Look at this glassware, washed the way it should be, with a cold bath afterward, to get the pure lucidity that reminds one of jewelry. Ah, decency is the sister of tidiness! Really, you could swipe a finger underneath the cabinet and the bed and then swipe it on the white sheets without sullying them.

Rising already, Bougrelon glances at a large collection of bottles of “Kaiserbrunnen,” the most excellent of mineral waters, which had just arrived at the hotel again, and then you are obliged to follow him down Damrak, across Dam Square to Kalverstraat while he unfortunately only verbally burns down the new Stock Exchange and lavishes praise on the Royal Palace, whose silvery chimes ring out above the head of the lonely virgin who, he thinks, has done wisely by turning her back to all the ugliness that is behind her.

“The aorta of the city,” he says, “this Kalverstraat, which is only narrow so that no modern electrical tram shall disfigure it with its rows of gallows, whereupon beauty has been hung by executioners. We do not need a tram in this street. One walks through it like one walks through a beautiful and interesting book, and it is over before you realize it.”

Monsieur de Bougrelon suddenly stops in front of one of the big plate-glass windows of a stately house with a high façade.

“Beauty originates in the south. Here you are standing in front of the art trader Buffa’s gallery, one of the great attractions of your capital. The De Medicis brought the fine arts from Italy into my beloved France. But the Italians traveled farther north and it is the Lurascos, the Cossas, the Grisantis, the Boggias, the Valciollas, and the Buffas who brought art to your ancestors at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which was badly deteriorated by then. The Buffa brothers originally traveled to fun fairs with their etchings. The Venice of the North appealed to them and they settled here, on the Weesper Square, right near the Amstel. The sons expanded their father’s business and soon Buffa and Sons was of eminent importance in Amsterdam.

In 1836 the firm came into the hands of another son of the land of Dante and Petrarch, Mr. Caramelli, and today Mr. J. Slagmulder and Mr. P. J. Zúrcher are the owners of this booming art gallery, built across three houses on Kalverstraat.

“But you need not stand outside merely looking at the windows displays, although there is plenty of beauty to find there already. The rooms inside are free for anyone to enter and give an overview of the most beautiful and best Dutch painters, old and young, and more; beside the Israelsen, Marissen, Mesdags, Voermans, Witsens, and Mauves, you will see Daubignys, Montecellis, Daumiers, Henners, Ziems, Decamps, Millets.

“Quite often, when my old heart longs for the art-loving shores of the Seine, in whose wide stream the Louvre is reflected, I wander in front of this sanctuary of the arts and never do I leave unconsoled.”

(pp. 143-146)


Sander Bink is a Dutch scholar on fin-de-siècle art and literature, specializing in Decadence and Symbolism. He is the main contributor to rond1900.nl. He is currently working on a full biography of the Dutch Symbolist/Decadent artist Carel de Nerée (1880-1909).

To read more by Sander Bink, check out his articles on Jean Lorrain, Gerard Van Hulzen, and Jean Lorrain in the Netherlands in Dutch, as well as his piece on Carel de Nerée and Oscar Wilde in English.

Literature, Publishing

French Writers We Love (Art by Félix Vallotton)

Thank you for making 2016 a very decadent year for us!

We released Jean Lorrain’s fever dream of a novella, Monsieur de Bougrelon
“A singular and intoxicating experience” – James Conway
Barbara Payton’s absurdist, seedy memoir I Am Not Ashamed
“A dime store (in the best sense of the term) Notes from Underground – the bellowing of the underground woman” – Kim Morgan
And John Brian King’s arresting second photography collection Nude Reagan
“Both a grotesque imposition and an ugly seduction” – Moze Halperin

And in March 2017, we will publish a brilliant work by French God-of-letters Michel Leiris:
Nights as Day, Days as Night
Translated by Richard Sieburth, with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot

See you in 2017!


Authors pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Comte de Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Félix Féneon; Jean Lorrain (the man himself), Joris-Karl Huysmans, Rachilde, Jules and Edmond de Goncourt; Pierre Louÿs, Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, artist Félix Vallotton. – Illustrations by Félix Vallotton (1865–1925). 

Literature, Publishing

A Dandy in Aspic: Review of “Monsieur de Bougrelon”

Contemporary caricature of Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly by “L’Héritier” (Romain Thomas)

Contemporary caricature of Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly by “L’Héritier” (Romain Thomas)

Head on over to STRANGE FLOWERS for James J. Conway’s remarkable writing on the most “eccentric, extravagant and extraordinary” personalities of the last 200 years. One of these extravagant dandies is Jean Lorrain, author of Monsieur de Bougrelon. Conway has written about Lorrain before, and his review of Spurl’s forthcoming translation is both insightful and entertaining:

But as his siècle hastened to its fin, Lorrain wasn’t going to cede the floor before offering a minor (and perhaps not even that minor) masterpiece: Monsieur de Bougrelon.
Monsieur de Bougrelon is the original dandy in aspic. Lorrain’s book is an archive that arrests life at its moment of greatest beauty, preserved in vitrines, suspended in solutions, arrayed in filigree caskets like saintly femurs and the many foreskins of Christ.
It is a reliquary, in other words, and this is precisely the term that the astute Rachilde, loyal companion to Lorrain and fellow adherent of Barbey d’Aurevilly, applied to Monsieur de Bougrelon. The Decadent’s very vocabulary is a collection of lexical curios, recherché jewels here lovingly transferred to an English setting.
It’s a singular and intoxicating experience that ends all too soon. When the ‘old puppet’ departs the stage, you may well elect, as I did, to leaf straight back to the Café Manchester and wait for his silhouette to fill the doorway once more.

And of course we love this sentiment about our books: “These prose works come with the thick black frame of a cigarette health warning or Sicilian funeral notice.

“Caveat lector.”

Monsieur de Bougrelon by Jean Lorrain
14.00

Trade paperback, 128 pages, translated from French with an afterword by Eva Richter. Free domestic shipping.

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Publishing, Literature, Photography

Gifts from Spurl Editions

Get excited, because now you can show the world how refined your taste is in literature while looking stunning at the same time! Our store features a screen-printed tote bag so that you can carry your books to the French château you live in with panache, and an I AM NOT ASHAMED t-shirt that will quickly take over as your one true vestiary love.

I Am Not Ashamed T-shirt
15.00

This glamorous unisex t-shirt from Spurl Editions features the cover of Barbara Payton’s I Am Not Ashamed on the front, and the Spurl logo on the back. It was screen-printed locally by Windmill City Screen Printing on Next Level-brand shirts. Wear this shirt, and announce to the world: YOU ARE NOT ASHAMED.

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Spurl Tote Bag
10.00

This tote bag from Spurl Editions features a quote from Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Bougrelon on one side, and the Spurl logo on the other side. It was screen-printed locally by Windmill City Screen Printing. Carry this bag and announce to the world that you are a DECADENT MARVEL.

I am an idea in an era that has no more of them.

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Literature

The Diving Bell (poem)

The Diving Bell

by Maurice Maeterlinck

Lo, the diver, forever within his bell!
And a whole sea of glass, a sea eternally warm!
A whole motionless world, a world of slow green rhythms!
So many curious creatures beyond those walls of glass,
And any contact eternally prohibited!
And yet there is so much life in those bright waters yonder!

Look! The shadows of great sailing-ships
           —they glide over the flowers, the dahlias of the submarine forest!
And I stand for a moment in the shadow of whales that are voyaging to the Pole!
And at this very moment, I doubt not, my fellow-men in the harbour
Are discharging the vessels that sail hither laden with ice:
A glacier was there, in the midst of the July meadows!
And men are swimming and floating in the green waters of the creek,
And at noon they enter shadowy cav­erns . . .
And the breezes of ocean are fanning the roofs and balconies.

Lo, the flaming tongues of the Gulf­-Stream!
Take heed lest their kisses touch the walls of lassitude!
They have ceased to lay ice on the brows of the fevered
And the patients have lit a bonfire
And are casting great handfuls of green lilies into the flames!
Lean your brows upon the cooler panes,
While waiting for the moonlight to enter the bell from above.
And close your eyes tightly, to the forest of colour,
The pendulous blues and albuminous violets.
And close your ears to the suggestions of the tepid water.

Dry the brows of your desires; they are weak with sweat.
Go firstly to those on the point of swooning.
They have the air of people celebrating a wedding in a dungeon,
Or of people entering, at mid-day, a long lamp-lit avenue underground,
In festival procession they are passing
Thro' a landscape like an orphaned child­hood,
Go now to those about to die:
They move like virgins who have wandered far
In the sun, on a day of fast,
They are pale as patients who placidly listen to the rain in the gardens of the hospital;
They have the look of survivors, breaking their fast on a battle-field;
They are like prisoners who know that all their gaolers are bathing in the river,
And who hear men mowing the grass in the garden of the prison.

Translated by Bernard Miall in Poems by Maurice Maeterlinck, published 1915.


Cloche à plongeur

Ô plongeur à jamais sous sa cloche !
Toute une mer de verre éternellement chaude !
Toute une vie immobile aux lents pendules verts !
Et tant d'êtres étranges à travers les parois !
Et tout attouchement à jamais interdit !
Lorsqu'il y a tant de vie en l'eau claire au dehors !
 
Attention ! l'ombre des grands voiliers passe sur les dahlias des forêts sous-marines;
Et je suis un moment à l'ombre des baleines qui s'en vont vers le pôle !
 
En ce moment, les autres déchargent, sans doute, des vaisseaux pleins de neige dans le port !
Il y avait encore un glacier au milieu des prairies de Juillet !
Ils nagent à reculons en l'eau verte de l'anse !
Ils entrent à midi dans des grottes obscures !
Et les brises du large éventrent les terrasses !
 
Attention ! voici les langues en flamme du Gulf-Stream !
Écartez leurs baisers des parois de l'ennui !
On n'a plus mis de neige sur le front des fiévreux ;
Les malades ont allumé un feu de joie,
Et jettent à pleines mains les lys verts dans les flammes !
 
Appuyez votre front aux parois les moins chaudes,
En attendant la lune au sommet de la cloche,
Et fermez bien vos yeux aux forêts de pendules bleus et d'albumines violettes, en restant sourd aux suggestions de l'eau tiède.
 
Essuyez vos désirs affaiblis de sueurs ;
Allez d'abord à ceux qui vont s'épanouir :
Ils ont l'air de célébrer une fête nuptiale dans une cave ;
Ils ont l'air d'enterrer à midi, dans une avenue éclairée de lampes au fond d'un souterrain ;
Ils traversent, en cortège de fête, un paysage semblable à une enfance d'orphelin.
 
Allez ensuite à ceux qui vont mourir.
Ils arrivent comme des vierges qui ont fait une longue promenade au soleil, un jour de jeûne ;
Ils sont pâles comme des malades qui écoutent pleuvoir placidement sur les jardins de l'hôpital;
Ils ont l'aspect de survivants qui déjeunent sur le champ de bataille.
Ils sont pareils à des prisonniers qui n'ignorent pas que tous les geôliers se baignent dans le fleuve,
Et qui entendent faucher l'herbe dans le jardin de la prison.


For more French Decadence, sign up to be notified when Monsieur de Bougrelon releases!

And read Richard Howard’s translation of Maurice Maeterlinck.