Thursday, September 25, 2008

Forgotten Giants: Marguerite Eymery aka Rachilde

A century ago Rachilde's pivotal role among the parisian intelligentsia was undisputed. Rachilde was a successful, widely read author and a critical conduit and mediator of the aesthetic and intellectual ideas of the time. While her salon brought together aspiring fin de siècle writers and artists, her husband, Alfred Vallette, edited the highly influential literary review Le Mercure de France, and she was active in the cirlce around him. As the only woman writer to contribute to Anatole Baju's journal Le Décadent, alongside Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Adam, she seemed to have secured her place in literary history. But by the time of her death a half century later, in 1953, her work had slipped into obscurity.

When she was young, in order to overcome her parents distaste for having a writer in the family, Marguerite Eymery would pretend to channel spirits. She used one of the voices -- that of a Swedish nobleman named Rachilde -- to dictate stories during her seances. "Rachilde" soon became her persona and she could sometimes be seen walking the city streets dressed as a man...

Since there is so little information about Rachilde available online I'm going to quote liberally from Melanie Hawthorne and Liz Constable's introduction to Monsieur Vénus:

"In Paris of the 1880's, Rachilde quickly became one of the only women writers in a series of avant-garde literary circles dominated by young rebels reminiscent of their Romantic predecessors of the 1830's, whose exuberance and excesses had prompted Théophile Gautier's satirical account in Les Jeunes-France (1833). Grouped in ephemeral clubs with provocative names--the Hydopaths, the Hirsutes, the Zutistes (zut means "damn"), the Jemenfoutistes (je m'en fous means "I don't give a damn"), and the Incohérents--they explored paths to alternative realities through altered states of consciousness, linguistic experimentation, and erotic transgressions. In rejecting the positivistic and naturalistic tendencies in contemporary aesthetic movements, they searched instead for metaphysical ideals inspired by various forms of mysticism: Baudelairean correspondances, occultism, hypnotism, and spiritualism. From these diverse factions emerged the writers associated with decadence and symbolism at the turn of the century."

According to her original (and likely false) explanation of its origin, Rachilde's most famous work, Monsieur Vénus (1884), was written when an unrequited infatuation left her legs paralyzed for two months.

"By the mid-twentieth century Monsieur Vénus had fallen out of print and was known only to a few specialists of fin de siècle literature. One symptom of its neglect is that, although Simone de Beauvoir refers to it in The Second Sex, when cuts were made for the English translation, the reference to Rachilde was deemed expendable. By contrast, Huysmans A rebours, also published in 1884, had attained the status of decadent classic by the mid-twentieth century. Both novels contain many of the same decadent topoi: a blurring of distinction among the senses through Baudelairean synesthesia; the confusion between aesthetic taste (art) and culinary taste (cooking) and between taking in abstract concepts and eating food; the collapse of apparent opposites such as disgust and desire, good and bad taste; the relocation of biblical myths of Edenic creation in decadent hothouses of artifice; and finally, a rewriting of narratives of creativity itself."

"She followed the success of Monsieur Vénus with a series of novels that drew on similar themes of nonconformist, nonreproductive sexual practices, novels that raised questions about the multiple possible relations among the sex category assigned at birth, gender expression, and erotic desires."

* * *

A few drops of Monsieur Vénus to give a taste of the overall tone:

"At last!" she said, when the brocade dress with chaste higlights had fallen at her impatient feet. She took a small copper key, opened a closet hidden among the draperies, and took out a black evening suit, complete from the patent leather boots to the embroidered formal shirt. In front of the mirror, which returned to her the image of a man as handsome as all the heroes of novels girls dream about, she slid her hand, with the shining wedding ring, through her short curly hair. A bitter smile played on her lips, blurred by an imperceptible brownish down."

"Then he sighed, 'I'm sleepy,' as he put the pointy heels of Raoule's shoes on his forehead."

"A tear whose wet brightness seemed to have stolen its light from Eden of long ago rolled down Raoule's cheek."

"...they were plunging toward bottomless pits and thought they were safe in each other's arms."

* * *

Monsieur Vénus is only available in English through the Modern Language Association: HERE (the one Amazon carries is French)

As far as I know, the only other novel available in English by Rachilde is The Juggler -- the story of a woman who forsakes all men and chooses a Greek vase as her obscure object of desire.


Luc said...

Yet another reason to learn French!

aurelio said...


...Yes, the Rachilde!

What other Symbolists/Decadent writers are waiting to burst out of your keyboard? Huysmans, the Comte de Lautreamont, Baudelaire...?


aurelio said... Mallarme's funeral, Alfred Jarry wore a pair of Madame Rachilde's bright yellow shoes.



...I've read this factoid years ago & was pleased that someone else did too.