May 12, 2016
by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly
TRANSLATED BY RAYMOND N. MACKENZIE
University of Minnesota Press, 2015
Review by Austin Price
The idea that Diaboliques was deemed so gross “an outrage against public morality” upon its initial publication that police raided the printing house and seized all remaining copies must seem absurd to modern sensibilities. These six stories are not child’s fare, replete as they are with bloody adultery, erotic entanglement and characters of a ferocious and pronounced immorality, but in an age where the derangements of Brett Eason Ellis and Chuck Palanchiuk share shelf-space with hundreds of volumes of true crime collections and even a passing glance at the nightly news will turn-up a cavalcade of real-life nightmares, d’Aurevilly’s contention that the sights he offers are so horrifying because they’re “real histories drawn from this era of ours, this era of progress” sounds impossibly quaint.
Although d’Aurevilly writes at length of the evil that men and women (especially women; he makes specific note that “not one [woman] in this collection fails to deserve the name [diaboliques],” giving the collection an air of sexism not entirely at odds with d’Aurevilly’s own strident, old fashioned Catholicism) do in pursuit of carnal desire, what he depicts is never overly strange or grotesque. There are appalling moments, certainly: one fight between lovers ends with a man trying to seal a woman’s vagina shut with burning wax. Another instance finds a duchess watching on in horror as her lover’s heart is devoured by hounds. But there is nothing lascivious in these depictions. d’Aurevilly never devotes much more than a line to these grotesqueries and they are categorically subdued (with the notable exception of an exploding eyeball). Sex is similarly distant. For all that is written of “interlaced bodies,” there’s never any overt depiction of the act. Although one prostitute’s dress is described as “monstrous in its provocation” the description ends there: everything naughty is left to the imagination. d’Aurevilly may have derided his peers for the “inventions, complications, obscurities...refinements” and “contemporary melodrama” that characterized their works, but in so many ways his seems every bit as possessed of these same affectations.
And yet if it is so mannered, so much for the better. Diabloques is powerfully erotic and disturbingly violent almost purely because of d’Aurevilly’s formal approach. If he does not directly depict sex it is because his keenly observed descriptions of his characters are charged with an eroticism so distinct that to linger on the act itself would be redundant. A simple description of one woman’s “lithe suppleness, its coiling, its sudden leaps, its clawing, and its biting” reveals so much more about her approach to sex and her character than the pornographic approach – with all of its “thrusting” and “swallowing lips” and “moaning” – modern writers so often favor. And if he wastes little time dwelling on the wounds left by the million-and-one sword thrusts mentioned throughout the anthology, it is because d’Aurevilly’s razor sharp descriptions have already created a world immediately present. When even the act of forgetting possesses sensual dimension (described beautifully as “the flesh of a living creature that reforms itself and covers events up, keeping us from...even suspecting that there is anything there”), the casual mention of a stab wound carries with it an undeniable power.
It is no accident, of course, that d’Aurevilly would invest even memories with weight and body. Or that he would choose to reveal his character’s multifaceted interiors via carefully painted descriptions of their bodies, their postures, their costumes and the world they live in. “When you know the body, you quickly come to know the heart,” explains the physician narrating “Happiness in Crime,” and though the thought is very much his own, it could as easily belong to d’Aurevilly himself. For as much as he might moralize – and rest assured, d’Aurevilly’s conservative mores and his disappointment with post-Revolution France’s increasingly democratic governance are major thematic thrusts on display at all times – d’Aurevilly is never one to simplify: his interests before anything are with his characters’ beautifully realized psychologies. Sometimes he chooses to reveal these through extended descriptions of the same, as with the Duchess’s grand speech in “A Woman’s Vengeance;” at other time, such as in “Beneath the Cards in a Game of Whist,” he is more subtle, as hesitant to explain his characters as they are unwilling to reveal the cards they play so close to their chests. But no matter the story, he is meticulous in making certain their style of speech, their manners, their appearance and their dress showcase those hidden passions they themselves will not unveil; the result is a collection uniformly disturbing not despite of but in fact because of his highly formal approach. No doubt much of this is attributable to Raymond N. MacKenzie’s translation, always so clear, always direct and masterfully annotated to make sense of the hundreds of historical and literary allusions so integral to understanding the world and history d’Aurevilly wrote these tales in response to. It should do much to correct this collection’s status as a subterranean classic and, with it, restore d’Aurevilly’s status as a hallmark of decadent literature.