Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont.

Isidore Ducasse and Les Chants de Maldoror.
"May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened and having for the first time being become as fierce as what he is reading, should, without being led astray, find his rugged and treacherous way across the desolate swamps of these sombre and poison-filled pages; for, unless he brings to his reading a rigorous logic and a tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar. It is not right that everyone should read the pages which follow; only a few will be able to savour this bitter fruit with impunity. Consequently, shrinking soul, turn on your heels and go back before penetrating further into such uncharted, perilous wastelands. Listen well to what I say: turn on your heels and go back, not forward..."
So begins Les Chants de Maldoror (1868- - 1869) by Comte de Lautréamont, the pseudonym of the Uruguayan-born French writer Isidore-Lucien Ducasse who died a year after the publication at the age of 24.

Let it first be said that the advice he gives in the opening of this poetic prose is genuine and should not be taken lightly. Truly, it is better not read this novel if you have any doubts: this novel is poison-filled. I said to a friend last night Les Chants de Maldoror makes Dostoyevsky's The Devils look like A Little Princess. Maldoror, the central character, makes Stavrogin look positively amiable. It is the father, or grandfather perhaps, of Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho (and it makes Bateman look merely a bit misguided). This isn't a dark work, it is a black hole.

Illustration to Les Chants de Maldoror by Salvador Dalí.
It's regarded as one of the earliest works of surrealist writing and it tells the story (if it can be regarded as a story) of Maldoror, a figure of absolute evil, devoid of good, devoid of God, and of humanity. He is nihilistic, or in fact beyond that, and throughout the book Lautréamont describes his actions. It contains great cruelty with a sexually sadistic element to it that I dare say would make the Marquis de Sade wince: rape, torture, murder, and paedophilia, and even by today's standards is particularly graphic. It shows mankind in the worst possible way, life, the world, nature, is full of decay, everything is rotten and foul, and Maldoror revels in it. There is no light or beauty in these pages; it is mouldy, ugly, full of maggots, lice, and filth and has a foul stench to it that lingers. Les Chants de Maldoror is perverted.

So why read it? Well, I'm not sure most people should and I don't think I should have done: curiosity drove me on: I wondered if there would be a turn towards at least something good or beautiful. But it appears to be the work of a demented mind, and one wonders about the sanity of Ducasse. It's a disturbing glimpse into hell and Maldoror is the devil himself. But it is important insofar as it inspired Surrealism and the likes of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. And, after all, we can't say Ducasse didn't warn us. It is a very imaginative work, and for those who love 19th Century literature as much as me, a curiosity at least. It's quite an achievement, I allow, to be quite so sickening.

Comments

  1. yuk... reading your post, i kept thinking about politicians in this country... bad of me, i know, but... definitely a book i would spend good money not to read; tx for the warning...

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    1. You're welcome :) And the Trump administration doesn't compare with this - honestly, it is filled with absolute evil.

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  2. I find it disturbing that it's labelled a classic. Why? What does it say about our society when we laud depravity and filth? And what does it say about Surrealism if the roots of it are based on such lewd depravity? Hmm .... We don't want to shelter ourselves from realizing that evil exists but to revel in it, or to even read about someone else revelling in it cannot be healthy. As Mudpuddle, this works is definitely one I'll avoid, although your review is quite excellent.

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    1. I think it's important insofar as it's had some influence on some of our most famous artists (I actually really do not like surrealism which is another reason I can't give a passionate argument). Plus it's pretty unique. But no, don't read it. I'm embarrassed I did. I'm not particularly judgemental when it comes to books but if someone told me they liked this, loved it, or it was their favourite book I would judge them and I would find them wanting.

      As for it being unhealthy - this may have been a coincidence but I started it a few nights ago and only got about 10 pages in before I fell asleep, and I had one of the worst nightmares I've ever had: actually went downstairs at 1 am and watched tv for an hour. I dread to think about the author's state of mind as he wrote this.

      I think the upshot is, for me anyway, it sits alongside American Psycho - it pushes the very boundaries of freedom of speech and I don't agree with banning books. Oh, but I'd come very close if I could to banning this one! It still has me on edge and I'm not terribly cheerful having read it. But there it is. There's not one person in the world I'd recommend it to, no matter how much I hated them! ;)

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    2. Great thoughts, O! I think you have very elegantly, succinctly and directly given a fair and honest appraisal of your experience with it. I know you're even-handed and open-minded so the fact you have such a strong opinion on this one is enough for me to steer clear away from it. And I really don't think I've missed anything except the experience of more pessimism and horror to add to a world that has too much of it already. Thanks for the warning.

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    3. That's how I feel - I've just added more horror to the world (or my world) than needed. But, well, I've read it now and I think it's made me appreciate other books because of it. That will have to suffice as a reason to have read it, but really I could have done without it :)

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  3. I was surprised that you read and reviewed this one. I read it a few years ago and thought it was brilliant, and yes it is a favourite of mine (yes, I have read your comment above :-) ). It was certainly an amazing read but so over the top that I find it difficult to think that readers would take it too seriously. There is a fair amount of black humour in it where the author seems to be winking at the reader and he seems to be trying to push the gothic horror and language to extremes. I can see why the surrealists fell in love with his prose as it's so visual and, dare I say, beautiful, darkly beautiful. I'm sure I've read somewhere that Lautréamont had planned to write his next book on beauty, or somesuch subject; sadly he died before he could write anything else.

    Readers should remember that they aren't expected to 'like' the character Maldoror as he is evil, maybe even the devil. In the same way the reader of a murder-mystery is not expected to 'like' the murderer or like the events that have happened, and yet plenty of readers read books about people being shot, stabbed, bludgeoned in a stately home, train carriage etc. It is literature, not real life.

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    1. I was waiting for a defender! I saw quite a number of 5 star reviews on Goodreads so I knew it was a matter of time :) Urgh, I don't know HOW it can be a favourite - did it not disturb the very soul out of you? It freaked me out! :) It is very visual, certainly, so I suppose he did well with that, but I didn't see even a smidgen of beauty in it. I think it pushed the boundaries too far to be honest if that doesn't sound too prudish.

      In a way it reminds me of Lolita: I felt with that book Nabokov was challenging the reader to find the ugliness within the facade of beauty as opposed to the usual thing of finding beauty in the ugly. On that theme - the idea of it being almost a writing exercise to test the reader, I see perhaps what Lautréamont was doing. But all I got out of it was revulsion and honestly, nothing more.

      As for murder mysteries etc, well I don't tend to read them. But I see something about life and humanity in, say, Shakespeare and the Elizabethan tragedies or Greek tragedies which get pretty bloody, but I didn't get that with this. I think I just saw a young man out to shock, which he did, and that was that.

      I do see why the surrealists liked it, though. And I suppose it was an insight into the criminally insane :)

      It's a shame he didn't get to write his book on beauty. I'd have loved to have read that. But this one - I didn't understand what the point was, really. Still an interesting one for 19th Century buffs.

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    2. I can see why readers wouldn't like it. For me the problem with it, as with a lot of experimental material, is that it was all over the place, it lacked cohesion. But the language and imagery was so intense and, yes, perverse that it was compelling to read. I find more realistic depictions of violence and cruelty more difficult to cope with, especially as I get older. But 'Maldoror' is more ethereal or poetic that it doesn't come across to me as real violence just a kind of aesthetic of evil and violence and because of that it's quite humorous at times. In some ways his writing is like H.P. Lovecraft's (or even de Sade's) in that it is so intense and over the top that it's almost ridiculous.

      Still, it was brave of you to finish the book and to give it such an even-handed review. It's such a shame that Lautréamont didn't live long enough to give us more works as I'm sure he would have moved on to something else.

      I hope the bad dreams have ended now. :-)

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    3. It was compelling, I agree, but I actually felt guilty about it - as I said, I don't think I should have read it. But as I said I wanted to see if it changed its path.

      "aesthetic of evil and violence" - interesting point. That's something I need to dwell on, but I see the distinction I think. Whatever the case I still found it foul :) Even so, I'm very glad you shared your thoughts on it, it's interesting to read arguments in favour of it!

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