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The Angels of Perversity

by Rémy de Gourmont

Short Stories
Anatole France called Remy de Gourmont (1858-1915) the 'greatest living French writer'. The stories Francis Amery has collected and translated under the not inappropriate title The Angels of Perversity are from the first half of Gourmont's career, when, as a writer of short fictions he established himself as a significant figure in the Symbolist movement.

Studies in Fascination
The White Dress
Don Juan's Secret
The Fugitives
Limpid Eyes
The Shroud
On the Threshold
The Red Marguerite
Sylvie's Sister
The Other
The Death One Cannot Mourn
The Magnolia
The Adulterous Candle
The Dress
The Faun
Evening Conversation Strategems

The Phantom
The Portal
The Palace of Symbols
Duplicity Incense
The Organ
Tears The Unicorns
The Figures
The Rings

Published by Dedalus in January 1992
ISBN: 0-946626-81-2

Review by Glenn Russell

The Angels of Perversity is a collection of 30 short tales by French philosopher/aesthetician/literary critic/fiction writer Remy de Gourmont (1858 - 1915), a leading voice of the fin-de-siècle decadent and symbolist schools who was heralded as the `critical conscience of a generation'. Although handsome as a young man, a skin disease ravaged his face when Gourmont was in his early 30s prompting him to become a recluse and devote the next 25 years of his life to writing, enough writing to fill 50 thick volumes.

Back on his fiction, here is what translator Francis Amery aka Brian Stableford says about Gourmont in his 15 page introduction to the author's life and times: "His one and only subject matter was sex; he was deeply fascinated by the essential capriciousness of the sexual impulse, by the ill-effects of social and religious repression of sexuality, and by the intellectual strategies which might maximize the quasi-transcendental experience of sexual rapture." Thus, with this sexual repression and how men and women deal with their twisted sexual energy, we have the book's title. And to provide a more specific glimpse of what one will encounter in this provocative collection, I offer the following comments on three of the tales:

On the Threshold
An odd-ball tale where the narrator visits the gloomy, depressing French chateau of an old aristocrat. And what is really weird is there is a tame heron with the name of `Missionary' who stalks from room to room as if on a ominous mission. The narrator accidentally bumps into the heron and says, "Go on then, Remorse." This rebuke initially upsets the old marquis and then triggers him to disclose the sad story of his life.

When the men retire to his den, the marquis confesses to the narrator that he himself is like the heron: he never sleeps. He goes on, "My heart, at least, never sleeps. I am familiar with drowsiness, but I am a stranger to unconsciousness. My dreams are simply the continuation of my waking thoughts . . . And what do I dream about in this fashion, during all the interminable hours of my life? Of nothing - or rather of negation, of that which I have not done, that which I will not do, that which I could not do, even if my youth were given back to me. For that is my nature. I am one who has never been active, who has never lifted a finger in order to accomplish a desire or duty."

At this point, the marquis recounts his boyhood, where an orphan cousin was brought into his home, a beautiful blonde young girl of the same age. However, some years after, at the time when he became more rational, he had the experience that would define his life forever: he plucked a rose from his garden and saw that the rose faded and withered away within the hour. He concluded: no matter how much one yearns for roses, one must not pluck roses. He applied this principle to every aspect of life, including his relationship with his beautiful cousin. Indeed, although he lived side-by-side with his cousin for another 20 years and loved her with a burning intensity, he never `crossed the threshold', never acted on his feelings, never permitted himself to be subject to the disenchantment born of desire or action. And what of his beautiful cousin? She became weak and died of love for the marquis. And, so, he has lived alone for many years in his chateau called `Gallows-Tree House' with the black swans swimming among broken reeds and a heron clacking its beak and staring out of its cheerless and ironic eyes.

One can reflect on this tale in light of ongoing decadent themes: rotting civilization, moral transgression and emotional extremes. I wouldn't be surprised if Gourmont was inspired to write `On the Threshold' after ruminating on a famous aphorism of Arthur Schopenhauer, the favorite philosopher among decadent writers, "No rose without a thorn but many a thorn without a rose."

The Faun
A young wife and mother returns from a Christmas Eve dinner nauseated by her husband's hypocritical show of affection and weary of the laughter of little children. Once her bedroom door is locked, she stands naked before her mirror and, rebelling against any memory of her youth and innocence, she turns her thoughts to sensuality. The author writes, "She gave herself up to a dream of sumptuous fornication, imagining she might sink into an unexpected stupor, a complaisant victim of desire, right there beside the fire with the fur about her . . . " But such intense pleasure doesn't last forever, for as Gourmont observes, society and religion have turned men and especially women against their own bodies and dreams of sensuality.

The Dress
A young man experiences an intense yearning for the fulfillment of his love-sick heart. To this end he searches out beautiful women strolling along the streets of Paris. But, wait - is the beauty he seeks in women? No, not at all, for we read, "A naked woman seemed to him to be an absurdity, an anomaly--something like a bald parrot or a plucked chicken." What his love-sick heart yearns to unite with is a beautiful dress. That's right - this young man has a dress fetish, a fetish leading to a warped and sick encounter with a young woman and ultimately leading to murder. One of the most memorable tales of sexual perversion you will ever read.

The Brian Stableford Website