Shark-Shagger

Harry Mathews

  • ‘Maldoror’ and the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont translated by Alexis Lykiard
    Exact Change, 352 pp, £11.99, January 1995, ISBN 1 878972 12 X

The literary career of Isidore Ducasse, successor to Sade, Byron and Baudelaire and a model for Rimbaud, Jarry and the Surrealists, has been virtually a posthumous one. It has been chronically complicated furthermore by obsessions with the lacunae of his biography, as well as with the interpretation of the two names, Lautréamont and Maldoror, the first of which is a mystery and the second an enigma.

Ducasse was born on 4 April 1846, in Montevideo. Both his parents came from Bigorre, the region around Tarbes in South-West France. His father was well-to-do, a secretary and later chancellor at the French Consulate in Montevideo. Little is known about his mother, who died a year and a half after her son’s birth, a possible suicide. In 1859, Ducasse was sent to France, to attend the lycée at Tarbes and after that the one at Pau, where he completed his studies and passed the Final baccalauréat. In 1867, he returned briefly to Montevideo, then settled in Paris for his few remaining years. Supported by remittances from his father, he lived in furnished flats, changing his address frequently but never leaving the neighbourhood of the Grands Boulevards and the Bourse. In 1868, a first version of the opening canto of Les Chants de Maldoror was published anonymously and, like all of Ducasse’s work, at the author’s expense. The following year the complete Maldoror was printed and bound in Belgium, the author being identified as the ‘Comte de Lautréamont’; fearing trouble with the imperial censorship, the publisher declined to distribute the book in France. In 1870, both parts of the Poésies were published, with his own name on the title page. Isidore Ducasse died during the siege of Paris on 24 November of the same year.

It is easy to understand the fascination that Ducasse’s life has exercised. His origins both cosmopolitan and provincial, his mother’s early and unexplained death, the precocity of his output, his own early death, provide promising materials for a legend. There is no point, moreover, where the facts are beyond dispute, in trying to exclude his life from a consideration of his work. His biographer François Caradec observes, for example, that Ducasse ‘spoke with a Gascon accent’ and that many of his misspellings and turns of phrase reflect the speech of Bigorre. But the lure that has sidetracked so many critics arises from underdocumented events in his life. The problem, as Caradec points out, is not that we know so little about him but that we know too much; and the personal tone of his writing prompts us to eke out deductions from it in order to fill in the tantalising gaps. The procedure is notoriously unreliable.

All the same, the lure remains, and I have often been tempted by it myself. Simple curiosity makes me want to know what sort of a relationship he had with his father; how his mother’s death affected him (according to one recollection, when confronted with a cow’s rotting carcass, he asked, ‘Do humans stink like that when they die? ... And Mama too?’); how he spent his time during the Paris years; whether he was homosexual; what sexual experiences he had. Other anecdotes are more directly pertinent to the work. A report that at the beach Ducasse ‘swam like a fish’ seems relevant to Maldoror’s aquatic coupling with the shark. Another account claims that ‘he wrote only at night, seated at his piano. He worked out his sentences by declaiming them, punctuating his recitation with chords.’ This method, ‘the despair of the other tenants’, suggests a ‘body language’ that would have delighted Roland Barthes. If Ducasse was indeed nicknamed ‘The Vampire’ at school, can this shed light on the recurrent figure of the vampire in Maldoror? When he died, books by Poe and Eugène Sue were supposedly found on his bedside table. Might this indicate that Poe was as great an influence on him as Sue?

These are not facts: they are either recollections noted long after the event or second and third-hand reports, likely to remain unsubstantiated. A particularly irritating item is why the author’s name on the first complete edition of Maldoror should be given as ‘le Comte de Lautréamont’. It seems likely, but only likely, that the name was derived from the Latréaumont who is the protagonist of a novel by Sue (poor proofreading has turned him into ‘Lautréaumont’ on page 7 of Lykiard’s Introduction). Did Ducasse choose the pseudonym? He had certainly read Sue, and Caradec emphasises the appeal of Latréaumont the character (‘a kind of cruel clown, a moral and physical monstrosity’) to the creator of the ‘diabolical’ Maldoror. Or was the name proposed by Lacroix, Sue’s publisher as well as Ducasse’s, simply as a way of protecting the author from probable prosecution? Lykiard, who reviews the matter perceptively and succinctly, raises an intriguing point when he asks: ‘Does this self-conferred nobility, Comte de Lautréamont, purposely link the writer with the Marquis de Sade and Lord Byron in an aristocratic élite of the intellect?’ We shall probably never know. If I find the question irritating, it is because Ducasse has come to be universally referred to by a name that appears only once in his work, that he never refers to in his letters, and that may have been no more than a temporary legal expedient. No doubt there is little point in defying a usage so entrenched; on the other hand, did Lautréamont write the Poésies, signed ‘Isidore Ducasse’?

Besides ‘Lautréamont’, another name has provoked speculation: that of Maldoror, the character who dominates Ducasse’s first work. Other characters appear, but all, including God, are subordinate to him. A first-person narrator is also present; but Maldoror often assumes the narrator’s role himself, and while one can often distinguish the two voices, they are frequently confounded. (For instance, in the brothel scene in Canto III we do not know before the final sentence which ‘I’ we have been listening to.)

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