The Honour of Defeat

D.J. Enright

  • The Life of Villiers de I’Isle-Adam by A.W. Raitt
    Oxford, 470 pp, £25.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 19 815771 1

Born in 1838, Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam came of an illustrious Breton line, latterly more distinguished for its poverty and eccentricity. His grandfather, who fought against the Revolution but failed to thrive under the Restoration, wrote to the Minister of Justice in 1815 that, had his name not been so long already, he would have asked the reigning monarch, Louis XVIII, ‘to add to it that of “poor devil”, and that is a name I really deserve.’

To us Villiers is best-known for the grandiloquent pronouncement (his one entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations): ‘Live? The servants will do that for us.’ This, admittedly, was spoken by one of his characters. Yet it was of the author himself that his friend Mallarmé said, after his death: ‘His life – I search for anything that corresponds to that expression: truly and in the ordinary sense, did he live?’

The strange thing is that, during the first quarter of the present Life, Villiers appears to have written little of any account, his early productions being turgid and derivative, and yet he attained a reputation, among the best people, as the great writer of the near-future. This can only be put down to his personality, his conviction, his remarkable charisma. On the other hand, he does seem to be living: a life of crazy schemes and extremes which earns the adjectives, rarely found in the blurb to a scholarly monograph, ‘bewildering, preposterous, hilarious and moving’. A life, most certainly, that no self-respecting servant would be seen dead living.

Mallarmé also said of him: ‘The word “infinite” can only be proffered worthily by a young man looking like Louis XIII, wearing furs and with fair hair.’ Villiers, A.W. Raitt tells us, ‘changed the whole course of Mallarmé’s existence’, just as a little earlier, ‘Baudelaire altered the whole course of Villiers’s life’ – though his Life suggests that no one and nothing could have done this. The convoluted weirdness of Villiers’s behaviour, and that of many of his friends, is exemplified by the story of Catulle Mendè’s marriage in 1865 to Judith, the attractive and intelligent illegitimate daughter of Théophile Gautier, while sustaining a liaison with the beautiful and rich Irish-born musician, Augusta Holmes (or Holmès). As Raitt surmises, Villiers may himself have had hopes of Judith, and possibly of Augusta too, in which case he could well have felt that his friend was getting the best of both bargains. Nonetheless, together with Leconte de Lisle (such choice names!), he attended the wedding as one of Mendès’s witnesses, decorated with a row of enormous medals which his colleague persuaded him to discard on the grounds that he looked like a display case. Once when someone asked him who conferred all those orders on him, he answered: ‘I do.’

Villiers then set out to court Judith’s younger sister, Estelle, equally attractive, equally illegitimate. Their marriage was blocked by Tante Kerinou, actually the aunt of Villiers’s mother, the only member of the family to show any financial sense and hence to possess money, for a while. Tante Kerinou was content to subsidise Villiers in his literary career – the whole family encouraged him in that – but not to subsidise his marriage to someone boasting neither pedigree nor cash. ‘Right from his childhood he had known with total certainty that there was only one thing to which a Villiers de l’Isle-Adam could worthily devote his life in the shambles of the modern world, and that was literature.’ He also knew that he could not support himself by writing, by his kind of writing. So he abandoned Estelle, no doubt shedding some natural tears. Six years later Estelle married a journalise, Emile Bergerat, who admitted to Gautier in advance with trepidation, that he was a natural son. Gautier commented: ‘Aren’t we all?’ Bergerat went on the confess that his mother was living with a priest. The future father-in-law replied amenably: ‘Who better to live with?’

It was shortly after this setback that Villiers found a backer for a periodical called Revue des Lettres et des Arts which appeared weekly and lasted for 25 numbers. The list of contributors reads like a roll of literary fame: among others, Mallarmé, Leconte de Lisle, Verlaine, José-Maria de Heredia, François Coppée, the Goncourt brothers, Mendès and his two ladies, besides Villiers himself in the shape of more mature work. (Talking of Villiers’s ‘imminent publications’, Raitt remarks that he was ‘quite capable of persuading himself that he had completed and even published whole books of which not a line existed on paper.’ Perhaps this was a disguised manifestation of his idealistic philosophy: unheard melodies are sweeter?) Considering Villiers’s editorial aims and aspirations, however, we are surprised that the journal survived as long as it did. He told Mallarmé that his object was to ‘drive the reader mad’: ‘What a triumph, if we could make some subscribers end up in the lunatic asylum at Bicêtre! ... yes, I flatter myself that I have found the way to the bourgeois’s heart! I have incarnated him so as to kill him off at leisure and with greater certainty.’ The logic of this is rather quaint, but it bears witness to Villiers’s total idealism, his unworldliness, the dimensions of his spiritual ambitiousness. Towards the end of the Revue’s life, he and his assistant would wait eagerly in their wintry little office for advance copies with which to make a warming bonfire.

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[*] Extracts from the drama are taken from Marilyn Gaddis Rose’s courageous translation, published by the Dolmen Press in 1970.

[†] Quotations come from Robert Baldick’s translations, Cruel Tales (Oxford, 1963).