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.

In 1865, Heredia described Villiers as a ‘very interesting madman’. A little later, Leconte de Lisle found him a madman, though not so interesting as a writer. And more recently, Sartre called him ‘admirable but mad’. The adjectives occurring and recurring in the present book are idealistic, unstable, turbulent, feverish, ebullient, unpredictable, indomitable, histrionic, capricious, eloquent (‘the most astonishing talker of this age’, according to Huysmans). No doubt they all apply, but they point to the difficulty the biographer faces in conveying his subject’s personal presence, fascination and power. Many of those who over the years have come to praise Dylan Thomas, for instance, have ended by doing something oddly like the opposite: to such an extent that it has become less easy than of old to read Yeats’s poem, ‘The Scholars’ –

Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

– in the righteously scholar-scorning spirit intended.

Villiers was a genuine romantic, so thoroughgoingly the real thing as to look very much like a caricature of it. He was not duplicitous, although the divisions in his nature produced effects that could be mistaken for duplicity. He contrived first to support the Paris Commune of 1871 and then to oppose it. He was an aristocrat and a royalist – he felt he was born to ‘rule’, and in 1862 put in a bid, or so he claimed later, for the vacant kingship of Greece – but ready to adopt revolutionary postures towards the hated bourgeoisie. His ideas on money and love were high-minded, but he persisted in the hope of marrying a rich heiress – though not a Jewish one, out of care for the purity of his line. This hope, itself high-minded in that it was not money he coveted but the freedom to write that money would ensure, led him into what must strike us as peculiarly strange antics. In 1873 he signed a promissory note for 200,000 francs payable to a matrimonial agent called Comte de La Houssaye on his marriage (as the agent’s receipt has it) ‘to the person to whom I am to introduce him’, it being understood, in an additional clause, that ‘the fortune of the wife of the Comte de Villiers will have to be at least three millions.’ In return La Houssaye, reputed to have engaged earlier in the slave trade, staked Villiers to a repeater-watch, a fur-trimmed overcoat and a set of false teeth, while Mallarmé undertook to teach him basic English: ‘since it’s a matter of a wedding,’ said the ardent wooer, ‘I’ll only learn the future tense of the verbs.’ The language lessons were deemed advisable in that the lucky lady was a Miss Anna Eyre Powell, whose father owned land in both Ireland and England: ‘a girl who is a dream from Ossian,’ Villiers wrote to Judith Gautier.

After an exchange of letters Villiers took himself off to England, staying at the Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria and at the Eyre Powell country house in Staffordshire, and proposing to visit Dublin as well. Like most of his projects, this one went wrong – for reasons unestablished, though probably because, after a briefly idyllic time spent in Hyde Park, the Crystal Palace and Drury Lane Theatre, the young woman took fright at the French poet’s excitability. La Houssaye took back the watch and the overcoat, but at least Villiers gained a set of false teeth out of it. ‘With all his faults of credulity and fantasy, Villiers lived out to the utmost degree of commitment every role in which he cast himself,’ says Raitt, ‘and this ignominious collapse of his hopes was perhaps the cruellest blow he ever suffered.’ Perhaps. There were so many collapses, so many cruel blows, in ‘a life studded with disasters’. ‘Yet once again his indomitable spirit enabled him to overcome his wounds, even if he could never forget them,’ and a few days later he was striving to persuade a theatre manager to put on his play Morgane, ‘a spectacular cloak-and-dagger drama’. Without success.

So his life went on. Or so he went on, terrifying theatre managers, infuriating publishers and editors, and alienating even the best-disposed of them by his continual rewriting. His father had wasted the family resources on such crazy schemes as hunting for treasure putatively hidden by aristocrats during the Revolution and so far unrecovered. And Tante Kerinou’s death in 1871 reduced him to permanent penury. He survived on modest loans and meagre and uncertain earnings – at one stage he worked as a sparring partner in a gymnasium – and through the unobtrusive intervention of friends in the matter of food and clothing. He was not one to notice that a plate of soup had appeared mysteriously on the café table, or that a new shirt had taken the place of a worn-out article. On one occasion, when he turned up at an elegant soirée with his hands uncovered, a lady guest remarked on what very fine gloves he was wearing. He replied: ‘A present from my mother, madam!’ Until we read his stories, such reported sallies are our only evidence for Raitt’s generous estimate of him as ‘one of the greatest, most insidious and most incisive of French ironists’.

Impoverished aristocrats need wit. And, as sanguine characters have to be, Villiers was marvellously resilient. Convinced of what his career was meant to be, had to be, he endured the recurrent pattern of encouragement, brink-of-triumph, collapse – at the best, fame without success. In 1881, he stood as a candidate, under royalist colours, for election to the Municipal Council of Paris. The victory of the sitting councillor, a left-wing republican, was certain from the outset, and Villiers later wrote that ‘the result of such elections nowadays being well-known in advance, I had accepted only for the honour of defeat.’ It was at this time that Marie Dantine, an illiterate widowed charwoman who had been voluntarily looking after him (she it was who switched the clothes), gave birth to a son, baptised as Marie-Joseph-Alphonse-Victor-Philiippe-Auguste. Villiers was living with a servant! While pride of race led him to invent a story about the child being the result of a liaison with a beautiful unnamed princess, and it was only on his deathbed that he would marry the mother, he again accepted ‘the honour of defeat’ and renounced for ever the dream of marrying into riches.

Villiers was intensely fond and proud of his son, an unusually handsome and intelligent boy, and it looked as though Victor, finally legitimatised, would carry on his father’s name: he certainly resembled him, founding a little magazine called L’ldée and fighting a duel while still at school. Alas, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 20. Marie lived until 1920 and was buried in a pauper’s grave. To conclude this sad story of the death of a noble line, Villiers himself died of cancer in 1889, not yet 51, but looking as if he were 80 years old.

Towards the end, Mallarmé, finest of friends, whose understanding of him was preternaturally acute, said: ‘Villiers de I’Isle-Adam wrote the last pages of L’Eve Future flat on his stomach on the floor of a room emptied of its furniture and lit by the stump of a candle ... Flat on his stomach! But his spirit stood upright. For the spirit, with some people, always forms a right angle with the crushed body.’

Raitt tells of the young Belgians who came to Paris in 1886 to discover what was new in the arts, and found Villiers. Later Maeterlinck spoke for them all, in recounting how some were stunned after an evening spent with Villiers in a café, others regenerated by this contact with genius: when he talked, ‘it was as if there was in the air the movement of some great invisible thing of which he was the spokesman.’ But it was not all talk and personal presence and great invisible things in the air. There was also, now, the work to marvel over.

Villiers, a model of the Romantic Poet in extremis, maudit in any number of ways, wrote best in prose. Axël takes some swallowing: worked on for 20 years, it never reached a form finally acceptable to its author, and it is peculiarly difficult to preserve momentum when one’s theme is renunciation – here, on such a sweeping scale. Though meant as praise, Yeats’s description of the work in 1894 serves as a fair warning: it is a drama ‘written in prose as elevated as poetry, and in which all the characters are symbols, and all the events allegories’. Yet this doesn’t indicate the prime weakness – the longwindedness, the relentless pursuit of every implication of every thought, the sense that the author has been carried away not so much by imagination (reckoned to be his chief virtue, and his chief vice) as by words.

Having at last dispatched his cousin – his enemy, or tempter – in a duel preceded by so many long speeches that one cannot believe the principals have any breath left for fighting, Axël moralises thus:

Passer-by, you have passed away. Here you are sinking down into the Unthinkable. During your days of narrow self-sufficiency you were nothing but a dross of animal instincts refractory to all divine selection! Nothing ever called you from the Beyond! And you have fulfilled yourself. You fall to the depths of Death like a stone into a void, – without attraction and without goal. The speed of such a plunge, multiplied by the single ideal weight, at this point is ... immeasurable ... so that this stone in reality is no longer anywhere. – So disappear! Even from between my eyebrows.[*]

Talk of kicking a man when he is down!

Axël and Sara renounce Christianity (or its institutional and ascetic aspects), and wealth (the buried treasure that Villiers’s father sought in vain), and then love, or love consummated and lived and hence bound to disappoint. This last renunciation or repudiation involves them in one more – of life itself. It is characteristic of the author that in the midst of fearful orotundities there emerge fine spare sentences which suddenly focus meaning out of all the blur and glare. Thus Axël’s ‘The future? ... Sara, have faith in my words: we have just exhausted it,’ and ‘Man carries into death only what he renounces in life.’ The context of the latter pronouncement, the key passage in the final scene (‘The Supreme Option’), is worth quoting for its clarity and force, besides its unblushing arrogance:

Realise this, Sara: in our strange hearts we have destroyed the love of life – and indeed in REALITY we have become our souls! If we accepted life now, we should commit a sacrilege against ourselves. As for living? our servants will do that for us. Satiated for all eternity, let us rise from the table, and in all justice let us leave to ordinary mortals whose ill-fated nature can measure the value of realities only by sensation, the task of picking up the banquet crumbs. – I have thought too much to stoop to act!

For all its kinship with Tristan and Isolde (Villiers was a fanatical Wagnerian), with Goethe’s Faust and perhaps with Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Antony, Axël is at least unique. And a representation of the ultimate battle, it must seem, in the ancient war between the ideal and the actual. Raitt reports that, although it still awaits a worthy production, ‘it has met with acclaim on its various appearances on stage, radio and television.’ Despite everything, we would hate it to have died the death.

More acceptable, I would imagine, to the modern reader, as to Villiers’s contemporaries, are the stories in the collection, Contes Cruels (1883). However gorgeous the style, the brevity of the form keeps them from uncoiling into those ‘spectacular constructions with metaphysical overtones’ so dear to the author’s heart. The overtones are indisputably there – less disputably than in ostensibly more ambitious writings – but in these miniatures the lines of construction are uncluttered and sharply incised. There isn’t time to explain and justify every single thing.

The Contes Cruels are surprisingly varied – surprisingly in that such a diversity of attitude and tone is rarely found inside one set of covers – and range from the Poeian horror story, through the occult, the allegorical, the deceptively idyllic (a ‘bourgeois’ Paul et Virginie), the sinisterly humorous, to the pungently satirical. To me they seem more clearly and forcibly revealing of Villiers’s nature, his visions and revulsions, than is anything else. In ‘Véra’, with its summoning-up of the late loved one, is displayed the power of mind (love, imagination, conviction) over dead matter. ‘Two Augurs’, as personally felt as everything the author wrote, assaults in ironic fashion the Philistinism of the day. ‘If you are a writer, you are the born enemy of every newspaper ... Dammit all, people don’t like being humiliated,’ the editor informs the humble aspirant: ‘The only motto a serious man of letters can adopt nowadays is this: Be commonplace. That’s the motto I’ve chosen for myself. Hence my notoriety.’[†]

Somewhat similar is ‘The Glory Machine’, the invention of Baron Bathybius Bottom, which manufactures fame (‘myrtles and laurels’) for playwrights – ‘Let us not forget that the Spirit of the Age belongs to machines’ – and, when suitably programmed, even turns out critical notices in advance, ‘on the lines of the Prayer-wheel of the Chinese, our precursors in every sphere of progress’. Then ‘The Apparatus for the Chemical Analysis of the Last Breath’ is another Science-Fictional device (cf. L’Eve Future, a novel in which a human beloved is replaced by an automaton with a soul), in this case intended to keep people happy or at any rate equable: it familiarises the young with the sorrows of mourning by collecting and preserving ‘penultimate breaths’. Nobody really wants to suffer these days, and ‘our motto in all circumstances must be this: Calm! Calm! Calm!’ It was of such stories that Huysmans wrote in A Rebours: ‘All the filth of contemporary utilitarian ideas, all the mercantile ignominy of the age were glorified in pieces whose poignant irony transported Des Esseintes.’

Several of the tales offer glosses on – indeed, clarifications of – Axël. The couple in ‘Virginia and Paul’ are Axël and Sara turned upside-down and travestied. Their youthful passion is quite openly contained by prudent and practical considerations, and in their minds love and the cash that will enable them to love in comfort are contentedly indistinguishable: even the nightingale’s voice is ‘silvery’, while the moon is ‘a lovely silver colour’. Knowing how all the world loves a pair of young lovers, and lest we should miss the point, ‘Hail, divine innocence!’ growls the author. In ‘The Unknown Woman’ (a tale which Raitt considers misogynistic, though if we are to read it in that way it is better termed misanthropic), the heroine, cut off from ordinary life by deafness – and by superiority of sensibility – tells her would-be lover, himself a count, Félicien de la Vierge, and from Brittany: ‘Although I am a virgin, I am the widow of a dream, and I want to remain unsatisfied.’

If that tale glances at Sara, ‘Sentimentality’ glances at Axël, and at their creator. In it his mistress, about to transfer her affections to someone else, asks the young poet (another count) whether art hasn’t led to an inability in him to feel joy or sorrow as a man. ‘I should like to discover, before we part, what gives great artists the right to show such scorn for the ways of other men.’ The poet maintains that artists have identified themselves ‘with the very essence of Joy, with the living idea of Pain’, and are hence disinclined to throw themselves about in paroxysms of emotion whether in the arms of their mistresses or on the printed page. Having parted with her, coolly and courteously, he wins the argument by going home, polishing his nails, writing a few lines of verse ‘about a Scottish glen’, reading a few pages of a new book, and then quietly shooting himself. Incidentally, a later story tells of a man who strangles swans in order to hear their last song. Raitt has remarked on Villiers’s use of irony and self-parody as a means of self-defence in his dealings with others. In the stories such elements rub shoulders with le grand sérieux and also with the sheer pleasure in writing that can lead the writer along unanticipated pathways.

The simple truth – simple, we call it – is that Villiers was wholly and fiercely dedicated to literature; and this is a dedication which more often than not is accompanied by idiocies and calamities in practically every other department of life. This expert and exhaustive biography demonstrates the truth with an amplitude which might be thought excessive – but then, excess is part of it. Villiers de I’Isle-Adam was an enormously brave and, in what mattered to him, steadfast man. In closing sentences which could hardly be bettered, Raitt comments on how fully he lived up to the twin mottoes of his family, exhorting to extremity, daring and tenacity: Va oultre and La main à l’oeuvre.

[*] 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).