toxic emanations


It soon becomes evident that there are only a few protagonists in Maldoror’s grisly recitals, and that the chief one is none other than Maldoror, identical with the narrator himself. A few minor characters, with names such as Lohengrin or Lombano, flit past as occasional partners in crime; and there is an ample provision of nameless innocents, the victims of Maldoror’s tireless intentions. The one protagonist who might be expected to resist this paragon of evil is the Creator himself, but Maldoror has no truck with divine privilege, and sees off the deity in a stanza (strophe) steeped in blasphemous fantasy, in which the “Celestial Bandit” is depicted as a drunken debauchee shuffling away after a night at the brothel. Rather than simply suborn us through glamorous evocations of criminal pleasures, the deeper purpose of Les Chants de Maldoror is to sabotage the central clauses of the writer–reader contract, if not the protocols of literature at large. As a corpus of highly self-conscious prose cantos, Ducasse’s text is not only a compendium of boasts and blasphemies: it is constantly sharpening itself as it advances, providing a succession of ironic disclaimers that entirely wrong-foot its reader. Some will scoff and shrug off the book as a laughable parody of the Gothic; yet it is more accurate to say that it takes its genre seriously, so seriously as to transcend horror and disgust and ultimately to thrust the enthralled reader into a state of pure acquiescence to the narratorial will, as if to “de-brain” (“décerveler”, to use Alfred Jarry’s term) the innocent page-turner, who sinks into a shellshocked numbness, no longer even capable of “blushing at the thought of what the human heart is really like”.

more from Roger Cardinal at the TLS here.