Monsieur de Bougrelon by Jean Lorrain
Translated by Eva Richter
Spurl Editions, 1897, trans. 2016
Reviewed by Christina Holt
We all have that friend. The one who tells wild stories beginning on a farm in Iowa and ending inside of the penthouse suite at The Bellagio. Those stories that shock, that titillate, that excite us, and for a reason we cannot fathom, those from which we take a great deal of pleasure. Jean Lorrain’s 1897 French novel Monsieur de Bougrelon—recently translated into English in 2016 by Eva Richter—is the story of that friend, though perhaps a darker and more perverse version of him.
Employing the first person plural point of view, Monsieur de Bougrelon is narrated by a group of young men on holiday in Amsterdam. We find them at the end of their holiday and in a dreadful state of ennui—conveyed through passionate use of grey and icy imagery—longing for some new adventure. Written during the Belle Epoque period in Western Europe (1871-1914)—known for great optimism of the future—the theme of ennui contrasts ironically with the hopeful movement. Ennui is also in keeping with the fin de siècle literary movement of which Lorrain played a part, the French phrase literally translating to “end of the century,” during which fictional characters often longed for past ways of life.
Enter Monsieur de Bougrelon, “the prestigious hero of this tale,” a charming but rather decrepit old man who loves to wax nostalgic. While the main plot of Monsieur de Bougrelon is quite simple—Bougrelon acts as the men’s tour guide through Amsterdam—the stories he tells are not. His stories are full of eccentric characters, the longing for a simpler time, and most importantly, unpleasant perversities. Mostly, Bougrelon relays stories of so-called former lovers, whom he shares with his companion, Monsieur de Mortimer—but we’ll get to that later.
The best books can be enjoyed on multiple levels. While Bougrelon’s stories are filled with eccentrics and degenerates, they are also intelligent, educated stories, many of them told while the group tours an art museum in Amsterdam. Different paintings trigger different stories from Bougrelon. Lorrain hints subtly to the art’s meaning and its connection to the stories, but a knowledge of art history, while not required, would certainly help the reader reach a deeper level of understanding.
The lion’s share of the novel consists of Bougrelon’s stories, all inspired while touring different locations around Amsterdam. But what I find even more interesting than Bougrelon’s stories are the narrators’ ambiguous reactions to them, and in turn to Bougrelon himself. Only on a few occasions do the otherwise silent narrators interrupt Bougrelon (why on earth would you?). One such interjection from the narrators occurs after Bougrelon has relayed a particularly gruesome string of details about one of his lovers: “We were dealing with a madman. This time…Monsieur de Bougrelon had gone too far.” And yet, the very next day, the men are tossed back into their natural state of ennui, longing once again for Bougrelon. As a reader, you too find yourself missing Bougrelon’s distinctive voice against the rather flat one of the narrators’. This speaks not only to Lorrain’s writing but also to Eva Richter’s translation, which is not only readable for a 2017 audience, but skillfully captures Bougrelon’s distinct and animated voice.
In one of Bougrelon’s final stories, “The Soul of Atala”—which, in a nutshell, is about being sexually attracted to a particularly delectable object—the young men, again, express their disgust. But this time, in perhaps one of my favorite moments, Bougrelon chastises the young men for their quick judgement of his perversity: “Because they are works of art, this terror and horror can become seductive and charming, and this seduction, this attraction even, you will submit to, even you…You burned like twigs in front of this store just now.” Bougrelon’s quick and pithy ability to call the men out warrants a great appreciation of his character, and also speaks to the subject at the heart of this novel: the hidden perversities that lie in all of us.
Which brings us back to the late Monsieur de Mortimer, the mysterious male companion who is present in every one of Bougrelon’s stories. We do know that Jean Lorrain himself was openly homosexual, which may or may not influence the way we read the relationship between Bourgrelon and Mortimer. While Bougrelon never explicitly refers to Mortimer as his lover, several lines of text throughout seem quite clear: “We first settled down in the Hague, Monsieur de Mortimer and I, for I exiled myself for a man.” If we accept this interpretation, it may shed light on the relationship between love and perversity that the book explores. Bougrelon’s obvious tendency to objectify his female lovers calls his love for them into question. In fact, perhaps Bougrelon is attracted to these women for their perversities. Perhaps he is rather sympathetic to these “perverse” women because Bougrelon himself lives with what, at the time, was considered one of the most gargantuan of perversities: existing as a homosexual man around the turn of the 20th century.
The duality of Bougrelon is reminiscent of what we might see in an American author like Poe or Hawthorne—we see what Bougrelon wants us to see, when he wants us to see it. It is only toward the end of the book that our narrators discover Bougrelon’s true life, one quite different from his stories. If you are a fan of the gothic novel, if you enjoy being shocked by the most ridiculous characters—indeed, if you take a kind of perverse pleasure from them—then Monsieur de Bougrelon and his stories will not fail to entertain.
After receiving her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Western Illinois University in 2010, CHRISTINA HOLT moved to Chicago where she worked in publishing for six years. Christina moved to Bellingham, Washington in 2016, where she is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing.