Reviews: Jean Lorrain, Edmund Spenser

Jean Lorrain: Errant Vice, translated by Brian Stableford, Snuggly Books 2018

Another brilliant book by the unsung master of French decadence. The stories and the novella gathered between these covers originally appeared as feuilletons, soft feature (as opposed to hard news) stories which were printed in French newspapers on the lower half of the page. The word feuilleton comes from the verb feuilleter, “to leaf through,” and indeed these features were what kept most readers turning the pages.

Lorrain’s stories were masterful, pungently spiced examples of this genre—in his case they often amounted to gossip columns, since his fictions were so closely modeled on people in society that he was not infrequently sued for libel. So popular were Lorrain’s pieces that they began at the bottom of the front page, which added to the impression that his tales were more fact than fiction.

Lorrain’s skills as a raconteur, and his general delight in devilment, are on display to spectacular advantage in this collection of feuilletons. The title of the book Le Vice Errant, which the translator Stableford renders literally as “Errant Vice” is somewhat opaque in English. Neither “vice” nor “errant” are words in current use today, and their connotations of blameworthy self-indulgence, and loss of direction, would be better captured by a translation that went recklessly all-out to convey the concepts. If the title had been recast as “Party Animals in Disgrace” it would correctly characterize the tales.

These climax in the full-length novella, “Corners of Byzantium: The Noronsoffs.” This is a nightmare view of the lifestyles of the disgustingly wealthy, done with all the indecent aplomb of a reality television show. There is an occult subplot (the Nornosoff family curse, which turns them into sex maniacs), but this is pursued more in the manner of The Addams Family than Twilight. At the heart of this highly animated narrative is a family engaged in an emotional death-match, worthy of Edward Albee at his most eviscerating.

There are two women in the hero, Wladamir’s, life. His Polish mistress and his princess mother, and these two are engaged in a no-holds-barred struggle to be the center of his existence. He, himself, with the savage capriciousness of a Nero or a Heliogabalus, deftly plays them against one another. The drama is complicated by an ever changing parade of temporary favorites, usually men culled from the working class, whom Wladamir enriches, toys with, adores, and tires of with giddy speed. That these persons are ”rough trade” for prince Wladamir is never even suggested, but logically obvious. The heterosexual relationships, of which Lorrain understood little and cared less, are also platonically glossed over. All the eros of the book is sublimated into images of aesthetic extravagance.

Having as its hero a Russian plutocrat whose wealth, vulgarity and excess are seemingly limitless, gives the tale a strangely contemporary feel. Lorrain’s Russians are of course caricatures, like the Russian Mafiosi and vulgar amoral millionaires Hollywood offers to tickle our xenophobia. But Lorrain, unlike his Hollywood counterparts, did have contact with wealthy Russians (who usually made a beeline for Paris). Lorrain, with a poet’s intuitive insight, regards them with sympathy and represents them with depth.

From the time of Peter the Great, Russians have been exiling themselves into Europe, in search of a high European culture which they simultaneously adored, despaired of attaining, and despised as decadent. These well-educated, culturally hungry Slavic wanderers were, as a rule, quite well off. Until the twentieth century, Russia was a society based on slavery every bit as much as the American antebellum south. The Russian lord, owner of hundreds or thousands of serfs, was a better traveled parallel of the plantation owner. Lorrain’s novella is set in the turn of the century; though the Russian serfs were legally freed about the same time that American slavery was abolished, the full change promised on paper would not be realized until the revolution.

The Russian aristocrat of the nineteenth (and early twentieth) century was alienated from the peasant culture of his own land by wealth and education (he was often raised speaking French better than he did Russian). He was equally an outsider in the Europe he so admired—and which regarded him with an amused scorn which is not lacking in Lorrain’s depiction.

Wladamir’s excessive entertainments and interior decoration are an accurate description of the very real Russian drive to match the west in cultural accomplishment. In real life, this sometimes resulted in utter triumph, with the Russian towering above his European contemporaries, making many of the latter appear mere dilettantes. Such were the triumphs of Kandinsky and Stravinsky. And sometimes the Russian soul, after titanic strivings, “laid an egg,”as it were—a Fabergé egg, an ormolu monstrosity, seemingly hatched in the heat of a fever dream from the psyche of some fin de siècle Damien Hirst, but unredeemed by his sense of humor.  

Aside from the spectacular emotional damage and aesthetic havoc inflicted in the course of this novella, nothing much happens—there’s not even any sex. But Lorrain is a great poet, and gorgeous language takes up the narrative slack.

Lorrain’s poetic gifts have been severely underappreciated due to his flamboyant and unrepentant homosexuality. He was the self-proclaimed “ambassador from Sodom,” and this audacity resulted in his Poésie Complète  being published for the first only in 2014! (Éditions du Sandre.) Living in liberal France spared him Wilde’s fate, but he was never fully accepted by the polite society which was so eager to read him. He fascinated them by being shocking and he shocked them by being fascinating. He was enjoyed far more than could be forgiven.

The stunning poetic quality of Lorrain’s prose gives this tale the feel of an epic. The lines are so rich in emotional coloring that one feels one is witnessing a tragedy—albeit a sordid and private one. If Baudelaire and Tennessee Williams had collaborated on a novella, it would have been The Nornonsoffs—a southern gothic set in the south of France.

Spenser: The Faerie Queene (Longman Annotated English Poets) 2nd Edition (2017), editors Hamilton, Yamashita, Suzuki, Fukada  Publisher : Routledge; 2nd edition (August 30, 2017) ; Spenser: The Faerie Queene, read by David Timson, Naxos  (available from,, and the Naxos Spoken Word Library.)

No one reads Spenser. The length of The Faerie Queene, its archaic language and Spenser’s own eccentric coinages are enough to keep the vulgar at a distance. The only entertaining (and still living) person I know of who has soldiered through all of The Fairie Queene is Camille Paglia. In her instantly infamous (and almost as promptly forgotten) Sexual Personae, Spenser’s epic was reinterpreted as manifesto of mannishness for the modern maiden. Paglia’s brick-thick book was as little read (though perhaps more often bought) than Spenser’s. Let us draw the curtain of charity over the shortcomings of Paglia’s opus—we are enduringly thankful to her for suggesting that this enormous Elizabethan epic might be fun.

And indeed it is. It’s not really a poem. I can’t think of a single stanza that could be excerpted as a stand-alone example of the poetic art. It’s really rhymed prose. But, as prose, it is one of the great fantasy novels in English. For literary quality, it’s on a par with Lord of the Rings, and far stranger. Spenser’s epic is a gory, grotesque, amazing series of adventures, as full of metamorphoses as Ovid, and as gender-bending as the more arabesque novels of Tanith Lee.

This edition inaugurates a new era in Spenser reading. It is the first, and the only one, to provide copious and relevant annotations at the bottom of every page. It’s the Riverside Shakespeare of Spenser editions. The nearly 800 pages of this hefty square paperback sells for about fifty dollars—a bargain considering both the quality and the quantity.

Spenser offered his work as an elaborate and endless compliment to Elizabeth I, and an allegoric apologia for the English Reformation. Many of the characters are cardinal virtues personified, while the villains are often as not caricatures of Catholic beliefs and practices. This is everything useful one is likely to hear in a college course on The Faerie Queen. Scholars concentrate on the religious allegory, and seen from that exclusive perspective, the book becomes an exercise in stupefaction.

The actual content is a dizzying mixture of classical paganism, Arthurian legend, Irish geography, and femdom fiction. It was written in the dawn of English Renaissance and Reformation, when the kaleidoscopic potential of Biblical and classical literature hadn’t yet been bowdlerized by centuries of classical philology and Protestant practice. The still living current of folklore flowed freely through English poetry. Spenser fused these influences into a vast collection of sword-and-sorcery adventure stories, which are still an exciting read.

Before this edition, there was no easy approach for the simple reason that one had to play peek-a-boo with glossaries to make out the language. Other approaches to the book turned out to be blind alleys. Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen has no relation to Spenser’s book, while Walter Crane’s faithful illustrations and ornaments to the complete text are decorous exemplars of Pre-Raphaelite style, but without an inkling of the genuine depth or interest of the poem.

The best point of entry to this extraordinary book is the 26 CD Naxos audiobook (available as an easy download through Amazon Audible) narrated by David Timson. Timson is an exceedingly distinguished BBC reader with vast radio and audiobook experience. His brilliant performance sweeps one painlessly into Spenser’s vast and baroque narrative landscape, after which the book may be consulted with pleasure and profit, either to enjoy as a whole or to study a favorite passage in fine detail.

I was amazed to find out how easy it was to follow the book with Timson. Though this was in part due to his command of the meaning and momentum of every line, it was equally owing to Spenser’s spoken-word accessibility.

One’s experience of Shakespeare, in performance or in recording, makes one reluctant to take a deep plunge into spoken Elizabethan. But in fact, Shakespeare is far more difficult to follow. He is writing speech not narrative, and the conversational form of any language is always more condensed and elliptical. If you don’t understand one word, often as not you miss the whole drift of the passage, so much is expressed by so little.

Spenser is infinitely easier to understand “on the wing” because he is narrating stories, which means he gives everything he says so much context, you can follow the meaning easily, even if you don’t know a word here and there.

There are a number of Baroque and Renaissance epics which have never made it into readable English. Particularly the Italian masterpieces by Tasso and Ariosto have failed to find translators capable of poetry. But in Spenser we have an authentic English language epic of the fantastic; as gruesome, occult, violent and refinedly erotic as its continental counterparts.

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