Book Project

Le livre décadent : éditer, illustrer, lire

My work breaks new ground in the study of Decadence. Decadence has typically been understood and studied as a movement of late nineteenth-century French literary and visual artists who found their artistic inspiration in notions of social and political decay. My project, on the other hand, argues that critics, publishers, writers, illustrators, and readers all played a major role in creating what is now thought of as Decadence. This is a major departure from earlier studies of the movement, anchored in literary scholarship, which have focused almost exclusively on writers and their texts, often in isolation from the networks of publishers, critics, and readers who produced, interpreted, and consumed the writers’ work. As a result, these studies have understated the role of cultural and economic factors – the need to effectively market books, for example, or the demands of a critical readership in shaping the movement. My own work approaches the subject from a novel interdisciplinary perspective. I use a methodology pioneered by scholars working in the fields of book history and print culture studies: a humanities and social sciences-wide project that imagines the book as a physical object, and considers how and why it was produced and circulated.

Looking behind the text, we find a very different picture of Decadence than the one that emerges in the pages of books by Decadent authors. Whereas literary scholars have emphasized the elitist pretensions of the authors’ work, a history of the book methodology suggests that Decadence may not have been a coherent intellectual and aesthetic ‘movement’ at all. The beginning of my work finds four French Decadent writers ̶ Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Marcel Schwob, and Rachilde ̶ complaining to their publishers about inadequate book sales. Decadent writers were in fact very much concerned with earning money and selling a lot of books. This was in contradiction with their elitist pretentions and their desire to write books ‘for art’s sake’, and in contradiction with what the movement was thought to be about.

In the next section, I consider how critics shaped the Decadent movement by analyzing how the four writers were discussed in articles and book reviews. The way in which journalists and fellow writers talked about these authors and their books, I argue, was what made them Decadent. If Schwob, Rachilde, Lorrain, and Huysmans did not feel like they belonged to a specific literary movement, the reviews of their books nevertheless referred to their work and sometimes, to their personalities, as “decadent.”

Publishers and critics, however, were not the only parties contributing to the creation of Decadence. The third part of my project analyzes the role that illustrations in the authors’ books and therefore their creators played in shaping our understanding of Decadence. They did so, I contend, by rendering visually the Decadent themes described in the books. The artists creatively interpreted the texts, allowing readers to escape to a Decadent world of nightmares and dreams, femmes fatales, decay, and death. This world was complimentary, but by no means identical, to the textual world of Decadence: writers and illustrators interpreted and rendered differently what Decadence meant to them. They also used the illustrations to decorate the pages, linking intrinsically image and text, to the point that they become “un tout,” where one cannot read the text without reading the images. This connection enables us to better understand how the decadent aesthetic was diffused.

Georges de Feure - Buchette Georges de Feure for La porte des rêves (1899).

Finally, I conclude with an analysis of Decadent reading and its relation to larger transformations in publishing. Like ourselves, people living in fin-de-siècle France were experiencing dramatic changes in the availability, price, and format of textual materials. Inexpensive, mass-produced editions of literature severed historical links between beautiful books and beautiful writing. Many elite French readers feared that books would no longer be cherished items and that the act of reading would be cheapened and changed for the worse. In response, Decadent writers developed a decadent way of reading, and their texts explain which books to read or how to read them, in opposition to a vulgarization of reading by the ‘masses.’

My work contributes to fin-de-siècle French literary studies by complicating the traditional understanding of an important set of French authors and their texts. And it adds to larger, interdisciplinary conversations in book history by focusing on elite literature and late nineteenth-century France rather than on early modern literature or best-sellers. It also has considerable contemporary significance. Traditionalists worry that losing contact with the printed book will compromise the experience of reading – that the proliferation of online distractions will stand between readers and a more immersive experience of reading. By examining how people in the past negotiated these questions, we may better understand how to negotiate them in the present. The history of Decadence, as suggested above, also illuminates how the ever-changing power relations of author, publisher, and reader combine to produce a finished product. As traditional publishing houses crumble and new online giants grow; as authorship adapts to the pace of the internet; and as readership responds to new technology, we face similar questions once again.

Joris-Karl Huysmans reading a book.

Joris-Karl Huysmans reading a book.

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