A few years ago, during an ambulatory conversation interrupted by the need to step around some of the ubiquitous dog droppings that punctuate the streets of Paris, and which supposedly assure one’s return to the city should one happen to step in them, my French companion commented, “It must be said that we French have a very particular relationship with shit.”
As Exhibit A in support of this assertion, it would be difficult to do better than offer an exchange of letters from 1694 between Elizabeth Charlotte de Bavière, Princesse Palatine, Duchesse d’Orleans to her aunt the Electrice of Saxony, Sophia of Hanover (I will conveniently ignore that both wrote in German and neither was French by birth). In conversational tone, the Duchesse and her aunt rhapsodize about the pleasures of defecating, the optimal times and places, its benefits for health and beauty, its democratic ubiquity (“...the entire universe is filled with shitters”), and conclude that “one would as well not live at all, as not shit at all.”
One can skip directly to these letters online, but then one would be miss out on an even more indecorous narrative that surrounds their appearance in an eccentric 1891 French novel, The Tutu: Morals of the Fin de Siècle (Le Tutu: Moeurs Fin de Siècle), written under the pseudonym “Sappho” and described on the cover of a new English translation by Iain White as “the strangest novel of the 19th century.” According to White’s introduction, Le Tutu was all but lost for a century, published only in 1991 after being brought to light 25 years earlier in an article that revealed its existence and attributed it to Paris publisher Léon Genonceaux (whose Belgian birth I’ll also ignore; Paris does things to people). Genonceaux had accomplished literary feats high and low, including publishing the first unified collection of Rimbaud’s poetry, an important re-edition of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (excerpts of which also appear in Le Tutu), and a swarm of salacious works that landed Genonceaux in repeated trouble with the authorities. His most serious problems occurred just as Le Tutu headed to press. He was forced to flee Paris, and the few copies he’d printed - only five of which are said to exist today - found their way into the world by being passed hand to hand.
As a particularly madcap example of the style established by Lautréamont and Huysmans, among others, The Tutu cooks up a full complement of Decadent ingredients, including an indulgence in death and the corruptions of the flesh, obsession with the morbid and sordid, irreverence towards morality and religion, pursuit of rare sensation, and an appreciation of oblivion:
A truly happy man is one whose brain has been emptied, whose legs, hands and ears have been cut off, his eyes put out and his sense of taste destroyed. He no longer senses, no longer thinks, he is animalised, he is out of this world.
Le Tutu also serves up all manner of bodily functions and grotesqueries, some of which, even given my tough stomach, leave me nearly enfeebled in contemplation of repeating them. But generally such provocations are so excessively over the top, so clearly designed for shock value and delivered with such capricious delight (imagine a late 19th century Parisian John Waters) that it’s difficult to be appalled for long.
As the novel opens, Le Tutu’s chief character, Mauri de Noirof, is headed home at five in the morning from a night of debauchery, so pickled that he cannot recognize his cab driver. This inability to recognize those he knows is a recurrent pattern. On the rare occasions when he goes to work (as a publisher), he’s convinced it’s his first day on the job despite everything seeming oddly familiar. Trained as an engineer, he’s also a diletanttish dandy, an amateur of grand, crazy ideas – having a clod cow walk a 500-meter-high tightrope strung between Paris and Marseille, for example – or the effort on which he settles his attentions, building tunnels for lightening-fast trains that can zip from Lyon to Paris in a mere 17 seconds (resulting in a rapid depopulation of Lyon, whose residents fall prey to the now convenient seductions of the capital). De Noirof launches upon a series of adventures, spurred on by his general dissoluteness and debauchery, not to mention an oedipal complex to top all oedipal complexes (he reads the Duchesse and Electrice’s letters to his mother in an Ubu-esque dialogue concerning his desire to marry and impregnate her, as all other women disgust him and as his talk of marrying a tree has left her unenthused). Despite a rich curiosity cabinet of conceits that would have pleased the Surrealists, Le Tutu’s narrative drive is loosely tethered to a fairly linear plot involving de Noirof’s attempts to marry himself to a wealthy, increasingly obese alcoholic and to navigate paternity of a child birthed by his mistress, a two-headed circus freak, while at the same time maintaining his devotion to his mother, with whom he dines on human brains while they dream of loving one another “on high”:
“The only thing in the world that matters is us. Nobody will ever guess at the sublimities hidden within our hearts. Nobody else here on earth eats the brains from corpses and drinks the spittle of asthmatics. Let us act so that we might die in the satisfaction of having experienced, we alone, the True Sensation, of That Which Does Not Die.” Then she added: “Give me some money.”
I’m not giving a lot away with these revelations; there is more than ample weirdness where that came from. And yes, a tutu is involved.
Elements of Le Tutu appear strikingly modern, for example the collage-like nature of the narrative, mixing varieties of text, theatrical vignettes, a musical composition by God (lyrics by The Word, with Saint Paul on third violin and Jesus Christ on cymbals), and dreams (including one in which God appears as a buff young hedonist recuperating from a 700-year orgy among the seraphim), or the kinds of language games played decades later by members of the Oulipo movement. In one scene, an exasperated de Noirof urges his prostitute girlfriend to communicate exclusively via the first syllables of words, a challenge to which she replies by asking how he’d handle a phrase like “the sky is no more pure than the depths of my heart” (a ripost that might well be put to Oulipians in general).