An amazing compendium of stuff that Louÿs couldn't publish in his own lifetime – much of it indeed not seeing the light of day even in France until the 1980s. Erotica was obviously extremely important to him – this mountain of work, which he knew was unpublishable, is every bit as voluminous, creative and interesting as his ‘official’ oeuvre, and even more fascinatingly much of it constitutes ‘adult’ versions of the published work. It's as though he wrote everything twice, once for publication and once as a sort of experiment in pushing the limits of his erotic imagination.
It's hard to know whether these are the versions he really
wanted to write in the first place, but was constrained by the laws of the time; or whether they are just secondary trifles done for his own amusement. In the Secret Songs of Bilitis
– the racier mirror-image of the popular [b:Songs of Bilitis|83071|The Songs of Bilitis|Pierre Louÿs|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328869105s/83071.jpg|80204] – it often seems like the former. The style here is richly poetic and often very beautiful; it amazes me it's never been translated.
I undressed to climb a tree; my bare thighs hugged the slick, humid bark; my sandals walked on the branches.
[…] It had rained; drops of water were falling and sliding down my skin; my bottom was green with moss, and my toes were red from the crushed flowers.
Elsewhere, in the Manuel de civilité pour les petites filles
, a parody of those ‘Handbooks of manners’ the nineteenth century was so fond of, we see Louÿs in a wittier mode. Some examples from the ‘In Class’ chapter (again, apologies for on-the-fly translation):
Do not draw the teacher's sexual organs on the blackboard, especially if she showed them to you in confidence.
When you get yourself off under the desk, do not wipe your wet fingers on the hair of the girl sitting next to you – unless she asks you to.
Do not say that the Red Sea got its name because it's shaped like a cunt; or that Florida is the cock of America; or that the Jungfrau doesn't deserve its name because so many mountaineers have climbed on top of her. These are ingenious observations, but inappropriate in the mouth of a child.
You get the idea. (Bizarrely, the Wikipedia article for Louÿs currently says of this piece, which I believe has been published in English, that its ‘obscenity is almost unparalleled even in the long history of French clandestine publishing’, which is very clearly nonsense because it is by some distance the mildest piece in this collection.)
As always, there are diminishing returns on the sexiness as the writing gets more unrestrained and explicit, and many pieces just seem like stylistic experiments in pushing the subject matter. So the usual kinds of fin-de-siècle transgressiveness are in evidence, paedophilia, incest, coprophagy etc etc – this kind of thing has been done better by de Sade or Bataille and I didn't like it much then either.
The prevailing obsession is with lesbianism; I can't find the relevant bit in my copy now, so this will be a paraphrase from memory, but the defining quote from Louÿs is when he said that ‘the ideal sexual couple is two women; if there is only one woman, it is only half as beautiful; if there are no women, it is positively idiotic.’ But this obsession is so
all-consuming that it actually ends up going beyond mere prurience into what eventually seems like quite a genuine effort towards emotional empathy. He was desperate to write himself into women's heads (among other places), and perhaps surprisingly he often succeeded: there are letters from female friends who had read his work, saying in effect, ‘How do you know
this stuff about us?’ Don't forget that the original Songs of Bilitis
, though written by a man, and one clearly partly motivated by sexual fantasy, has been a touchstone text of lesbian culture almost for as long as such a thing has openly existed – America's first lesbian rights organisation was even called the Daughters of Bilitis. Louÿs was, in the final analysis, a gifted and sensitive poet, and that does come across here – whether he wanted it to or not.