French Decadent Tales (Oxford World's Classics)

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First published as an Oxford World’s Classics paperback 2013

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ISBN 978–0–19–956927–4

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French Decadent Tales

Translated with an Introduction and Notes by




French Decadent Tales
contains thirty-six stories from fourteen authors, spanning the period from the mid-1870s to the beginning of the twentieth-century. While ‘Decadence’ was a European-wide movement, its epicentre was Paris, the cultural capital of the
fin de siècle
, glittering and fascinating, sordid and corrupt. The vast majority of the stories here take place in this modern laboratory of the human spirit, their heroes or anti-heroes caught in a time of bewildering transition. Richly varied though they are, these writers are united in their hatred of an age of rampant commercialism and vulgarity. Self-styled ‘aristocrats of the spirit’, influenced by the dandyism of Charles Baudelaire, they sought to escape from an optimism they deemed ungrounded and philistine. In their writings they explored extreme sensation and moral trangression; drugs, spiritualism and the occult, and every variety of erotic experience. Another efficient remedy was the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer: men such as Guy de Maupassant, Octave Mirbeau, and Jules Laforgue were steeped in his thought. The writings of Freud, on hysteria and fetishism, are also prefigured in some of the stories here. In an age when the spread of mass newspapers and journals created a voracious appetite for ‘copy’, the
fin de siècle
seethed with literary experiment. Describing Remy de Gourmont’s stories as ‘little tops’ revolving violently and erratically before returning to inertia, Marcel Schwob speaks for the art of the short story in general, which reaches a type of perfection in this period: brief, incisive, trenchantly ironic, and often cruel.

is a specialist of French and British modernism. He lives in the Loire Valley, where he is Maître de Conférences at Tours University. He has translated widely from the French and has edited, amongst others,
20th Century French Poems
(Faber, 2002). He has published four collections of poetry, the most recent of which,
Yellow Studio
(Carcanet/Oxford Poets, 2008), was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize.



Note on the Selection

Select Bibliography

Chronology of Major Events and Literary Publications of the French
fin de siècle



Don Juan’s Crowning Love-Affair


The Presentiment

The Desire To Be a Man


CATULLE MENDÈS (1841–1909)

What the Shadow Demands

LÉON BLOY (1846–1917)

A Dentist Terribly Punished

The Last Bake

The Lucky Sixpence

OCTAVE MIRBEAU (1848–1927)

On a Cure

The Bath

The First Emotion

The Little Summer-House

JEAN RICHEPIN (1849–1926)

Constant Guignard


Pft! Pft!


At the Death-Bed

A Walk

The Tresses



The Statue

JEAN LORRAIN (1855–1906)

An Unsolved Crime

The Student’s Tale

The Man with the Bracelet

The Man Who Loved Consumptives


The Time

REMY DE GOURMONT (1858–1915)


The Faun

Don Juan’s Secret

On the Threshold

JULES LAFORGUE (1860–1887)

Perseus and Andromeda

MARCEL SCHWOB (1867–1905)

The Brothel


52 and 53 Orfila

Lucretius, Poet

Paolo Uccello, Painter

PIERRE LOUŸS (1870–1925)

A Case Without Precedent

Explanatory Notes


I am grateful to the Warden and Fellows of All Souls College, Oxford, for electing me into a Visiting Fellowship for the Trinity Term 2010, which enabled me to get this anthology underway. I should like to extend special thanks to Micky Sheringham, and to Ian Maclean for the translation tourney. My thanks go also to my colleagues in the English Department at the University of Tours, for their goodwill in granting me this period of leave. For help and encouragement of various kinds, I should like to thank Pierre-Alban Breton, Harry Eyres, Lara Feigel, Nick Goulder, Antoine Jaccottet, Patrick McGuinness, Gilles Ortlieb, Karin Romer, Sébastien Salbayre, Michael Schmidt, Will Stone, and Bridget Strevens-Marzo. Judith Luna, my editor at OUP, welcomed this project with enthusiasm, and has followed its progress with steady encouragement and much patience, for which I am most grateful. My immediate family has been, as ever, hugely supportive. My fond thanks, finally, to Eleonora Barletta, who read through hundreds of pages of Decadent material, and helped me towards finalizing the selection.


volume is called
French Decadent Tales
, in that it assembles a group of writers associated in varying degrees with the so-called Decadent school that flourished in
Paris. The first story here, by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, was published in 1874, and the last, by Pierre Louÿs, in the first years of the twentieth century. The term
, applied to a literary phenomenon which spread across the Channel, to include, most famously, Oscar Wilde, but also Aubrey Beardsley and Ernest Dowson, appears to have had its most direct origin in the short-lived literary journal
Le Décadent artistique et littéraire
, founded by Anatole Baju in 1886. As is frequently the case (one thinks in art of ‘Impressionism’ and ‘Cubism’), the term was originally used as an insult by a journalist, but adopted with delight and defiance by the writers thus insulted. Verlaine had already, in the 1880s, danced an arabesque around the term:

I love this word decadence, all shimmering in purple and gold. And I refuse, obviously, any damaging connotations it may have, or any suggestion of degeneracy. On the contrary, the word suggests the most refined thoughts a civilization can produce, a profound literary culture, a soul capable of the most intense enjoyments. It suggests the subtle thoughts of ultimate civilization, a high literary culture, a soul capable of intense pleasures. It throws off bursts of fire and the sparkle of precious stones. It is a mixture of the voluptuous mind and the wearied flesh, and of all the violent splendours of the late Empire; it is redolent of the rouge of courtesans, the games of the circus, the panting of the gladiators, the spring of wild beasts, the consuming in flames of races exhausted by their capacity for sensation, as the tramp of an invading army sounds.

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