Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Little About the Inspirations For Arsole Fantüme, Gentleman Immoralist

From whence did the amazing and bizarre murderer by enema, Arsole Fantüme, flow? "The dark czar of nightmare," for whom "goodness and decency were forms of constipation" did not just spring in one spectacular gush from the minds of authors Marcel Maurice and Pierre in the Spring of 1901. He has a specific place in the history of world literature in general, and French literature in particular.

Of course, “Arsole Fantüme, Gentleman Immoralist” has its antecedents in the fantastic and vulgar works of Matthew Lewis (“Monk”), Le Comte de Lautrémont (“Maldoror”), and the Marquis de Sade, among others. Within the novel itself Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” which had been published only a few years before “Arsole Fantüme,” is directly referenced.

The zombies of “One Thousand and One Nights,” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstien” were also obvious influences- their echoes can be found in the characters that comprise “the Lunar 13.” Balzac’s “Falthurn” and “Louis Lambert” also exhibited some influence on the authors, as did the works of Victor Hugo, Gérard de Nerval, and Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly.

It's also fair to say that the works of Paul Féval- pre Christian conversion- such as "Le Chevalier Ténèbre," and "Le Bossu" were known to the authors. The character Inspector Lefévre is often thought to be a parody of the heroes of detective fiction, in particular Féval's "Jean Diable."

And of course, Jules Verne was a major influence. In fact, co-author Marcel Maurice described Jules Verne as "that giant of a man, at least five metres tall and spectacularly endowed, who cast an imposing shadow over all who followed." Readers familiar of the Arsole Fantüme novel will no doubt notice a bit of the supernatural character of Notta Thot in that description.

Well-endowed: Jules Verne was a major influence on the creators of the supervillain who murdered by enema, and may have been the model for one of the novel's supernatural characters.

Published in 1901, it predated the famous character “Fantomas,” created by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre by ten years. Like that more famous character, Arsole Fantüme is gleefully sociopathic, a madman whose only reason for committing his heinous acts is that he is insane. Unlike that more famous character, Arsole Fantüme murders people by enema.

The character Arsole Fantüme himself was inspired by the case of Edouard Fournier, a banker in Dijon who killed his wife with an enema containing a mixture that included the black seeds of the highly-poisonous Laburnum plant. Apparently, Mme Fournier experienced intense diarrhea and vomiting that continued for several hours. It wasn’t until she lapsed into a coma that Edouard alerted a doctor.

The case scandalized France, and held the public’s interest for much of 1874. This is the year of the birth of one of "Arsole Fantüme’s" authors, Marcel Maurice (we don’t know “Pierre’s” birth year). At times, Maurice would claim this coincidence of his birth year was the reason for his “morbid interest” in the enema as a murder tool. It’s impossible to know if this claim is sincere, but it’s certain that both authors knew of the famous killing when they created their villain.

(It's important to note that Marcel Maurice and Pierre also wrote a number of stories concerning the enema as a therapeutic tool- including one story in which a priest uses an enema to drive the devil out of the body of a nun.)

Marcel Maurice and Pierre lived together in a polyamorous relationship that included a number of women who kept coming and going from their group. The modern equivalent to their living arrangement might be the “commune,” with quasi-religious overtones, as the two were often said to have a “mystical” hold over their partners. (In fact, in one letter, Marcel Maurice describes in flowery language the power of the “magickal attachment to our ladies.”) The two were insuperable, and shared everything.

Through it all, they wrote several short stories, a few of which can occasionally be found in obscure journals and collections, and they wrote six novels featuring the character Arsole Fantüme. Unfortunately, only the first novel was published. Until now, it has never been published in English.

Happily, I have photocopies of the manuscripts of the next five novels. If this first book I've just finished translating does well, it’s possible the next books in the series will be translated.


An illustration from the 1901 novel "Arsole Fantüme, Gentleman Immoralist." He murders by enema, which is presumably what we're seeing here. (Sorry about the quality- it's a scan of a photocopy- the book is rare indeed.)

UPDATE: Order the novel Arsole Fantüme from amazon here.

Jules Verne pic source.

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