Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Little History of Arsole

The voice laughed, and the feculent sound echoed throughout the room. “I wear a mask,” it said. “A jester’s mask. I carry an enemata. There are those who call me- Arsole Fantüme!”


Arsole Fantüme, Gentleman Immoralist is the greatest novel you’ve never heard of. It was first published in France in the Spring of 1901 by La Presse à Sensation, with its authors envisioning it as the first of an open-ended series that would follow the exploits of the evil Gentleman Immoralist, and the efforts of law-enforcement groups, psychiatric organizations, and religious cults to stop him. The authors, Marcel Maurice and Pierre, were so enthusiastic about the character that they actually completed five novels in the series before the first was published.

Unfortunately, the first book published would be the last published. The general malaise that greeted the novel was soon followed by violent anger, protests, and, worst of all, returns. Eventually, the publisher was forced to buy back most of the copies, which were then pulped. Its records in regards to the novel and the character were expunged. Today, it is nearly impossible to locate a copy, and only the most obsessive fans of littéraire fantastique have even heard of the book. Only a handful of modern readers have had the opportunity to read it.

Until now.

This roiling witch’s cauldron of a novel features outrageous characters including psychiatrists who use “therapeautic speech” to hypnotize people into doing their bidding, occultists who raise the undead and command discarnated spirits from “Otherwhere,” and policemen who keep professional mistresses and occasionally find crimes to be “too heinous to investigate.” There are also bizarre concepts such as the externalization of thoughts known as “ideoplasty,” music used as a weapon, shadowy organizations charged with running hospitals and law enforcement, a recipe for a dish that’s so good that someone might be willing to kill for it, and a disastrous trip in which a ship’s crew is forced to eat rope and sails to survive.

And at the center of all the madness is the dark criminal for whom goodness and decency are forms of constipation, Arsole Fantüme.

*

Just who is Arsole Fantüme? He is a “Gentleman Immoralist.” He commits heinous acts of perversity with panache and flair. He has an almost supernatural ability to conceive of and execute spectacular crimes that defy logic and description. He is a master of disguise, a master chemist, a master of the occult, and a master of evil.

But that is not what sets him apart. There are plenty of masters of evil. Arsole is different because his most favored means of dispatching his victims is by enema. Whether filling his victims with a simple poisonous solution, or using his enemata with such force that he ruptures his victim’s viscera, Arsole is a master of pain. At first blush, it might appear comical to be done away with in such way- and there is certainly an element of comedy to the dastardly proceedings within the novel’s pages. But eventually, one begins to see the torture to be caused by such a method of death.

It helps that the method becomes increasingly gruesome as the novel progresses. The final murders in particular are among the most disgusting and strange ever committed to paper, by anyone.

As the novel begins Arsole is met fully formed, yet concealed within the shadows. Having just committed a rather pedestrian (by his standards) murder-by-enema, he captures an “unfortunate thief” who happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and bore witness to the crime. Once his fate is sealed, Arsole seems to slip back into the shadows, as we meet our supporting players.

But- is Arsole one of them? Is he Inspector Lefévre, the investigator sent by “the Main Office” to investigate Arsole’s horrible crimes? Is he Dr. Bouchard, the interim head of the Wierd Institute, the City’s most impressive psychiatric hospital- a place so exclusive that it’s top floor “penthouse suite” doubles an exclusive hotel? Is he the composer and conductor Chaput, who recently installed himself in one of those penthouse suites as part of his effort to renew the vigor of his creativity? Is he the mysterious, veiled Dr. Termite, the man (who is never without his faithful poodle bitch Perdita) sent by “the Association” to assume control of the Wierd Institute? Is he Notta Thot, the five metre tall being from another dimension with the power to incarnate himself anywhere, at any time? Is he Guillaume Possédant, the wealthiest man in the City, and strangely unmoved brother of one of the victims?

Or is he none of these people at all? Perhaps he is nothing more than a feculent whisper in the breeze on the coldest night on earth.

*

The book’s construction suggests a madcap puzzle that, when viewed up close, seems to be nothing more than an anarchic mélange of insanity. However, a pattern does begin to emerge, and that pattern is devilishly simple.

The world is rigged to benefit the Arsole.

Take the city in which the action occurs. The port city is referred to only as “the City,” and it could be anywhere. It’s divided into three distinct sections: An area called “the City proper,” in which reside the most well-to-do citizens; a sort of buffer zone known as “Limbo;” and then there’s area that occupies most of the City, called “the Bottoms.” This rancid quarter of filth and squalor provides a nightmarish backdrop for its citizens, a pathetic lot described in highly vivid terms:

“The denizens of this area were as disgusting and shocking a lot as has ever plagued any patch of earth. They wandered, day and night, in a haze of drunkenness, covered in soot from the sulphur factory that provided the main income for most. For these people, clean clothes were a decadent luxury, so alien as to be unthought-of. Bathing was an activity engaged in the filthy ocean, amongst the dead fish and barnacles that clogged the shore. Any extra sous were spent on drink and drugs, in the vain hope of mental escape. For food, people would eat anything from the all too-plentiful flies, rats, and snakes with whom they shared the streets, to the hair of children, which was considered a delicacy owing to the soft texture granted it by immaturity.”


Even in those areas not so plagued by disturbing poverty and crime, anything is possible. The dead can be raised. Spirits can be summoned. Minds can be clouded. Yet, it is precisely because anything seems possible that Arsole is able to reign with such impunity. One message of the novel is that Arsole sees the world for what it is, and accepts it. For that reason, he thrives.

*

Very little is known of the author’s lives. We know that one of them, Marcel Maurice, was born in 1874. True-crime historians might recognize that as the year that a banker in Dijon named Edouard Fournier killed his wife with an enema that contained a mixture including the black seeds of the highly poisonous Laburnum plant. In a letter, Marcel describes the effect this had on him, declaring, “I believe my morbid interest in the enema as a murder device was informed by my being born in the same year as that horrible crime.”

Marcel Maurice and Pierre (whose last name is unknown) apparently met in 1894. The two became fast friends, with Pierre moving into Marcel’s Paris home within a few weeks, and this living arrangement would continue until both died in 1914. The living arrangement included living with and sharing the company of a number of women. Marcel described them in another letter as, “some single, some married, some beautiful, some homely… Pierre and I both feel a magickal attachment to our ladies.”

The word “magickal” is important. The activities in Marcel’s home caused scandalized talk in Paris, with some believing the two men had a mystical or religious hold over their partners. The women apparently exhibited no signs of being under a spell or of brainwashing (there seems to have been no attempt to prevent the women contacting their families, for instance); nevertheless, their untraditional arrangement was frowned upon.

Marcel’s family was wealthy, and so neither had to work. They spent their free time writing. A few of their stories can occasionally be found in obscure and expensive journals. Some of these stories also prominently featured enemas. In one, a priest seeks to chase the devil out of a nun by giving her an enema. When they turned their attention to the writing of novels, they became fixated on the character of Arsole Fantüme, and all of their novels revolved around him. The ladies with whom they shared their home also had some interest in the character. The two illustrations that decorated the book were provided by one of them, whose real name is unknown to us, but who is credited as “Falíco.”

Marcel and Pierre were murdered by the jealous husband of one of “their ladies.”

*

My own history with the character began back in college. I attended the University of New Mexico, where I audited a few French classes. I was interested in the language primarily because I’d just discovered the works of Arthur Rimbaud, and I wanted to read him in the original. But I knew enough about myself to know I’d never really learn it, so I didn’t actually take the classes for credit.

As part of my “independent study,” I decided I’d try to translate something on my own. Too intimidated to start with poetry, I looked for a prose novel, and I happened to pick at random a book called “Arsole Fantüme, Monsieur de Immoralité.” I had no idea what the book was about; believe me.

It took me about two months to get through the first chapter. Translation is an exhausting business, especially when you really don’t know the language. Also, there was the fact that the book was totally demented, being as it was about a master criminal who murders by enema.

Eventually, I finished the first chapter and then, true to my character, I gave up. The book was never reprinted in English, so I was never really able to tell how well I did. I asked my girlfriend at the time, who knew a little French, to check my work, but she read the translation and said, “That is the stupidest, sickest thing I’ve ever seen,” or words to that effect, and told me to go soak my head.

As a joke, I posted the translated chapter on my blog. To my surprise, in January 2009, I was contacted by someone who said he was the head of something called Obscurinati Publishing. He said he was dedicated to collecting strange and esoteric literature, and he asked me how I’d come to know about Arsole Fantüme, since the book was so incredibly obscure.

We traded a few more emails and got along pretty well. After a couple of weeks of correspondence, he mentioned that he had a copy of “Arsole Fantüme,” and he was thinking about having it translated, in the hopes of publishing it as a limited edition hardcover. Would I be interested in translating it?

Yes, I would. My French was bad, but I’d stumble my way through it.
In March, he sent me a check for about one-quarter of the agreed upon rate for my translation. At that point I had completed the first five chapters (my French was a lot better than it had been back in college, and I was excited).

Then he mentioned that he’d come into possession of manuscript copies of the unpublished sequels, and maybe if the first one did well, he and I could work out some kind of deal for publishing those translations, too. I was now even more excited, with visions of fair compensation dancing in my head.

In late April, he told me that he was killing the project. He was out of money. Without going into too much detail, he was a young guy (mid-20s) who came from a fairly wealthy family, and he wanted to get into publishing weird literature and comics. But the recession has hit him pretty hard, so, no more translation project. He told me to keep the money he’d already paid, as a sort of “kill fee.”

But of course by this time I was hooked. This is one really, truly weird book. I decided I would finish the translation, and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind letting me buy back the copyright on it. He graciously agreed, and I returned the money he’d already paid me.

*

And that is how it came to be that I translated this lost classic. I very much hope that I’ve been able to do it justice, and that readers will come to love it for what it is- an eccentric masterpiece that deserves a much wider audience than it has received up to now.

UPDATE: Order the novel Arsole Fantüme, Gentleman Immoralist from amazon here.

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