The Satyricon (Penguin Classics)

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Beautiful Deaths: On the World of Gabrielle Wittkop

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Readers would be well advised to don a Hazmat suit before wading into the thrilling, pestilential world of French writer Gabrielle Wittkop. In a jungle, one is confronted with the “effluvia of rotting carcasses or the fetid exhalation of orchids and carnivorous plants;” in a Baltimore tavern the face of an old sailor “being eaten away like a pumpkin by phthisis;” in the New York City sewers the “eternal fungus of putrefaction” and the “sweet slime of the deep darkness;” and in Venice “baskets and pails are overflowing with filth…snot, purplish riches, gray-green defecations, iridescent stews, buzzing with life.” These are only some of the fleurs du mal that blossom in Murder Most Serene (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie) and Exemplary Departures (translated by Annette David), two works recently published in gorgeous editions by Wakefield Press. Wittkop’s only other novel to appear in English, The Necrophiliac, supplies some choice mephitic bits as well.

Wittkop was born in Nantes in 1920 and home-schooled by her father, devouring the books in his extensive library. In her translator’s postscript, David charts Wittkop’s literary influences from her early immersion with Marquis de Sade and other Enlightenment writers through her lifelong fascination with the “decadent romantisme noir” of Joris-Karl Huysmans, Comte de Lautrémont, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Edgar Allan Poe, the subject of one of her stories, and E.T.A. Hoffmann, about whom she wrote a biography. While living in Paris during the Occupation, she harbored and then married a deserter from the German Army, the bisexual Justus Franz Wittkop. Both Wittkop and her husband would commit suicide in their 80s, he while suffering from Parkinson’s and she after receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer in 2002.

Wittkop is best known for The Necrophiliac, the narrator of which is an antiques dealer, a “situation almost ideal” for his off-hours pursuits: digging up freshly buried bodies, secreting them back to his Paris apartment and keeping them there, sometimes for weeks. Amid lurid, loving descriptions of his disinterred guests — he rhapsodizes over his “boyfriends with anuses glacial as mint, my exquisite mistresses with grey marble bellies” — there are occasionally moments of dark levity. Upon being propositioned by a prepossessing young man, he politely rejects him while thinking to himself, “I would love your eyes sunken in, your lips silenced, your sex frozen, if only you were dead; unfortunately, you have the bad taste to be alive.”

The Necrophiliac is ultimately about the intoxication and isolation of genuine connoisseurship. “The dead,” the narrator tells us, “are full of the unexpected,” a knowledge, and pleasure, he is condemned to savor alone while hiding from a “hostile world” that sees him as a monster. Of course he is a monster of sorts, but Wittkop succeeds, remarkably, in illustrating the perversely empathetic (“All these sexes under the earth, does anyone ever think of them?”) and elevating quality of the necrophiliac’s depredations:
The smell of the dead is that of the return to the cosmos, that of the sublime alchemy. For nothing is as flawless as a corpse, and it becomes more and more so as time passes, until the final purity of this large ivory doll with its mute smile and its perpetually spread legs that is in each one of us.
The devotion to his sordid obsession reveals, to him at least, a seldom glimpsed purity.

As both translators note in their accompanying essays to these new releases, and as should be evident from the The Necrophiliac’s subject, death and decay are two of Wittkop’s idées fixes. Take a representative description of a tree in a rainforest from the story “Mr. T.’s Last Secret” in Exemplary Departures:
Insect humors travel through the veins of the bark; liquefied, the reptile is reborn in the fetid pulp of fungus; the feather becomes leaf; the flower changes into a scale; eggs and soft roe burst into living myriads; death embraces resurrection, the two of them twinned like day and night
Passages like these adequately communicate her Eros-and-Thanatos aesthetic, and Wittkop’s prose usually glimmers as her subjects decompose. However, her decadent style is not without its flaws. Of a casino in Monte Carlo, she writes:
Like the vulva of some huge primeval hussy but also the secret charm of a Ganymede at its zenith, it gapes before the onrush, at the exact moment when the act is consumed in the triumphant erection of porphyry columns, so thick that they look as though about to burst, in the gold decorations reflected in the mirror where the chandeliers’ infinite galaxies explode, and in the simultaneous ejaculation of the innumerous thrusting palms, eternally soaring, as far the eye can see, toward the nudity of the ceilings.
Wittkop is not finished, still having to explore the “sphincter of the circular banquettes,” the “titanic birth labors announc[ing] themselves on the lips of the drapes,” and the spacious bathroom, “sanctuary for excrements.” (God knows how she would have allegorized the furnace room.) It is hard to defend such delirious imagery except to say that at least when she’s bad, she’s very bad. Contrast this architecture porn with an enticing, restrained, and more representative passage from another story, this one describing the spiraling staircase of a donjon that is
Unspeakably inviting, promising enchanted glimpses as it coiled itself despite the angular bones of its planks, forming a kind of sirens’ tail. It was, in short, as staircases admittedly are, destined to all kinds of betrayal.
Wittkop comes alive when she injects an element of sardonic sadism into her observations, the sense that there is enjoyment to be had at watching the dissolution (natural or violent) of a body. Her intense focus on the death throes of her protagonists, and on the post-mortem decomposition of their corpses, could be interpreted as a curious quest for self-knowledge. “But why this obstinate dwelling over a corpse’s pluck?” the narrator of Murder Most Serene asks after exhaustively describing a poisoned woman’s “spectacular final agony” and her autopsy. She provides the answer herself: “Simply because it is there inside us all, day and night.” Wittkop frames her macabre voyeurism in the tradition of the ancient injunction inscribed on the Delphic temple: Know thyself.

Set in 18th-century Venice, Murder Most Serene is a novella concerning the not-so-gentle art of poisoning. Over the course of 30 years, a Venetian nobleman and bibliomaniac, Count Lanzi, witnesses each of his four wives perish — his “conjugal monomania” unflagging despite their particularly gruesome deaths. Count Lanzi is too busy wandering in his library, a “boustrophedonic labyrinth” wherein he indulges his “blind, vehement, irrational passion” for books to look too deeply into the matter. Poison is usually involved, or suspected in each case; when one of the curtailed marriages produces a deformed child, the unfortunate offspring is dispatched with less finesse.

The short work begins with a theatrical nod, Wittkop likening herself to a “bunraku master” who “controls his puppets’ movements” to the audience’s, and his own, delight: “I enjoy presenting their spectacle, and I watch it, too, my own spectator.” The action itself commences on a stagey note, with an exasperated Count Lanzi complaining, “Can a man not read without being constantly disturbed?” When the interruption turns out to be an announcement that yet another one of his wives has died, he responds “Again?!” This sounds like a Wildean quip: to lose one wife may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four looks like carelessness. And indeed, the “strange, cruel drama” to come is accompanied by a laugh track of sorts, the peals of mirthless, diabolical laughter of a decadent society in the throes of “misrule:” “It is almost always Carnival, that endemic epidemic.” The case of the murdered wives concludes in 1797 just as Napoléon Bonaparte comes into the city with cleansing wrath that will abruptly put a stop to the Most Serene Republic’s cackling: “We cannot always be laughing…” read the novella’s last lines.

The mystery is largely an excuse for Wittkop to present the unfortunate spouses in their “spectacular final agon[ies]” and immerse us in the “flamboyant misrule” of Venice, “city of appalling gravity, where even the corpses weigh more heavily than elsewhere.” At one point, after pausing to describe how an old lecher places pornographic drawings between the pages of the missals in a church, the narrator dismisses it as “of no importance, merely anecdotal interest, a flourish.” On the contrary, the entire novella revolves around such “anecdotal interest,” lurid, impressionistic snapshots of a gossipy, shadowy world.

Murder Most Serene, in other words, is mostly local color, concerned with effects rather than causes. This explains the scant attention paid to interiority and the lavish attention paid to the aesthetics of how certain poisons, “painterly magicians,” act on the human visage:

Their effects are played out in color: suddenly, we see a sky-blue iris turn the rich purple of the abattoir; a camellia complexion takes on a tint of bluish mauve, coral-pink lips turn to coral-black, which is infinitely more precious, as everyone knows.

Note the touch of the aesthete’s snobbery. As with precious jewelry, so with poison: refinement is king.

If Murder Most Serene Wittkop revels in the corruption of a society approaching a crisis (“the time of the Atreidae is come…”), Exemplary Departures casts an icy gaze on individual reckonings with death. The five titular “exemplary departures” are as follows: A shady American intelligence officer-cum-antiquarian disappears into a Malaysian jungle without a trace; a young Scottish girl on vacation in the Rhineland starves to death after being trapped atop a dilapidated castle tower, where she had gone to sketch the countryside; a delirious Edgar Allen Poe, “haunted by angels,” breathes his last in Baltimore’s Washington Hospital; a feckless shoe salesman drifts into homelessness and is beaten to death in a New York City sewer; and hermaphroditic twins — noble, sensual, completely absorbed in themselves — cavort in pre-Revolutionary Paris as seemingly immortal deities. Only at the moment of their grisly death are they bestowed a “fragile and derisory crown of a brief humanity.”

As Wittkop notes about one of these “departures,” it represents “a situation characterized by misunderstanding and revelation.” “Exemplary” is therefore used somewhat ironically, as the stories are neither models of noble deaths nor cautionary tales. These five stories are tragedies stripped of pathos, clinical examinations of creatures governed by a “conditioned determinism,” and moving inextricably, and heedlessly, toward their fates: “It is while blindly dancing the Dance of Death that we make our way toward our downfall.”

Again, a rire diabolique is usually audible in the background, a derisory chorus here comprised of monkeys, rats, crows, and grotesque statues. Straightforward Oedipal drama and fairy-tale villainy reign. The tales are less psychological than physiological; how a character thinks matters less than how a body moves, or perishes. Wittkop is an anatomizing narrator. “Idalia on the Tower” begins by zooming in on Idalia’s foot, the “slender low-arched foot with rosy nails cut straight and bluish skin the color of thin milk” that will eventually slip on the rotten stairs of the castle tower and leave her stranded: “Here we have what, moved by muscles, nerves, a very complex and dynamic mechanism, would cause the determining event, the very slow and painful death…” Later, Wittkop will redirect her anatomical gaze to the stranded, starving girl’s contracting “maxillary muscles,” her convulsing neck (“opisthotonus”) and various internal injuries so severe that the once supple body has “metamorphosed into a machine.” The “dynamic mechanism” highlighted in the story’s opening has begun to malfunction.

In “Claude and Hippolyte,” Wittkop’s anatomical gaze is primarily erotic, focusing on the twins of “unrestrained narcissism” who couple in front of mirrors, the better to revel in the “reflection of their strange genitalia…a hortus deliciosus…unfolded on the cold glass.” The more the merrier.

Finally, we have the opening of “A Descent,” which mercilessly dissects its protagonist in a piece of body shaming par excellence:

Seymour M. Kenneth had a slight paunch. Not much, in fact, a small deposit of fat evenly distributed over the flabby musculature of his abdomen, a pad just visible when Seymour was naked, but only then, an adiposity giving way to the pressure of a finger that would sink in no deeper than a few millimeters, in short, a concession. Had one been given the task to examine it…this paunch might have represented an avowal rather than a failure or a deficiency. One might have seen in it the symbol of a formless destiny, a propensity, to spinelessness. It wasn’t the elastic balloon of a cheerful, desperate person who eats his way to ruin, but the slowly accumulated burden of omissions, of wear and tear, of self-neglect, a pitiful gravidity that, so utterly unwarranted, would never reach its term, because nothing, not even failure, could be properly fulfilled in Seymour M. Kenneth’s life.

In fact, the hapless character does properly fulfill his lifelong, if not particularly ambitious, dream, which is to return to the womb. Our last view of him alive is in the tunnels below Grand Central Station, laying “curled up…a silent embryo,” his paunch morphing into either a fetus’s or mother’s stomach: “Spongy now, his belly was swelling up, spherical.”

I wrote earlier of Wittkop’s sardonic sadism, which is omnipresent but most evident in Exemplary Departure’s finest story, “Idalia on the Tower.” Consider how Wittkop describes how an exhausted Idalia, the girl trapped in her tower, repeatedly fails to build a stone plinth on which to stand and attract help. Rest assured, Wittkop informs us, the length and intensity of the girl’s struggles will make for an entertaining show:

In spite of its repetitions the spectacle is not as monotonous as one might fear. It is possible to see in it the delicate leitmotif of a choreographed figure and find much delight in observing Miss Dubb’s gestures. A certain duration of this pleasure can also be expected, seventeen being the age of great battles when one, even though deprived of both water and food, does not die quietly like a lamp that goes out for lack of fuel.

Elsewhere, Wittkop pauses a long description of a feast the starving girl has hallucinated with the following parenthetical: “You may have noticed the pleasure I have in presenting all this foodstuff for Miss Dubb, but who doesn’t like to present beautiful things?” That would be icy enough, but then Wittkop coolly resumes her mouthwatering inventory once again. This commitment to finding aesthetic pleasure in suffering is accompanied by a view of the universe as an indifferent, amoral universe in which divine retribution is illusory: “The eye that watches Cain is pure fiction.”

“There is purity each time that a new threshold is crossed,” Wittkop writes in The Necrophiliac. The great threshold, of course, is between life and death, and the best deaths, at least according to Wittkop’s morbidly decadent philosophy, are stage-managed. In that same work, she describes the final moments of Gaius Petronius Arbiter, author of The Satyricon, who, upon being accused of treason, chose to have his veins opened in a bathtub rather than contest the charges. His exemplary departure is narrated thusly:

Surrounded by his concubines and his Greek slaves slipping their tongues into his mouth and caressing his hair…He heard their tender words pull back towards another planet because he himself was about to leave the earth…He sensed nothingness invade the network of his veins…while the dancers stuck their vulvas to his body like barnacles onto a ship and the fingers of these ephebi explored his secret parts. Floating into his bath as if into the maternal liquid, Gaius Petronius Arbiter sensed his life escaping him as sweetly as it had once come to him. That’s how death should be.

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