Alexandre Burin is only starting his second year of PhD study in Durham, but he is already the co-editor of the first critical edition of Le Sang des Dieux, a poetry collection by fin-de-siècle French author Jean Lorrain. In his thesis (supervised by Dr Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze and Dr Sam Bootle), Alexandre explores the works of this decadent writer “through the notions of fragmentation, performance and ‘survivance'”. We met him in Durham to discuss his editorial adventure and his future projects.
So, Alexandre, it is quite unusual to release a critical edition as a second-year PhD Student, how did you end up working on this new edition of Jean Lorrain’s Le Sang des Dieux?
Well, the French publisher L’Harmattan have started to republish Lorrain’s work in their collection “Les Introuvables” (ed: “the untraceables”) and I emailed them last year to tell them how pleased I was with this initiative, hoping they would put me in touch with Pascal Noir, who had reedited some works by Lorrain for them. I thought that maybe it would be possible to organise some kind of event around Lorrain, as I was about to start my PhD thesis on the subject. I did not receive an answer from L’Harmattan but, one month later Pascal Noir wrote to me, asking me if I would be interested in working with him on his next reedition, Le Sang des Dieux.
Which place does this book occupy in Lorrain’s oeuvre?
It is the first thing he published in 1882. It already announces the setting of a literary process that will resurface in later works. It also reveals his talent for self-promotion. Strategically, he inserts himself in a Parnassian tradition, notably by making a point of being published by A. Lemerre, the Parnasse’s editor. He also dedicates Le Sang des Dieux to Leconte de Lisle and a number of poems to Théodore de Banville. Despite all that, his mechanism of literary creation is rather “post-baudelairian”, infused with the germs of a decadentism that will fully blossom in the rest of his oeuvre.
Personally, I find Lorrain’s poetry uneven in quality; some poems are good but some are rather mediocre. In this first collection, he is still full of influences that are interesting to retrace. The next ones, La Foret bleue (1883) and above all Modernités (1885), are much more symbolist.
How did you work on the text? Can you detail the process?
We worked from the editio princeps of Le Sang des Dieux, which was published by Lemerre. I typed the majority of the text (Pascal had already started the work when I joined the project), researching and adding scholarly notes as I went along, working mostly in the evening. Pascal and I wrote the preface together, re-reading each other’s work. Overall it went quite fast. I got in touch with L’Harmattan in September 2016, typed the text from October to the end of January, finished writing the notes in April, and wrote the preface between June and July of this year. The proofreading was an easy process (I’m proud to say there was no typo, nor mistakes!) and the book came out in the beginning of this month. All in all, it took a year.
Our aim was to provide a useful critical apparatus for this work. What is most interesting to comment here is the context of production of Le Sang des Dieux. Lorrain is very influenced by different types of mythologies, greco-roman but also Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon. Our edition shows his process of decadent creation, the way he transposes, distorts, corrupts even, those myths. This is of course a decadent topos; the rewriting of familiar tales in a corrupt universe is used to convey all sorts of transgressions, notably sexual. The decadents stick their noses in classical themes to talk about modern sexuality. With Lorrain, it is often homosexuality that is thus evoked. Androgyny is omnipresent in this collection of poems, notably in the section “Les Ephèbes”, alongside another dominant theme, the femme fatale, the “ghoul”. A vampiric woman and a classic decadent figure, he uses it to annihilate women’s power. Interestingly, the colour chosen for the book’s cover by the publisher is also very important in Lorrain’s imaginary; in true decadent fashion, green, for Lorrain, is associated with both the abject and the desire.
Do you have plans for further re-editions of Lorrain?
Hopefully! At the moment we are in talks with the publisher to bring forth the letters of Maurice de Guérin, a forgotten post-romantic, to Barbey d’Aurevilly. Personally, I would love to republish Lorrain’s Un démoniaque (1895). It is a novella, followed by shorter stories in the original collection; it can be read as the matrix text of Monsieur de Phocas (1901), arguably Lorrain’s major novel. I must say that I found reediting Le Sang des Dieux to be a really cool exercise. It allowed me to work on something concrete, in parallel with the thesis, and to witness a full republishing process and I would be very keen to do it again.
There certainly seems to be an appetite for Lorrain and other decadent works…
Lorrain seems to be back in fashion indeed! There has been a regain of interest for decadence in the US from the 1980’s. Many interesting things are still waiting to be dug out in decadent and fantastic literature. Those are texts that still speak to the modern world. Look at Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission (2015). The protagonist is an academic who specialises in J.K. Huysmans, another French decadent writer. Lorrain’s Monsieur de Bougrelon was translated in English by Eva Richter and Spurl editions in 2016. And in November, Snuggly Books, which has already published three volumes by Lorrain in the past two years, will print the first English translation of Jules and Edmond de Goncourt’s novel Manette Salomon (1867).
Translated by Tina Kover (Tina O’Donell from MLAC) with a preface by Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze…
The French post-romantic spirit is in full storm in Durham this fall.
C’est peu de le dire!
Jean Lorrain, Le Sang des Dieux, edited by Alexandre Burin and Pascal Noir. Paris, L’Harmattan, 2017.