One must know how to wrest literary beauty from the very bosom of death…
– Poésies, Comte de Lautréamont
At 7 rue du Faubourg-Montmartre in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, where students, local residents and budget-conscious tourists now crowd the iconic brasserie Chartier, a rather solitary young man died on this day in 1870.
Coming halfway through the Franco-Prussian War, his death merited no great interest at the time. He was just one more victim of the Siege of Paris by which the Prussians hoped to starve, freeze and demoralise the city into submission. With supplies cut off, trees were felled along the Champs-Elysées for fuel, exotic animals from the Zoo were served in the better restaurants, rats were sold in Les Halles and the most desperate of the city’s poor were raiding cemeteries for fresh corpses, the one commodity not in short supply.
This nightmarish vision of the City of Light at its darkest hour might have come from the pen of the writer now lying dead in his hotel room. Born Isidore Ducasse in 1847 to French parents in Montevideo, he received most of his education in Paris where he would settle definitively in 1867. The following year, the first part of his huge prose poem Les chants de Maldoror appeared, a work which would soon bear his pseudonym, Comte de Lautréamont.
It would be many years until the man and his work were rediscovered, or more accurately discovered, since they attracted almost no attention during his lifetime. The violent, anarchic and obscene Maldoror, which Lautréamont composed in part by shouting verse while hammering atonally at a piano, was decades ahead of its time. “A few only may savour their bitter fruit without danger,” as its author himself acknowledged.
It was, fittingly, the Surrealists who eventually recognised the power of this work, the writer Philippe Soupault discovering Maldoror — just as fittingly — by the kind of chance encounter he and his colleagues saw as integral to the creative process. Its author was adopted into the Surrealists’ eccentric litany of forebears, but with very little biographical information and no known image of Lautréamont to go on*, there was considerable scope for speculation. Man Ray fetishised the writer’s anonymity in the 1920 sculpture The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (above).
Lautréamont’s renown grew in the ensuing years and the author who died at the absurdly young age of 24, feverish and forgotten, is now recognised as one of the most brilliant and revolutionary writers of the 19th century.
*The photo at top left was discovered in 1977 and authenticated as an image of Lautréamont. The one print of this sole likeness was offered for auction just over a month ago with a guide price of €40,000-€50,000. It didn’t sell.