Sodom’s ambassador to Paris

French writer Jean Lorrain was born on this day in 1855. Lorrain was a master of fin-de-siècle snark, using both novels and articles to take down many of the public figures of his day – sometimes with just cause, sometimes in service of pure sensationalism, as we saw in his treatment of poor old Mathilde de Morny. Having recently read Jean Lorrain, ou le Satiricon 1900, in which Philippe Jullian memorably describes Lorrain as “Sodom’s ambassador to Paris”, I was hoping to expand upon this bête noire of the Belle Époque. But every time I tried I found his essence eluding me.

I will definitely return to Lorrain, a figure who embraces much that is dear to Strange Flowers. In the meantime, a troll through contemporary images of Lorrain might prove just as instructive. He was one of the most-oft caricatured men of the age, his peculiar physiognomy, pompous air and aura of vice giving much for artists to work with. The “swollen” body and “amphibian” eyes remarked upon by Robert de Montesquiou (another victim of Lorrain’s journalistic cluster bombs) are certainly apparent. Lorrain had – to quote Ann Widdecombe (four words I never thought I’d type) – “something of the night” about him.

A number of these works are by the great French caricaturist Sem, whose early career owed much to Lorrain’s patronage. Sem was evidently disinclined to return the favour by flattering his mentor, although Lorrain in his declining years, when he used makeup to mask the effects of sickness and drug use, would have been a challenge to the most obsequious illustrator.

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  1. Linda Hollander

    I’m so happy you’ve returned recently to the DFP (Dead French People), but I believe Sem was a woman.

    Do anyone happen to know if the Jullian book on J. Lorrain is translated into English?

    Thanks in advance….

    • You know I can’t keep away from the freak superstore that is Belle Époque Paris for long!

      Sadly Jullian’s biography, along with almost all of Lorrain’s own writings (except for Monsieur de Phocas), remains untranslated. This is a recurring refrain on Strange Flowers. I don’t think any of Jullian’s novels have appeared in English either, which is a shame. I’ve only read Scraps, but it’s hilarious and BEYOND camp.

      Oh, and Sem – definitely a man! Born Georges Goursat.

      • Linda Hollander

        Thank you for repyling so quickly.

        I went from strange flowers into the showere, where, somehowa the lightening flanshed in my brain and I realized I got Sem confused with Gyp…not altogether ridiculous, I think.

        Lorrain was a close friend of Winnie’s (the Princesse de Polignac, about whom I am writing the interminable book) when she was young, I think the association lasted for a long time, even as she and others were more and more aghast at his…leanings. So many of the DFP, their impeccable facades notwithstanding were just brutal! I must say I think de Montesquiou gets a bum rap, for he was far from the worst, and to me there is real talent there, and immense sensitivity. But then, I am a fool for him!

        There is a Jullian novel in English, but I can’t remember the name of it…it takes place in Egypt Ithink…oh, it might be called Flight into Egypt. It was VERY interesting. I will now look for Scraps…beyond camp seems just about right where I’d like to be at the moment!

        And, my dear James, thank you for being so kind about my faux pas. I feel I have disgraced my self…well, globally! I am suffering a staggering dimunition of memory. It is the one thing about growing older that I really regret.

        Bonjour, keep writing to us!

      • I’m sure the vast global/galactical audience which Strange Flowers commands will think nothing of it! At least I have the luxury of being able to go back and edit my solecisms.

        The bitch fight between Lorrain and Montesquiou (or “Grotesquiou”, as Lorrain called him…pot/kettle etc) is a post on its own. Jullian claims Lorrain’s hatred was fueled by “the assurance that he had more talent, and the fear that he had less taste”.

        Thanks for the tip about Flight into Egypt – it seems to be out of print but I’ll look out for it second hand.

  2. Hello, just noticed the discussion here of Jullian’s novels. Flight into Egypt is worth a read although it surprised me by being less camp than I expected. Much of it is dark and disturbing, almost like PJ doing De Sade. For a contrast I’d recommend his earlier collaboration with Angus Wilson, For Whom the Cloche Tolls. Wilson wrote the text for Jullian’s scratchy drawings; the whole thing is very camp indeed.

  3. LInda Hollander

    Interesting assessment of Flight into Egypt, I don’t know if I would go quite that far…de Sade, it ain’t… but it is dark.

    And thank you for reminding me about …Cloche…! Loved it and really loved the sketches…I’m going to look around for it and re-read.


  4. The Ghurka

    Several years ago,Tartarus Press published a limited edition of Jean Lorrain’s Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker – a collection of stories with an introduction by Brian Stableford. Titles include: The Glass of Blood, Glaucous Eyes, One of Them, A Troubled Night, The Holes in the Mask, The Double, The Toad, The Spirit of the Ruins, The Spectral Hand, The Princess at the Sabbat, etc.

  5. Hi James,
    an interesting post on an interesting writer.
    Lovers of Lorrain (and other decadents) could do worse than get ‘The Decadent Reader’ (edited by Asti Husrvedt) 1,000+pages for about $30.00.
    There are four Lorrain stories: ‘The Man Who Loved Consumptives’, ‘The Man Who Made Wax Heads’, ‘The Unknown Lady’ & ‘One Snowy Night’. All are great and very odd.
    ‘Monsieur Phocas’ was possibly the best book I read last year- very decadent indeed.

    • Thanks for the tip, John – that sounds like a very promising anthology. As far as I’m aware Monsieur de Phocas is the only one of Lorrain’s long-form works readily available in translation (published by the wonderful Dedalus Books). I’m encouraged by all this interest in Lorrain to go back and reanimate the longer piece on him that I had abandoned.

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