Dread, decay, disease; androgyny, artifice, anomie…Rachilde′s 1884 novel Monsieur Vénus seethes with Decadent enchantments, as the opening passage makes clear:
Mlle de Vénérande was groping for a door in the narrow passage that the concierge had pointed out.
This seventh floor was not lit at all, and she began to be afraid at suddenly finding herself in the midst of a hovel of ill repute, when she remembered her cigarette case, which contained the wherewithal to shed some light. By the glow of the match she discovered number 10 and read this sign:
Marie Silvert, flower maker, designer.
Then, as the key was in the door, she entered, but the smell of apples cooking choked her and stopped her short on the threshold. No smell was more odious to her than that of apples, and so it was with a shiver of disgust that she examined the garret before revealing her presence.
Seated at a table on which a lamp was smoking on a greasy pan, a man, apparently absorbed in very intricate work, sat with his back to the door. Around his body, over his loose smock, ran a spiraling garland of roses, very big roses of fleshy satin with velvety grenadine tracings. They slipped between his legs, threaded their way right up to his shoulders, and came curling around his neck. On his right stood a spray of wallflowers, and on his left a tuft of violets.
On a disorderly pallet in a corner of the room, paper lilies were piled up.
Some branches of defective flowers and some dirty plates, topped by an empty bottle, were strewn between two chairs with broken straw seats. A small cracked stove sent its pipe into a pane of a hinged skylight, and brooded over the apples spread before it, with one red eye.
The man felt the cold that the open door had let in; he pulled up the shade of the lamp and turned around.
“Am I mistaken, Monsieur?” asked the woman visitor, disagreeably surprised. “Marie Silvert, please?”
“You’re at the right place, Madame, and for the time being, I’m Marie Silvert…”
Raoule could not help smiling; coming from a male-sounding voice, this answer had something grotesque about it, something that the embarrassed pose of the boy, his roses in his hand, did nothing to change.
“You make flowers, you make them like a real flower maker?”
“Of course! I have to. My sister is ill. See, over there in that bed, she’s sleeping…Poor girl! Yes, very ill. A high fever that makes her fingers shake. She can’t supply anything decent…Me, I know how to paint, but I said to myself that if I worked in her place I’d make a better living than if I drew animals or copied photographs. Orders are not exactly pouring in,” he added by way of conclusion, “but I still manage to get through the month.”
He stretched his neck to check on the sleep of the sick woman. Nothing moved under the lilies. He offered the young woman one of the chairs. Raoule drew her seal-skin coat around her and sat down with the greatest repugnance. She was no longer smiling.