We may laugh at the prudery and hypocrisy of Victorian England, but Belle Époque France was little better. Reputations were dragged into the press and left bloodied and twitching, but as long as the perpetrator observed a minimum of decorum – that is, if victim and assailant were unidentified, even though enough details were supplied to make their identity clear – all was well. It was a pantomime in which each player wore a mask bearing their own features.
For his most scathing takedowns, Jean Lorrain (already a pseudonym) used further pen-names while popularising the blind item in use to this day. Duly camouflaged, he advanced on the arriviste, the gauche, the démodé. Even Lorrain’s literary criticism was peppered with personal attacks and his novels crowded with barely fictionalised versions of his prey.
But these defilements were not without consequence; numerous victims of his fictional and journalistic works fought back. In 1896 an actress by the name of Madame Bob Walter, slighted by one of Lorrain’s articles, launched a vicious physical assault. This time however the writer won the public’s sympathy and it was this incident which first brought him fame well beyond the chattering classes of Paris. Depending on which report you believe, the tireless Mme Walter followed up her attack by sending either faecal matter or used sanitary napkins in the post. Suffice to say it was something one would sooner not find on the end of one’s letter opener.
Even a positive write-up by Lorrain was not always welcome: as Philippe Jullian says “he soon gained a reputation for being a fearsome enemy and a compromising friend, because his praise had an air of complicity”. It’s impossible to understand Jean Lorrain without acknowledging his self-loathing. He excoriated himself as “abnormal…a fool…prey to only the most ignoble instincts”. A masochistic streak led him to provoke the ire of those he admired as much as the objects of his disdain. Mathilde de Morny was of the former category. She sensibly mistrusted him (calling him “a man who is never satisfied with the abyss”) and, as we saw, almost faced him in a duel.
Others were provoked to the same conclusion, including fellow Fécampois Guy de Maupassant, who was more or less a family friend, and Claude Debussy. Even Paul Verlaine sent his seconds, and Lorrain was avowedly a fan of the aging poète maudit. In fact it was only Mme Walter’s onslaught which prevented him from attending his funeral.
But Lorrain couldn’t dodge the bullet forever. In 1897 Lorrain wrote a dismissive review of Marcel Proust’s first novel which additionally alluded to the author’s private affairs and sexual tastes – tastes which, naturally, Lorrain shared. Proust demanded satisfaction, and so the diseased, ether-soaked reprobate and the hypersensitive, asthmatic recluse squared off in a field (in fact Proust fought at least half a dozen duels in his life; for a wheezy shut-in the bitch was fierce). Shot followed shot, each wide of the mark, honour was satisfied and it wasn’t until half a century later, at the Lifar-Cuevas set-to, that two more unlikely dueling opponents faced each other.
Lorrain’s anguished relations with his exact contemporary Robert de Montesquiou perfectly illustrate his gift for alienating potential allies. In 1886 the count had refused a dedication in one of Lorrain’s volumes of poetry. Wounded, Lorrain petulantly labelled him “Grotesquiou” but he was conscious that he could never compete with the poet’s slim elegance. In fact with his own dandyish affectations, Lorrain was described by one associate as “the poor man’s Montesquiou”. It’s a contrast Philippe Jullian plays up in his respective biographies of the two men (Montesquiou is “prince 1900” to Lorrain’s “Satiricon 1900”). Lorrain’s hatred was exacerbated, claims Jullian, “by the assurance of having more talent and the fear of having less taste.”
Sarah Bernhardt had to step in to halt hostilities, but they flared anew when Lorrain asserted that Montesquiou had used his cane to beat women out of the way to escape a blaze at the Bazar de la Charité in 1897 (which also claimed Sissi’s sister). In fact, the count had been nowhere near the fire. Lorrain couldn’t resist Montesquiou’s magnetism for long, and would return in his 1901 novel Monsieur de Phocas which borrowed from the count, just as Huysmans had done and Proust would later do.
As the century wore down to its nub the demands of living down to his own standards had left Lorrain exhausted. As well as regular stints of rehab in the Pyrenees he journeyed farther and more frequently and in so doing essentially established an itinerary for the gay man of letters with Decadent sensibilities. He was one of the first Western writers, for instance, to seek sensual respite in the Maghreb. He visited Capri, and although that island’s most notorious resident Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen was not at home, Lorrain caught up with him in Venice, where he shared his debauches. Lorrain went on to visit the historicist creations of Ludwig II, a hero to the French Decadents.
In 1900, a newspaper announced that Lorrain was to marry courtesan Liane de Pougy, whose career he had done much to advance. But there was only room in his life for one woman, his widowed mother who lived with him and fussed over him as she had over the young sickly Paul. Mme Duval was far happier with her son’s patronage of telegraph boys and stevedores than the rivalry of another woman, no matter how lavender the marriage. In any case Lorrain broke with the capital, moving to Nice, which he called the “city of refuge for those with compromised health, damaged reputations, finished talents”.
Even former allies were turning away. J.K. Huysmans, now in monastic seclusion, refused to act as character witness for Lorrain in a defamation case involving the artist Jeanne Jacquemin. One wonders if Huysmans’ embrace of Catholicism wasn’t first triggered by the shock of seeing the demonic creatures of his imagination come to life as Lorrain celebrated the launch of his novel Là-bas with a party, which he attended in drag accompanied by Lucifers, de Sades, Sapphos and hemaphrodites.
Bitter, absurd, Lorrain was now himself feeling démodé, and lashed out at the young. Ill his whole life, by 1905 he was already signing his works “The Cadaver”. On a trip to Paris in 1907, in a turn of events his more moralising enemies may have found satisfyingly apt, Jean Lorrain died after an enema went wrong and punctured his colon. His last words: “You have defeated me, Paris!”
Sadly only one of Jean Lorrain’s books is readily available in English: Monsieur de Phocas, published by the wonderful Dedalus Books, who have done so much to expand the Anglophone reader’s appreciation of continental Decadence. Meanwhile the ideal starting point for French speakers wishing to explore the writer’s life and works is the exhaustive jeanlorrain.net.