Sympathy for the devil

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After unearthing this book in July I finally got round to reading it. Guy Endore’s biography of the Marquis de Sade isn’t a great work of literature (and my paperback is also badly typeset) but it was worthwhile for the sketch it offers of the life and philosophies of the notorious libertine. Sade is of interest to me more for his importance to subsequent generations than for his works (although the one leads back to the other), not least the Surrealists who revered him as a revolutionary thinker far ahead of his time. But this interest isn’t really enough to warrant immersion in a major biography which would run to many hundreds of pages, and have to take account of the tumultuous historical era that Sade lived through: pre-Revolutionary France, the Revolution itself, then the Napoleonic period.

Guy Endore was a biographical collagist whose method in this and other books was to explore the life by stitching together with his own commentary extracts from letters and diaries and, where necessary, his own inventions. Most editions of Satan’s Saint proclaim the book as a novel but this isn’t really the case, Endore describes his text in the introductory note as a “novelized Ph.D. thesis”. The note also indicates the passages he was forced to invent when the documentary material was absent. Sade’s life was more turbulent than most, a continual round of family drama, pursuit by the authorities and serial imprisonment, all taking place during a time of the greatest national upheaval, so it’s no surprise that letters, diaries and other documents have been lost. Endore’s most substantial invention is the diary of Sade’s sister-in-law, Anne-Prospère de Launay, with whom the Marquis was besotted, and who he took with him to Italy when he fled his first court conviction and a death sentence. Endore attempts to explain (not always successfully) how the convent-raised woman could not only betray her sister and the rest of her family but also run away with a man accused of terrible sexual crimes. Less invention is required for the Marquis himself since some letters do survive, and his voice and opinions are present throughout his published writings. Given Sade’s enduring reputation it’s a surprise to discover how much of his life was consumed by familial squabbles, especially with his mother-in-law. The Sade family saga, like many of his novels, is a familiar human affair inflated to outrageous proportions; the hatred between Sade and his in-laws was mutual but each saved the other from execution.

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It’s that Rubens typeface again… First US edition, 1965.

Endore’s penultimate chapter steps away from the biography to present a talk given to students at the University of California in May 1962. The lecture allows the author to summarise his attitude to Sade which isn’t so much one of admiration but respect for a man who stood against the hypocrisies of his time even when his life was at stake. “I never killed anyone,” Sade said in later years, and Endore draws a lengthy comparison between Sade and Napoleon Bonaparte, the latter being responsible for the destruction of Sade’s published novels as well as the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. The crimes of Napoleon were far greater than those of the man who spent 14 years of his life in prison, yet the name of Napoleon carries none of the notoriety that surrounds the name of Sade. Endore also notes the irony that without his lengthy terms of imprisonment the Marquis might have been as forgotten as he always hoped he would be. Prison compelled him to rage on paper against the world.

I have another Endore book, The Werewolf of Paris, lurking in the unread stacks but it will have to wait. Since reading this piece I’ve had an urge to revisit the novels of Charles Williams. Some metaphysical thrills are in order.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Satan’s Saint
The Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade by Jean Benoît
The Marat/Sade

Weekend links 535

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The Wagnerites (1894) by Aubrey Beardsley.

• “Part of my problem with influence is that the concept is too univocal; most of us are impacted by many others during our lifetimes, but often in oblique ways. So many of the most interesting bits of cultural transmission happen nonlinearly, via large groups of people, and in zigzag mutations. Assigning influence can also have the unintentional effect of stripping artists of their own originality and vision.” Geeta Dayal reviewing Wagnerism by Alex Ross.

• “Buñuel stubbornly refused to have any group affiliation whatsoever. Even though critics always tried to categorize him, he never wanted to explain the hidden meanings of any of his films and often denied that there were any.” Matt Hanson on the surreal banality of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel.

• Next month Soul Jazz release the fourth multi-disc compilation in their Deutsche Elektronische Musik series devoted to German music from the 1970s and 80s. The third collection was the weakest of the lot so I wasn’t expecting another but this one looks like it may be better.

James Balmont chooses the five best films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who he calls “cinema’s master of horror”. I’ve yet to see any of these so I can’t say whether the label is warranted or not.

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine in a two-part post here and here charts the emergence of an under-examined sub-genre, the metaphysical thriller.

• Power Spots: 13 artists choose favourite pieces of music by Jon Hassell. A surprising amount of interest in his first album, Vernal Equinox.

• At Spine: George Orwell’s Animal Farm receives new cover designs for its 75th anniversary.

• “Pierre Guyotat’s work is more relevant now than ever,” says Donatien Grau.

• Mix of the week: FACT mix 775 by Sarah Davachi.

May 24th by Matthew Cardinal.

• Ry Cooder with Jon Hassell & Jim Keltner: Video Drive-By (1993) | Goose And Lucky (1993) | Totally Boxed In (1993)

Pole position

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In today’s post, the recent Mute reissue of the first three albums by Stefan Betke, aka Pole. The photo below is one I took of Herr Betke in a club in Los Angeles in 2005. My old Canon camera was never very good in low-light conditions but a portrait of the artist emerging from gloom seems fitting for music whose reverberant pulses seem to evolve from an equally tenebrous void.

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The hundred-year Voyage

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Today’s post at Wormwoodiana reminds me that David Lindsay’s unique novel of philosophical fantasy, A Voyage to Arcturus, was published a hundred years ago today. I designed a lavish reprint for Savoy Books in 2002, an edition which unfortunately used the re-edited text from earlier reprints instead of going to the original publication. This wasn’t done for lack of a first edition, it was more out of ignorance—nobody bothered to look into the history of the text—as well as convenience; Savoy’s earlier reprinting of Anthony Skene’s Monsieur Zenith the Albino had involved many weeks of text preparation, scanning pages from a photocopy of Skene’s very scarce novel, then running the copy through rudimentary OCR software and proofing the result. In Savoy’s slight defence, the reprint of Arcturus did correct a couple of typos that everyone else had missed.

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I still think the best feature of my design was the selection of Jean Delville’s remarkable Symbolist painting, The Treasures of Satan (1895), a picture used with the permission of the Brussels Museum of Fine Art. (They supplied us with a print of the painting together with a photo of Delville’s Angel of Splendour (1894) for the back cover.) With the exception of Bob Pepper’s artwork for the 1968 Ballantine paperback, previous reprints of the novel seldom reflected the contents on their covers. I’m no longer happy with the type layout on the rest of the dust-jacket, however, although the front cover looks okay. The Savoy edition included an introduction by Alan Moore, an afterword by Colin Wilson, a collection of philosophical aphorisms by David Lindsay, plus a couple of photos of the author which I don’t think had been published before. Despite its flaws, the book was well-received. The paper was heavier stock than is generally used for hardback fiction which made for a heavy and expensive volume but the edition still sold out.

Penguin are reprinting the novel next year in an edition which continues the tradition of unsuitable cover art. According to Lindsay site The Violet Apple the figure on the cover is from an illustration for a Dostoevsky novella, so what is it doing on Lindsay’s book? Cover art aside, the novel is in a class of its own, and very highly recommended.

Previously on { feuilleton}
The art of Bob Pepper
Masonic fonts and the designer’s dark materials

The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse

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Among the weekend’s viewing was the third and final film in Fritz Lang’s Mabuse cycle, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). This was also Lang’s final feature, made after his return to Germany in the late 1950s, and another film of his that for many years I knew only as an impossible-to-find title. I’d read about the Mabuse series in Lotte Eisner’s study of Lang’s career even before the name and character was co-opted by Propaganda for their first single in 1984, but the only films of Lang’s that ever used to appear on TV were the Hollywood features or, if you were lucky, a poor print of Metropolis. Mabuse was a source of fascination for the way the character connected the beginning and ends of the director’s career, as well as being a German take on the Moriarty-like super-criminal. The first film in the series, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), condenses the corruption of Weimar Germany into a potent physical icon, while the sequel, The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), reflects the fevered moment when real super-criminals were taking control of the nation. The Nazis were sufficiently discomforted by Testament to ban it shortly after its release.

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Cornelius the psychic with insurance salesman Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig and police inspector Kras.

The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse appeared just as new super-villains were emerging to oppose James Bond and his imitators. One of Bond’s early adversaries, Auric Goldfinger, was portrayed on screen by Gert Fröbe who appears here on the opposite side of the law as homicide inspector Kras. Fröbe’s tenacious policeman is one of the few fixed points in a plot filled with twists and deceptive identities. Assassinations and double-crosses are a staple of this type of thriller but Lang also gives us an early example of electronic surveillance in a contemporary setting, together with a séance that harks back to a similar scene in the first Mabuse film. The séance is an unusual touch in a story otherwise devoid of similar moments, prompted by the film’s most mysterious character, Cornelius the blind psychic. With an appearance reminiscent of the late Karl Lagerfeld, Cornelius is an overt throwback to Lang’s pre-war films, many of which hinted at the mystical or supernatural even when such hints seemed unnecessary; Rotwang, the robot-builder in Metropolis (played by the original screen Mabuse, Rudolph Klein-Rogge) is a mechanical genius who just happens to live in a house more suited to an alchemist, with a huge inverted pentagram on one of its walls. The sinister motives of Cornelius aren’t so baldly stated but his consulting room is lavishly decorated with astrological diagrams. The psychic, together with the criminals and the police inspector, create a problem common to films of this kind in which the more colourful characters generate greater interest for the viewer than do the romantic leads. After a succession of breathless opening scenes, Thousand Eyes sags a little while wealthy industrialist Henry Travers (Peter Van Eyck) is getting to know Marion Menil (Dawn Addams), a woman he rescues from a suicide attempt. The film also lacks the subtext of the earlier episodes, although Mabuse’s scheme turns out to be diabolical enough for any of James Bond’s Cold War enemies.

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The séance.

Continue reading “The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse”