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Men-of-the-world and demimondaines: gender representation and construction in Villiers de l'Isle-Adam.

A "rhetoric of fiction," to borrow Wayne Booth's familiar phrase, involves different positions and attitudes on the author and narrator's part, depending on the generic choice s/he makes and effects s/he seeks as s/he endeavors to make the reader accept the "reality" of the universe produced by the fiction. Irony, paradox, and denial lie at the core of the overall rhetoric of Auguste de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. The following reflections will explore the ways in which Villiers uses these strategies to construct gender identities. In the wake of Baudelaire and Poe, with a great admiration for Wagner, Villiers is associated with the development of French symbolisme and can be viewed as a significant participant in the culture of the fin de siecle. His fiction, in particular the Contes cruels (1883) and Nouveaux contes cruels (1888), contributed to the production of a kind of dark humor characteristic of the period. (1) His tales--which should be read with his novel, L'Eve future (1886) in mind--construct gender identities which both adhere to the heteronormative binaries (male/female) and undermine them, because of social and historical determinations: the fin de siecle, aesthetic and the elite dandyism which characterized it. More effete or softer models of masculinity are set as positive alternatives to traditional, more aggressive, even violent stereotypes. (2) Ironic and/or paradoxical strategies contribute both to re-articulate a quirky heteronormative framework and to undermine this very framework.

Logically, in Villiers as later in Proust, a rhetoric of identity will revolve around names and naming, and all the devices that pertain to them. Not only does Proust explicitly devote pages to the topic of names, (3) the Recherche is haunted by an anxiety of identification. On his last appearance in society, Swann has become the Hebrew prophet, and Charlus functions as a prototype of the homosexual, to the point that his name becomes an antonomasia to name the whole species (the Charlus). In Villiers' collections, several tales revolve around an eponymous female character whose name, thrown as it were into the reader's face as an enigma, calls for an elucidation (Antonie, Sylvabel, La Reine Ysabeau [Queen Ysabeau]). (4) At least two, instead of a name, present a characterization which functions as an antonomasia (L'Inconnue, L'Incomprise [The Unknown Woman, The Misunderstood Woman]). By contrast, men do not lend their names to stories (Le Traitement du docteur Tristan [Dr. Tristan's Treatment] presents a very different structure). Functions, however, appear in titles. Sombre recit, conteur plus sombre [A Somber Tale, An Even More Somber Storyteller] thus refers to a specific male character, as does Le Convive des dernieres fetes [The Guest of the Last Festivities], a tale in which the identity (or rather the defining passion) of the unknown foreign nobleman is the crux of the narrative, and the revelation of this obsession its climax. The balance is not even between the genders. The fact that the eponymous Maryelle (whose name is also mentioned in L'Enjeu [The Stake]) is a pseudonym suggests that identity is, indeed, at stake. If the Guest of the Convive is an enigma, (5) women are constantly presented as mysterious (unknown, even unknowable, misunderstood ...). The secret is both a source of anxiety and a pseudo-mystery--the latter characterization suggests a strategy to forestall the threat at the heart of numerous male characters' anxiety. Women are represented as destructive for men, and quite a few scenarios point to a fear of castration.

Gender and Narcissism

Fear of castration/destruction is expressed through a foregrounding of narcissism, which appears in Villiers to produce gender specific scenarios--though it is a threat to male characters whether it is represented in a male or female character. Le Desir d'etre un homme [The Desire to Be a Man] develops an interesting paradox, as the male protagonist, an allegedly well-known second-rate actor, fails to achieve his goal of becoming a man; un homme, here, is ostensibly used in the all-inclusive sense of the word, to refer to a human being with real feelings as opposed to an actor who only represents imitated emotions. The aging actor starts a major fire in a densely populated (and popular) neighborhood in Paris as a way to inspire in himself remorse for having been the cause of so many deaths, as the (paradoxical) paradigm of authentic human feelings: this course of action he sees as the only way to be a man (as opposed to simply aping human emotions). The attempt fails and the protagonist dies in the throes of his madness, still looking for his humanity. In French however, as in English, "etre un homme" also means to be a man, the male of the species. (6) Pierre Claudes read the protagonist, Esprit Chaudval, as caught in a narcissistic trap, stuck at the mirror-stage, (7) with the consequence that the character fails to become un homme, a fully developed male individual, whatever that may mean in society. If we follow Glaudes' interpretation, therefore, Chaudval's unfulfilled desire, or rather, his failure, to become a man, is arrested development. The irony in Glaudes' title, "L'Ironie de Narcisse," could qualify Villiers' production as a whole and apply to most of his endings, though in this particular case, it refers to the failure on the protagonist's part to identify in himself the specter he eagerly calls upon, in order to stir in himself the unbearable remorse for the deaths he provoked as an arsonist--the rather circuitous way he imagined to feel really human emotions. In Glaudes' perspective, most likely, it is doubly ironic that the Narcissus should fail to identify in himself his desired object. Esprit Chaudval is a kind of hapax, as a male Narcissus, a mass murderer, indeed, but whose victims are not the victims of murder by gender (8)--though Villiers reverses the logic inherent in the phrase, which usually refers to the elimination of women. In women, however, narcissism is the name, and the master rule, of the game, and its effects are to shut men out, potentially to castrate and utterly destroy them.

The most explicit instance occurs in Antonie, where the eponymous protagonist, aptly chosen for the title, demonstrates the (perverse) self-sufficiency of women and the illusion men have of ever possessing them, or even simply having an individual existence in their eyes. One of the many demimondaines of Villiers' Paris high circles, Antonie is the sole woman and the only character clearly identified by a name, in the company of several unnamed men, one of whom is the narrator and refers to the male group by "nous" [we]. The collective "nous" is an echo of the epigraph, already a variant of a collective of unnamed men in a place identified by a woman: "Nous allions souvent chez la Duthe: nous y faisions de la morale et quelquefois pis" (59, italics PZ. [We often went to la Duthes: we passed the time in moral considerations and sometimes worse practices]; "la Duthe" is characterized by the editor as a "danseuse de l'Opera de Paris" and a "femme galante" of the 18th and early 19th centuries). (9) The climax of the story coincides with the revelation of Antonio's secret, triggered by the curiosity the unnamed men express about the "mysterious locket" ("bijou mysterieux") with her initials that hangs from her neck. The revelation is but one variant of the recurring secret structure: it is both superficial and paradoxically threatening to the male subjectivity. Antonie graciously opens the locket to reveal a lock of black hair, braided into a flower--a pansy--and this, in turn, prompts a round of inquiring exclamations--is it a lock of her beloved's hair, as the flower would suggest? Laughing, Antonie explains that after considering the matter seriously, and in view of the imperative to place something in such a jewel ("Ne faut-il pas des cheveux dans un medaillon? En temoignage? ... ditelle" [Must there not be a lock of hair in a locket? As a testimony? She said]), she placed her own hair in the locket, "par esprit defidelite"--out of a sense of fidelity--the last words of the story, italicized by Villiers. (10) The cameo-like tale had opened on a gesture which takes on its full significance at the end: "Antonie se versa de l'eau glacee et mit son bouquet de violettes de Parme dans son verre" [Antonie poured herself some iced water and placed her bouquet of Parma violets in her glass]. The name of the eponymous character opens the tale, which is all the more significant since there is no dedicatee, a rare occurrence in the collection. Thus the one-name title, by definition a kind of enigma, is followed by the repetition of the name, with a couple of terms that center her actions upon herself ("se," "son"). If one considers that Parma violets, at least in the French sociolect, connote, "let me love you," the last words, hinting at self-love, can be read as closing the circle of narcissism, in a way that completely excludes the unnamed men-of-the-world around her, and prevent them from achieving any identity. From a symbol of self-love to an assertion of fidelity to herself, the eponymous beauty is constantly caught up in a self-centered game of mirrors. She kisses all her male companions showing absolutely no preference, "avec un charme tour a tour si sincere qu'il n'inspirait aucune jalousie" [with a charm so sincere for each of us in turn that it provoked no jealousy], which, read as an ironic statement, can be rewritten into, /she made no distinction whatsoever among us/, a clue to the de-individualizing effect the narrative assigns women--a step toward men's destruction, turning the conte cruel into a tale of ordinary misogyny. Antonie laughs as she looks at herself in mirrors, and turns to her male companions, with Cleopatra airs ("des airs de Cleopatre"), only to turn them into alternate mirrors to see herself in their eyes. No reader, to my knowledge, has drawn what I consider the logical conclusion of the connection between the character's name and her attitudes (without even exploring the symbolism of the black pansy). Cleopatra is a figure known as a femme fatale, who brought Marc-Antoine to his downfall. In French, Antonie is both a feminine form corresponding to, and an anagram for, the masculine first name Antoine. (11) What the text is saying, in other words, is that, when Antonie takes on Cleopatra airs, she then combines the two individuals of the famous pair Antony and Cleopatra, lexicalized in French as Antoine et Cleopatre, effectively excludes men, and shows they do not count for her, let alone possess her. (12)

Thus, the Parisian demimondaine serves as a touchstone for the construction of masculinity in the culture of the fin de siecle, (13) Because they owe the men who maintain them their livelihood, those men have the illusion of possessing them, and, paradoxically, as the evocation by the narrator in Antonie of the protagonist's "sincere" charm suggests, they are deluded into thinking there exists an authentic rapport between man and woman. In the moneyed exchange (14) such illusion is exposed through irony (linguistic, as in the use of the word sincere, but also situational, as in the closing of the protagonist's narcissistic circle). This is a recurring trait in the Contes cruels and Nouveaux contes cruels. Women's narcissism is the instrument of their power.

The Non-Mystery of Women and the Demise of Men

Through his characters' fate, Villiers thus works to debunk prevalent myths about women and, in particular, the misapprehension that women hide a secret--that they are part of an awe-inspiring, gender-defining Sphinx paradigm. The demimondaines are essential to Villiers' demonstration. Quintessentially Parisian, they produce anxiety, a fear of castration and, more radically, of annihilation. Only when they are transplanted can the men who maintain them catch a glimpse of their true nature. The eponymous character in Maryelle asserts her capacity to be faithful to a young man with whom she has fallen in love, and reveals to the man (once again nameless) who has whisked her away from the capital for a heart-to-heart talk that they have never shared any real bond. In this particular instance, the mystification is rendered more complex, since the name given the young woman is a pseudonym--as per her request, a condition she imposed on her male interlocutor, should he decide to tell her story. This game of identity hide-and-seek, among other elements, again points to what is at stake: gender identity, or rather, the dysphoria of gender construction and the peculiar malaise offin de siecle dandies, an anticipation of the universe Proust will invent a few decades later.

A number of Villiers' tales stage womens (destructive) secret. Beyond Maryelle, two titles, L'Inconnue (Contes cruels) and L'Incomprise (Nouveaux contes cruels), explicitly refer to enigmatic women, one unknown (and essentially unknowable), and the other, misunderstood. Sentimentalisme ([Sentimentality], Contes cruels) should be read along with those two texts, in order to trace the genealogy of a misogyny expressed in terms of gender anxiety. For Villiers looks forward, as it were, toward Proust's Swann and his relationship with Odette (another, notorious, fictional demimondaine) or to the Narrators attempts at possessing Albertine (his "Captive"), and more generally to the unsolvable mystery of the jeunes fillies en fleurs [the young girls in bloom], about whose sexuality nothing can be ascertained by their male lovers. (15) Conversely, the mortal danger that women represent for the dilettante (represented in Proust by Swann) and/or the artist is also an echo of such misogynistic constructions as Gogol's Petersburg Tales, in particular Nevsky Avenue. Villiers' young poet Maximilien, an apparently phlegmatic, even aloof, effete man of the elite circles who is the male protagonist of Sentimentalisme, can thus be viewed as belonging to a European paradigm, combining a romantic melancholy (prone to suicide) with a dark view of woman as an active element in men's demise.

Swann, driven to distraction by Odette, misses his suicide because Proust needed him alive to fulfill a more important function in his overall saga:

Dire que jai gache des annees de ma vie, quej'ai voulu mourir, que j'ai eu mon plus grand amour pour une femme qui ne me plaisait pas, qui n'etait pas mon genre. (Proust 1987: 375; emphasis added)

[And to think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I had the greatest love of my life for a woman I was not attracted to, who was not my type! (trans. PZ)]

But his marriage with Odette de Crecy is tantamount to social suicide, and the reader is made to understand that Swann fails to completely develop his intuitions (he will not solve the mystery of the musical phrase in Vinteuil's sonata, a task left for the Narrator to accomplish). Certainly the detour his passion for Odette made him take on his life-road must have contributed to this failure. But in Villiers, men die on account of women, in actuality (though fictionally) or symbolically. Sentimentalisme (a term which is negatively connoted) stages a dialogue between Lucienne Emery, who accuses artists of being insensitive, and her lover, the poet-count Maximilien de W***, who claims that the artist's ostensible lack of sentiment hides an underlying, overly acute sensitivity. The social position of the characters is implied by their names, as the opening presents the young woman (presumably a demimondaine) as an enigma, as is often the case in the Contes cruels:
   Par un soir de printemps, deux jeunes gens bien eleves, Lucienne
   Emery et le comte Maximilien de W***, etaient assis sous les grands
   arbres dune avenue des Champs-Elysees.

   Lucienne est cette belle jeune femme a jamais paree de toilettes
   noires, dont le visage est dune paleur de marbre et dont l'histoire
   est inconnue. (148).

   [One spring evening, two young people of good breeding, Lucienne
   Emery and the count Maximilien de W***, were sitting under the
   large trees of an avenue at the Champs-Elysees.

   Lucienne is this beautiful young woman forever attired in black
   dresses, whose face is pale as marble and whose story is not

It should be remembered that the mythological Elysian Fields for which the Parisian fancy neighborhood is named conjoin connotations of pleasure and death. And this is the context for the fateful debate on the expression of passion, or lack thereof. Part of the tale's irony comes from the fact that the dialogue unfolds after Lucienne has told her lover she is leaving him for another man and they sit comfortably until the time has come for her to go and meet her new lover. Understatement, not lack of feeling, is the key to the artist's mode of being, as a protection against suffering: such is the gist of the young man's reply. After Maximilien has gallantly escorted his companion to a carriage and seen her off with the most exquisite manners, he immediately backs his argument by his actions, returning to his elegant home to shoot himself neatly:
      Deux heures de la nuit sonnerent: il s' etira.

      --Ce battement de cceur est, vraiment, insupportable!

   II se leva, fit retomber les rideaux massifs et les tentures, alla
   vers un secretaire, l'ouvrit, prit dans un tiroir un petit pistolet
   "coup de poing," s'approcha dun sopha [sic], mit l'arme dans sa
   poitrine, sourit, et haussa les epaules en fermant les yeux.

      Un coup sourd, etouffe par les draperies, retentit; un peu de
   fumee partit, bleuatre, de la poitrine du jeune homme, qui tomba sur
   les coussins. (157) (16)

      [The clock struck two in the morning; he stretched.

      --This heartbeat is, really, unbearable! he whispered.

      He rose, let the heavy curtains unfurl, went toward a bureau,
   opened it, took from a drawer a small hand gun, went to a sofa,
   placed the weapon against his chest smiled, and shrugged his
   shoulders as he closed his eyes.

      A shot rang with a dull sound, muffled by the drapes; a little
   cloud of bluish smoke rose from the chest of the young man, who
   fell on the cushions.]

If sentimentality is the stake, then there is, again, multi-layered irony in the young man's statement. He hears the chime, and makes it into a metaphor for a heartbeat. But this "battement de coeur" is also the corny concession to sentimentality which must be suppressed at all costs.... Any young man "of good breeding" and taste would keep away from such a cheesy emotion. But, most of all, the heartbeat is unbearable, both concretely, as a sound too intrusive for so highly sensitive an ear/mind, and symbolically, as a metonymy for life--life has become unbearable, because beneath the cool, polished exterior of the young sophisticate beats the heart of an authentically sensitive young man. Of course, it being a tale by Villiers, the blithe theatricality of the young man's attitude may work to undermine any authenticity. Interestingly, however, Villiers seems to argue here for the sincerity of the poet's feelings--a sincerity totally beyond the grasp of the early variant of the femme fatale, a new Cleopatra aptly clad in her perennial widows weeds.

This "death of the artist" can be read as a variant of a structure already in place in European culture, and destined to flourish with the myth of the "poete maudit," [the accursed poet] of the latter part of the 19th century--a structure illustrated by Gogol with the gruesome, pathetic, and botched suicide of Piskariov, whose ideal woman turns out to be a vulgar prostitute. After trying to join with his ideal in dreams or drug-induced visions, the young man makes a last-ditch attempt at redeeming her, as it were. Failing to persuade the young woman to give up her current life and marry him, and unable to bear the chasm between the appearance of ideal perfection and the sinful and trivial reality, the promising artist kills himself:

[T]hey found his lifeless body with the throat cut. From his convulsively outspread arms and his terribly contorted face, it was evident that his hand had been unsteady and that he must have suffered a long time before his sinful soul had left his body.

So perished the victim of a mad passion, poor Piskariov, the gentle, shy, childishly good-natured man, who carried a spark of genius in his breast which might with time have blazed forth into a great bright flame. (Gogol Overcoat: 187-188)

The artist is a poor painter, not a well-bred aristocrat-poet. In his first hallucination, he finds himself among the upper crust in full party attire, while he himself is wearing his stained painter's frock. The structure, however, is the same as in Villiers' Sentimentalisme: a deceptively beautiful woman drives him to his demise. Gogol sums it up explicitly in the tale (as opposed to Villiers' ironic stance and cumulative strategy), each tale building upon the other, thus creating an intratextual intertextual network. The young painter's death is a warning against Petersburg women, all deceivers, all a threat for the men who fall for them (and fall for their trickeries):

Oh, do not trust that Nevsky Avenue! [...]

May the Lord save you from peeping under the hats of the ladies! However much a cloak of a beautiful girl may flutter in the distance, I, for one, will never follow it to satisfy my curiosity. Away, away from the street lamp, for heaven's sake! [...] But even apart from the lamppost, everything is full of deceit. It lies at all times, does Nevsky Avenue, but most of all when night hovers over it in a thick mass, picking out the white from the dim-coloured houses, and all the town thunders and blazes with lights, and thousands of carriages come driving from the bridges, the outriders shouting and jogging up and down on their horses, and when the devil himself lights all the street lamps to show everything in anything but its true colours. (Overcoat: 201-202)

So does Gogol conclude his tale. Women in/and the northern capital lie, they are deceivers. (17) It should come as no surprise, then, that what looked like the ideal beauty proved to be a hardened prostitute. Women, Nevsky Avenue, Petersburg, the devil: they all represent the paradigm of the deceivers, who eventually bring men to their downfall. Poprishchin, in The Diary of a Madman, tells us:

Oh, what a perfidious nature is woman! Only now have I comprehended what woman is. Until now, no one has yet discovered whom she's in love with. I'm the first to discover it. Woman is in love with the devil. [...] [S]he loves only the devil. You see over there, in the first tier of boxes, she's focusing her lorgnette. You think she's looking at that fat man with the medal? Not at all, she's looking at the devil who's standing behind his back. [...] And she'll marry him. She will. (Diary 18)

And the Devil is bent on the destruction of man, as is made clear from other tales by Gogol, not least in his Village Evenings near Dikanka, in particular St-John's Eve.

Thus Maximilien is not the first, nor the only artist who commits suicide on account of a woman in nineteenth-century European literature. Women portrayed in Villiers are, for the most part, but individual representatives of the paradigm. The combination of love/deception and destruction is ubiquitous in his fiction. (18) The conclusion of Sentimentalisme is emblematic of Villiers' pervasive ironic strategy, especially as it echoes the opening characterization of Lucienne as a beautiful young woman, always clad in black, and shrouded in mystery--since no one knows her story:
   Depuis ce temps, lorsqubn demande a Lucienne le motif de ses
   toilettes sombres, elle repond a ses amoureux, dun ton enjoue :

      --Bah ! que voulez-vous ! Le noir me va si bien ! Mais son
   eventail de deuil palpite, alors, sur son sein, comme l'aile d'un
   phalene sur une pierre tombale. (157)

   [Since then, when Lucienne is asked the reason for her dark
   dresses, she answers the men in her thrall in a light-hearted

      Bah! what can I say? Black looks so good on me! But her mourning
   fan then flutters on her breast, like the wing of a moth on a

The whole tale is presented as an elucidation of the unknown story, which should confer depth upon the character. Yet, the light-hearted tone, ostensibly a means of conveying the weightiness of an untold secret, is turned by Villiers' writing strategy into a trompe-l' oeil, a mock gravity, an empty grave.

Villiers connects woman, love, and death in several tales. In this particular one, however, between the first mention of Lucienne and her ostensibly knowing and meaningful repartee at the end, he seems to echo the Baudelairean vision of Beauty as expressed in "Hymne a la beaute" (A Hymn to Beauty). (19) The suppressed grief implied by the color (black) as well as the lexicon ("deuil," "tombeau" [mourning, tomb]) and the demeanor described in the last sentence, with its comparison, bespeaks a tragic secret. But Villiers' irony works here at several levels. It is the same woman unable to penetrate the artist's outward self-control and perceive his (well) hidden sensitivity who now gives the spectacle of a sentimental mystery. The title "sentimentalisme" [sentimentality] draws our attention to the corny dimension of the story, hence on the distanced, ironic reading demanded of us. Sentimentality is not true feeling. Nineteenth-century literature is rife with women who hide a mysterious past. (20) Irony, however, runs deeper, here, or rather, further afield. An intertextual reading among Villiers' tales reveals that Lucienne's secret is a sham and that women are, in fact, shallow. This lesson we learn from another of Villiers' female characters, the title character of L'Inconnue [the unknown woman]. This mysterious but powerful figure manages in a single encounter to dash all the hopes of a young man from the provinces, named Felicien de La Vierge, so effectively that he runs back to his family castle, never to be seen or heard of again. Ironically the two protagonists meet after Malibran's last recital-- ironically, because the young woman claims to be helplessly deaf. Not only does she deflate his delusion that his emotions are original (she can converse with him because his words are new only to him!); she sets herself apart from all other women. Before she explains they can never meet again, because she could never hear him say her name and he would get frustrated with her inability to hear, she asserts that she, indeed, is the one woman who could have fulfilled his desires, since all others are shallow, and their aura of mystery is just an air of mystery:
   Elle [la surdite] a rendu mon ame sensible aux vibrations des
   choses eternelles dont les etres de mon sexe ne connaissent, a
   lbrdinaire, que la parodie. Leurs oreilles sont muree a ces
   merveilleux echos, a ces prolongements sublimes [...] Helas, je
   suis sourde ... mais elles! Quentendent-elles! ... Ou, plutot,
   quecoutent-elles dans les propos qu'on leur adresse, sinon le bruit
   confus, en harmonie avec le jeu de physionomie de celui qui leur
   parle! [...] Oui [...] une femme nechappe pas a cette condition de
   la nature, la surdite mentale, a moins, peut-etre, de payer sa
   rancon dun prix inestimable, comme moi. Vous pretez aux femmes un
   secret, parce quelles ne sexpriment que par des actes. Fieres,
   orgueilleuses de ce secret, quelles ignorent elles-memes, elles
   aiment a laisser croire qu'on peut les deviner. Et tout homme,
   flatte de se croire le divinateur attendu, malverse de sa vie pour
   epouser un sphinx de pierre. Et nul dentre eux ne peut selever
   d'avance jusqu'a cette reflexion qu'un secret, si terrible qu'il
   soit, s'il nest jamais exprime, est identique au neant. (249-250)

[[Deafness] made my soul sensitive to vibrations of eternal things of which those of my sex know as a rule only a parody. Their ears are closed to those wonderful echoes, to those sublime reverberations. [...]. Alack, I am deaf ... but what about them! What do they hear! Or, rather, what do they listen to in the words addressed to them, but the confused noise, in harmony with the changing physiognomy of the man who speaks to them! [...] Indeed [...] a woman cannot escape this natural condition, mental deafness, unless perhaps, she redeems herself, like me, by paying an invaluable ransom. You assume women have a secret because they express themselves only through acts. Proud and boasting of this secret they do not know themselves, they like to let people believe they can be found out. And any man, flattered by the thought of being the diviner they await embezzles his life to marry a stone sphinx. And not one among them can rise by anticipation to the reflection that a secret, no matter how terrible, if it is never expressed, is tantamount to nothingness.]

Before re-reading the ending of Sentimentalisme in the light of the inconnues wisdom, it is worth looking at the effect her words have on the poor young man to whom she imparts it. Not surprisingly, Villiers crafts an ending which functions as symbolic destruction:
   Et le comte de la Vierge repartit le lendemain dans son solitaire
   chateau de Blanchelande,--et Ion n'a plus entendu parler de lui.

      Certes, il pouvait se vanter d'avoir rencontre, du premier coup,
   une femme sincere--ayant enfin le courage de ses opinions. (153)

   [And the Count de la Vierge went back the next day to his solitary
   Blanchelande Castle,--and he was never heard of again.

      Indeed, he could boast of having met, straight off, a woman who
   spoke true-- who could finally stand by her opinions.]

Irony, again, plays here at multiple levels. The italicized sentence--evidence, indeed, that, as we have seen above, there is in Villiers a rhetoric of typography, involving font formats (small caps, or, as here italics) and various punctuation effects (like the dashes, present in the excerpt)--turns the young count's fate into a witticism (the young woman's putting her money where her mouth is), which reduces her highfalutin gender philosophy into a simple matter of opinion. The poor rejected soul will indeed fulfill the promise of his name. The comte de La Vierge, who disappears from view, and from the story, will indeed remain a virgin character forever.

Not surprisingly, misogynistic statements about the nature of women are ascribed to a woman who is presented (and self-defined) as an exception. (21) But, leaving aside the inconnue's statement defining woman's nature, from which her deafness seems to have allowed her to be excepted, let us see how her words of bitter wisdom illuminate the characters in Sentimentalisme. If, indeed, a secret never told is identical to no secret at all, or rather, to nothingness, then Lucienne's response falls under this category. There is, indeed, no depth in her response. Lucienne gives herself the air of hiding a terrible secret with her frivolous words, but there is, literally nothing there.

The "sphinx" can again be read as an allusion to Baudelaire, this time to the Parnasse-like version of beauty his sonnet "La Beaute" proposes: "Je trone dans l'azur comme un sphinx incompris ..." ["a sphinx no mortal knows,/ My throne is in the heaven's azure deep" ("Beauty")] This sphinx, however, only presents a fake enigma with no other ultimate truth than her own meaninglessness, and her own self-centeredness, especially if one reads Lucienne's double portrait in connection with that of (another) Antonie, in Le Convive des dernieres fetes:
   La touchante Antonie, aux yeux de violettes, etait en noir, sans
   une dentelle. Mais la ligne de velours de sa robe n'etant pas
   ourlee, ses epaules et son col en veritable carrare, tranchaient
   durement sur l'etoffe. (108)

   [The moving Antonie with her violet-like eyes was dressed in black.
   Since the bodice of her velvet dress was not hemmed, her shoulders
   and her neck, of true Carara marble, stood in stark contrast to the

One is reminded here of the importance of the violettes de Parme in Antonie, a tale where the narcissistic dimension of the demimondaine is overwhelming. If Lucienne can be compared to this Antonie (through the black dress and the marble body), an Antonie who shares her name and social status with the eponymous character of Antonie, then it is too far-fetched to read Lucienne's as a cenotaph, referring only to her narcissistic self. Thus, woman is threatening: the pretense of a mystery appears as the trap through which men can be destroyed (literally killed or metaphorically castrated). The relationship between men-of-the-world and the demimondaines who live off them is particularly significant as maintaining women is the source of a delusion. Far from controlling (possessing) the women they keep, men of the social elite end up being toys in their hands, and the games they play with such toys are highly destructive.

Placing Gender: Women in/and Capitals

Location is, together with gender, race, class, etc., an element of identity in these tales. Felicien de la Vierge goes back to the province to bury himself in his castle, all his hopes dashed for life by the inconnue he met in Paris one fateful evening at the opera. It seems that, in Villiers as in Gogol, those destructive games find their place in the capital city. Though the leisured milieus of men of the world and demimondaines constitute a context appropriate for such games, the nefarious connection spreads much further. Ysabeau, the eponymous queen of a gothic-like tale set in mediaeval Paris, La Reine Ysabeau, takes her revenge on her young lover and the young girl he has boasted he would seduce by having the girl's home set on fire and her young lover accused of being the arsonist. Since having an affair with the Queen is high treason, the young man can provide no alibi, and is found guilty and sentenced to death. Though he manages to escape through the compassion of his attorney who takes his place, the Queen insists on the attorney being tortured and put to death under her lover's name, so that his identity, therefore his very existence, be totally obliterated (as the consequence of the ignominious punishment inflicted to arsonists):
   Afin que le nom de M. de Maulle fut efface de la liste des vivants,
   elle ordonna l'execution quand meme de la sentence.

      De sorte que l'avocat fut roue en place de Greve aux lieu et
   place du sire de Maulle.

      Priez pour eux. (205)

   [So that M. de Maulles name be erased from the list of the living,
   she ordered that the sentence be nonetheless carried out.

      And so, the attorney was broken on the wheel on Place de Greve,
   instead of M. de Maulle.

      Pray for them.]

Powerful women in Villiers thus tend to bring womans destructive potential to its highest degree. More importantly, queen Ysabeau appears as emblematic of the connection between the capital and the threat of destruction posed by women. This connection between women and capitals echoes Gogol's presentation of Nevsky Avenue (in the story by that title) examined earlier. Moving away from the capital, on the other hand, may be the (only) way for men to eschew such destruction. The intrigue's location may help explain the uncharacteristic happy ending of Sylvabel--at the castle of Fonteval which I discuss in the next section. The motif of a connection between the harm men suffer at the hands of women and capital city can thus be reversed as will be seen with L'Incomprise. Geographical distance from the capital makes the happy denouement possible. By contrast, in Paris, the comte d'Athol and his wife Vera, again the eponymous character of the tale, Vera, will be reunited in the abode of death. The narrator insists on the unusual nature of the pair. After a year of trying to recapture, phantasmatically, his past life, the count literally follows his wife to the family grave. In a retrospective narrative, the reader learns that she died in the midst of their embrace. On the anniversary of her death, after he has denied it as absolutely as possible, the room comes to life, and so does she. Villiers' familiar rhetorical strategies can be traced in the statement that sums up the fusional nature of their couple: "Et ils sapercurent, alors, qu'ils netaient, reellement, qu'un seul etre" (26) [And they realized, then, that they were, really, a single being]. It is ironic since, Vera being dead, he is the only one alive in the room. Unfortunately, a "fatal/fateful reminiscence" makes him realize she is dead and the bond is broken. As he is begging for a way to go to her, the key to the funeral vault falls from their bed--a key he had thrown into the vault as he left it on the day of her burial. In the end, the dead Vera will call her living husband to her. Vampires and ghosts were fashionable at the time in European literature. (22) But the fantasy/ghost in Vera serves to stage a reunion in death scenario which, on the one hand, might look like a tragic ending (a fin-desiecle version of Romeo and Juliet), and, on the other hand, confirm that men in love in the capital are doomed!

In Defense of Soft Masculinity

Now, if women seem to annihilate men so thoroughly in some of Villiers' tales, it may have to do, as well, with the kind of men with whom Villiers peoples his fiction. And here may lie the paradox of the representation of gender in Villiers and the function of his tales as exemplary novellas, as arguments for alternative forms of masculinity. The fantasies written into some of the stories are very telling. In Le Convive des dernieres fetes, one of the three women present at a souperfin, "Susannah Jackson, la Circe ecossaise" [the Scottish Circe], is a particularly threatening figure against whom the narrator warns the "jeune etranger" [young foreigner]. Again, in keeping with Baudelaire's indifferent, mortiferous beauty, "[e]lle compte des deuils divers dans ses souvenirs" (110). [She carries the memories of the mourning of various departed ones]. Most interesting, however, is the fantasy ascribed to her:
   Son projet, d'apres quelques phrases, est d'aller sensevelir dans
   un cottage dun million sur les bords de la Clyde, avec un bel
   enfant quelle s'y distraira, languissamment, a tuer a son aise.

   [Her project, from a few sentences, is to go bury herself in a
   million francs cottage on the banks of the Clyde, with a beautiful
   child she will languidly amuse herself to kill at her leisure.]

Felicien de la Vierge or the jeune etranger in this tale along with that doomed beautiful child--the men brought to the slaughter are children, totally unequipped to defend themselves. Such a characterization hints at the other side of Villiers' (and other turn-of-the-century writers') dialectic: problematic, even dissident, models of masculinity. Some of the dandy-like men involved with the demimondaines are depicted as rejecting qualities socially viewed as "masculine" in favor of non-aggressive models, which are not predicated upon violence. (24) And those who embrace the more traditional models do not fare particularly well. In Souvenirs occultes [Occult Memories], for instance, the protagonist, the narrator's ancestor, left his native castle of Brittany to lead a life of adventure in India, robbing graves. Yet this hero-like figure is eventually betrayed and killed, while the treasures he stole are returned to their original sacred places--an ending which can be read as a comment on the inadequacies of conventional masculinity.

Two tales bring to the fore deviant masculinity--and, perhaps not so coincidentally these are also two cases where the male character escapes demise at the hands of the title character: Sylvabel and L'lncomprise. Both tales, it should be noted, are part of the Nouveaux contes cruels. Sylvabel's epigraph is highly significant ("Belle comme la nuit et, comme elle, peu sure. Alfred de Vigny" [Beautiful like the night and,

like the night, not safe]). Given the story's title, the reader can hardly help seeing Vigny's romantic line as anything but a characterization of the title character. And, indeed, the reader will not have long to wait to be acquainted with Sylvabel de Fonteval. Since the story opens on the evening of her marriage to Gabriel du Plessis les Houx, the "night" in Vigny's line takes on its full significance--that of the wedding night. Suspiciously, at least for a reader already familiar with Villiers, the groom is first presented as the new lord of his wife's castle, (25) a suspicion more than justified by the ominous portrait of the young bride:
   Le nouveau chatelain, M. Gabriel du Plessis les Houx avait done
   echange l'alliance, le matin meme de ce beau jour envole
   deja,--dans la chapelle de ce brillant manoir,--avec Mile Sylvabel
   de Fonteval, une Diane chasseresse, brune et blanche, une svelte
   jeune filie aux allures d'Amazone. (331-332)

   [So, the new lord, Mr. Gabriel du Plessis les Houx had exchanged
   vows, the very morning of which day that was already gone--in the
   chapel of that sparkling manor,--with Mile Sylvabel de Fonteval, a
   hunting Diana, with dark hair and fair skin, a lithe young woman
   who looked like an Amazon.]

In order to understand both the danger the young bridegroom faces and the circumstances of his escape, it is necessary to present his predicament in his own terms, as it pertains to the discussion of gender roles and identity. In a configuration which is highly significant if we compare it to L'Eve future, (26) when the story opens, the young man is seeking advice from his wise uncle, in his current predicament--that of being passionately in love with his wife, who does not share his passionate feelings, and scorns him somewhat:
   C'est une filie brisante, indomptable, ennuyee, tres virile sous
   des dehors charmeurs, et qui, me sachant doux et devinant que je
   souffre pour sa chere personne, me dedaigne quelque peu. [...]
   'Elle me trouve trop paisible! trop "artiste"! trop exalte vers les
   "nuages,"--sans caractere enfin! (332-333)

   She is cutting, untamable, bored, very virile despite her seductive
   outward appearance, who, knowing I am gentle and having guessed I
   suffer because of her dear person, scorns me somewhat. [...] She
   finds me too peaceful! too "artiste!" too exalted toward "the
   clouds,"--in short, deprived of all character!]

This virile amazon is also endowed with a mysterious power of divination--she is a seeress: "Joignez a ceci que je la crois, cependant, dune penetration desprit presque ... mysterieuse! cest une devineresse ..." (333) [Add to this that I believe her, with all that, endowed with a mental power of penetration which is almost ... mysterious! She is a seeress ...]. Should the situation remain blocked, the young man explains, it will lead to a tragic denouement, his nature, when forced to leave his "clouds," being like the most powerful explosives--which we may interpret as suggesting either murder or suicide. The combination between soft masculinity and amazon-virile femininity is not unknown at that time. (27) Here, however, the predictable disaster is averted through a peculiar strategy, suggested by the wise uncle--to instill the certainty of his character .. wise uncle--" pour susciten en son jugement [Sylagel's], la certitude de [s]on CARACTERE! (Ibid.) [to instill in her mind the certainty of his CHARACTER]." The ploy involves killing, during a hunt his wife planned on their first day as husband and wife, a dog and a horse, in cold blood, on the pretext that they made him miss his target (in both cases, an unfounded claim). The strategy works in the end, but not because the cold-blooded killings establish that he has character as might have been expected. Here Villiers, the ironist and the unsettler, (28) exploits the uncanny gift of Syvabel to its full potential:
   Gabriel, une journee t'a suffi pour me conquerir, bien a toi! non
   point a cause de ce beau cassage de vitres, dont je souriais en
   moi-meme, a propos de deux innocents animaux ... mais parce que
   l'homme qui, entre tous, est doue d'assez de fermete pour
   accomplir,--durant unjour et unepareille nuit, sans se trahir un
   seul instant et en presence de celle dont il souffre,--le bon
   conseil d'un ami sur et de clairvoyance eprouvee,--s'atteste, par
   cela seul etre superieur a ce conseil meme et fait preuve par
   consequent d'assez de "caractere" pour etre digne damour. (338).

   [Gabriel, a day was enough for you to conquer me, good for you! not
   at all because of all this nice breaking of windows, which made me
   smile internally, over two innocent animals ... but because the man
   who, among all others, is endowed with enough mental strength to
   carry out,--for a whole day and such a night, without giving
   himself away at any time and in the presence of the woman for whom
   he suffers,-- the advice he received from a trusted friend of
   proven perspicacity,--does not need anything else to prove that he
   is superior to the advice itself and therefore shows enough
   "character" to be worthy of love.]

Having thus proven her uncanny penetration (to which the young man had alluded early in the story when describing his new bride to his uncle), Sylvabel asks him to add her own greeting to the letter he is "no doubt" planning to write to his uncle. Irony saturates the ending, as the trickster finds himself exposed--and discovers his intended victim was on to him from the start. Most interestingly however, there is a twist. Character, the ultimate gauge of masculinity, according to the protagonist, is displaced, from the obvious, (ostensibly) decisive acts to the more subtle capacity to remain firm in a determined course of action, without deviating, even if the action itself is laughable. Harmony, here, comes from a redefinition of what constitutes character--and, hence, masculinity. The characters do not change. Gabriel has, however, established his character, though his masculinity is still gentle and exalted. But the tale nonetheless gives the last word to Sylvabel--whose name constitutes the title and therefore, ostensibly at least, the subject of the exploration. She is the one who all but orders him: "Tu peux ajouter ceci dans la lettre d'actions de graces que tu as, sans doute, promis decrire a notre onde et ami, le baron de Linville, en Suede." [You can add this in the thanksgiving letter you no doubt promised to write to our uncle and friend, the Baron of Linville, in Sweden.] Thus she avers that she knew all along and confirms her husband's characterization of her as a seeress. At the castle of Fonteval, away from the capital, a powerful amazon and a soft-mannered yet passionate man, who could nonetheless establish his character, and therefore conquer his wife's love, can find balance and happiness in life.

Another tale in the same collection, which stages the escape of the man, takes the reader back to the paradigmatic relationship between moneyed men and demimondaines. This story might even be read as the revenge of the man-of-the-world over the femme fatale. Again the female protagonist is present in the title--this time, as for L'Inconnue, through antonomasia: L'Incomprise [The Misunderstood (female) One]. More even than the one-name titles in Villiers' collections, character-types used as titles call for an explanation, and the story is meant as an elucidation. Whereas Antonie dispenses with Villiers' usual dedication, L'Incomprise is dedicated to Jules Desiree, a critic who had written about Villiers. What is more interesting, however than the reference to a specific (real) person, is the form of this person's identity, with the first name somewhat fashionable for men at the time associated to a last name which replicates a woman's first name, meaning the desired (female) one. (29) Villiers' dedications and epigraphs have been much written about, though to my knowledge this instance of gender trouble had yet to be pointed out, as critics tend to take the act of dedication more or less at face value where Villiers is concerned. (30) The epigraph refers to the Quran--and gives the key to the mystery implied by the title, a mystery that thickens as the story develops, until it is revealed to the young man (and the reader) by the young woman: "Ne frappez jamais une femme, meme avec une fleur. Somate de l'Al-Koran." [Never hit a woman, even with a flower. Souratfrom the Quran.] When the reader embarks on his/her reading, s/he is armed with an enigmatic character (the misunderstood female one), a dedicatee hinting at gender trouble, and a proscription on beating women. Only then do the opening lines provide indications of time (the archetypal hopeful period of Spring) and location-a transfer out of Paris:
   Aux primes roses du dernier printemps, Geoffroy de Guerl, emmenant
   de Paris sa premiere preferee, Simone Liantis, avait loue, sur les
   bords de la Loire, ce riant cottage, meuble en style Louis XVI et
   cios de jardins ... (347)

   [At the first bloom of roses last spring, Geoffroy de Guerl, taking
   away from Paris his first favorite, Simone Liantis, had rented, on
   the banks of the Loire, this cheerful cottage, furnished in Louis
   XIV's style and enclosed in gardens.]

The text follows a devious logic as it defines very clearly the stakes of the connection between the two characters. The very name "Liantis" can conjure up ideas of attachment and unhealthy bonding, since it includes "liant," French for binding. The risk for the young man is to be bound to a potentially dangerous woman, who, not so coincidentally, will end her life in a hospital, as a mental case-fit to be tied. The French equivalent is "fou/folle a lier," "liant" being the gerund of the verb Her:
   A vingt ans--et n'etant doue que da peine sept mille francs de
   rentes,--s'exposer a de l'attachement pour une elegante, pour cette
   elancee brune aux regards assures, a peau de jasmin, aux traits
   fins et durs,--folie, n'est-ce pas? ... Soit. Mais si M. de Guerl
   etaitbien fait, d'allures aimables, dune bravoure celebre et d'un
   esprit artiste, une sentimentalite clairvoyante le
   defendait,--armure occulte, mais a l'epreuve,--contre toutes
   amoureuses concessions capables d'entrainer d'essentielles
   decheances. (347-48)

   [At twenty--and with no gifts other than a revenue of barely seven
   thousand francs--, thus to expose oneself to an attachment for an
   elegante, for this slender brunette with a firm gaze, with a skin
   of jasmine, with features fine and hard,--it was sheer madness, was
   it not? But, if M. de Guerl was well-proportioned, with a pleasant
   demeanor, famous for his courage and an artistes mind, a perceptive
   sentimentality defended him--as a secret but effective
   armor,--against any love concessions liable to lead to essential

Though, at first glance, the young man is safe, since the young person seems disinterested, M. de Guerl's portrait is rife with warnings, even ominous signs: "sexposer," that is, to run a risk; "une elegante, [...] cette elancee brune aux regards assures, [...] aux traits [...] durs" [a woman of fashion [...], this slender brunette with a firm gaze [...], with hard features], on the one hand, and the young man's "esprit artiste," which he shares with Gabrier du Plessis les Houx, on the other hand--paradoxically redeemed by his perceptive sentimentality, which, in this conventionally bucolic setting, the cottage, (31) should protect him from love-induced debasement. The mystery implied by the title hinges upon the fact that the young woman has moments of despondency, which remain unexplained beyond inexplicit remarks ("Ah! si seulement tu etais un peu ... autre!--Alors, tu ne m'aimes plus?--Si ... mais ... pas tant que je voudrais! Et cest ta faute.' " (349) [Ah! If only you were somewhat ... different!--Then, you don't love me anymore?--Yes ... but ... not as much as I would like! And it's your fault]. Finally, one evening, as their stay away from the capital is drawing to a close, and they are shooting with an old crossbow, she runs out of arrows, and, on an impulse, uses the only valuable possession she has left, a particularly beautiful solitaire. Though the young man looks at her in disbelief the next few lines show there is method in her madness. She cuts off a twig from a tree, takes her lover by the neck and

lui murmura, les yeux a demi fermes, dune voix rauque, triviale, caline,--et dun timbre qu'il navait pas encore entendu:

--Ah! Je sais ce queje merite, va! Mais cette fois, au moins, je pense--que tu vas y aller ... (Elle cinglait l'air de sa badine) et la,--ferme!... ou tu ries pas un homme! Crois-tu qu'elle m'aura coute cher, ma premiere danse de toi? [...] Je savais bien que tu etais un male! (350-351)

[whispered to him, her eyes half-closed, in a gruff, trivial, caressing voice,-and with a tone he had never heard before:

--Ah! I know what I deserve, now! But this time, at least, I think-that you are going to go ahead ... (She whipped the air with her switch) and then,-hard! or you are not a man! Do you believe how much it will have cost me, this first dance from you? [...] I knew you were a male!]

Thus, the three liminal elements--the title, the dedication, the epigraph--finally come together and make sense: the young woman speaks her mind and explodes, having not been understood until then, which is the explanation of the title; she desired a real man ("un male"), which echoes the Jules Desire(e), where the feminine form indicates the uncertainty about Guillaume de Guerl's true manhood, (32) an uncertainty which overdetermines the dedication, to use a Riffaterrean lexicon; (33) finally the young man obeys the Quran--he does not beat Simone. But the epigraph contained the gist of the young womans mystery, a mystery sadly much more trivial than the poetic mind would have wanted--as the letter the young aristocrat sends Simone makes clear:
   Ainsi fantasque enfant! lorsque je te contemplais, dans les belles
   soirees, sous nos longues charmilles et que, transporte d'amour, je
   murmurai sur tes levres ce que mon coeur me suggerait, tu te
   disais, toi, tout bonnement, avec un profond soupir, en levant tes
   beaux yeux au ciel, dont ils semblaient melancoliquement compter
   les etoiles:--Oui: mais, tout cela, ce n'est pas des bons coups de
   botte? ... (352)

   [Thus my fantastic child! when I was gazing at you, during the
   beautiful evening, in our long arbors and when, carried away by
   love, I whispered on your lips what my heart suggested to me, you
   were telling yourself, meanwhile, very simply, with a deep sigh,
   while raising your beautiful eyes to the heavens whose stars they
   seem to count with melancholy:--Indeed: but, all this, it does not
   compare with a few kicks from solid boots.]

Class now weighs in (and Guerl's diatribe is not very different from Henry Higgins' warnings to Eliza about marrying Freddie and being beat up by him in Shaw's Pygmalion) and the young man mentions that the house has already been rented to a "whole family of simple traders" as a stark contrast to his more effete tastes. The young man escapes unscathed, which seems to promote, again, a less aggressive masculinity. Yet, a note by Villiers hints at a multi-layer gender characterization: "Uauteur de cette nouvelle napprouve guere le ton de cette lettre envers une malade. Elle serait, tout d'abord d'un ingrat, si elle n'emanait d'unjeune ignorant mondain, beaucoup trop distingue ici" (352-353) [The author of this tale hardly approves of this letter's tone, addressed as it is to a sick woman. First of all, it would mark ingratitude, if it did not come from an ignorant, worldly man, much too distinguished here]. Both the letter ("je deplore, seulement, de ne me juger, pour toi, qu'un aggravant garde-malade," 352 [I can only regret feeling that I am, with regard to you, a caretaker who worsens your case]) and the note bring to the fore the woman's illness, which leads to the story's exemplary ending:
   Quel dommage qu'un si beau garcon ne soit, au fond, qu'un
   reveur!--murmura-1elle:--et quel dommage que ceux-la qui savent
   comprendre une femme ... soient si ...

      Elle sarreta, reveuse elle-meme, Simone Liantis, la pauvre et
   delicate filie,--helas! tout recemment decedee,
   d'ailleurs,--(navrante Humanite!)--sous le numero 435,
   vingt-sixieme serie (nymphomanes), aux Incurables,--son mal etant
   essentiel, cest-a-dire de ceux dont on nepeut pas (sans Dieu)
   vouloir guerir. (353)

   [Such a pity for such a handsome man to be, deep down only a
   dreamer!-she whispered:-And such a pity that those who do
   understand a woman ... are so ...

      She stopped, herself dreaming, Simone Liantis, the poor and
   delicate girl,--alas! Lately deceased, as it happens,-(distressing
   Humanity!)-as number 435, series twenty-six (nymphomaniacs), among
   the incurable,-her illness being essential, that is to say that it
   was among those from which one cannot (without God) want to

Almost at the end of the Nouveaux contes cruels, the last interaction between an elegante and a male aristocrat, a man-of-the world, vindicates all those who in Villiers' fiction, were actually or symbolically destroyed. Sylvabel, who is her husband's social equal, is conquered--but not destroyed, and the denouement emphasizes her superior perceptiveness. Not so with the preferee Simone, who fits the demimondaine's description: Villiers here draws upon what may be considered a literary topos of the late nineteenth century, (34) to turn the tables on the dangerous woman. As M. de Guerl returns to his regular life in the Capital, Simone Liantis eventually dies in the hospital--reverting, through the hospital bed number, to the namelessness of the title, an annihilation which visits destruction, this time, on the destructive demimondaine. Is it pure coincidence if that fate befalls the one character who, by using her last possession as an arrow, had left herself totally dependent on the man paying her bills? ("Te voila mon maitre! Plus un sou! Tupeux me chasser!" (351) [Now you are my master! Not a penny left! You can cast me out!]. These last remarks may lead to a double conclusion. The embarrassing lady is conveniently killed--and it should be remembered that when she escapes the Narrator's grip in Proust's Recherche, Albertine, the former "Captive," now "The Fugitive," also dies. But, more challengingly even, if we compare the endings of Sylvabel and L'Incomprise, softer masculinity is ultimately more threatened by the amazon-type who refuses to assert dominance than by the powerful female who can discern character!


Men-of-the-world, particularly in Villiers de l'lsle-Adam, but also in Proust, are an integral part of the construction and/or the representation of masculinity. Parisian women, and more specifically demimondaines, are presented as a threat to be forestalled at all costs. Irony may pervade Villiers' fiction; his strategy may be akin to those of quirky turn-of-the-century humorists such as Alphonse Aliais; the cruelty he chose as a defining element for his tales can be located in the somber vision of gender relations that they reflect and develop. It may even be ascribed primarily to women. Gender construction, however, is inseparable from social milieus, and even more, from place. Life in the capital, the Paris of Villiers or Proust as well as the "northern Capital" (Petersburg) in Gogol, is a privileged site for the expression of anxiety of destruction. Remarkably, similar configurations result in diverging denouements, depending on whether the pair involved is in or away from the Capital. Paradox appeared as a major component of Villiers' rhetoric of identity. This is particularly apparent in the treatment of masculinity. Though the threat posed by the potential Amazon dimension of some of the heroines would intuitively imply an attempt to reinstate normed gender identities, such tales as Sylvabel and L'Incotnprise actually make an elaborate case for alternative, even effete masculinities. The underlying motif of a link between threatening women (woman as a threat) and the Capital, which runs through Villiers' tales as it does through Gogol's tales of Petersburg, may take on its full significance in view of one trait common to the two nouveaux contes cruels. In both cases, the male character who exemplifies an alternative masculinity escapes being undone while away from Paris, outside the confines of the idle, moneyed circles of the Parisian viveurs--a milieu that may, on the one hand, only allow for conventional gender definition, and, on the other hand, be inseparable from the anxiety of destruction/castration. Villiers' originality, even significance, may in the end lie less in his (misogynistic) portrayal of female characters than in his role in the promotion of non-normative models of masculinity.

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Riffaterre, Michael. The Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Showalter, Elaine. "The Death of the Lady (Novelist)": Wharton's House of Mirth',' Representations 9 Special Issue, American Culture Between the Civil War and World War I (Winter, 1985): 133-149.

Stanton, Domna. The Aristocrat as Art: A Study of the honnete homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Thomas, Calvin, ed. Straight With a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Valincour. Lettres a la Marquise *** sur la Princesse de Cleves (1678). Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 2001.

Vibert, Bertrand. "Rire grand siecle et rire fin de siecle: Catulle Mendes lecteur de Charles Perrault," Recherches et travaux n[degrees] 67, " Hommage a Jean Serroy ", Grenoble 3,2005/2.

--. Villiers l'inquieteur. Toulouse: Presses Universitaires de Toulouse-Le Mirail, 1995.

Villiers de ITsle-Adam, Auguste de. Contes cruels suivi de Nouveaux contes cruels. Ed. Pierre-Georges Castex and Pierre Glaudes. Paris: Gamier, 2012.

Zoberman, Pierre. "'Homme'peut-il vouloir dire femme'? Gender and Translation in Seventeenth-Century French Moral Literature." Comparative Literature Studies 51.2 (2014), Special Issue The Gender and Sexual Politics of Translation: Literary, Historical, and Cultural Approaches, ed. Spurlin: (2014): 231-51.


(1.) On the "rirefin de siecle," see Vibert, "Rire grand siecle et rire fin de siecle."

(2.) One may think here of the seminal study by Domna Stanton, The Aristocrat as Art.

(3.) Cf. Proust, "Des noms: noms de pays."

(4.) All translations of excerpts from Villiers' de l'Isle-Adam are mine.

(5.) He will turn out to be a demented aristocrat, crazed for the spectacle (and infliction) of elaborate torture and gruesome death, bemoaning his failure to become an official executioner. The paradox, however is that, as opposed to the refined female beauties Villiers introduces as characters into his tales, this gruesome guest does not herald the obliteration of the female characters, no more than the gruesome conteur ...

(6.) On the interpretation and translation of ostensibly gender-neutral pronouns (like on or nous), and inclusive terms like hommelhommes, see Zoberman, "Homme peut-il vouloir dire 'femme'"?

(7.) See "LTronie de Narcisse (Lecture du 'Desir d'etre un homme')." The connection between masculinity and narcissism has been explored in a different perspective by Isaac D. Balbus, in "Masculinity and the (M)other."

(8.) The phrase here is meant to combine the title of the 2002 Barbet Shroeder movie, Murder by Numbers and Nancy Miller's diagnosis in the canon of exclusion by gender (De jean and Miller: 4).

(9.) Significantly, the quotation seems to have been made up by Villiers, as it is not found in the prince de Lignes' writings (he was himself a diplomat and man-of-the world ...).

(10.) Villiers is very liberal in his use of italics, small caps, and dashes. His writing strategies are not separable from typographic choices. His rhetoric, as a global set of strategical choices, includes the material dimension of printing.

(11.) And Shakespeare's title, Antony and Cleopatra, would have been familiar to Villiers, anyway.

(12.) This is reminiscent of the way the Narrator's mother and grandmother shut him out from their relationship through their shared love for, and constant use of quotations from, Sevigne's letters, according to Ladenson (Proust's Lesbianism).

(13.) Courtesans at all levels of society haunt European literatures and cultures of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Gogol's prostitute in Nevsky Avenue, Maupassant's he Lit 29, Barbey d'Aurevilly's La Vengeance d'une femme or Dumas' La Dame aux camelias are but a few examples--the latter at the origin of many other works, like Verdi's La Traviata.

(14.) Similarly, the boarding-school friends, in the story with that title ("Les Amies de pension," which opens the Nouveaux contes cruels) can remain friends as long as the ami-de-coeur of the first one pays the second one for her favors, because it does not matter!

(15.) As opposed to male homosexuals, whose secret is in plain view (see Sedgwick, Zoberman, etc.). On the inscrutability of women in the Recherche, see, again, Ladenson, the first critic to have studied women, in particular Albertine and the Jeunes filies en fleurs, as real women (though fictional ones), and not as young men passed off as women by Proust as a (thin) veil thrown over his sexual orientation--Painter's biography contributed to strengthen this overgeneralization that more recent editorial work on Proust manuscripts and carnets has helped to dispel.

(16.) On the one hand, this death might be viewed as problematic in terms of gender roles. Elaine Showalter has shown how Lily Bart is doomed by her education (she always behaves like a lady, always says the perfect thing). Maximilien seems to take on the role of the lady who dies for failing to step out of the mold. On the other hand, the end of the tale foregrounds the ironic misogyny at play in both collections.

(17.) The connection between deceiving, conniving, and destructive women, on the one hand, and capital cities, on the other hand, seems to be a recurrent motif in nineteenth-century European literature. Breaking the connection may be a way, perhaps the only way to counter women's destructive power, as the reading of some of Villiers' tales will show, in a later section of this article.

(18.) The creation of an "Eve future" in the novel by that title (The Future Eve), is linked to the contradictory love a young lord feels toward a woman he despises (and who is depicted as indeed unworthy of respect).

(19.) "Tu marches sur des morts, Beaute, dont tu te moques;/De tes bijoux l'Horreur nest pas le moins charmant, / Et le Meurtre, parmi tes plus cheres breloques,/ Sur ton ventre orgueilleux danse amoureusement. // Lephemere ebloui vole vers toi, chandelle,/ Crepite, flambe et dit : Benissons ce flambeau!/ L'amoureux pantelant incline sur sa belle/ A fair d'un moribond caressant son tombeau." ["O Loveliness! thou spurnest corpses with delight, /Among thy jewels, Horror hath such charms for thee,/ And Murder 'mid thy mostly cherished trinklets bright,/ Upon thy massive bosom dances amorously.// The blinded, fluttering moth towards the candle flies,/ Then frizzles, falls, and falters--''Blessings unto thee"--/ The panting swain that o'er his beauteous mistress sighs,/Seems like the Sick, that stroke their gravestones lovingly." ("Hymn to Beauty")].

(20.) See, for instance, Barbey d'Aurevilly s "Le Dessous de cartes d'une partie de whist" (in Les Diaboliques).

(21.) In very much the same way Valincour, in his critique of the 1678 La Princesse de Cleves stages a conversation with a lady "que tant de qualites elevent au-dessus de son sexe [whom so many qualities raise above her sex] (Lettres a la Marquise ***: 222).

(22.) Theophile Gautier has written several tales with ghosts or ghost-like creatures, and Turgenev's Ghosts, with the female vampire-like creature Ellis also come to mind.

(23.) Interestingly, it is but a fantasy. She will continue practicing her wiles in the Capital.

(24.) Such constructs may be viewed as forerunners of new paradigms of less- or non-normative forms of gender and sexual identity examined in Calvin Thomas' Straight with a Twist.

(25.) And we know that a man's home is his castle, as per the proverb ...

(26.) In the novel, Edison, the inventor, comes to the rescue of the young lord Ewald, in love with Miss Alicia Clary--a woman unworthy of his love.

(27.) For a particularly striking example, see Barbey dAurevilly's Le Bonheur dans le crime, in his collection Les Diaboliques (often translated as She-Devils).

(28.) I am borrowing here the notion from Vibert's Villiers l'inquieteur. The adjective is actually borrowed from Villiers himself.

(29.) The name Desiree becomes highly significant if one remembers that the unworthy love object in The Future Eve is called Alicia Clary. The most famous Desiree in French history/culture may be Desiree Clary, once Napoleon's fiancee, who eventually became queen of Sweden, as Bernadotte's wife! Sweden, then, may also serve to overdetermine the link between Sylvabel and L'incomprise.

(30.) By which I mean that, even when going beyond the obvious homage a dedication represents, scholars reason on the dedicatee as a person or as a writer ... On two dedications to Mallarme, see Daniel Bilous, "Signes de te(x)te (La dedicace chez Villiers de ITsle-Adam. On the epigraphs, see Philippe Berthier " 'Gare, dessous! ...' (Epigraphes cruelles)."

(31.) It will be remembered that the cottage is the site of Susannah Jacksons fantasy, and sentimentality, the emotional reef on which Maximilien de W*** is wrecked in Sentimentalisme.

(32.) Jules as antonomasia for "man" (male partner) is not attested before World War I. It would of course make the dedication even more significant.

(33.) On the concept of overdetermination in Riffaterrean semiotics, see in particular Riffaterre, Semiotics of Poetry, 21-25.

(34.) see Zola's Nana, Maupassant's Irma (Le Lit 29) and Barbey d'Aurevilly's protagonist of La Vengeance d'une femme.

Pierre Zoberman

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Date:Mar 22, 2014
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