Submarine Villegiatures and Spidery Jonquil: Jules LaForgue’s “Salome”

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Jules LaForgue

I’m a little late to the party, but Jeff Vandermeer proposed recently on his blog the World Cup of Fiction, in which he encouraged people to share favorite pieces of fiction from different countries. I thought I’d mention French writer Jules LaForgue (1860 — 1887) and his short story “Salomé,” which I first read in college for a class from the book Nineteenth-Century French Tales.

I’ve always been taken with the story’s exuberant inventiveness, with tossed-away terms such as “dynastic caryatid,” “endless decamerons of polychromatic statues,” “alcohol of Silence,” “hydrocephalic theosophists,” “the Snow Cult,” “submarine villegiatures,” “obsolete breezes of November,” and “the Omniversal Atmosphere.”

This is the story of Salomé, but a different Salomé than the one we know. She is princess of the Esoteric White Islands and “the foster sister of the Milky Way” and is described in a repeating refrain as “hermetically bemuslined in a spidery jonquil with black dots.” The real star of the story, however, is the Palace Mandarins of the Tetrarch, a tour of which takes up most of the text.

Here are some excerpts:

“With pylons, three blocks of them, squat and stark, inner courtyards, galleries, vaults, and the famous Hanging Park, its jungles undulating in the Atlantic breezes, and the Observatory’s one eye on the lookout six hundred feet up, near the sky, and a hundred flights of sphinxes and cynocephali: the tetrarchic palace was no more than a monolith, carved, excavated, hollowed, compartmented, and finally burnished into a mountain of black basalt streaked with white, extended by a pier of sonorous pavement, with a double row of poplars, funereal violet, in tubs, projecting far out into the shifting solitude of the sea, until it reached an eternal rock, very much like an ossified sponge, holding out a pretty comic-opera beacon toward the night-prowling junks.”

“Oh, everywhere, echoes from unknown passages, filling that austere green solitude, kilometrically deep, sprinkled with patches of light, furnished exclusively with an army of rigid pines, whose bare trunks of a salmon-flesh tint spread, far above, far above, their dusty horizontal parasols.”

“Next were vast gulfs of lawn, grassy slopes like dreams about a faun’s kermis; and stagnant sheets of water where swans that wore earrings far too heavy for their spindle necks were immersed in ennui and old age; and endless decamerons of polychromatic statues with fractured pedestals, but posing with surprising — nobility.”

“And why are we so incapable of curling up in our own little corner and sleeping off the drunken stupor of our sad little Self?”

As for the World Cup of Fiction, I believe submarine villegiatures, firing torpedo congeries, should get France at least into the semifinals.