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Review of Isidore

Isidore by Jeremy Reed, Peter Owen/Dufour Editions.

The 19th century French poet Lautreamont is, like B. Traven, one of the mystery figures of literature. The few known facts of his life are these: He was born Isidore Lucien Ducasse in 1846, the son of a French schoolmaster-turned-diplomat stationed in Uruguay. His mother died an apparent suicide. At the age of 13, Isidore was sent to France to attend L’Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, but never registered for classes there. Instead he spent the next three years writing the series of prose fragments that became his masterwork, the blasphemous and hallucinatory Les Chants de Maldoror, which he published in 1870 under the pseudonym Comte de Lautreamont. Extremes of human behavior fill the pages of Maldoror, all described in prose trembling on the brink of madness. Few copies of the book were sold, and it quickly slipped into obscurity. Late in 1870, during the Seige of Paris, the 23-year-old Isidore died under mysterious circumstances after burning all of his private papers.

In the 1920s the French surrealists rediscovered Lautreamont or, more accurately, introduced Lautreamont to a culture that had ignored his achievement completely. His exotic, delirious imagery–and his lucid, purposeful control of that imagery–earned him the surrealists’ respect and admiration. They added his name to their pantheon of literary precursors, a position he has maintained ever since, usually lumped together with Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.

Using the few fragments of biographical act available, British poet Jeremy Reed has constructed a fictional life of Lautreamont, fleshing out with imaginative speculation the hazy areas in a brief career. Written in a lush, elegant prose, Isidore is a satisfying work of the imagination as well as a satisfying work of biography. Whether the story presented here is true is impossible to know, but the feeling of the story is true. It creates a believable psychology for Lautreamont, an emotional terrain consistent with who the author of Maldoror must have been.

The novel begins with an interview between a ghostly Lautreamont and a nameless inquisitor. Set in the glaring light of the Sahara Desert, the interview ironically casts little light on Lautreamont’s private life. From the vague domain of the afterlife, Lautreamont replies to questions in an elliptical manner. “How much of one’s life does one remember?” “Not that much when we’re living it.” And so on. Yet he provides us with one important clue: “In the absence of a biography the work lives in the place of the author.”

With this in mind, the reader approaches the body of the novel, where Reed merges the few anchors of available biographical fact with the style, mood, and imagery of Maldoror to create a fictional biography in which Lautreamont is embodied in his work and the work is an intimate expression of the life. Because Maldoror is generally lauded as a forerunner of the stream-of-consciousness novel of the 20th century, Reed employs the stream of consciousness to present his story. Much of this novel takes place within Lautreamont’s mind, the action seen through his eyes. Reed’s Lautreamont is an intensely introspective young man who prefers his own thoughts to conversation with others, his own enraptured visions to shared experiences. He is obsessed by the sea, by the sight of decayed flesh, by the slaughter of animals at the local abattoir. Color and light and sound fascinate him, as do the attentions of a sexually ambiguous harlequin during carnival time in Montevideo.

Only occasionally is the narration interrupted by brief sections entitled “The Eye”–written reports from an unnamed spy hired by Lautreamont’s father to keep an “eye” on his wayward son. Providing an objective, and sometimes differing, perspective on Lautreamont’s actions, these “Eyes” jolt the reader back from the nearly hypnotic narration of the main text. This inside/outside dichotomy periodically pulls the reader out of the stream of consciousness into a larger, less claustrophobic world, while wryly commenting on the blindered narrowness of the stream of consciousness as a narrative device. This doubling effect culminates in the creation of two Lautreamonts: a flesh-and-blood version and the legendary author.

Seamlessly combining the life and the work, the fiction and the fact, Reed has given us a Lautreamont whose life does not end at the edge of the page, whose creation continues after his physical death, and whose legacy inspires elegant tribute.

--Thomas Wiloch