Les chants de Maldoror
Year:
1927
Author:
Comte de Lautréamont
1846 to 1870
Artist:
Frans De Geetere
1895 to 1968
Publisher:
Blanchetière

The life story of the mysterious count of Lautréamont was for a long time one of the biggest riddles in French literature. Writer Isidore Ducasse (who hid behind this pseudonym) wrote two books and died at the age of 24 in Paris during the Commune of 1870. By now, more is known about his life: he was born in Montevideo in 1846, and grew up (without his mother) during the turbulent years of revolution in Uruguay. He befriended Georges Dazet, who was five years his junior, while in boarding school. In late 1867 he settled down in Paris, and the literary world became his habitat.

Ducasse did manage to publish parts of his two works of literature Les chants de Maldoror and Poésies, but they both went virtually unnoticed. When he died on 24 November 1870 (due to unknown causes), nobody saw him as an author of any importance. 'The end of the nineteenth century will yet have its poet', wrote Ducasse. Not until half a century later would these words turn out to have been prophetic indeed.

Slow response

The printing history of his prose work Les chants de Maldoror - which is today considered a masterpiece - is noteworthy. The first 'song' appeared anonymously in 1868, with the author himself paying the printing costs. It failed to raise a response. Ducasse then published the same song in the anthology Parfums de l'âme. Still no response came from literary France. In 1869 all six songs of Maldoror were printed by Lacroix (who was also Eugène Sue's publisher, from whose work Ducasse had taken his pseudonym), but he refused to release it to the public because it was deemed too scandalous. Nor did the posthumous Belgian edition of 1874 or the new French edition of 1890 encourage any critics to write about his work; the few reactions that occurred at all were negative. The author was perceived as a psychopath. Appreciation first came in the decadent 1890s, from the direction of Alfred Jarry and Rémy de Gourmont. A full reversal of opinion began to occur in the twentieth century, when Surrealist André Breton came across the book.

André Breton immediately sanctified Lautréamont. The Surrealists celebrated the disruptive effect of the poetry in Les chants de Maldoror. The main character in the hallucinatory prose is the cruel Maldoror, who is like a fallen angel continuously battling an - equally cruel - God. Maldoror usually experiences beauty as 'silly and soulless', and views death as a crowning achievement. The book is full of sadistic passages, like the one in which the author encourages the reader to grow long fingernails to pierce the chest of an innocent boy, drink his blood, kiss him, comfort him, and take him to the hospital. In the first version, the author's boarding school friend Dazet appeared as one such victim of Maldoror. This caused later researchers to speculate about the homosexuality of Isidore Ducasse and Georges Dazet. The cruelty and feverish style are combined with ironic comments and references to classical authors (e.g. Shakespeare andDante). Because of his remarkable use of language, Lautréamont is now seen as an early modernist. His themes have been compared to those of De Sade - and much later to that of Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.

Blood red letters

The most famous illustrated edition of Les chants de Maldoror is that of Salvador Dalí (1934). Belgian artist René Magritte also produced drawings for the book (1946). However, the first illustrated edition is from 1927, produced by the Belgian artist Frans De Geetere. The six songs were divided into two thick printed volumes for this edition, and illustrated with 65 sombre etchings, emphasizing the text's grim, sadistic nature. The cover sets the tone right away: the title is printed on it in blood red letters, as on the poster for a horror movie. The illustrator was also responsible for the book's typography.

The publisher, Henri Blanchetière (c.1880-1933), also worked as a bookbinder, and was known for his artistic work. He was a student of René Kieffer, and the successor (and son-in-law) of bookbinder Joseph Bretault. Like Kieffer, he dedicated himself to the publishing business in the 1920s. He published a dozen books: Colette, Thomas Hardy, and also Charles Baudelaire's Pièces comdamnés (also present in the Koopman Collection). It is unclear whether or not the bookbinding of Les chants de Maldoror was produced by Blanchetière. The leather bindings have not been signed, but the spines do bear decorations in Art Deco style. The copy in the Koopman Collection is number 8 from a total of seventy copies printed on Montval paper. It came from the collection of Jean Jacobs.

Bibliographical description

Description: Les chants de Maldoror / par le comte de Lautréamont ; ill. d'un frontispice en couleurs et de 65 eaux-fortes par Frans De Geetere. - Paris : Blanchetière, 1927. - 2 vol. : ill. ; 31 cm
Printer: G. Coquette (Paris)
Edition: 133 copies
This copy: Number 8 of 70 on Montval
Note: First illustrated edition of this text
Signed by the publisher
Bibliography: Bénézit 5-941 ; Carteret 4-233 ; Mahé II-604 ; Monod 6898
Shelf-mark: Koopm K 322

References

  • Paul van Capelleveen, Sophie Ham, Jordy Joubij, Voices and visions. The Koopman Collection and the Art of the French Book. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands; Zwolle, Waanders, 2009
  • Julien Fléty, Dictionnaire des relieurs français ayant exercé de 1800 à nos jours: suivi d'un guide pratique des relieurs, doreurs, marbreurs et restaurateurs contemporains. Paris, Éditions Technorama, 1988
  • Valéry Hugotte, Lautréamont: les chants de Maldoror. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1999
  • Jean-Jacques Lefrère, Isodore Ducasse, auteur des Chants de Maldoror, par le comte de Lautréamont. Paris, Fayard, 1998
  • Pieter Schermer, Her de Vries, Lautréamont in Nederland II. Enkhuizen, Labyrint, 2000

Upper and lower cover of unsigned binding (volume 1)
Upper and lower cover of unsigned binding (volume 1)

Upper and lower cover of unsigned binding (volume 1)

Cover (volume 1)
Cover (volume 1)

Cover (volume 1)

Title page (volume 1)
Title page (volume 1)

Title page (volume 1)

Illustration by Frans De Geetere (volume 1, p. [11])
Illustration by Frans De Geetere (volume 1, p. [11])

Illustration by Frans De Geetere (volume 1, p. [11])

Illustration by Frans De Geetere (volume 1, p. [17])
Illustration by Frans De Geetere (volume 1, p. [17])

Illustration by Frans De Geetere (volume 1, p. [17])

Frontispiece by Frans De Geetere (volume 2)
Frontispiece by Frans De Geetere (volume 2)

Frontispiece by Frans De Geetere (volume 2)

Illustration by Frans De Geetere (volume 2, p. [6])
Illustration by Frans De Geetere (volume 2, p. [6])

Illustration by Frans De Geetere (volume 2, p. [6])

Colophon (volume 2, p. [159])
Colophon (volume 2, p. [159])

Colophon (volume 2, p. [159])