Magazine article The Spectator

Neither Short nor Sharp nor Shocking

Magazine article The Spectator

Neither Short nor Sharp nor Shocking

Article excerpt

Neither short nor sharp nor shocking A BAEDEKER OF DECADENCE: CHARTING A LITERARY FASHION, 1884-1927 by George C. Schoolfield Yale, £30, pp. 415, ISBN 0300047142

To be fair to him, George C. Schoolfield, of Yale University, does admit in his opening sentence that 'movement' may be too strong a word to describe the collection of writers on whom his Baedeker focuses. So, I think, may 'fashion'. Links between authors in these 23 cross-global chapters are certainly thin - here an admiring letter, there a nabbed theme and with some it is hard to see any link other than date and drivel.

Each country has a chapter, and for that chapter they are allowed usually no more than one representative entry. Thus we get chapters on the decadent movement of Wales (entry: Arthur Machen) as well as that of Australia (Henry Handel Richardson).

Other entries are justified: Huysmans is here, as are Strindberg and Rilke. But from there the names become less familiar and pose another problem - one which Schoolfield is aware of, though helpless before: many texts under discussion have never appeared in English translation, so we are in the dreaded world of plot-summaries. Not many things read so badly as melodramatic novels by Scandinavians in summary.

There are interesting moments. It was good to read about the Belgian Rodenbach whose Bruges-la-Morte gave us Korngold's very good in places opera Die tote Stadt. On Mann he is good, and I should have liked to have read him on early Hesse.

The intelligent chapter on Huysmans reminded me of an old ponder: whether Powell gave Jenkins's housemaster the name 'Le Bas' with a nod to Huysmans' Là-Bas; it seems to me a good joke that a man of such harmless rectitude should have to shuffle through life burdened by association with a French novel about a Satanist child-murderer.

Huysmans is certainly the master here, with Wilde following a respectful second or so, not quite fitting into the scheme of things, because he was funny. Humour is something these decadents, such as they were, could not do. In fact, there's a case for arguing that most writers represented here merely wrote melodrama about people who were terminally ill, sexually insane, drugged or suicidal.

Tragedy that is unremitting soon becomes comedy: thus we have the novel by the Finnish-Swede Tavaststjerna, 'the story of a singer's try at a continental career, and his return to a station-master's post somewhere in Finland's interior'; Rilke's hero 'Harald' whose immortal cry of 'Not yet, Walpurga' haunts me still; and the American Huneker whose story 'The Corridor of Time' has a lover who dies having left only one sentence of a novel - 'And the insistent clamour of her name at my heart is like the sonorous roll of the sea on a savage shore'. …

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