Opening Passage: From "The Crimson Curtain":
A considerable number of years ago I went to shoot waterfowl in the western marshes, and, as there was no railway then, I took the diligence, which passed the cross-roads near the Chateau de Rueil, and which at that precise moment contained only one passenger inside. This person, a very remarkable man in every respect, and whom I knew by having often met him in society, I will ask your permission to introduce as the Vicomte de Brassard. The precaution is probably useless! The few hundred people who constitute Parisian society are, no doubt, able to supply the real name. It was about five o'clock in the evening. The sunn shed its slanting rays on a dusty road, edged with poplar trees and fields, through which we rattled, drawn by four stout horses , whose strong flanks rolled heavily at each crack of the postilion's whip -- a postilion always reminds me of life, there is a great deal too much whip-cracking at the outset. (p. 17)
Summary: Les Diaboliques, or The She-Devils, is a collection of six short stories.
In "The Crimson Curtain", the Vicomte de Brassard narrates the story of his first clandestine attachment at the age of seventeen, which ends with her death in the middle of lovemaking. It makes a fitting opening to the book, because the whole affair is symbolized by light through the gap in a thick crimson curtain, and this story, as well as the others, are like seeing something of something of human nature, mysterious and perhaps not entirely explicable in an indirect manner. Most of the stories use the literary technique of recit parlee; we are not privy to the details of the story, but are hearing them indirectly, at second-bounce, so to speak, through another person. In fact, Barbey d'Aurevilly's working title for the collection was Ricochets of Conversation. We are looking at human life, and particularly moments that are often hidden, indirectly and in such a way as not to uncover the full truth of them.
"The Greatest Love of Don Juan" finds us at a dinner party that a group of women have thrown for the Comte de Ravila de Raviles, a notorious Don Juan, at which he relates the story of the greatest love of his life, which involves a mother and her daughter. Of course, it's a dinner-party story, so it has an absurd edge.
The story that seems to be most broadly popular among readers is "Happiness in Crime". In it, Doctor Torty tells the story of a handsome couple to his background he is unusually privy, a tale that involves adultery, deception, and murder. "Beneath the Cards in a Game of Whist" gives another tale of passionate lust and murder.
The story I thought was best was "At a Dinner of Atheists", although not because it was the easiest story to read. A local freethinker hosts a regular dinner of atheists and libertines -- these are the days in which atheists did not claim respectability, and indeed would have been ashamed if they ever discovered that they were regarded as respectable. However, the freethinker's son, the younger Mesnilgrand, was caught earlier coming out of a church, and is forced to explain why. The tale he tells is a harrowing one of wantonness, brutality, and desecration of the dead.
The final story, "A Woman's Revenge", is exactly what it says on the tin. A young man pays for a prostitute and discovers that she is a duchess, degrading herself to destroy the reputation of her husband.
In his 1874 preface to the collection, Barbey d'Aurevilly claimed that part of his purpose in telling these stories was the Christian one of showing good and evil at war in the world. Readers have from the beginning expressed considerable skepticism of this, and indeed, the translation I read has an Introduction by Robert Irwin, called "Barbey d'Aurevilly and the Satanism of Appearances", that pretty much calls Barbey d'Aurevilly a liar ("disingenuous apologetics" is the precise phrase used). Having read the stories, however, I think the skepticism is largely based on wishful thinking and not having a sense of the methods of a writer in Decadent mode. The thing about Decadence, as a literary phenomenon, is that it insists on the aesthetics of good and evil, and particularly a version of it in which the interesting and the evil can overlap. But this is not the same as amoralism, nor is it the same as immoralism, nor is it any kind of deliberate indulgence of evil. At the beginning of "A Woman's Revenge", Barbey d'Aurevilly has a scathing criticism of "modern literature", which pretends to show society and human nature as it is, puffing itself as daring for it, but in reality is hypocritically trying to hide much of the evil of the world. The realist novelists are moralists after all; it's just that they are incompetent moralists, and are trying to spin their incompetence as courage. "High civilization deprives crime of its terrible poetry, and does not allow an author to restore it," the narrator says (p. 224). You will learn nothing from it about why and how people easily and even joyfully do bad things; modern literature doesn't want to show you the badness that people love doing, and so tries to pretend either that they do not really enjoy it or that it is not really bad. Barbey d'Aurevilly has no patience for either kind of lying.
And, when all is said and done, human beings may admire moral goodness, but we also admire interesting things just for being interesting. Listen to people's gossip -- the ricochets of conversation -- and you see it. Gossiping is a major temptation precisely because of it. This approval of interestingness is a purely aesthetic approval; but it is not avoidable for all that. In a world filled to the brim with the boringly wicked, it's not surprising the people's ears perk up at a hint of the interestingly wicked. And for yourself -- you're not a saint, okay, it is not out of the ordinary for a human being to be wicked, but given that you are wicked, how dare you be boringly so? The saint we may revere; the interestingly wicked may impress us; but for the boringly wicked no one can have anything but contempt. Iniquity has its own hierarchy; it may be a distorted image of saintly hierarchy, but it is not for all that less real.
All of this ties to the running theme of the stories. You could be forgiven, from pretty much any description of the tales, for thinking that these are primarily erotic tales. Certainly sex comes up often. But lust is the not a devil-like vice; it is not the vice that makes you diabolique. Pride is the diabolical vice. Another aspect of Barbey d'Aurevilly's criticism of "modern literature" is that modern authors do not understand spiritual vice. They see the carnal vices without any difficulty. So if you want to show people how the evils of the spirit work, you have to show it to them in the form, in the guise, in the vestment of evils of the flesh. But if in turn you read the tales as just being about the fleshly vices, the whole thing has gone over your head. The reason why there is a shocking element to the tales is that pride is the vice that treats vices as if having them were a kind of virtue; the proud do not merely commit their sins, but are brazen about them, double down on them, take them to extremes precisely to get to extremes. We live in a world with pride running everywhere through it. Barbey d'Aurevilly is not claiming that there is nothing else -- here and there even in these stories there is a hint of something that is not subject to the dominion of pride. But his goal is to make sure that we see the dominion of pride, to avoid covering it up the way so much of our literature and culture does.
" 'The Major is coming upstairs,' she said. 'He must have lost, and he is jealous when has lost. There will be a terrible scene. Go in here! I will get rid of him!' and she opened the door of a long cupboard in which her dresses hung, and pushed me in. I suppose there are few men who have not some time or other been put in a cupboard, when the husband or protector arrived on the scene."
"You were lucky to have a cupboard," said Selune. "I had once to get into a coal-sack. That was before my damned wound, of course. I was in the White Hussars then. You may guess what state I was in when I came out of my coal-sack."
"Yes," continued Mesnilgrand bitterly, "that is one of the drawbacks of adultery. At such a time even the most high-spirited man loses his pride, and, in generous consideration for a frightened woman, becomes as cowardly as she is, and commits the cowardice of hding himself.
"It made me feel sick to find myself in a cupboard, in my uniform, and with my sabre at my side, and covered with ridicule, for a woman who had no honour to lose, and whom I did not love..." (pp. 214-215)
Recommendation: You definitely have to be in the right mood and mindset for reading stories of wickedness, but Recommended.
Barbey D'Aurevilly, Les Diaboliques, Dedalus (Sawtry, Cambridgeshire: 2020).