An ailing iconoclast, driven to despair by his own ennui, retreats to the Pyrenees for a rest cure.
Film critic and translator Vicari (Male Bisexuality in Current Cinema, 2011, etc.) offers a distinctly modern translation of this turn-of-the-century expressionist novel by the avant-garde French novelist Mirbeau (A Chambermaid’s Diary, 1900, etc.). By using contemporary references and giving the language a florid, conversational tone, Vicari rescues the work from its own artifice and lets its arch humor breathe in a way that might not have come through in a more conventional translation. The narrator is Georges Vasseur, a cynic whose weariness with the world has saddled him with “neurasthenia,” an antiquated diagnosis that would today be likened to anxiety, depression, or neurosis. In short vignettes, Vasseur describes his days at a sanitarium high in the mountains near the Iberian border. Mirbeau uses the framework to offer pointed criticisms of the politics, culture, and social structure of the Third Republic, peppering his text with real-life figures from the age. Vasseur’s friends include Robert Hagueman, a lusty character who could just as easily occupy a Beat novel, and Clara Fistula, an adolescent transgendered genius who preaches asexuality. The novel is acidly funny, though it takes work to understand the context of some of Mirbeau’s acerbic wit. That said, some passages are timeless, like the early fragment where Vasseur adopts a hedgehog that quickly succumbs to its owner’s decadent lifestyle. “Total alcoholic inebriation. Cause of death: dropsy. An unprecedented case among hedgehogs,” writes Georges’ doctor. The novel gets to some dark places as its narrator plunges deeper into depression, but Mirbeau’s mischievous humor and keen observations about uncertainty as the cause of existential anxiety have much to offer contemporary readers who are willing to take the plunge.
A scandalous artifact from an earlier age that has more mileage than one might expect from an experimental novel more than a century old.