By the 1890s, another term had become associated with this focus on ‘art for art’s sake’. It has origins in common with aestheticism and the two terms often overlap and were sometimes used interchangeably. ‘Decadence’ was initially used to describe writers of the mid-19th century in France, especially Baudelaire and Gautier. By the century’s end, decadence was in use as an aesthetic term across Europe. The word literally means a process of ‘falling away’ or decline. In relation to art and literature, it signalled a set of interlinked qualities. These included the notion of intense refinement; the valuing of artificiality over nature; a position of ennui or boredom rather than of moral earnestness or the valuing of hard work; an interest in perversity and paradox, and in transgressive modes of sexuality. One of the most important explicators of decadence was the poet Arthur Symons, whose essay ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’ (1893), described decadence as ‘a new and beautiful and interesting disease’. For Symons – as well as for others who were critical rather than intrigued and entranced – decadence was the literature of a modern society grown over-luxurious and sophisticated. - See more at: http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/aestheticism-and-decadence#sthash.51TKES4I.dpuf
The novel “A Gothic Soul” by Jiří Karásek Za Lvovuc, was written in 1900 and comes to us in 2015 courtesy of Twisted Spoon Press, a small independent publisher based in Prague. Their focus is on translating into English a variety of writing from Central and Eastern Europe and making it available to a global readership. They have a philosophy of placing equal emphasis on new works from contemporary writers and work from an earlier period “that has been neglected in translation”. “A Gothic Soul” is one of those later books, being the first time any full-length work of Karásek’s prose has been translated into English. Given the assertion that Karásek played an important role in Czech literature and European Decadence in general this is a surprising fact.
Our book opens with a wonderful “Author’s Preface” where the musings on art, the role of writing, the structure of novels are all brought to the fore. This is a wonderful opening to put you in the mood for reading a dark and decadent tale, as another blogger (The Complete Review) has pointed out, the cost of the book is worth it for the “preface” alone…
Reality has only one purpose in art: the artist must become familiar with it so as to know how to avoid it. He should learn from it so as to know how to distance himself from it.
Our story focuses on an anguished soul, a man raised by his aunts, at a young age he enters the clergy, however disappointed with dogma (simple a manipulation of words) he leaves “resolved to live by nothing but his dreams.” Our narrator fears madness, he lives with a portrait of his cousin who had died of “religious mania”.
The older her grew, the more convinced he became they resembled one another. But he thought his senses might be deceiving him – until a relative he hadn’t seen for some time shrieked at their resemblance and plunged him back into doubt.
As our author explains in the preface this is not a simple linear realist tale, “it has almost no plot. The protagonist merely walks around his room, or wanders the streets and reflects.” Of course this makes for a difficult linear, realist review.
It is a novel which explores the demons, the descent into madness, the anxiety and self-doubt and the torment…
He began to live a double life. In one life, aloof, seemingly foreign, he was a rather apathetic young man, entirely obedient to his aunts’ plans for him. He went to churches and monasteries with the priest serving as his religious mentor, listened to lengthy discourses in which he could have no interest, kissed his aunts’ hands and the hands of priests, and diligently studied the lessons assigned to him.
In addition to this life he led another, which he carefully concealed from everyone. It was a life of doubts and fantastic phantoms.
Sometimes he would be overwhelmed by such melancholy that he would weep in secret without knowing why. Then he would give himself over again to extraordinary hopes. It was as though everything in the world had an alluring magic for him. He knew at some point a life of beautiful dreams and beautiful reality would begin, a golden, exquisite life like a work or art, a proud jewel, covered with precious stones. That was his goal. He would be gracious toward everyone. Everyone would be gracious toward him. Everything he touched would be beautiful. And everything he looked at would be exquisite.
There is a world in our un-named protagonist’s mind where all will be wonderful, but it is a world he cannot achieve, the more he attempts to grip this reality, the darker his wanderings become, the closer to the dark past of Prague he links.
The theme of Czech impotence comes to the fore, a theme whereby our protagonist cannot fulfil any of his desires, even finding a friend becomes impossible. We also have fleeting same sex desires, through veiled references:
He dreamed of a future friend.
He imagined him so beautiful and sad. He would have to be gentle, with fragrant, undulating hair the color of gold. And he would have to have delicate hands: long, pale fingers as though enervated.
He saw them folded in his lap, moving nervously and then immediately resting again. Their nakedness, their refined whiteness, would arouse him. A delicate, sensuous trembling would have to animate them, and they could not lose their brilliance even in the shadows; beautiful old rings with vari-colored stones would have to adorn them, large rings with diamonds, turquoise, chrysoprase.
A work which moves amongst the shadows, with brief enlightenments. A book where you could open any page and quote something deep and meaningful. A book to mull over the revelations, one to savour as you follow a single man’s descent into madness.
We also have an informative “Translator’s Afterword” explaining the decadent movement in Czechoslovakia and Prague in general. In addition it has artworks, “wood engravings selected from an album published by J.J. Weber in Leipzig in 1896”. A lovely hardback published by Twisted Spoon Press, based in Prague. This was the other book (along with “Against Nature”) which appeared on my doorstep and I had no idea why I had ordered it, I’m thinking the positive review by “The Complete Review” possibly led me to this work, and it is another I am glad I came across. Not a book for those who like simple narrative styles as the lamentation is relentless, but the musings on existence (in the shadows) is a wonderful revelation.