Wednesday, November 16, 2016

We Are Reading: 'Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned: Enchanted Stories From the French Decadent Tradition' (Oddly Modern Fairy Tales Series)

All images in this post are by Ray Caesar, (website) with the exception of the journal cover
"... enchanting yet troubling..."

It's easy to see why Fairy Tales For the Disillusioned is capturing rave reviews. Our cultural climate is ripe for such a round of stories and, as the series from which it appears states, these are, indeed Oddly Modern Fairy Tales.
Note: Special mention should be made here of eminent fairy tale authority Jack Zipes, who champions, and is Series Editor, for the Oddly Modern Fairy Tales, of which this book is the latest addition. "Oddly Modern Fairy Tales is dedicated to publishing unusual literary fairy tales produced mainly during the first half of the twentieth century. International in scope, the series includes new translations, surprising and unexpected tales by well-known writers and artists, and uncanny stories by gifted yet neglected authors. Postmodern before their time, the tales in Oddly Modern Fairy Tales transformed the genre and still strike a chord." (From the series introduction.)
To put it in very frank terms, these tales are the cynical and morose fan-fiction of largely angst-y fairy tale lovers. The characters are often familiar. Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Blue Beard make multiple appearances, as do familiar sounding fairies (of which there are many, as is more typical of French fairy tales than others) but their stories are not familiar and comforting and happily ever after is not only elusive, it's often become 'extinct'. Clearly written by those drawn to, and who deeply love, many things about fairy tales (and, perhaps obviously, the French incarnation of those), these aren't so much revisionist as just disenchanted (the editors say these tales "might better be called perversions rather than revisions"). Fairies feel redundant, true love means nothing and right and wrong depend where you stand, if they mean anything at all. Giving meaning to a series of events - even those with wonder - is pointless. Despite the presence of 'magic' there is often no wonder, or meaning, at all - which is the point. Disillusioned, as per the title, is, in fact, the perfect word to describe it; the tales as well as the writers.

Charles Baudelaire, one of "creative luminaries" of this collection (and the decadent movement in general) would, today, be categorized as "emo: "What do I care if you are good? Be beautiful and be sad!" but also more than a little "goth": “All that is beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation. Crime, the taste for which the human animal draws from the womb of his mother, is natural in its origins. Virtue, on the contrary, is artificial and supernatural, since gods and prophets were necessary in every epoch and every nation to teach virtue . . . the good is always the product of some art.” (Charles Baudelaire, from “Eloge du Maquillage”)

For those interested in exploring further, it's worth looking into the publication of the literary journal The Yellow Book (see image below) - the gaudy color automatically connecting it with illicit French novels of the time. Though the first authors and artists were generally much more conservative and non-radical in nature than readers anticipated, the public association was almost prescient with regard for how the journal developed.

From Wikipedia:
Upon its publication, Oscar Wilde dismissed The Yellow Book as "not yellow at all". In The Romantic '90s, Richard Le Gallienne, a poet identified with the New Literature of the Decadence, described The Yellow Book as the following: "The Yellow Book was certainly novel, even striking, but except for the drawings and decorations by Beardsley, which, seen thus for the first time, not unnaturally affected most people as at once startling, repellent, and fascinating, it is hard to realize why it should have seemed so shocking. But the public is an instinctive creature, not half so stupid as is usually taken for granted. It evidently scented something queer and rather alarming about the strange new quarterly, and thus it almost immediately regarded it as symbolic of new movements which it only partially represented".
It would be worth mentioning, at this juncture, that movements like these have a tendency to be "savagely attacked" by the critics of their time, yet championed by the passionate younger generation of artists, writers. These tales are an apt example of this. (The rear of the volume lists the authors with brief biographical notes and it's clear a common thread connects them all - lifestyles and interests both.)
It's too easy to say this movement of the 'decadent tradition' should be belittled or considered not to have literary value. Clearly it does (have literary value) - at least from this distance in time and space. The tales are a (now recognized) relevant reflection of the time period, and political and social discomfort and unrest that they came out of. They prove a fascinating counterpoint to the tales of Perrault and the eventual forty-one volumes of tales included in the salon 'workshopped' Cabinet des Fées. Changing times proved both exciting and fearful, (then as now) and even as more options, independence and opportunities were made possible, people (and fairies) began to feel displaced. Science, technology and education are seen to be the downfall of fairies - and of Wonder.

(A great overview of more of the types of stories and their connection to the postmodern fairy tale writings of Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt and Angela Carter, can be found in The Guardian's review by Alison Flood HERE.)

During the time period, however, such writing could easily have been described (read "looked down on") as indulgent and low-brow, which is also true. Just like the paintings of Ray Ceasar, an artist who blends Victorian aesthetics with Rococo and a dark, and yes, decadent, underbelly (his more mild paintings shown in this post), the tales aren't generally considered "high art". The average person is drawn to them, only to realize there is also something disturbing upon closer inspection. Ultimately the tales, just like Ceasar's paintings are indulgent, whiny and ultimately frustrating. From what we understand, the writers were the equivalent of somewhat privileged and inexperienced university students, impassioned with ideals, brilliant and keenly observant yet disillusioned and outspoken about their lot in life, often leading to an indulgent and decadent life style of keen unhappiness - a double-edged sword. But even as the reader swings between delight and annoyance, such a collection isn't easy to dismiss.
The general response to the book has been one of delight, and the tantalizing forms these tales take are made clear in the descriptionThe wolf is tricked by Red Riding Hood into strangling her grandmother and is subsequently arrested. Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella do not live happily ever after. And the fairies are saucy, angry, and capricious. ...In these stories, characters puncture the optimism of the naive, talismans don't work, and the most deserving don't always get the best rewards. The fairies are commonly victims of modern cynicism and technological advancement, but just as often are dangerous creatures corrupted by contemporary society. The collection underlines such decadent themes as the decline of civilization, the degeneration of magic and the unreal, gender confusion, and the incursion of the industrial. Clearly something of that ilk draws readers and writers today, but it is worth contemplating why. Why are we drawn to the "deliciously cruel"?

Just like the painfully annoying fifth book of the Harry Potter series, (The Order of the Phoenix) in which the 15 year old "hero" is perpetually petulant to the point of alienating everyone around him (and many readers), it's out of that same restlessness, fear and frustration that one of the best aspects of the series is born: Dumbledore's Army. (In which a group of students educate and arm themselves in secret, in case they need to rise up in their own defense - which they do indeed have to do.)

Does it justify the attitude? Absolutely not.

Is it understandable? Absolutely it is.

It's not wholly unlike where the Western world has revealed itself to be right now - something which gives this volume even more cause for consideration.

One of the Editors, Gretchen Schultz, stated:
“There’s a certain appeal today for literature having a cynical edge,” she said. “The theme of disillusionment, at this moment in the US election cycle, is timely. And more broadly, the social and political turmoil at the fin de siècle in France, which contributed to the decadent ethos and its reimagining of classic fairytales, offers some parallels to our world that are worthy of contemplation.”
It should be noted, this interview statement was made ahead of both the 2016 US Election results and the still developing fallout of the UK "Brexit" issue.

But the tale of these tales - fittingly - doesn't end there. We choose to end the review by quoting from the introduction by Editors Gretchen Schultz and Lewis Seifert:
At the turn of the twentieth century, one critic optimistically predicted that after their nineteenth century decline, fairy tales would regain visibility, prompted by science itself. Were not electric lighting, horseless carriages, urban underground railways, and moving pictures all cause for marvel?
... As the twentieth century dawned,

fairies and genies began once again to show themselves to people. The first automobiles they caught sight of convinced then that the prophecy had been fulfilled. They believed that women travelling in automobiles were fairies come to revisit the realms they once inhabited. (Goyau 18)  
Technology might just have given new life to the "last fairy".
Additional note of interest to fairy tale folk and scholars:
Many of the fairy tales in this volume are printed in English for the first time.
TALES [* denotes those translated & published in English for the 1st time]
Fairies' GiftsThe Fairies of FranceDreaming BeautyIsolina / IsolinThe Way to HeavenAn Unsuitable Guest*The Three Good Fairies*The Last FairyThe Lucky Find*The Wish Granted, Alas!The Suitors of Princess MimiLiette's Notions*On the Margins of Perrault's Fairy Tales: The White Rabbit and the Four-Leaf Clover*The Ogresses*Fairy Morgane's Tales: Nocturne II*Bluebeard's Little WifeThe Green She-DevilCiceMandosianeFairy Tales for the Disillusioned*The Living Door Knocker The Mortis*Sleeping Beauty Didn't Wake UpPrincess of the Red LiliesPrincess Snowflower*Mandosiane in CaptivityPrince CharmingThe Story of the Prince of Valandeuse*The Pleasant Surprise*The Last Fairy*The Seven Wives of BluebeardThe Story of the Duchess of Cicogne and of Monsieur de BoulingrinThe 28-Kilometer Boots*Cinderella Arrives by AutomobileCinderella Continued, or the Rat and the Six LizardsCinderella, the Humble and Haughty Child*

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