3.21.2007

THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID


Harper Perennial has launched a new line reprinting classic erotica the first of which, The Diary of a Chambermaid, is advertised on the spine as “A Naughty French Novel.” Naughty the novel may be, but erotic? Octave Mirbeau wasn’t a pornographer per se, he was an anarchist, a scathing social critic, and a warrior in the class wars that polarized the world at the fin de si├Ęcle. That he was born rich and never had to work a day in his life, but still could capture so much of the essence of what it costs us as people to work for a living, is a testament to his keen insights. That his novel could be so twisted and yet so relevant, even today, is nothing short of amazing. There’s a great review of this edition of the book on Amazon by a “Jorge Frid” from Mexico City that generally pans the book, “this book is a waste of time,” but then goes on to say, “nevertheless let me tell you that what happened with that maid in 1900 is exactly what happen(s) with the maids today.”

How did Mirbeau capture so perfectly the conundrum of the modern worker, who knows that even as we work so hard for so little, somewhere there is someone at the company working so little for so much? The heroine of the novel, Celestine, says of her boss, “that tone of wounding domination which discourages the best wills and straightway puts such a distance, so much hatred, between our mistresses and us…” Mirbeau, through Celestine, talks openly of the subtle game of domination and subjugation that passes for modern employment, and by having Celestine use the term “us” he indicates not only what side he sympathizes with in the class war, but tells us that he is writing the book for the enlightenment of workers everywhere.

The novel is a sex novel, and can be erotically charged at times, but the sex is an aside, a distraction, a way to sell the book to us and deliver his polemical message without boring us. Think of it as a Jane Austen novel, like Emma, with liberal doses of S&M and shoe fetishists sprinkled throughout. There is nothing really explicit in the novel, there’s less sex in this novel than many modern novels, but this novel is all about sex, and power, and S&M as a metaphor for the struggle between the classes.

The novel has been filmed twice, and it’s a testament to the novel’s quirky innocence that it could have been produced in 1946, in Hollywood, and directed by Jean Renoir. Paulette Goddard played Celestine. Of course the Hollywood machine censored the novel, ripping out all the subversive elements and attempted to create a French romantic comedy. The result is less than spectacular. The second time it was filmed in Europe by Luis Bunuel in 1964, with Jeanne Moreau as Celestine. The second movie hues closer to the themes of class warfare, and is more explicitly “erotic” but is filmed in a distancing, discomfiting style that makes it less titillating and more disturbing. This edition has been released by Criterion.

The other book released by Harper Perennial in this new line is Gamiani, or Two Nights of Excess by poet Alfred de Musset is a slimmer volume and more explicitly a sex novel. This novel is interesting because it appeared in 1833 and seems to have at least one scene in it that may have influenced Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," (1845) in that it features an orang-utan, though in a context Poe would never have dared.

Both books are translated by John Baxter, who is better known as the writer of biographies of famous movie directors such as the previously mention Luis Bunuel and Stanley Kubrick. He provides brief, tantalizing introductions that attempt to put the books into historical and literary context. All erotica seems to dissolve under the lens of serious scrutiny and analysis, and serious discussions of the subject are few and far between. The books sit as historical curiosities but are hardly classics. The sobriquet "A Naughty French Novel" fits, as they are hardly jarring or groundbreaking in today's context, and the curious innocence of even the most extreme aspects of the books comes across as an adolescent attempt to shock and provoke, rather than an earnest expression of passion.

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