Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (November 7, 1838 – August 19, 1889) was a French symbolist writer. Villiers' works, in the decadent/romantic style, are often fantastic in plot and filled with mystery and horror. Important among them are the drama Axel, the novel Tomorrow's Eve, and the short-story collection, Sardonic Tales. He popularized the term "Android" (Andréide in French) in Tomorrow's Eve and cruel tale in the epynomous collection. He is one of the authors featured in André Breton's Anthology of Black Humor and is mentioned in The Symbolist Movement in Literature (Symons), The Romantic Agony (Praz), The Book of Fantasy (Borges), Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday (Calvino), The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Todorov), Genealogy of the Cruel Tale (Adair) and the World of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Moore).
He was born in Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, to a distinguished aristocratic family. His parents, Marquis Joseph-Toussaint and Marie-Francoise (née Le Nepvou de Carfort) were not rich, however, and were financially supported by Marie's aunt, Mademoiselle de Kerinou. His father became obsessed with the idea he could restore the family fortune by finding the lost treasure of the Knights of Malta, reputedly buried near Quintin during the French Revolution. Consequently, he spent large sums of money buying land, excavating it and then selling it at a loss when he failed to find anything of value. The young Villiers' education was troubled (he attended over half a dozen different schools) but from an early age his family were convinced he was an artistic genius: as a child he composed poetry and music. The most important occurrence in these Breton years was probably the death of a young girl with whom Villiers was in love, an event which would deeply influence his literary imagination.
Villiers had made several trips to Paris in the late 1850s, where he became enthralled by artistic and theatrical life. In 1860, his aunt gave him enough money to allow him to live in the capital permanently. He had already acquired a reputation in literary circles for his inspired, alcohol-fuelled monologues. Villiers began living a Bohemian life, frequenting the Brasserie des Martyrs, where he met his idol Baudelaire, who encouraged him to read the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe and Baudelaire would become the biggest influences on Villiers' mature style, but his first publication (at his own expense), was a book of verse, Premieres Poésies (1859). It made little impression outside Villiers' own small band of admirers. Around this time, Villiers began living with Louise Dyonnet, a woman whose reputation scandalised his family so much they made Villiers undergo a retreat at Solesmes Abbey. Villiers would remain a devout, if highly unorthodox, Catholic for the rest of his life.
Villiers finally broke with Dyonnet in 1864. His attempts at securing a suitable bride for himself would all end in failure. In 1867, he asked Théophile Gautier for the hand of his daughter Estelle, but Gautier - who had turned his back on the Bohemian world of his youth and would not let his child marry a writer with few prospects - turned him down. Villiers' own family also strongly disapproved of the match. His plans for marriage to an English heiress, Anna Eyre Powell, were equally unsuccessful. Villiers finally took to living with Marie Dantine, the illiterate widow of a Belgian coachman. In 1881, she gave birth to Villiers' son, Victor (nicknamed "Totor").
A high point of Villiers' life was his trip to see his hero Richard Wagner at Triebschen in 1869. Villiers read from the manuscript of his play La Révolte and the composer declared that the Frenchman was a "true poet". Another trip to see Wagner the next year was cut short by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, during which Villiers became a commander in the Garde Nationale. At first he was impressed by the patriotic spirit of the Commune and wrote articles in support of it in the Tribun du peuple under the pseudonym "Marius", but he soon became disgusted with its revolutionary violence.
Disaster came in 1871 with the death of Villiers' aunt, Mlle de Kerinou, and the end of her financial support. Though Villiers had many admirers in literary circles (the most important being his close friend Stéphane Mallarmé), mainstream newspapers found his fiction too eccentric to be saleable and few theatres risked putting on his plays. Villiers was forced to take odd jobs to support his family: he gave boxing lessons and apparently worked in a funeral parlour and as a mountebank's assistant for a time. Another money-making scheme Villiers considered was reciting his poetry to a paying public in a cage full of tigers, but he later thought better of the idea. According to his friend Léon Bloy, Villiers was so poor he had to write most of his novel L'Eve future lying on his belly on bare floorboards because the bailiffs had taken away all the furniture. His poverty only increased his sense of aristocratic pride. In 1875, he attempted to sue a playwright he believed had insulted one of his ancestors, Maréchal Jean de Villiers de l'Isle Adam. In 1881, Villiers stood unsuccessfully for parliament as a candidate for the legitimist party. By the 1880s, there was some change in fortune: Villiers' fame began to grow, but not his finances. The publishers Calmann-Lévy accepted his Contes cruels, but the sum they offered Villiers was negligible. The volume did, however, come to the attention of J.-K. Huysmans, who praised Villiers' work in his highly influential novel A rebours. But by this time, Villiers was dying of stomach cancer. On his deathbed, he finally married Marie Dantine, thus legitimising his beloved son "Totor".
Style and content
Villiers believed the imagination has within it much more beauty than reality itself, existing at a level which nothing real could compare.
- Premières Poésies (early verse), 1859
- Isis (novel, uncompleted), 1862
- Elën (drama in three acts in prose), 1865
- Morgane (drama in five acts in prose), 1866
- La Révolte (drama in one act), 1870
- Le Nouveau Monde (drama), 1880
- Contes Cruels (stories), 1883 (translated by Brian Stableford as The Scaffold ISBN 1-932983-01-5)
- L'Ève future (novel), 1886
- L'Amour supreme (stories), 1886
- Tribulat Bonhomet (fiction including "Claire Lenoir"), 1887 (translated by Brian Stableford as The Vampire Soul ISBN 1-932983-02-3)
- L'Evasion (drama in one act), 1887
- Histoires insolites (stories), 1888
- Nouveaux Contes cruels (stories), 1888
- Chez les passants (stories, miscellaneous journalism), 1890
- Axël (drama), first published posthumously 1890
- Jean-Paul Bourre, Villiers de L'Isle Adam: Splendeur et misère (Les Belles Lettres, 2002)
- Natalie Satiat's edition of L'Ève future (Garnier-Flammarion)