Thursday 9 July 2009

Villiers de l'Isle-Adam

Of the many unfortunately neglected French writers in the English-speaking world these days, I’d like to highlight Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (full name Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam!), whose works have been translated on various occasions, but are now out of print.

Born in Brittany in 1840 into a declining aristocratic family (their already depleted fortune underwent even more strain due to his father’s costly efforts to find the long-lost treasure of his ancestor, who was a Knight-Hospitaller), he moved to Paris at the age of twenty, where he pursued a bohemian existence and gradually began to mingle with literary idols such as Charles Baudelaire, Leconte de Lisle and Théophile Gautier. In the following years he wrote verse and drama, which he contributed to various or journals or published at his own expense, without great success. In 1870, after having to return to France after a visit to Weimar to meet Wagner, because of the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, he briefly joined the army. As his finances were constantly dwindling, a situation which worsened when his benefactress Mlle de Kérinou died in 1871, he attempted various schemes to improve his lot – such as trying to obtain an attaché position at the French Embassy in London, asking a rich English heiress, Anna Eyre Powell, to marry him or desperately pushing to have one of his plays performed – all of which failed.

His literary breakthrough came relatively late in his life, when his collection of short stories, Cruel Tales, was published in 1883 and came to prominence when it was recommended in his friend Joris-Karl Huysmans’s influential decadent novel Against Nature in 1884. Praised by, among others, Stéphane Mallarmé, the tales were an original mixture of timely satire, the supernatural and tragic pathos, notable for the author’s elegant and at times poignant writing style. It is today by far the most widely read of his works.

Three years later, a second major work L’Ève Future (Tomorrow’s Eve) was finally published in full, after its initial serialization had been cut short in 1881. Influenced by modern advances in science, Tomorrow’s Eve was a fascinating and groundbreaking example of early science fiction, in which a fictionalized Thomas Edison creates a female “android” (the term itself is coined in the novel) at the behest of his friend Lord Ewald, only for events of a mystical and supernatural nature to occur.

The play Axël, which is considered his third major work – and which Villiers de l’Isle-Adam himself considered to be his crowning achievement – appeared posthumously in 1890. It is a drama in the Romantic tradition, highly influenced by the likes of Goethe and Wagner, in which Axël, the young lord of Auërsperg, falls in love with Sara, a nun who has escaped her convent and sought refuge in his family vault. The play ends tragically after they realize the ideal love they are after cannot be achieved in the real world and they find that suicide is the only solution.


  1. Does this mean Oneworld/Alma will be publishing any new editions of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam? Cruel Tales is not easy to find nowadays, and if I'm not mistaken, there were addtional collections of short stories... Thanks!

  2. Yes, all being well we'll publish a new edition of CRUEL TALES next year – a fantastic book that has been unavailable in English for a very long time. Best wishes,



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