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Introduction to Memoirs of a Young Rakehell by Andrew Stevens

The Amorous Exploits of A Young Rakehell, though rarely out of print since its publication, does not occupy a significant position within Surrealist literature, despite the fact that its author coined the term that others later rallied under. In spite of its subsequent infamy concerning the subject matter, Rakehell, Guillaume Apollinaire’s riff on the Don Juan story, has only recently embedded itself as a work of Apollinaire himself, with most critics preferring to concentrate on the author’s central and defining role within nascent Surrealism. Although Apollinaire died before he could see the Surrealist Manifesto promulgated, his resurrection of the literary reputation of the Marquis de Sade within its thought was dutifully acknowledged. Primarily recognised as a poet befitting his era, the time is surely right to assert Rakehell‘s own contribution to both French literature and the entire transgressive mode of thought and writing.

For me and others of the same literary bent in our late teens, Rakehell was distributed almost samizdat-like in cheap editions, acquiring cult status among us in our hungry and inquisitive years while having the added benefit of being erotic into the bargain. I even heard of it being used as a seduction aid (of which I’m sure the author himself would approve). While sharing many of the themes and incidents found in lesser ‘erotic’ memoirs, such as Walter’s much-aped My Secret Life, Rakehell‘s prowess comes from its dark comedy, and from the sheer absurdity of many of the situations our young hero finds himself in.

Born in 1880, Apollinaire was fortunate enough to live through the upheavals of fin-de-siecle Paris, witnessing the birth of Symbolism and personally bringing about the transfer to a more dominant Surrealism, even if he was not fortunate enough to reap the proceeds in his own legacy. Rakehell may not possess the stylistic or conceptual gifts of Flaubert or Huysmans—no one could dare mount such a claim—but it arguably possesses more comedic verve than either of those. Apollinaire’s range of enquiry was more than just literary; he practised and lived his art. What else can explain the behaviour of a young poet who not only penned 13 lines to the object of his desires but famously—albeit unsuccessfully—followed it to England from France on account of it having “great tits, and a behind”? A lesser ‘erotic’ writer, which have been legion since, would have rendered such work cloyingly crude but in this case the comic gifts are abundantly on show.

It seems fitting that one of the most enduring of the many texts of Rakehell published over the years is that of Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press, given the book’s looming presence in the subsequent works of an entire generation of Left Bank pornographers churning out made-to-order erotic texts for quick consumption. This writing in itself is a frequently overlooked current in the generational transfer of Paris-based avant-gardes of the 20th century. As with many of Olympia’s titles, Rakehell ran afoul of the over-zealous French authorities’ strict censorship regime and acquired a notoriety that detracts from its actual literary value.

The view of the narrator Roger, through his entry into adolescence and the novel pleasures of obsessive sexuality, is cued up in the opening sentences of the book. It establishes the work firmly in the French provincial tradition, at odds with the literary gravity of the capital, Paris, scene of the failed Commune and now subject to imposed order. Roger’s father, the only real male capable of providing authority in his life and a possible check against his burgeoning sexual awareness and demands, is left behind there, while the family is stationed for the summer sojourn in a large country house:

“The interior was spacious but the arrangement of the rooms was so extraordinary that the house was really rather inconvenient to live in, with numerous wasted steps occasioned by the architectural disorder. The rooms were not disposed as in ordinary houses, but were separated by a mass of dark passages, winding corridors, spiral staircases. In short, the place was a veritable labyrinth and it took several days of exploring the house before one had any real notion of the layout of the apartments.”

This physical environment enables the narrator to go about his wicked business entirely at will and largely unhindered, such details being integral to the unfolding and largely hormonal pace, while the rural setting places the book firmly within an abiding tradition of French pornography, both literary and cinematic. As with de Sade before him, much importance is placed upon seduction, of both experienced and inexperienced targets, the narrator revelling in every conquest from the planning to its enaction. Apollinaire provides several examples of the fleeting snatches of sexual imagery which Roger manages to glean: his sister in momentary undress; servant girls play-fighting with brutish labourers by a river; his aunts bathing. But his own carnal education is positively autodidactic, mostly assembled from modest sexual banter from his sister and his own linguistic enquiries from the dictionary: ‘onanism’ subsequently leading to a desire for ‘coitus’ as he progresses. Rakehell is not without its Surrealist moments, if the dream-state is considered the ultimate signifier and the sheer randomness of the conquests a factor. The pleasure derived from his first experience of masturbation is, for Roger, “beyond words” as “[a] thousand thoughts raced through [his] mind”, a neat summation of the narrator’s sexual experiences to date.

Apollinaire’s devotion to detail, especially around pubic arrangements and fleshy deposits, has often been noted in discussions of Rakehell for its descriptive and often juvenile or ersatz anatomical language. The book also meditates on class and social relations, though the narrator is positively blind to such distinctions in his own libidinous enterprise, with sensual evocation of the body odours and discharges of servants (as compared to those they serve), which obviously provided Bataille with something to cogitate upon subsequently.

To give the reader an idea of the oft-remarked upon absurdity of the level of sexual experiences attained over the course of the first adolescent summer spent in this country retreat, Roger manages to copulate with, in turn: a pregnant maid; his sister; his aunt; four virgin maids; another sister; and finally another aunt. Most fall pregnant to him (siblings included) and continue to engage in sexual relations as part of the narrator’s harem (or sexual ‘commune’) after he arranges for the singles to be conveniently married to available local suitors. For Roger, any hole truly is a goal, regardless of where the sex was obtained.

The incestuous subject matter no doubt fuelled Rakehell‘s dubious status within French literature in the twentieth century, as even the most liberated commentator would be hard-pressed to condone such practices, regardless of any moral construct. But if we are to consider the work’s primary mode as one of absurdity, as Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, did the Don Juan legend, then such considerations do not, fortunately, come into context. Apollinaire, in playful mode, uses the occasion to mock a number of tenets of French society in the early twentieth century, his subversive intent manifested in several coded swipes at the Catholic Church—a prominent reason for its outlaw status. Apollinaire was not the first to mock the ritual of the confessional as vicarious titillation for the clergy, but by placing the narrator in a unique position to eavesdrop upon a series of confessions, he was able to prepare the scene not only for the satiation of Roger’s innate curiosity, but also for a disquisition on the sexual mores of the domestic staff in his employ, all of whom freely admit to volunteering their orifices to local labourers, and even a passing regiment on manoeuvres (which scene appears to have been borrowed wholesale for any number of subsequent French soft porn films). Anti-clericalism had already gained common currency under the weakened Second Republic and by the time of writing it would have been somewhat unremarkable, were it not for the primacy with which this absurdism manifests itself. By regarding Roger’s entire enterprise of defiling the female members of his family and all the domestic staff available to him as “fulfilling [his] patriotic duty”, Apollinaire was more than gently mocking the prevailing state culture. This goes some way to explaining why the book was considered as something more than simple eroticism in a country which was hardly totalitarian in quelling such developments.

Finally, a note on the writing style. Apollinaire’s posthumous reputation is derived from his status as a poet, as it was during his lifetime. Although he is acknowledged as a critic, his two prose works—Rakehell and the darker and more Sadean The Debauched Hospodar (also known as The Eleven Thousand Rods)—did not mark him out as a writer capable of working in both forms to equal acclaim. The prose style of Rakehell could be seen as plodding, primitive and devoid of flair, but it always seems to provide le mot juste for every occasion. Apollinaire’s comedic impulse wins out and the narrative is propelled along by the hormonal instincts of its narrator. As with the events narrated, Rakehell may be considered the adolescence of the movements that were to succeed it, from the Surrealists to the pulp pornographers of the Left Bank.

Andrew Stevens is a former editor of 3:AM Magazine and edited its two anthologies,
The Edgier Waters (2006) and 3:AM London, New York, Paris (2008). He has also contributed literary criticism in several other titles and has written for a number of weekly magazines and websites. He lives and drinks in London, working from other cities as necessary.

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