Laforgue, Jules (Short Story Criticism)
Laforgue, Jules 1860-1887
French poet, short story and sketch writer, essayist, and dramatist.
A member of the French Symbolist movement, Laforgue advocated abandoning popular literary conventions and maintained that art should be the expression of the subconscious mind. Perhaps best known for the impressionistic language, free-verse construction, and vivid imagery of his later poems, especially those published posthumously as Les derniers vers de Jules Laforgue, he is also widely recognized for his Moralités légendaires (Moral Tales), a collection of short stories that parody several famous literary works such as William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Imbued with Laforgue's unique imagination, these narratives are experimental combinations of symbolic prose, irreverent satire, and self-conscious caricature. Each of the tales begins with a well-known literary hero or myth and deflates it by instilling a modern and cynical sensibility. At once sardonic and playful, the tales also dramatize many typically Decadent themes, including artistic anguish, ennui, and escape from reality, as they parody literary convention and the Decadent artist himself.
Laforgue was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. His father was an indigent teacher from Gascony, who in 1866 sent his family to Tarbes, France, where Jules and his brother Emile attended school. Although exceptionally intelligent, Laforgue was a mediocre student at the Lycée Tarbes. While there he made his first attempt at prose, writing a melodramatic account of his experiences at the Lycée entitled "Stéphane Vassiliew." In 1876, he enrolled at the Lycée Fontanes in Paris, and, although he liked the school, his work did not improve; he failed his baccalaureate exams twice and never received a diploma. In 1880, while studying art and working as a part-time journalist in Paris, Laforgue met Gustave Kahn, a poet and editor of the periodical Le vogue et le symboliste, who later became his mentor. With the encouragement of Kahn and Paul Bourget, a noted literary critic, Laforgue wrote his first significant poetic work, Le sanglot de la terre, a collection that evinces the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy and Edward von Hartmann's concept of the unconscious mind. In 1881, Laforgue accepted the position of French-reader and secretary to Empress Augusta of Prussia. For five years he traveled with the Empress, leading a leisurely life that kept him estranged from Parisian literary circles. Les complaintes, his first poetry to employ the image of Pierrot—a white-faced mime that symbolizes humor, fate, and humanity, and personifies themes of uncertainty and anguish—was published during his stay at the Berlin court, as were L'imitation de notredame la lune and Le concile féerique, a verse drama that remained unperformed until four years after Laforgue's death. Leaving the Berlin court in 1886 after his marriage to Leah Lee, an English tutor, Laforgue move to Paris, where a particularly harsh winter severely affected his health. Supported by loans, he wrote for Kahn's periodical Le vogue and tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher for Moral Tales, until the opiates given him for his illness left him too weak to eat or work. He died, at the age of twenty-seven, virtually unknown. His Moral Tales, published within weeks of his death, were immediately acclaimed.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Laforgue's Moral Tales consists of six short stories, each a parody of a literary work or well-known myth. The ironic and witty tone of the tales lends itself not only to satire but also to self-parody, as Laforgue caricatures himself and the Decadent movement in several of the stories. "Le Miracle des roses" ("The Miracle of the Roses") was the first tale written and follows Ruth, who seems to leave love-struck suicides in her wake. Ruth, however, is afflicted with tuberculosis, the true cause of the deaths of her male acquaintances. "Salomé" parodies Gustave Flaubert's "Herodias" and several other texts of the Symbolist period. "Lohengrin, fils de Parsifal" ("Lohengrin, Son of Parsifal") is a parody of Richard Wagner's opera Lohengrin based on German legends. Laforgue subtly transforms the virtuous hero into a Decadent committed to purity and chastity—a condition which ruins his wedding night with the noble lady Elsa—thereby satirizing nineteenth-century attitudes towards women and sex. In the mock-heroic "Persée and Andromède" ("Perseus and Andromeda"), Andromeda is imprisoned on an island but refuses to leave when Perseus (who is outfitted as a fop) arrives, instead forsaking him for the dragon that watches over her. Laforgue turns the myth of "Pan et la Syrinx" ("Pan and the Syrinx") into a tale of artistic discovery and loss. His "Hamlet, ou les suites de la piété filiale" ("Hamlet, or the Consequences of Filial Piety") finds the Danish prince—now something of a Decadent artist—more interested in The Murder of Gonzago, a drama that he composed, than the vengeance for his father's murder that Shakespeare's play revolves around.
Of the six stories published in Moral Tales, "Hamlet" is by far the best known and most often discussed by commentators, although it is not universally acknowledged as the best. Critical consensus, in fact, has placed those tales that were written later, such as "Perseus and Andromeda" and "Pan and the Syrinx," above the earlier works in terms of sophistication and overall quality. Critics of the earlier works have, for example, found the satire of "Salomé" overly obvious, the plot of "The Miracles of the Roses" weak, and the ending of "Hamlet" haphazard and unconvincing. Moreover, commentators have disapproved of the ornate style of Laforgue's prose and have cited numerous purple passages throughout the stories. Nevertheless, Moral Tales as a whole has been praised for its technical finesse, imaginativeness, and ironic wit. The collection is also noteworthy for its influence on the English-speaking Modernists: Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot were well-aware of Laforgue, and his sensibility is readily apparent in much of their poetry; likewise, Laforgue's modernization of myth is an important precedent for James Joyce's Ulysses.
Moralités légendaires [Moral Tales] 1887
Other Major Works
Les complaintes (poetry) 1885
Le concile féerique (verse drama) 1886
L'imitation de notre-dame la lune ["Locutions de Pierrots I, II, III" (partial translation), 1926, published in journal Double Dealer] (poetry) 1886
Les derniers vers de Jules Laforgue (poetry) 1890
*Oeuvres complètes (poetry, verse drama, short stories, essays, and letters) 1902-03
Oeuvres complètes (poetry, verse drama, short stories, journals, essays, letters, and sketches) 1922-30
Lettres à un ami: 1880-1886 (letters) 1941
Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue (poetry, short stories, essays, letters, and sketches) 1956
Poems of Jules Laforgue (poetry) 1958
*This work includes Le sanglot de la terre, Pierrot fumiste, and Mélanges posthumes.
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SOURCE: "The Buffoon of the New Eternities: Jules Laforgue," in Ivory Apes and Peacocks, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915, pp. 32-51.
[Huneker was an American musician and critic who focused on discovering the best of European music and literature and introducing them to the American public. In the following excerpt, he records his impressions of Moral Tales, particularly commenting on the artistry and wit of "Hamlet. "]
The prose of Jules Laforgue recalls to me his description of the orchestra in "Salomé," the fourth of the Moralités légendaires. "Sur un mode allègre et fataliste, un orchestre aux instruments d'ivoire improvisait une petite overture unanime." That his syllables are of ivory I feel, and improvised, but his themes are pluralistic, the immedicable and colossal ennui of life the chiefest. Woman—the "Eternal Madame," as Baudelaire calls her—is a being both magical and mediocre; she is also an escape from the universal world-pain. "La fin de l'homme est proche . . . Antigone va passer du ménage de la famille au ménage de la planète" (prophetic words). But when lovely woman begins to talk of the propagation of the ideal she only means the human species. With Lessing he believes: "There is, at most, but one disagreeable woman in the world; a pity then that every man gets her for himself."
It is rather singular to observe in the writings of Marinetti, the...
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SOURCE: "Laforgue in English," in The New York Times Book Review, December 23, 1928, pp. 12-13.
[In the following review, the critic praises Moral Tales for its originality and irony.]
The embarrassment of attempting to describe or classify [Six Moral Tales] in any of the usual ways is so great that the several renowned critics quoted on the cover are driven to the most desperate extensions of their critical vocabulary. Perhaps Remy de Gourmont best expresses the unanimous dismay before its originality when he writes that the book belongs to that class of "disconcerting literature which gives you the curious (and very rare) sensation that you have never read anything like it before." It is not proper, for example, briefly to dispose of Laforgue as one of the symbolistes; for, although there is much symbolism in his stories, there are too many other disturbing and inconsistent elements to allow him to serve as the faithful exponent of any one school. Nor should one expect to discover in these "legendary moralities" suitable models for emulation in the various university and correspondence courses devoted to the short story. The writer has the distracting habit of interrupting his narrative procedure by lyrical passages of the most inexcusable sort, and these in turn merely lead the way to further disquisitions of a highly metaphysical nature. When Salomé, in Laforgue's rendition, appears at...
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SOURCE: "Our Contemporary in the Eighties," in The Bookman, New York, Vol. LXIII, No. 6, February, 1929, pp. 711-12.
[In the following review, Baugh lauds Francis Newman's 1928 translation of Moral Tales and notes the "lunar mockery" suffusing Laforgue's tales.]
Ever since these prose tales were first published—in Paris, a little more than forty years ago—a subterranean fame in several lands west of France has been in process of creation for the poet who wrote them during the last two of the twenty-seven years he lived. Jules Laforgue's apologists in at least two lands may now be permitted to emerge into the light which his compatriotic admirers have so long enjoyed, for Frances Newman's translation of the six Moralités légendaires marks their first rendering in the English language and their first publication in the United States. Here is Laforgue's matchless small contribution to the craft and art of prose fiction, in a version that presents to readers of English the qualities of thought and feeling which literary historians in France have abundantly cited and almost unanimously praised for more than two decades, and which readers of French have known these forty years and have recognized as reasons for the honor accorded him in his own country.
Laforgue was one of those few writers living in France a half-century ago whose work leavened a great part of their...
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SOURCE: "Jules Laforgue," in Poetry, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 4, July, 1951, pp. 216-22.
[Fowlie is one of the most respected and versatile critics of French literature. His works include translations of major dramatists and poets of France as well as critical studies of the major figures and movements of French letters. In the following excerpt, Fowlie discusses the nature of parody and the treatment of women and love in Moral Tales.]
A deep sentimental impulse is behind Laforgue's poetry, but a sense of modesty keeps him from revealing himself directly. What might be confession and pure sentiment is always being converted into something else by irony. He is close to Baudelaire in his initial impulse to confess, but he developed, for self-protection, a far more prevalent use of irony than Baudelaire. His first twenty-nine poems, published after his death as Le Sanglot de la Terre, are the easiest to read and the most familiar to readers of Baudelaire in their litanies of "spleen" and the various exorcisms he practices to recover from the spleens. There are many pictures of Paris, more localized and less universal than Baudelaire's, and cosmological visions in which the Earth is seen as some abysmal mediocrity, a dying star in the vertigoes of universes. The central image is of the heart—the heart of a solitary man, amassing so much remorse and adoration that it burns and bleeds like a rose...
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SOURCE: "Ironic Equilibrium," in Jules Laforgue and the Ironic Inheritance, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1953, pp. 133-69.
[In addition to Laforgue, Ramsey has written about such French poets as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Leon-Paul Fargue, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Jules Supervielle. In the following excerpt, he assesses the relative merits of the stories in Moral Tales.]
Among the unpublished papers of Laforgue is the following note, inspired no doubt by his own and his brother's art studies: 'In the great glassed-in hall of ancient art, especially about midday, when he was alone sketching among the white and calm statues. The room was deserted. It was the great silence of noon. There were echoes of footsteps on the tiles as the pupils of the school went to lunch—But he stayed on, forgetting his hunger—A nearby bell (St.-Sulpice or St.-Germain-des-Prés) tolled, adding a further note of solemnity to the vast noonday calm under the full daylight falling from above, on the tranquillity of those white and motionless statues. Solemn thoughts came to him. He was in an ideal life far from the narrow and muddy streets of the clamorous left bank, far from garrets, far from greasy pub-keepers, tailors, tradesmen, he was there transported to other ages, far from our feverish democracy, delighting in a calm and noble life.—The bourgeois who stare you down in the street, casting glances at your...
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SOURCE: "Hamlet the German and Jules Laforgue," in Yale French Studies, No. 33, 1964, pp. 92-100.
[In the following essay, Sonnenfeld maintains that Laforgue 's interpretation of William Shakespeare's fictional character Hamlet is highly influenced by German philosophy.]
"Such was the case of Hamlet the Dane, that typical literary man. He knew what it meant to be called to knowledge without being born to it," Tonio Kröger explained to his confidante Lisabeta. And so the poet-hero of Thomas Mann's novella embarked on his pilgrimage to Denmark "to stand . . . where the ghost appeared to Hamlet, bringing despair and death to that noble-souled youth." It was a similarly Germanic conception of Hamlet as "that typical literary man" that prompted Jules Laforgue to bypass Hamburg, his stated destination, and to proceed to "Elsinore, Hamlet's country," where he spent in 1886 a "horrible New Year's Day, with a freezing wind, mud, sea gulls," as he wrote in a letter to Gustave Kahn. Laforgue had long been visited by Hamlet's own ghost. The brief excursion to Denmark was but the external re-enactment of an inner pilgrimage his spirit had been making for many years. As early as the poem "Excuse macabre," dated July 1880, Laforgue found it congenial to adopt the Hamlet mask in addressing an apostrophe to the skull of "Margaretha, ma bien-aimée"; in Des Fleurs de bonne volonté, epigraphs taken from...
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SOURCE: "The Rest Is Silence: Hamlet as Decadent," in Jules Laforgue: Essays on a Poet's Life and Work, edited by Warren Ramsey, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969, pp. 93-110.
[Brooks is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he argues that in the story "Hamlet" Laforque presents William Shakespeare's fictional character Hamlet as a Decadent artist, with the intention of demonstrating that "the art of the Decadents is a retreat from a reality which they are psychologically incapable of confronting." ]
The Hamlet of Jules Laforgue—one who is aware of his own mythic function: "Plus tard, on m'accusera d'avoir fait école" [Later they will accuse me of having started a movement]—seems a .. . promising figure. A theme which emerges from the verbal acrobatics of all the Moralités légendaires is the quest for purity and eternity, variously pursued by Syrinx fleeing Pan, Salomé decapitating Iaokannan, Lohengrin escaping the seductions of Elsa on his pillow, which becomes a swan. For Laforgue's Hamlet, Ophelia's impurity is not merely the inevitable taint received from a world where whoredom is rife, but a product of her wearing of décolleté dresses: "Or, on le sait, la virginité des épaules, c'est tout pour moi, je ne transige jamais là-dessus" [And it is well-known that the virginity of the shoulders is everything for me; I never compromise on that]. Ophelia...
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SOURCE: "The Moral of the Moralités," in Jules Laforgue: Essays on a Poet's Life and Work, edited by Warren Ramsey, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969, pp. 60-5.
[An American poet, author of children's verse, critic, and dramatist, Smith has also translated Laforgue's Moral Tales and Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue. In the following essay, he explores Laforgue's themes in Moral Tales, including the deflation of the archetypal hero and of myth.]
"Jules Laforgue—quelle joie!" said Huysmans, and nowhere in all his work does one feel the aptness of this remark more than in the Moralités légendaires. Here, as in his final poems, Laforgue is at the height of his inventive powers. What delight there is in these exquisitely wrought tales; what flash and sparkle of youthful genius. There is surely no prose of the late nineteenth century that is so ornate without being heavy: it is light to the occasional point of frivolity but somehow always firm; it is delicate but rarely weak. Here Laforgue works within the fulness of his orbit, and only on the sure base of sensibility could rise such intaglio of intellect. "From the sublime to the arabesque," James Gibbons Huneker said of Laforgue, "is but a semitone in his antic mood." And so in these tales he moves, giving dimension with a quick brush-stroke to everyday events and objects, making what is ordinary and everyday...
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SOURCE: "Laforgue's Works," in Jules Laforgue, The Athlone Press, 1977, pp. 29-78.
[An English-born Canadian educator, critic, and poet, Collie has published several books on Laforgue and produced a 1977 edition of Laforgue's verse collection Les complaintes. He has also published several works on the English novelist George Gissing. In the following excerpt, Collie examines themes, symbols, and tone in Moral Tales.]
The exact point at which Laforgue began to write Moralités légendaires is uncertain. In all likelihood it was during the winter of 1885-6, for in June 1886 he told [his friend, the editor Gustave] Kahn he had enough to make a volume and listed the stories by name: 'Salomé'; "Hamlet ou les suites de la piété filiale'; 'Le Miracle des Roses'; 'Incomprise'; 'L'Amour de la Symétrie'; 'Persée et Andromède, ou le plus heureux des trois'; 'Corinne au Cap Misère'; 'Malborough s'en va-t-en-guerre'. The volume as it was actually published included not all of these, however, but only those stories which had appeared in La Vogue or La Revue indépendante during Laforgue's lifetime, together with a story not mentioned in Laforgue's original letter to Kahn called 'Les deux Pigeons'. It eventually fell to [the editor Edouard] Dujardin to collect copy for the book, on the basis of Laforgue's letter of authority to publish, and it is probably fair to speculate that the...
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SOURCE: "Laforgue's 'Salomé' and the Poetics of Parody," in The Romanic Review, Vol. LXXV, No. 1, January, 1984, pp. 51-69.
[Hannoosh is the author of Parody and Decadence: Laforgue's "Moralités légendaires" (1989). In the following essay, she interprets the story "Salomé" as a self-reflexive parody of the Decadent movement by a Decadent author. ]
Mon volume de nouvelles, tu en connais le principe: de vieux canevas brodés d'âmes à la mode.
In these terms did Laforgue describe his only collection of stories, the Moralités légendaires, one of the two great products of his last years and one of the most ingenious prose creations of the late nineteenth century. The controlling principle that he identifies here—introducing a distinctly modern spirit into established stories of the literary tradition—had motivated him somewhat throughout his career, but never as extensively as in these late tales, where it becomes the predominant feature of a genre. The Moralités are parodies that take as their target of mockery and their creative material a myth, a style, a genre, or simply literary conventions, and refashion them in accordance with the preoccupations of the late nineteenth century. They contain the essential features of all great parody, employ its characteristic devices, and perform its distinctive critical and...
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SOURCE: "French Stories for Pound and Eliot," in The New York Times Book Review, July 21, 1985, p. 10.
[In the following review, Sieburth comments on the influence of Laforgue's Moral Tales on English-speaking Modernist authors. ]
Jules Laforgue's special allure for British and American modernists is often compared to the mystique of Edgar Allan Poe among the French Symbolist poets. If many English-speaking readers remain puzzled by the spell Poe cast over the intelligence of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Valéry, so the French tend to be equally perplexed by the cult status accorded Laforgue by such talents as Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Crane and Stevens. Although his work and influence have been the subject of important studies in English, Laforgue has long been dismissed in his native land as a relatively minor fin de siécle figure, worth only a passing mention in standard literary histories. The announcement of a forthcoming Pléiade edition of his work suggests that Laforgue's French reputation is in the process of revision, but it is unlikely that he will ever re-acquire the seductive glamour he held for the young Eliot or Pound.
It is something of this lost glamour that William Jay Smith has set out to recapture in his fine new translations of Laforgue's Moralités légendaires. First published in 1887 a few months after his death from tuberculosis at the age of 27,...
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SOURCE: "'Lohengrin, fils de Parsifal'," in Parody and Decadence: Laforgue's "Moralités légendaires," Ohio State University Press, 1989, pp. 128-47.
[In the following essay, Hannoosh analyzes themes and symbols in "Lohengrin, fils de Parsifal, " especially as they relate to the function of parody in the story. ]
Laforgue's "Lohengrin," written during the height of wagnérisme in 1886, leaves no doubts as to the work on which it is based: Wagner's opera of the same name. The title contains the first parodic deformation, a qualifying epithet, which both undermines and affirms the relation of the story to the parodied work. This identifies the original, while simultaneously distinguishing the parody from it, and also indicates the Wagnerian source by the spelling of "Parsifal". Moreover, "fils de Parsifal" defines Lohengrin with respect to his famous father and thus reminds us directly that this parody, and parody in general, is a generation of "sons," or at least a second generation, deriving its identity from its relation to an established authority whose traits are preserved within it. Laforgue plays on this analogy, however, for "Lohengrin, fils de Parsifal" is actually the "son" not of Wagner's Parsifal but of his Lohengrin. Finally, as we shall see, "fils de Parsifal" has an important and ironic role in the parody, for it provides the hero with an escape: when the parodie...
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SOURCE: "Towards the Derniers Vers: 'Trouver une langue'," in Jules Laforgue and Poetic Innovation, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1993, pp. 95-120.
[In the following excerpt, Holmes highlights affinities between the stories of Moral Tales and Laforgue's poetry.]
Laforgue's completion of five short stories, later to be published with one addition as the Moralités légendaires, no doubt. . . had an influence on his poetic manner, since it must have established him in his own eyes as a writer capable of sustained narrative exposition. His earlier excursions into prose had been either brief and unremarkable or had remained in fragmentary form. A connection can be traced between the successful writing of these Moralités and Laforgue's move to the longer poem. The Derniers Vers are all significantly longer than any of the Fleurs. They breathe a greater poetic confidence and expansiveness, which in turn lend the poems greater substance and, ultimately, greater subtlety.
Laforgue's explicit aim in the Moralités was to write short stories that were radically different from those of either Maupassant or Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Given his constant desire for originality, this was hardly surprising. By Pound's time the short story had, in his opinion, 'become vapid, because sixty thousand story writers [had] all set themselves to imitating De...
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Arkell, David. "Apotheosis (1886)." In his Looking for Laforgue: An Informal Biography, pp. 173-202. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1979.
Briefly examines Laforgue's use of himself and his wife, Leah Lee, as models for characters in Moral Tales.
Bailey, Helen Phelps. "The Hamlet of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Laforgue." In her Hamlet in France: From Voltaire to Laforgue, pp. 137-52. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1964.
Discusses Laforgue's use of Hamlet as parody and self-caricature.
Howe, Elizabeth A. "Repeated Forms in Laforgue." Nottingham 24, No. 2 (October 1985): 41-54.
Explores Laforgue's use of the Moral Tales to parody particular literary works, stereotypes, and conventions.
Newman, Francis. An introduction to Six Moral Tales from Jules Laforgue, edited and translated by Francis Newman, pp. 9-26. New York: Horace Liverlight, 1928.
A general discussion of Moral Tales that includes a brief overview of Laforgue's life.
Ramsey, Warren. "Lunar Prose." In his Jules Laforgue and the Ironic Inheritance, pp. 223-32. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.
Comments on the impressions made by the prose of Moral Tales upon the earliest American critics to become interested in Laforgue's stories. Ramsey focuses...
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