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.