Les Chants de Maldoror

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The Songs of Maldoror
Author Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Lucien Ducasse)
Original title Les Chants de Maldoror
Country France, Uruguay
Language French
Genre Poetic novel

Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) is a poetic novel (or a long prose poem) consisting of six cantos. It was written between 1868 and 1869 by the Comte de Lautréamont, the pseudonym of the Uruguayan-born French writer Isidore-Lucien Ducasse. Many of the surrealists (Salvador Dalí, André Breton, Antonin Artaud, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, etc.) during the early 20th century cited the novel as a major inspiration to their own works.

Theme and composition[edit]

Les Chants de Maldoror is a poem of six cantos which are subdivided into 60 verses of different length (I/14, II/16, III/5, IV/8, V/7, VI/10). The verses were originally not numbered, but rather separated by lines. The final eight stanzas of the last canto form a small novel, and were marked with Roman numerals. Each canto closes with a line to indicate its end.

It is difficult to summarize the work because it does not have specific plot in the traditional sense, and the narrative style is non-linear and often surrealistic. The work concerns the misanthropic character of Maldoror, a figure of absolute evil who is opposed to God and humanity, and has renounced conventional morality and decency. The iconoclastic imagery and tone is typically violent and macabre, and ostensibly nihilistic. Much of the imagery was borrowed from the popular gothic literature of the period, in particular Lord Byron's Manfred, Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and Goethe's Faust. Of these figures, the latter two are particularly significant in their description of a negative and Satanic anti-hero who is in hostile opposition to God. The last eight stanzas of the final canto are in a way a small novel dealing with the seduction and murder of a youth.

At the beginning and end of the cantos, the text often refers to the work itself. Lautréamont also references himself in the capacity of the author of the work. Isidore is recognized as the "Montevidean". In order to enable the reader to realise that he is embarking on a "dangerous philosophical journey", Lautréamont uses stylistic means of identification with the reader, a procedure which author Baudelaire already used in his introduction of Les Fleurs du mal. He also comments on the work, providing instructions for reading. The first sentence contains a "warning" to the reader:

God grant that the reader, emboldened and having become at present as fierce as what he is reading, find, without loss of bearings, his way, his wild and treacherous passage through the desolate swamps of these sombre, poison-soaked pages; for, unless he should bring to his reading a rigorous logic and a sustained mental effort at least as strong as his distrust, the lethal fumes of this book shall dissolve his soul as water does sugar.

Influence[edit]

Les Chants de Maldoror is considered to have been a major influence upon French Symbolism, Dada and Surrealism. Several editions of the book have included lithographs by the French symbolist painter Odilon Redon. Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí also illustrated one edition of the book. The Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani used to carry a copy around in Montparnasse and quote from it. The outsider artist Unica Zürn was also influenced by it in writing her The Man of Jasmine. William T. Vollmann mentioned it as the work that most influenced his writing.

Original French text[edit]

English translations[edit]