Le Calvaire, by Octave Mirbeau

I associate Octave Mirbeau with pornography – or at least, erotica. Maybe some of it is (the other books I have of his are Le Jardin des Supplices and Le Journal d’une Femme de Chambre). This novel, which was his first (1886), reminded me in this sense of Pierre Louys’ La Femme et Le Pantin (in turn, the basis of Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire). It has the same intense interest in the flesh, in desire, without actually being noticeably pornographic.

I read half the book this time last year, and half over the last few weeks. What I recall of the first half is that he grew up rich but without much love (his father, at one point, kills a cat), and I had the impression that at some point he also went off to war (corroborated by a recollection in the second half). Anyway, at some point he comes to Paris, where he meets an artist called Lirat, who encourages him to devote his life to art, and have nothing at all to do with women. He’s determined to follow this advice – but instead straightaway falls in love with a woman called Juliette.

So, we enter the traditional French territory of the story about the rich man and his relationship with his mistress / prosititute, who gradually, through her expensive tastes, deprives him of all his money. Which is very like, in our memory, La Dame aux Camelias. His mistress even loves him (perhaps); but, being a man, he cannot let himself live on the proceeds of her other liaisons. So he attempts futilely to forget her etc.

There’s a lot in the novel of our hero’s obsessions – pages and pages of his thoughts and his desires. In fact, it comes across as very similar to Taxi Driver: – even as our hero himself descends into the fleshpots of the demi-monde, he sees nothing in the world around him but vice and degeneracy, and contrasts it with his own unlikely dreams of purity. – There’s also in it a strong strain of misogyny (especially from the character of Lirat): – that all women are essentially distractions from the true of purpose of life (which is being an artist), and any contact with them will inevitably lead to a man’s downfall. – And there’s a surprising degree of violence too, if not actually carried out, at least contemplated (and, you know, – no animals were harmed in the writing, and all that).

So yes, I quite liked it really.

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