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Villiers de L'Isle-Adam

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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Working name of French poet, playwright and author Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Comte de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam (1838-1889); he was an extremely impoverished member of a minor branch of the Villiers de L'Isle-Adam family, long prominent in Brittany. Active as a poet from about 1859, even his first work, Premières poésies (coll 1859 chap), expressing the extremist Decadence that governed his contrarian stance as regards his career, his philosophy, and his life; his friendship with Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was defining.

Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's best-known prose work remains the Contes Cruels series of tales, Contes Cruels (coll 1883; trans Robert Baldick as Cruel Tales 1963) and Nouveaux Contes cruels ["New Contes Cruels"] (coll 1888; trans Hamish Miles, with selections from both volumes, as Sardonic Tales coll 1927); his title itself came to designate a category of the French conte or moral fable which emphasizes the punitive twists of fate, the arbitrary chill of the world. The first volume of the sequence in particular contains a number of bizarre fantasy stories, several of them sf, including "Appareil pour l'analyse chimique du dernier supier" (12 May 1874 La Semaine Parisienne; in Contes Cruels; trans Hamish Miles in Sardonic Tales coll 1927 as "Apparatus for Chemical Analysis of the Last Breath") and "L'Affichage céleste" (first version 30 November 1873 La Renaissance as "La découverte de M Grave"; trans Hamish Miles in Sardonic Tales coll 1927 as "Celestial Publicity", new trans Robert Baldick in Cruel Tales 1963 as "Celestial Publicity"); in the latter story Advertising slogans are projected onto the night sky by electric light. An early work, Claire Lenoir (13 October-1 December 1867 La Revue Des Lettres et des Arts; in Tribulat Bonhomet, coll 1887; trans Arthur Symons 1925), applies similar ornate twists to a horror tale involving possession and hideous paroxysms of female guilt; a more complete translation appears in The Vampire Soul and Other Sardonic Tales (coll 2004 trans Brian Stableford;). Other relevant collections include L'Amour Suprême ["Supreme Love"] (coll 1886) and Histoires Insolites ["Strange Tales"] (coll 1888).

Of more direct sf interest is L'Ève future (first 14 instalments 1880 Le Galois as "L'Eve Nouvelle"; 1886; trans Florence Crewe-Jones 25 December 1926-22 January 1928 Argosy as "The Future Eve"; new trans Marilyn Gaddis Rose as The Eve of the Future 1981; new trans Robert M Adams as Tomorrow's Eve 1982) [for further details see Checklist below], in which the handsome young Lord Ewald despairs when his fiancée turns out to be a physically irresistible dotard (see Women in SF). He carries her off to America, to visit his great friend Thomas Alva Edison in Menlo Park, which Villiers describes in exaggeratedly mythopoeic terms (see Edisonade). After suggesting that young Alicia Clary seems to be an ideal female, Edison creates for Ewald an impeccable Android duplicate named Hadaly, who he fits up with internal mechanical mentalisms, including twenty hours of pre-recorded conversational patter, designed to make her far more interesting than poor Alicia. There are obscure hints that Hadaly is capable of having Sex. Seen as an important contribution to the Symbolist movement, the novel is philosophical, ironic and mockingly contorted. Two compilations translated by Brian StablefordThe Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales (coll 2004) and The Vampire Soul and Other Sardonic Tales (coll 2004) – are assembled from all collections mentioned above, except for Contes Cruels [for details see Checklist below].

The ecstatic play and prose-poem Axel (1885-1886 Jeune France; rev 1890; trans H P R Finberg 1925; separate trans Marilyn Gaddis Rose and June Guicharnaud, both 1970), is by far Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's best-known play, a dramatization of the Symbolist inturning of the imagination that inspired the famous study of early Modernism (see Modernism in SF), Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931) by Edmund Wilson (1895-1972). The eponymous count – an unimaginably wealthy Rosicrucian savant whose supernaturally impregnable Keep staves off the armies of the world, and who remains adamant in his refusal to taste the desolations reality imposes on dreams – is a figure who has influenced generations of writers, including almost certainly the 1980s sf and fantasy creators of Dying Earths heavily populated by aesthetic aristocrats weary unto death of vulgar sensation [for Knight of the Doleful Countenance see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Axel's near-final declaration – "Vivre? les serviteurs feront cela pour nous" ("Live? Our servants will do that for us") – is a brilliant epigraph to the gesture he represents. [JC/PN]

see also: Absurdist SF; Adam and Eve; France; History of SF; Humour; Satire; Scientists.

Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Comte de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam

born Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, France: 7 November 1838

died Paris: 19 August 1889



Contes Cruels

  • Contes Cruels (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1883) [coll: Contes Cruels: pb/nonpictorial]
    • Cruel Tales (London: Oxford University Press, 1963) [coll: trans by Robert Baldick of the above: Contes Cruels: hb/Susan Einzig]
  • Nouveaux Contes cruels (Paris: Librairie Illustrée, 1888) [coll: Contes Cruels: binding unknown/]
    • Sardonic Tales (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1927) [coll: trans by Hamish Miles from the above two: Contes Cruels: hb/nonpictorial]

individual titles

  • La Révolte (Paris: Lemerre, 1870) [play: binding unknown/]
  • L'Eve future (Paris: M de Brunhoff, 1886) [play: first 14 instalments 4-18 September 1880 Le Galois as "L'Eve Nouvelle": incomplete continuation 14 December 1880-4 February 1882 L'Étoile Francaise: complete version first appeared 18 July 1885-27 March 1886 La Vie Moderne: binding unknown/]
    • "The Future Eve" (25 December 1926-22 January 1928 Argosy) [trans by Florence Crewe-Jones of the above: mag/]
    • Eve of the Future Eden (Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado, 1981) [trans by Marilyn Gaddis Rose of the above: hb/]
    • Tomorrow's Eve (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1982) [new trans by Robert Martin Adams of the above: hb/uncredited]
  • L'Amour Suprême ["Supreme Love"] (Paris: Brunhoff, 1886) [coll: binding unknown/]
  • Tribulat Bonhomet (Paris: Tresse et Stock, 1887) [coll: binding unknown/]
    • Claire Lenoir (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925) [trans by Arthur Symons of "Claire Lenoir" included in the above: first appeared 13 October-1 December 1867 La Revue Des Lettres et des Arts: hb/]
  • Histoires Insolites ["Strange Tales"] (Paris: Maison Quantin, 1888) [coll: binding unknown/]
  • Axël (Paris: Maison Quantin, 1890) [play: first version appeared 1885-1886 Jeune France: binding unknown/]
    • Axel (London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1925) [trans H P R Finberg of the above: introduction by William Butler Yeats: illus/hb/T Sturge Moore]
    • Axel (Dublin, Ireland: The Dolmen Press, 1970) [play: trans by Marilyn Gaddis Rose of the above: hb/nonpictorial]
    • Axel (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970) [play: trans by June Guicharnaud of the above: hb/Janet Anderson]
  • L'Evasion (Paris: Tresse et Stock, 1891) [play: binding unknown/]
    • The Revolt; And, The Escape (London: Duckworth and Company, 1901) [omni of the above plus La Révolte above: trans by Theresa Barclay of both titles: hb/]
  • The Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales (Encino, California: Hollywood Comics/Black Coat Press, 2004) [coll: trans by Brian Stableford from L'Amour Suprême, Histoires Insolites and Nouveaux Contes Cruels above: pb/Ladrönn]
  • The Vampire Soul and Other Sardonic Tales (Encino, California: Hollywood Comics/Black Coat Press, 2004) [coll: trans by Brian Stableford from L'Amour Suprême, Tribulat Bonhomet and Nouveaux Contes Cruels above: pb/Ladrönn]


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