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literature

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French Literature: Nineteenth Century  
 
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Prose texts in particular show the influence of the medical discourse on deviant female sexuality.

This overwhelming interest in lesbians by male authors seemed to wane by the end of the century, or at least to be overshadowed by a new lesbian visibility and self-expression.

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Lesbian Texts by Female Authors

Works by a group of women belonging to Natalie Barney's lesbian salon, later given the name Sappho 1900, explored lesbian sexuality from a subjective point of view. The works of Renée Vivien (1877-1909), Barney's lover and a prolific poet, include the first lesbian translation of Sappho as well as countless poems that speak of love between women.

Among the early works of Colette (1873-1954) are her series of novels focusing on the bisexual character Claudine (published 1900-1903).

Gay Male Sexuality

The birth of modern gay male literature in France can be attributed to two symbolist poets who were notorious lovers, Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). The mark they left on the traditions of the lyric and of gay male literature is stunning.

As we have seen, the older Verlaine's first attempts at erotic verse produced Les Amies; he was one of the only poets of the period to cross over from portraying lesbianism to depicting gay male sexuality, a much more daring undertaking at the time because not yet condoned by literary tradition.

When Rimbaud went to Paris and encountered Verlaine in 1871, their physical and literary relationship soon produced poems that pushed French verse to new extremes. They penned audacious poems on gay sexuality, the most renowned of which is the collaborative "Le sonnet du trou du cul." (Verlaine wrote the quatrains, Rimbaud the tercets.)

But most of the gay pieces that they composed during their two years together were less graphic, more subtle in their symbolism.

Verlaine wrote a number of poems that appear to be inspired by his relationship with Rimbaud, moving and often melancholic poems depicting a lover sometimes vulnerable in sleep ("Vers pour être calomnié" and "L'espoir luit comme un brin de paille dans l'étable") and others, particularly the magnificent "Crimen Amoris," describing the triumph of a graceful young prince.

Much later, Verlaine returned to explicitly erotic verse, writing Hombres in 1891. This collection includes fifteen often explicit poems celebrating gay male sexuality.

Owing to his shorter career, Rimbaud left behind fewer gay poems, but his works are nonetheless marked by his sexuality, as well as by Verlaine's literary and affective influence. The elliptical "Le Coeur du pitre" seems to recount the humiliation of a rape. "O saisons, ô châteaux" alludes to the poet's passion for his male lover, an allusion later effaced by prudish editors.

In Une Saison en enfer (written in 1873), Rimbaud offers his most direct and seemingly autobiographical reference to a gay couple. "Délires I" presents the confession of the "vierge folle" (resembling Verlaine) who recounts his seduction by the young "époux infernal."

A lesser-known poet, Albert Glatigny (1839-1873) published several explicitly erotic poems under the pseudonym "Sire de la Glotte."

Comte de Lautréamont (pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse, 1846-1870), later claimed by surrealists as a precursor, included many dark and forbidden tales in his hallucinatory Les Chants du Maldoror (1868). These "songs," written in lyrical prose and containing representations of sadism, hermaphroditism, , and so on, were read widely by gay decadent authors at the end of the century.

Male Homosexuality and the Decadent Movement

The decadent movement of the 1880s was named after a poem by Verlaine ("Je suis l'Empire à la fin de la décadence"). This movement, an outgrowth of symbolism, was characterized by an interest in neurosis, the refinement of sensations, baroque language and decors; its authors focused on nonconformist sensibilities and sexualities of all kinds.

Decadent sensibility and gay male sexuality are therefore intimately related, with gay authors and themes at the heart of the movement that initiated a fin-de-siècle renaissance of gay literature.

Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) wrote the prototypical decadent novel, À rebours (1884), modeling his effete character Des Esseintes after Robert de Montesquiou, a gay symbolist poet famous for his extravagant personality and manners.

Better known as a dandy than a writer, Montesquiou (1855-1921) also served as a model for Proust's Baron de Charlus, but his sexuality is nearly invisible in his poetry. He reveals his homosexuality most clearly in his three-volume autobiography, Les Pas effacés (1923).

Symbolist and decadent circles included many other gay poets, most of whom are not well-known today.

The work of Jean Lorrain (pseudonym of Paul Duval, 1856-1906) was only slightly less discreet than that of Montesquiou. Although openly gay, this symbolist poet only hints at his sexuality in such poems as "Narcissus," whose speaker calls himself a "blond ephebe."

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