The Decadent Handbook for the Modern Libertine
Edited by Rowan Pelling, Amelia Hodsdon & James Doyle;
Published by Dedalus, 2006.
From the stable of the ever-excellent Dedalus, The Decadent Handbook (for the Modern Libertine) was published last autumn - in time for the Christmas market, providing a welcome refuge for those of us of a mind to curl up and turn our backs on all the braying festive bonhomie - a cornucopia of offerings for the spiritually diseased, with something for every jaded palate. The paperback is due out shortly, and the Dedalus bandwagon is on tour of literary festivals and bookshops as we speak, promoting its delicious poisoning of the soul…
Editor Rowan Pelling in the Introduction rightly links Decadence to its sister movements Aestheticism and Symbolism, but it has to be said that the collection itself does betray a slight haziness of sensibility and shakiness of editorial hand, and is on occasion apt to wander into less interesting waters.
The non-fiction contributions fare very well: Philip Langeskov on decadent illness, Phil Baker on Absinthe, and Isabelle McNeill on cinema are especially fine. The section on classic anti-heroes is a delight - you can't go wrong with Rochester, Wilde and Huysmans. There are some engaging memoirs of the rock'n'roll lifestyle - notably Dickon Edwards on Shane McGowan in Tangier, and Stevie Boyd's quixotic attempt to put Leeds on the decadent map. And some of the gastronomic contributions show a darkly sparkling wit - Malcolm Eggs' Brekadence and Andrew Crumey's Eats for example (although some others, regrettably, seem content to simply reach for the emetic button).
The fiction is, sadly, a more hit and miss affair. Some pieces sacrifice artifice, imagination and style (always superior to mere Nature in Oscar Wilde's view of course) to sweaty physicality and bodily excess. Some are self indulgent, some crass (surely 17 pages on watching people defecate is OTT in anyone's book?), some manage to be dull, and one or two are even loutish (anyone for a big drinky?). Fortunately, there are some real gems in there too: Robert Irwin's Prayer Cushions of the Flesh has an exotic panache, Hari Kunzru's Memories of the Decadence is an inspired and brilliant flight, and the cool, cruel sexiness of Helene Lavelle's The Gallery captures a truly Decadent stylishness.
An unexpectedly delicious (and quite hilarious) addition to the collection is Sebastian Horsley's 'anti-contribution', an ill-tempered 'more decadent than thou' rant, dismissing Rowan Pelling, contributors and readers alike as mere paddlers in the shallow end. Ms. Pelling retaliates more than effectively by publishing his tantrum.
Overall then, something of a mixed bag. Well worth a read, and no flâneur's library should be without it, but the fact remains that clearer vision and firmer editorial hand could have concentrated the collection into richer veins of true decadence, aestheticism and imagination, and fermented an even headier vintage.