Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Mademoiselle de Maupin, by Theophile Gautier

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Gautier's superb cross dressing novel explores issues of sexuality and personality, their possibilities and their limits. 

Theophile Gautier (1811 - 1872) wrote this quite extraordinary novel in his early twenties. Published in 1835, Mademoiselle de Maupin must have shocked and scandalised its 19th century reading public. Today, almost 180 years later, it still reads as very modern and even confronting. The novel inspired writers such as Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Proust and Flaubert. I first read about it in Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990).

Gautier was originally commissioned to write about the French opera star Mlle de Maupin, but the project took on a life of its own and spun out into the psychosexual Mademoiselle de Maupin. The original de Maupin was an excellent swordswoman, cross dresser and lesbian. Gautier places his fictional de Maupin at the centre of a dizzying love triangle between the poet d'Albert and his mistress Rosette. Madelaine de Maupin enters the couple's life in disguise, dressed as a man called Theodore. D'Albert falls in love with Theodore, in a shock gay confession, while Rosette falls for de Maupin in male drag. Identities become even more convoluted when the threesome stage Shakespeare's As You Like It, with de Maupin, already in drag as Theodore, playing  Rosalind. After conducting love affairs with both Rosette and d'Albert, de Maupin vanishes without a trace, leaving her lovers in a flurry of confusion.

I actually read Mademoiselle de Maupin over twenty years ago but completely forgot. It wasn't until  I was half way though that I remembered turning its pages in a flat in East Melbourne in the early nineties. At the time it completely baffled me. I'd read so many glowing reports about it, but was disappointed that I couldn't really get into it. This time I enjoyed it considerably more. It's written in a heightened literary-poetical voice that is best described as vertiginous. You travel through the sexually confused and startled minds of all the characters as they try to hold in their secrets and boudoir adventures. This is a novel that frantically whispers its secrets in your ear.

There's so much about this novel that shouldn't work - the chopping and changing between an episolotory story telling mode and the conventional third person, the cross dressing and sexual delusions - and yet it all weaves together beautifully into a heady brew. By the end of it I think my heart rate had accelerated and I'd experienced a mild out of body experience! Mademoiselle de Maupin may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those exploring the possibilities and limits of sexuality and personality, then Gautier's extraordinary novel is just the ticket.

Mademoiselle de Maupin, by Theophile Gautier. Published by Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780140448139  RRP: $9.95