M. Paul Lespes, who was his schoolfellow at the
Pau lycée, has retained a very clear recollection of Isidore
Ducasse. I wanted to interview him in order to add to our knowledge
of the author and his intellectual development and work an almost equally
clear contribution dealing with Ducasse's early background and residence
"I knew Ducasse at the Pau lycée in 1864," he told
me. "He was with Minvielle and me in the fifth form, and in the
same study. I can see him now, a tall thin young man, slightly round-shouldered,
with a pale complexion, long hair falling across his forehead, his voice
shrill. There was nothing attractive in his features.
He was usually cheerless and taciturn, withdrawn. Once or twice he talked
to me in a lively manner about overseas countries where life was fee
In the classroom he would often spend whole hours, elbows propped on
his desk, head in hads, and eyes staring at a textbook he just wasn't
reading: you could see he was deep in reverie. I, like my friend Minvielle,
thought he was homesick and that it would be best if his parents recalled
him to Montevideo.
In class he sometimes seemed keenly interested in the teaching of Gustave
Hinstin, a brilliant classics master and ex-student of the School of
Athens. He greatly enjoyed Racine and Corneille, and Sophocles's Oedipus
Rex in particular. The scene where Oedipus, having finally learnt
the terrible truth, utters cries of anguish and with his eyes torn out
curses his destiny, seemed to him very fine. But still he regretted
that Jocasta hadn't crowned the tragic horror by committing suicide
He admired Edgar Poe whose stories he had read even before admission
to the school. In fact I saw him with a poetry book, Théophile
Gautier's Albertus, which I believe Georges Minvielle passed on to him.
At school we reckoned him an odd, dreamy character, but basically a
good sort, not above the average standard then, probably because of
being behind with his work. One day he showed me some verses of his
own. As far as I in my inexperience could judge, the rhythm seemed a
bit bizarre to me and the meaning obscure.
Ducasse had a special aversion to Latin verse.
One day Hinstin made us translate into hexameters the passage about
the pelican from de Musset's Rolla. Ducasse, who was sitting behind
me on the highest bench in the class, grumbled to me in a whisper about
the choice of such a subject.
The next day Hinstin compared the two best papers with those of the
pupils from the Lille lycée where he had recently taught classics.
Ducasse vehemently expressed his irritation:
- Why all this? he said to me. It's enough to put one off Latin.
I think there were things he didn't want to understand, so as to lose
none of his aversions and scorn.
He often complained to me of painful migranes which, as he himself recognised,
were not without influence upon his mind and temperament.
At the height of summer the pupils would go swimming in the river at
Bois-Louis. That was a treat for Ducasse, an excellent swimmer.
He told me one day:
- I really should cool my aching head more often in this spring water.
All these details aren't very interesting, but
there is one recollection I think I should mention. In 1864, towards
the end of the school year, Hinstin, who had often previously rebuked
Ducasse for what he called his extravagances of thought and style, read
out an essay by my schoolmate.
The first sentences, very solemn, made him laugh to begin with but soon
he grew angry. Ducasse had not changed the style but weirdly exaggerated
it. Never before had he given his frantic imagination such free rein.
NOt one sentence whose content, comprising piled-up images and incomprehensible
metaphors, wasn't further obscured by verbal inventions and turns of
style that didn't always conform to syntax.
Hinstin, an uncompromising classicist whose subtle critical sense never
overlooked a single error of taste, took this for a sort of challenge
against classical education, a bad joke at the teacher's expense. Contrary
to his usual indulgence, he put Ducasse on detention. This punishment
hurt our schoolfellow deeply; he complained bitterly about it to me
and my friend Georges Minvielle. We did not try to make him understand
that he'd greatly overstepped the mark.
Neither in the fifth nor sixth forms to my knowledge did Ducasse show
any special talent for mathematics and geometry, whose enchanting beauty
he enthusiastically celebrates in Les Chants de Maldoror. But
he had a distinct liking for natural history. The animal world greatly
excited his curiosity. I saw him for a long time admiring a bright red
beetle which he had found in the lycée grounds during the midday
Knowing that Minvielle and I were shooting types born and bred, he would
sometimes ask us about the habits and haunts of different Pyrenean birds
and for details about their flight.
He had a flair for keen observation. So I wan't surprised to read at
the start of the first and fifth Chants the remarkable descriptions
of the flight of the cranes and especially of the starlings, which he'd
studied carefully. I haven't seen Ducasse again since I left shcool
But a few years later in Bayonne I received Les Chants de Maldoror.
Doubtless that was a copy of the first edition of 1868. No dedication.
But the style, the strange ideas, clashing together at times as if in
a free-for-all, led me to suppose that the author was none other than
my former schoolfellow.
Minvielle told me that he too had received a copy no doubt sent by Ducasse."
I asked M Lepes if Les Chants de Maldoror weren't partly the product
of a wish to play a schoolboy prank, if they were not a hoax.
"i don't think so," he replied.
"At school Ducasse saw more of me and Georges
Minvielle than of other pupils. Yet his stand-offish attitude, if I
may use this phrase, a sort of heavy condescension and a tendency to
consider himself a being apart, the obscure questions he would fire
at us point-blank and by which we were completely embarrassed, his ideas,
his extravagance of style which our excellent teacher Hinstin used to
single out, and lastly the irritation he sometimes displayed without
due cause, all these eccentricities led us to believe that he wasn't
quite right in the head.
His own brand of madness revealed itself definitively
in a French essay in which with a dreadful profusion of adjectives he'd
seized the opportunity of accumulating the most horrible images of death.
It was nothing but broken bones, entrails hanging out, bleeding or mangled
flesh. It was the memory of this composition some years later that made
me recognise the author of Les Chants de Maldoror although Ducasse
had never mentioned any poetic inclinations to me.
Minvielle and I, and other schoolfriends too, were sure Hinstin was
wrong to put Ducasse on detention for his essay.
It wasn't a silly joke at the teacher's expense. Ducasse was deeply
hurt by Hinstin's reproaches an this punishment. I believe he was convinced
he had written an excellent essay full of original ideas and fine turns
of phrase. Or course if you set Les Chants de Maldoror beside the Poésies,
you might infer that Ducasse hasn't been sincere. But if as I believe,
he was sincere at school, why not later, when striving to become a prose
poet, and when in a sort of imaginative delirium he persuaded himself
perhaps that thorugh the image of relish for the horrible he might lead
souls deterred from virtue and hope back toward the good?
At school we thought Ducasse a good fellow but a little, how shall I
say, cracked. He wasn't without morals; there was nothing sadistic about
I well remember the humourous opinion held by my friend George Minvielle,
a very witty, pleasant man, himself something of a poet; we had each
received a copy of the first edition of Maldoror. 'Remember that
essay of his?' he said. 'He had a screw loose but now it's looser!!!'"
For M. Lepes it's not hard to discern Ducasse's
influences. These are, apart from the classics and Gautier as mentioned,
Shakespeare, Shelley "whom he enjoyed" (for Ducasse spoke
English well and probably, like all South Americans, Spanish) and especially
Byron, certainly his greatest inspiration.
"Do you think," I asked M. Lespes finally,
" that as M. Soupault says in the preface to the latest edition
of Maldoror there may be a likeness between your schoolmate and
the revolutionary agitator depicted by Jules Valles in The Insurgent?"
"All I can say to that is that the Ducasse I knew used to express
himself with difficulty more often than not and sometimes with a sort
of nervous rapidity.
He definitely was no orator capable of rousing the masses, and never
at school talked politics and social revolution.
Valles's picture of the agitator Ducasse doesn't seem to me a perfect
resemblance although it does recall some of my schoolfellow's physical
characteristics. The latter did not splay out his arms and legs, and
his hair was brown rather than red.
That's a far cry from the orator who 'gravely climbed the steps of the
dais, rolling his eyes, knitting his brows, the three saffron wisps
of his goatee alertly bristling..."
Lacroix, the publisher of Les Chants de Maldoror, had previously described
"He was a tall beardless young man, nervous, neat and hardworking."