The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments
by Pierre Louÿs, translated by Geoffrey Longnecker
Wakefield Press, March 2010
80 pp. / $12.95 Buy from Wakefield Press
The first time I ever heard of Pierre Louÿs was when I read Susan Sontag’s essay, “The Pornographic Imagination.” In it, among other things, she posits five works of literature that bridge the gap between pornography & erotic, expanding into very Literary territory. Louÿs’s book was the only I hadn’t read. I tracked it down–it’s title The She-Devils–and was sorely disappointed in the translation. Despite this, I had still enjoyed the narrative, and filed the name in the back of my head to keep at bay in my never-ending path through erotic literature.
Years later, Louÿs’s name came up again–but this time as a correspondent of Mallarmé. It might strike some as strange that Mallarmé–who has probably garnered as many stuffy academic essays as God himself (though I prefer the former far more than the latter, let it be said)–chafed elbows, so to speak, with a man whose primary literary concerns were pedophilia, scatology, and whores. Louÿs was a part of the vaguely shaped Symbolist movement in France as the 19th century slipped into the 20th, immediately following the Fin de Siecle ‘movement’ that had shown artists and writers that certain ideas were now available subjects. Baudelaire was a major influence on the symbolists, as was Edgar Allen Poe.
Louÿs is most often considered a novelist, but the brilliant Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners instead takes the form of a satirical handbook–lampooning school guides to “good manners” and instead positing sixty pages of sexual advice, tongue planted firmly in cheek. It could perhaps be considered that this could become, shall we say, boring, or perhaps overdone, but Louÿs is a master parodist, in addition to being a damn good writer, so the laughs just keep coming.
I’m not one for humor unless it’s delivered via a sort of combination of hyperbole, absurdity, and base-ness, which the Handbook delivers in spades. The aphoristic fragments are all structured under headings, such as “Games and Recreations” (“Never masturbate a young man by the window. You never know on whom it might fall.”), “At the Ball” (“If you cum while waltzing, say so softly; don’t shout it out.”), and even a special column, “On Losing Your Virginity.”
There is no narrative thread, only a bawdy romp to be followed, with aphorism after aphorism delving into a perversely juvenile mind. There’s a total jouissance present in many of the acts which Louÿs implores ones not to do, and this set-up provides the idea that young girls are performing these acts with regularity (and who knows–perhaps they are; I was never a young girl).
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