Mac Orlan

Alexis Lykiard


Pierre Dumarchey (1882-1970), under the best known of his many pen names 'Pierre Mac Orlan', was one of France's most celebrated and popular 20th century writers. Another quarter of this same century has elapsed since his death, however, while for readers across the English Channel he remains scarcely translated, remembered (mistily if at all) as the author of Quai des Brumes (1927). Even here, it is not the novel itself but the screen adaptation that will be familiar to British audiences. Marcel Carne's masterly and evocative 1938 film stars four of France's greatest actors: Gabin, Michele Morgan, Michel Simon and Pierre Brasseur, and the superb script is by the redoubtable former Surrealist poet, Jacques Prevert. It's a classic, and does cinematic justice at least to its prolific and Protean author. 

To the latter pair of alliterative adjectives might be added a trio of others quite as appropriate - painterly, pornographic, poetic. For Mac Orlan was not only a widely travelled and wide-ranging writer, but a visual artist interested in exploring all the newer varieties and developments of the art forms of his time. Apart from his own novels and poetry, he turned his hand to radio, film, journalism, gramophone recordings, photography, songwriting (for Germaine Montero, Juliette Greco, Yves Montand and others), art criticism, and much else - the last phrase covering an extraordinary and copious output of erotica in both prose and poetry. And in 1950 this former bohemian, the resolute modernist who nonetheless loved rugby and Kipling and wrote a book on Toulouse-Lautrec; this friend of Apollinaire and Picasso, interviewer of Mussolini and hero of World War I - a complex talent if ever there was - became something of a grand old man upon his unanimous election to the Academie Goncourt. By the time of his death he had overseen about half of the 25 volumes of his Complete Works scheduled for publication in the Cercle du Bibliophile series, introduced by Raymond Queneau. 

Mac Orlan is credited with writing 22 novels, and (in 1994) there were no less than 16 titles by this ever-popular author available in Gallimard's Folio series: none of his erotic work is usually included or listed, let alone available. One critic, the judicious Patrick Kearney, has remarked that Mac Orlan is "not the only author whose career had a hidden aspect to it" (1). This seems almost an understatement, for as well as 'Mac Orlan', various pseudonyms were employed: Pierre du Bourdel, Sadie Blackeyes, Docteur Fowler, Le Chevalier de X..., and Sadinet. 

Some of his later erotic works in the 1920s and '30s were completely anonymous, while to others he put his real name, Pierre Dumarchey. (But even that name is spelt 'Dumarchais' in recent Hachette and Oxford literary guides!) Who then was this elusive character? 

He was born in Northern France, in Peronne, a small town east of Amiens and also on the River Somme, on 26 February 1882. It was the year that one of his future favourite writers and main influences, Robert Louis Stevenson, published Treasure Island. Dumarchey's father was an infantry officer, stationed in the town, and he and his brother were soon sent away to Orleans. There they were brought up by an uncle, a schools inspector, and educated at the local lycee. At 17 the restless and adventurous Dumarchey broke with his uncle, leaving teacher training college at Rouen in order to pursue a career as an artist, in Paris... It must have been towards the end of his time in Rouen, though, that Dumarchey first got a taste of and for lowlife: in 1900 he'd lived in the sleazy Rue des Charrettes, lodging at the Albion Bar, a sailors' haunt. (In 1927 he was to publish Rue des Charrettes, and by 1940 he could write, in a chapter of Chronique de la fin d'un monde, on the 'romanticism of Rouen'. But after nearly two years of miserable poverty in the capital, writing some Symbolist-influenced poetry, painting walls (rather than murals or even canvases) and scarcely managing to live, he returned to Rouen late in 1901 and for three years worked as proof reader for the main newspaper there. He learned the accordion, and continued to write until his military service. Between 1905 and 1908 he "lived the Ilfe of a vagabond" (2) travelling to London, Zeebrugge, Palermo, Naples and Marseilles. 

By 1908, however, he was back in Paris, roughing it once again, but this time in much more congenial (and, indeed, supportive) bohemian company. The volatile cosmopolitan bunch of mainly young and struggling painters who were to make Cubism, and those writers who would interpret and promote the movement, were becoming friends and allies, socialising and grouping against the bourgeoisie, and inhabiting, for the most part, one especially rundown area of Montmartre. As Roger Shattuck has written: "To a greater extent than at any time since the Renaissance, painters, writers, and musicians lived and worked together and tried their hands at each other's arts in an atmosphere of perpetual collaboration." (3) During that extraordinarily creative era just before the First World War, in those cheap artisans' and workmens' bars and restaurants of the quartier might be found Picasso, Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Utrillo, Matisse, Picabia, Modigliani, Andre Salmon, Gris, Derain, Cendrars, Van Dongen, Braque, Reverdy, Dorgeles, Carco - and Dumarchey. 

Many of them, Dumarchey included, lived at one time or another in the famous Bateau Lavoir, a huge squalid tenement at 13 Rue Ravignan, thus named by Max Jacob because of its odd flat roof and "its resemblance to the ugly Seine river barges used as washhouses. Another of its names, 'The Trapper's Hut', was suggested by the dark labyrinthine hallways that led from one rickety ascent to another throughout its rambling length. Tenants had neither gas nor electricity; water came from a single tap over a sink used by the occupants of some ten or more studios.(4) Rents at the Bateau Lavoir were, however, extremely cheap, and this ramshackle building clinging to the side of the Butte Montmartre also housed a few small businesses, both legitimate and shady, and some prostitutes. Plenty of material, in fact, for Dumarchey to draw on, which he duly did later in his career... He was also in those days an occasional resident of the Hotel Bouscarat - a cheap lodging house and favoured eating place on the Place du Tertre. When he lacked means to pay his bills, Dumarchey slept rough on the Square Saint Pierre. "Invariably in racing cyclist's gear, and nicknamed by his friends The Captain", Dumarchey was, necessarily, a resilient and popular character in the quartier. (5) 

He would eat with Salmon, Jacob and Apollinaire on Saturday nights at Mere Adele's 'baraque' in the Rue Norvins, or they would go on to the 'Lapin a Gill' (which became better known as the 'Lapin Agile'). The latter was a rough and friendly 'cabaret rustique' in Rue des Saules, whose owner, Frederic Gerard, played guitar. There's a lively description of it by Francis Carco, who, like the gregarious Dumarchey himself and Roland Dorgeles, would evoke it in later works: 

"...it really did rain those nights - or else it snowed, while the drunkest of us slept stretched out on a bench, and inoffensive white mice, sly and unafraid, pattered across the chimney-piece. How to describe the atmosphere of our long vigils? It drew its essence from the haphazard setting, in which obscene clay models, a huge Christ figure in plaster, and canvases by Picasso, Utrillo... all had a place. The dense pipe-smoke added to it. And Frederic, armed with his guitar, Mac Orlan dressed in cowboy style, the dampness of the walls, the barking dogs, the secret despair of each of us, our poverty, our youth, the time that had gone by - all these completed it." (6) 

The years in Montmartre before World War One were crucial for Mac Orlan, as he was now more usually known: a testing-time, an apprenticeship, a taste of experiences that would serve as useful source material - along, too, with some measure of success. By his late twenties he had published (apart from the erotica discussed on the ensuing pages) several other collections of stories, himself illustrating some of them. His successful and prolific career was well under way. In 1913 he married Marguerite Luc, the daughter of one of Frederic's mistresses, and he was to remain happily married to her until her death half a century later. The rest of Mac Orlan's long and eventful life, following on from his formative Parisian years, can only be briefly summarized here for the benefit of English language readers. 

He fought in the French army, was wounded in 1916 during the attack on Mont Saint-Quentin; was decorated, and luckily survived the conflict, traveling at its end through Germany during 1918-19 as a war correspondent. By 1927 he and his wife had retired to the country - Saint Cyr-sur-Morin, about 40 miles due east of Paris-where they lived together until their respective deaths. Mac Orlan worked from his home there primarily as novelist, essayist and journalist. (In the latter capacity, for instance, he was in Berlin in 1933 for France-Soir, just when Hitler seized power). After the end of the Second World War, the French-based American publisher and critic Samuel Putnam could write: "Some, like Mac Orlan... endeavoured to erect a new Jules Verne era through a discovery with fresh-seeing eyes of the exotic geography of that world in which they found themselves." (7). It was true enough and besides, Mac Orlan had always been a survivor: he branched out next into radio and songwriting, and by 1950, when the last of his many novels appeared he was an Academician. This genuinely popular and multi-faceted writer lived on until 1970. 

There's a jovial yet pugnacious-looking photograph of him in one edition of Larousse, wearing a Tam'o'shanter and tartan jacket; others show him with a megot clinging, Jean Gabin-style, to his lower lip. It seems he "cultivated an eccentric appearance, habitually being photographed in his favourite garb of golf trousers, old sweater, woolly slippers and Scottish beret with pom-pom, along with accessories of pipe and accordion. He gave short shrift to all those who quizzed him about the romantic times as a struggling artist in Paris, saying that there was nothing romantic or remotely enviable about being poor and hungry." (8) The commentator adds: "It's a pity Peronne has only honoured him with a car park and small concert hall". But I suspect that the always unconventional Mac Orlan - if no longer an actual bohemian, no matter how often he reinvented himself - would not really have given a damn. 

This expert spinner of yarns (who freely acknowledged his debt to Defoe, Conrad, Poe and Stevenson, as well as to Rimbaud, Schwob and Apollinaire) lived his 88 years to the full. At more or less the halfway stage of Mac Orlan's life, one perceptive critic, Andre Billy, could discuss the writer's special, exotic storytelling ('le fantastique social'): those strange, often humorous, adventures encountered in - so-called - everyday life; the weirdly skewed imaginative vision and the way the century's malaise was caricatured, viewed as if through an opium- or alcohol-tinted lens. Billy speculates, finally, which literary direction Mac Orlan might take next:

"Le terme normal do ses transformations serait sans doute une poesie legendaire forms populaire, mais peut-etre, au contraire, se laissera-t-il tenter par des jeux litteraires de plus en plus esoteriques."(9) 

But Mac Orlan had always been wonderfully unpredictable, and was never so easy to pigeonhole or pin down. Not until after his death (and following upon information supplied by friends such as Pascal Pia to researchers and publishers like Jean-Jacques Pauvert), has the sheer amount of erotica written by Mac Orlan been established, let alone assessed. It seems to span well over 20 years, starting from around 1908 and continuing until the 1930s or perhaps even later. One must therefore conclude that he had not only an aptitude for the erotic genre, but a distinct taste for it. 

As Pauvert has pointed out, prior to World War One there was a busy and eager market for flagellation literature in particular.(10) This sort of book - the speciality of several Parisian publishers, probably the best known of whom was Jean Fort - was freely and widely circulated among forty or fifty booksellers throughout France, and exported to the French colonies in particular and to foreign parts in general. The most notable immediate precursor of Mac Orlan in this thriving trade was the poet, essayist and novelist Georges Grassal (1867-1905). Grassal, usually under his main pseudonym of Hugues Rebell, wrote several classics of their kind, such as The Memoirs of Dolly Morton.(11) Both authors absorbed many of the same literary influences, while their bizarre romanticism, paradoxical lifestyles and obsessively fertile and exotic imaginations suggest that they had much in common. 

Oddly enough, the very first novel the 26 year old Mac Orlan published (as the 'Chevalier de X...') in 1908, was entitled Georges. The central character is an adolescent corrupted by an aristocratic Breton lady. This was followed, the next year, by La Comtesse au touet in which the author (writing as Dumarchey this time) continues the theme of the beautiful, nobly born dominatrix - the latter here turning the male hero into a 'dog-man'! 1909 saw Dumarchey publish Les Grandes Flagelees de l'histoire, to which he also contributed twenty drawings and Masochism in America, whose emphasis is once more upon young males being sternly disciplined by a variety of forbidding yet attractive females. "Victims of feminism" indeed! The usually reliable Kearney [op.cit] appears not to have read or seen a copy of this rather rare work, for he seems to assume it's from the 'Docteur Fowler' stable, referring as he does to "pseudosexological studies with titles such as Le Masochisme en Amerique". The book is certainly more interesting and provocative than that, as readers of my translation will find out for themselves. 

In the next four years, leading up to the War, the indefatigable Dumarchey wrote a further group of books for bookseller Jean Fort. For this series, of which Petite Dactylo is perhaps the best known, he adopted a new persona - Miss Sadie Blackeyes, supposedly a witty and attractive young American novelist. The half dozen or so titles of what we might call his 'Sadiemasochism period' all contain a plenitude of flagellatory and lesbian episodes, but they invariably end happily, and, as Alexandrian [op.cit.] remarks: "On y trouve beaucoup plus de fantaisie que de cruaute". This series did prove enduringly popular however, and, as late as 1932, in 26 year old Samuel Beckett's first novel, Dream of Fair to middling Women, can be found the following: "He pressed this treasure upon her... he forced her to take it. She did not want it, she said she did not. It was no good to her, she would never read it, thank you very much all the same." The protagonist here, Beckett's alter ego, Belacqua, is offering his girlfriend as a token of his esteem a greatly-prized and fine, if obscure, first edition. This she is reluctant to accept, adding: "Now if he happened to have such a thing as a Sadie Blackeyes..." A few pages into George Orwell's third novel, Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936), its hero, an aspiring poet who works in a bookshop (he's jokily called Comstock, after the American purity campaigner-cum-censor) fantasises about one potential customer's literary taste. This "decentish middle-aged man" with "a guilty look", muses Comstock, is obviously seeking "High Jinks in a Parisian Convent by Sadie Blackeyes". It's clear that this particular side of Dumarchey's output was, to rising Thirties intellectuals at least, synonymous with Gallic naughtiness! 

Rather different - if nowhere as whimsical as Miss Blackeyes - is Adventures amoureuses de Mademoiselle de Sommeranges (1910), written as 'Pierre du Bourdel'. This is an historical tale whose far more extreme, scatological and indeed harder-core excesses are the more convincing for being set during the horrors of the French Revolution. Here the author seems to have invented the 20th century's bodice-ripping genre, but without compromise, hypocrisy or formula cliche. The mood is tougher, the humour blacker - and the whole stunning performance is closer in tone to the erotica produced a couple of years earlier for Jean Fort by Mac Orlan's friend Apollinaire. It was followed the next year by Mademoiselle de Mustelle et ses amies, another du Bourdel offering, this time a parody of Petites filles modeles, an edifying work from 1858 aimed at young people by its worthy and now forgotten author, the Comtesse de Segur (1799-1874). The 20th century version has two rich, spoilt and very young sisters running amorously amok in pursuit of precocious experience, which, of course, is variously and rapidly gained. 

When Mac Orlan returned to civilian life after the War, he tasted his first successes with 'literary' fiction. But in 1919 he was also back, and in print this time as 'Sadinet', with Petites Cousines. it's a story of the secret sex lives of families - pubescent affairs between relatives - and quite different again in tone and style from books produced under his other pseudonyms. A 1920 book he published with the highly respected firm of Gallimard contains some charged erotic pages, as Pauvert [op.cit.] has pointed out. From its title alone - Le Negre Leonard et Maitre Jean Mullin, I would guess this to be a recycling, or a variant, expanded version of the Van Ruttanfoort section in Masochism in America. In any case, as Alexandrian [op.cit] notes, by the Twenties Mac Orlan was bothering neither with pseudonyms nor signatures for his erotica. Himself a more than competent caricaturist and draughtsman, he enjoyed producing books with other artists. The anonymous 1924 publication Abecedaire des filles et de l'enfant cheri is a series of erotic poems, illustrated as distinctively (yet equally anonymously) with drawings by the renowned Pascin. Two more books, dating from 1926, are traceable to Mac Orlan. La Semaine secrete de Venus, comprised of a story for each day of the week, is illustrated by another well known artist Marcel Vertes, and contains, according to Alexandrian, "profound insights into perverse psychology". Entree interdite au public, a collection of erotic etchings by Vertes, has Mac Orlan returning the compliment and contributing a Preface to the artist's book. 

Doubtless some assiduous researcher will track down other such works attributable to Mac Orlan. It's highly unlikely that he simply stopped writing erotica after thirty years or so spent perfecting the craft. What's more certain is that he seems to have enjoyed producing it in one form or another, and did so both professionally and enthusiastically. Many other innovative 20th century French writers (Jerry, Louis, Apollinaire, Aragon, Cocteau, Bataille - to name only a handful) wrote prose and poetry erotica as just part of their prolific outputs, but none were more industrious, varied or popular than Mac Orlan in his day. It's a pity he's since been somewhat eclipsed or overlooked. My translation of Masochism in America, the first in English, hopes to redress the balance in his favour.



(1) A History of Erotic Literature, Patrick J. Kearney (Macmillan, London 1982).

(2) Poesies documentaires completes, Pierre Mac Orlan, ed. Francis Lacassin (Gallimard, Paris 1982). Lacassin's useful introduction to this edition supplied some important biographical details. 

(3) The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck (Cape, London 1969). 

(4) The Third Rose - Gertrude Stein and her world, John Malcolm Brinnin (Grove Press, New York 1961). 

(5) Du Montmartre au Quartier Latin, Francis Carco (Paris 1927). Quoted in Ian Littlewood"s excellent Paris: A Literary Companion (Murray, London 1987), which also includes good photographs of Le Lapin Agile

(6) Histoire de la Litterature Erotique, Alexandrian (Seghers, Paris 1989). 

(7) Paris was our mistress, Samuel Putnam (1947, reissued Plantin, London 1987). 

(8) Spring on the Somme, Arthur Taylor (Constable, London 1995) 

(9) La Litterature Francalse Contemporaine, Andre Billy (Cohn, Paris 1927). 

(10) Anthologie historique des lectures erotiques (tome 1), ed.Jean-Jacques Pauvert (Simoen, Paris 1979). 

(11) See my preface to The Memoirs of Dolly Morton, (Star, London 1984).