The audience for Decadence is a key concern for this project. For some readers, debts to foreign writers were part of the movement’s reputation for difficult or abstruse writing. For example, the protagonist of Richard Le Gallienne’s loosely-autobiographical novel, Young Lives (1898), notes with scorn:
In one of the great ages of English poetry, he came to London to find young English poets falling on their knees to the metrical mathematicians of France.
This character dramatizes a resistance to Decadence because of its continental associations. But for other readers and writers at the fin de siècle, these associations were part of the appeal of Decadence. Translation was central here: it was a means for some readers to access works in other languages, but it also offered an opportunity for creative writers like Arthur Symons, Michael Field, Oscar Wilde and John Gray to create their own versions of poems and texts by Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé and others.
Our most recent event in London was dedicated to exploring these different kinds of audience from the nineteenth century right up to the present. In the morning, we heard three scholarly papers exploring different aspects of the literary marketplace at the end of the nineteenth century. Kirsten MacLeod (Newcastle University) gave a fascinating account of the ways in which Decadence reached the American public through the work of a range of publishers and imprints from Thomas Mosher to Boni and Liveright. Sandra Mayer (Wolfson College, Oxford) outlined the enthusiastic reception accorded to
Oscar Wilde in Vienna during the 1890s especially through the ministrations of the critic, Karl Kraus. And Tore Rem (Oslo University) described the fierce controversy in London regarding competing translations of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler by William Archer and Edmond Gosse during 1891. In each case, these wonderful talks invited listeners to reconsider a familiar topic or writer from the perspective of a less familiar audience.
Professor Rem’s paper on Ibsen anticipated in some respects our afternoon session, since it derived from his work on the Penguin classics translation of Ibsen. Our roundtable assembled a brilliant array of participants dedicated to discussing the present day market for Decadent and avant-garde work in translation: Martin Sorrell talked about his work on translations of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine for the Oxford World Classics series, Brendan King described his work on J.K. Huysmans for Dedalus Books and Jennifer Higgins discussed her work towards a translation of Rachilde’s exquisitely weird novel, La Tour d’amour(1899). Finally, Michael Schmidt gave a fascinating account of his life’s work in establishing Carcanet, sketching the highs and lows of a publishing a list of writers that comprises award-winning contemporary poetry by Martina Evans and Gabriel Josipovici, as well as ground-breaking work in translation, such as John Ashbery’s versions of Rimbaud’s prose poems and Walter Martin’s Baudelaire.
At the end of the day’s activities, the network obtained very real proof of a contemporary audience for Decadence. Amidst the lavish surroundings of the Chancellor’s Hall in Senate House, our public event, ‘The Arts of Decadence’ attracted over 100 people. Martin Sorrell read from his versions of Verlaine and Peter Manson read his translations of Mallarmé. Singers, Kate Howden and Edmund Danon from the National Opera Studio performed songs by Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé set by Debussy, Fauré and others, to accompaniment on the piano by Satoshi Kubo. And Helen Abbott (University of Birmingham) provided a scintillating commentary on adapting Decadent texts to music, drawing upon her amazing Baudelaire in Song project. The whole was ably compèred by Graham Henderson, head of our network partner the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation. If the roundtable on publishing explored some of the difficulties in finding an audience for Decadent work, the success of our evening event shows that an enthusiastic and appreciative audience is there to be found.
Keep an eye out here for information about our Online Translation Case study which is the next stage of the network’s attempts to explore different audiences and publics for Decadence in Translation.