The first time I ever heard of this book was in that episode of “Seinfeld” where Jerry thought he had returned his copy years ago, but in reality he hadn’t, and now he owed something like a billion dollars in library fines. And flashbacks ensue, wherein George has hair (and intensely short shorts), Jerry has more hair (see accompanying mullet shot), and…well, you remember the episode.
Anyway, I was prepared to be scandalized. And I was, in a way. But not the way I imagined.
Is there salacious material? Yes. Is there language foul enough to make a sailor blush? Yes. Is there mass indulgence in wine, women, and song? YES!
But there are also disturbingly detailed accounts of bodily functions and sexually transmitted diseases and poverty and starvation and filth.
I get what he was doing, and he was ahead of his time. This controversial piece paved the way to freedom of expression for all writers. And I guess if you’re going to push the envelope, you might as well really push the envelope. Am I glad to have unfettered access to great works of once-banned literature like Candide and The Grapes of Wrath and Catch-22? Absolutely! Did I need to read a book containing, on average, at least three casual uses of the “c-word” (yes, I mean that “c-word”) per page? I’m not sure.
The book reads like a story of sorts. There is a story there, interspersed with stream-of-consciousness meanderings and philosophical rants and a bunch of weird stuff I couldn’t even describe or categorize. I say “stream-of-counsciousness,” but it doesn’t read like a stream of my consciousness. Even in my wildest, most secret and tawdry imaginations I don’t come anywhere near the crazy debaucheries he and his expat cohorts were actually engaging in in Paris of the 1930s. I don’t know if any time or place in the history of the world, before or since, could have ever provided an environment conducive to this level of decadence. For better or worse.
But I know no writer could have done it any better. He almost makes syphilis sound fun. And that’s quite an accomplishment.