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Two tales of decadence and desire

July 2, 2010 |  5:27 pm

Two French stories of drugs and decadence, both translated by John Baxter, have been brought back in a single two-sided volume. The double book consists of "Morphine" by Jean-Louis Dubut de LaForest on one side and, on the other, "My Lady Opium" by Claude Farrère.

Claude Farrère was the pseudonym of Frédéric-Charles Bargone, born in 1876, who served in the French navy. He wrote tales of the exotic places he traveled, including Istanbul, Japan and Saigon. "My Lady Opium" -- originally published as "Fumee d'Opium" in 1904 -- is a collection of stories set on different continents, linked only by the drug. Farrèr/Bargone won the first-ever Prix Goncourt, France's premiere literary prize, in 1905. "A group of us were lying on the mats as usual. Not alone, for opium loves company. There were two women upon the mats," Farrèr/Bargone writes in one story. "One of them, I can't mention her name. Her husband has a steamer run, and the moment he's upped anchor, she's down to the fumerie for a pipe, and whatever else may be on offer."

If "My Lady Opium" sounds racy, it is -- but it doesn't outstrip "Morphine," which has drugs, sex, crime and ruin.  Its protagonist, Captain Raymond de Pontaillac, is described as being "sufficiently handsome even to startle the two courtesans, who surreptitiously pulled down their bodices a little to better expose their decolletages, and pinched their cheeks to give an additional flush." Published as part of a series called Les derniers scandales de Paris (The Latest Paris Scandals), it was less classy than trashy. It was published in 1891 and reprinted several times over, but it has been out of print since 1914; this is its first English publication.

The two-sided "My Lady Opium" and "Morphine" was published by Harper Perennial in April.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Smoke (from incense, not opium). Credit: Vanessa Pike-Russell via Flickr

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