I was intrigued when Howl of Minerva casually mentioned La Comtesse des Connes
the other day, and I have since been snooping around. The story more than lives up to expectation. Patati Blabelard, a French novelist who at the time was the mistress of Tristan Tzara, learned in 1915 that James Joyce had started to write Ulysses
. With impressively accurate judgement, she saw that it would become one of the 20th century's greatest literary masterpieces, and for a few months the discovery plunged her into a state of despair; according to Tzara's posthumously published memoirs, she alternated between planning to kill Joyce before he could complete the book, and intending to take her own life. But, finally, she decided on a third and more creative solution to the problem: in parallel with Joyce, she would compose an "anti-Ulysses". The result was La Comtesse des Connes
Blabelard resolved that the novel would be a mirror-image of Joyce's book at several levels. Joyce takes a Homeric epic and transposes it to the seedy streets of Dublin; Blabelard takes a day in the life of Constance, a Parisian chambermaid, and transposes it into a heroic epic recounting the adventures of the eponymous Comtesse. Thus, for example, the third chapter, Polishing the Silverware, becomes a quest for a fabulous treasure, and the eighth, Cleaning out the Larder, is rendered as a bitterly-fought civil war. Joyce's inventive, lyrical style is similarly inverted, as chapters are written in the style of shopping lists, income tax declarations and assembly instructions for mechanical devices.
Most daringly, Blabelard, who had already foreseen the enormous success of Joyce's work, took drastic steps to ensure that her own book would remain utterly obscure. Gallimard, who had somehow been persuaded ahead of time to publish the novel, agreed to sell it an absurd price, defined in terms of the price of gold to make it inflation-proof, which would deter all but the most fanatical collectors. In fact, only 24 copies were ever sold, 19 of them to Joseph Goebbels. Not content with making the book almost unpurchasable, Blabelard also insisted that every buyer sign a contract whereby they undertook never to allow a third party to read it, and never even to mention it by name. French literary society entered into the spirit of the thing; although news of the work's existence soon became known to a substantial number of people, there are extraordinarily few explicit mentions, and it was almost invariably referred to by various pseudonyms and euphemisms, most commonly "Essylu" (Ulysse
backwards) or "Le livre blabla".
In the turmoil of World War II, it appeared that every copy had been destroyed, but French litterateurs quixotically kept to the terms of a now unenforceable agreement; the enthusiasm displayed by several high-ranking Nazi leaders may well have influenced their decision. But, very recently, rumors have started to circulate claiming that a copy has turned up in Switzerland. Nearly a century after its first publication, this fabulous, almost mythical book may finally be about to reach a wider audience.