The Decadent Handbook, Ed. Rowan Pelling, Amelia Hodson & James Doyle

Naughty but nice: a perversely perky cabaret
  • @johnhenrywalsh

Is decadence a style or a sickness? When Liza Minnelli waggled her black-varnished fingernails at Michael York in Cabaret and breathed, "Divine decadence, darling," her self-conscious naughtiness revealed her as a vapid poseuse. When she later flogged her fur coat to pay for an abortion rather than face life as the wife of a Cambridge don, she was, without realising it, closer to the real thing. Authenticity is vital when dealing with this foggy, opalescent subject. Ernest Dowson drinking himself to death while asserting the primacy of hopeless desire over fulfilment - now that was decadent; so was Baudelaire's embrace of sickness and depression; so was Aubrey Beardley's etiolated passion for the grotesque. Decadence has no truck with effort. According to the dictionary, its practitioners are "lacking in moral and physical vigour". Paradoxically, anyone who tries to be decadent, ain't.

Which makes this book a puzzle. Rowan Pelling, former editrix of the Erotic Review, is a tireless connoisseur of transgressive writing and, in her magazine's pages, persuaded umpteen authors from wildly different states of dissolution (myself included) to work up their lurid fantasies into prose that could be read without guffaws. She has now signed up 50-odd of her courtiers to contribute essays, stories, poems, reminiscences and advice on "decadent" themes in an "anti-lifestyle guide". Her intentions are admirable. She intends the book "for all who seek respite from the worst banalities of modern existence: property ladders, yummy mummies, footie daddies, loyalty cards, friendly bacteria... decking, Coldplay, The Da Vinci Code and Natasha Kaplinsky."

The result is a farrago of effortful wickedness rather than an embracing of enervation. Belle de Jour, the on-line sex-blogger, explains the delight of being whipped and buggered; Helen Walsh celebrates "Mad Mondays" in Liverpool when everyone got sloshed; David Madsen lovingly describes sexual intercourse with a side of beef from a cold-store. Robert Irwin, the novelist and Orientalist, hymns the joy of reckless skating (skating?); Vanora Bennett revels in the "fascinatingly expensive wrongness" of caviar. William Napier re-tells old stories from Suetonius about the emperor Tiberius employing small boys to swim beside him nibbling his testicles. Phil Baker offers a vignette of the effect upon Musset and Baudelaire of drinking absinthe. Louise Welsh plans her own state funeral with gangster wreaths, drum majorettes and Hells Angels...

Any true decadent from the school of Catullus or JK Huysmans would, I fear, toss the book aside on reading many of these mild excursions in eroticism, gastroporn, "style" writing and Gosh-I'm-so-wicked confessional. But it's redeemed by some genuinely original contributions. Medlar Lucan and Durian Gray, seasoned Dedalus authors, offer a De Sadean pastiche of voyeurism and defecation that turns its priapic narrator off sex completely. Pelling herself contributes "The Decadent Mother", a pungent tale of extreme uncaringness. Hari Kunzru's is the most intelligent piece, a triumphant evocation of boredom at its most exquisite; in his hands, decadence becomes a succession of nonsensical fads and weary enthusiasms, sex gives way to extreme fetishism, knowledge begets randomness, which declines into superstition, boredom itself becomes dull and is replaced by idealism...

These are the real jewels in this casket of meretricious trinkets. The Decadent Handbook will tell you about the surface paraphernalia of moral decline - the furs, the crême de menthe for breakfast, the lobster and caviar, the Fleurs du Mal, the Salome drawings, the horror movies and S/M sex, the black curtains, the films to watch (Performance) and records to hear ("Yada Yada La Scala" by Dory Previn), the places to visit and classics to read (the only ones mentioned are Wilde, Huysmans, Rochester and Mirbeau). It will thrill your straitlaced aunt when she opens it on Christmas Day. But it bears as much relation to true decadence as Russell Brand does to Ronald Firbank.