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The Art of Seduction

THE BOOK OF THE COURTESANS; A Catalogue of Their Virtues; By Susan Griffin; Broadway Books: 288 pp., $24.95

MEMOIRS OF A COURTESAN IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY PARIS; By Celeste Mogador; Translated from the French by Monique Fleury Nagem; University of Nebraska Press: 416 pp., $24.95 paper

October 21, 2001|LYNNE LAWNER | Lynne Lawner is the author of "Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance."

The study of courtesans is the study of illusion. How does one describe such concepts as beauty and seduction when beauty and seduction are tricks of appearance and emotion? Indeed, how can one ever know what makes one man or woman appeal to another man or woman?

Courtesans render such questions impossible to answer because courtesans were taught to appeal to all things. A courtesan's life was redolent of different values from the so-called real world, values which could be summed up in the word, desire: the desire she infused into her lovers and the desire that the very idea of her aroused.

There have been many attempts to imagine the complex world of the courtesan. "La Dame aux Camelias," a play by Alexandre Dumas fils magically spins the bare facts of the life and death of Marie Duplessis into an unfathomable web. Giuseppe Verdi turns the material into "La Traviata" (1853); Greta Garbo adds her veiled performance in the film "Camille"(1936) and Franco Zeffirelli adds his lavish decor in a later film version of the opera. Puccini transforms Henri Murger's "Scenes de la Via Boheme" (already a transformation) into the much-beloved opera "La Boheme" (1896). The immortality of courtesans, their eternal celebrity status, is partly the result of the temptation to create never-ending stories about the nature of desire.

Poet and feminist writer Susan Griffin is understandably dazzled by the courtesans of history. In "The Book of the Courtesans," she has taken almost a how-to approach, attempting to analyze their allure, dividing her study into chapters devoted to what she believes are the virtues of courtesans: Timing, Beauty, Cheek, Brilliance, Seduction, Charm and, alas, How It All Ended. Griffin takes us on a mad roller-coaster ride through the narratives of courtesan existence during four centuries. The result is a panoramic introduction for readers who do not know much about the subject.

She is an excellent retailer of stories. In just a few pages, she presents the intense, melodramatic life of Blanche d'Antigny, real-life model for French author Emile Zola's fictional "Nana," from her experiences in convent school to her flight to Romania with a count, to her education as a seductress in dance halls and the theater, to the doomed love of a tenor, impoverishment and early death from tuberculosis. We catch glimpses of Lola Montez (mistress of Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria) strutting on stage in her flamenco outfit, barely reining in her terrible temper; we see the diamond-studded belt shown off by La Belle Otero. We rehearse the intriguing lives at court of Madam du Barry and Marquis de Pompadour.

Griffin does not, however, add to our knowledge of the nature of desire, nor does she penetrate the secrets of seduction; for that one had best turn to Celeste Mogador's "Memoirs of a Courtesan in Nineteenth-Century Paris," translated for the first time into English by Monique Fleury Nagem. Reading them, we see the open heart of Violetta of "La Traviata" and Mimi of "La Boheme," rendered as confessions. They contribute to our understanding of how desire was presented and consumed in 19th-century Paris. "I am going to try to recount, as chastely as possible, the most unchaste life in the world," she writes at the outset.

Mogador (born Celeste Venard in 1824) was the queen of the Bal Mabille and gained her fame in Parisian dance halls and as an equestrienne , a daring circus rider, at the Hippodrome. Her life, exemplary of bohemian Paris in the 1840s and 1850s, bridges the periods of the Second Republic and the Third Empire. Alfred de Musset, one of her lovers, met her in a rather squalid brothel. Gradually gaining status, she became friendly with Alexandre Dumas pere and fils. After a great deal of suffering in relation to "a great passion," Mogador eventually became a countess.

"The heart of a girl like you is like a disreputable inn," writes her husband, Count Lionel de Chabrillan, who ruined himself financially for Mogador but also had a self-destructive streak. "The honest wayfarer who inadvertently enters endures the sneers of the regular guests." In the half-century she lived after the death of her beloved Lionel, whom she had followed to Australia, where he hoped to exploit the gold rush, Mogador became a novelist and playwright, living off her earnings.

Publication of her memoirs had perturbed a marriage with this nobleman, the prelude to which had been endless decades of wrangling, passionate re-encounters, accusations, remorse, joys and even self-exile. But after a lifetime spent in the shifting erotic arts, she found a true second calling. Refreshing details of daily life are everywhere in these pages, as she tells us what was in a bouquet and what she and others wore. She recounts the feints, slights and homage experienced at a ball, the fevers of the gambling tables, the drama of a boar hunt in the countryside on a nobleman's estate.

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