Henri Régnier (1864-1936) was the most commercially successful of all the French Symbolist writers of the 1890s. A Surfeit of Mirrors, published by Black Coat Press, is a collection of most of his important short fiction.
Régnier’s life was as unusual as his fiction. He and his friend (and fellow writer) Pierre Louÿs were rivals for the affections of the same woman. Régnier married her and Louÿs promptly began an affair with her. Marie Régnier would have many offer affairs while Régnier would have a series of intense platonic relationships with married women.
Régnier was an aristocrat whose family had been ruined by the Revolution. Régnier maintained an aristocratic pose throughout his life.
This collection includes Régnier’s two most popular volumes of short fiction, La Canne de jaspe (1897) and Histoires Incertaines (1919). Translator Brian Stableford’s title for this volume, A Surfeit of Mirrors, is well chosen. Mirrors figure in just about all of Régnier’s tales. These are stories of obsessive self-analysis, of introspection taken to an extreme. Régnier’s characters are profoundly alienated from real life. They have a horror of real life and their lives are lived almost entirely internally. They are alienated from their own times as well, living in a world of the past of their own imagination.
Although not one of the characters of his stories is an artist as such art, or at least the aesthetic imagination, plays a crucial role in their lives.
These are stories that make no concessions to realism and many could be justly described as stories of the fantastic. There are women whose homes are taken over by centaurs, satyrs and fauns. Women and men whose lives seem to take place within mirrors, either literally or figuratively. Extraordinary things happen but we can never be sure to what extent these events take place within the imaginations of the characters.
There are hints of the supernatural but again we are dealing with people so alienated from reality that the world of the imagination is more real to them than real life.
Régnier spent a great deal of time in Venice and this city plays a key role in many of his stories. Marcelline; Or, The Fantastic Punishment is a particularly fine story about a marionette theatre with some interesting properties. It’s one of several stories that involve elements of the fantastic. The Sealed Pavilion is another excellent story with a tone of gentle melancholy and regret for the past. Many of the characters in these stories live in the past; in the case of The Glimpse the past really is alive.
The Tale of the Lady of the Seven Mirrors and The Knight Who Fell Asleep in the Snow are stories that also evoke the past and create a mood that celebrates ruin and decay.
The tone of these stories is melancholy but resigned. His characters do not love life enough to fear death.
Régnier’s tales are masterpieces of Symbolist literature and also have some affinities with decadent literature, and even the gothic.
These are exquisite little stories, strange jewels that transport the reader into a strange internal world that is more real than reality.