Gamiani, or Two Nights of Excess
My goodness. I thought that I had seen it all when it came to historical erotica: earthy stories translated from Latin, charming how-to texts written in Arabic, fleshy romps through Victorian London. None of them came close to the outrageous and unquenchable needs portrayed with knowing horror in de Musset’s Gamiani. One character realizes, “…for the first time in my young life, that indeed, for some people in the heat of lust, any act might appear permissible if it contributed to the gratification of the senses.”
The translator’s introduction places the novel, first published in 1833, within the context of de Musset’s life. A poet, playwright, and novelist, he was also a sensitive and physically fragile young man who obsessed over the outrageous authoress George Sand, a woman known for collecting sensitive and physically fragile young artists. To his dismay, their affair went nowhere, and he decided to use all those pent up passions writing erotic fiction. The result was Gamiani, which publisher Harper Perennial states is “a classic tale of sensual pleasure and sexual excess…it is the classic erotic story of one man, two women…and two incomparable nights of uninhibited sexual adventure.”
De Musset’s desperation and fascination with death shine through this short book. In a few pages he tells the story of “Baron Alcide de Mxxx,” a young man obsessed by the charms of a mysterious Italian countess, Gamiani. Upon hearing at a ball that Gamiani is a lesbian, Alcide vows to watch her passion even if he can never experience it and sneaks from the ballroom into Gamiani’s boudoir closet. He is not disappointed as Gamiani soon comes up with the shy fifteen-year old Fanny and proceeds to debauch her. Naturally, Alcide soon discards his hiding place and literally dives into the action. Equally naturally, as the book is written by an unsatisfied man, Fanny is bisexual and Gamiani is aroused by Alcide, even as she hates him. The three tell erotic stories in between mindless and violent couplings. The evening climaxes (aha!) when Gamiani storms from the room, upset that Fanny and Alcide can not match her undying sexual stamina. Fanny and Alcide follow her screams to her maid’s room, where she is enjoying the attentions of her sturdy maid Julie and her dog, Médor. Yep.
Revolted by the baseness of the night and the debauchery of young Fanny, Alcide flees Gamiani’s residence with Fanny in tow, vowing to separate her from the hungry evil of Gamiani’s sexuality. Fanny, however, has had a taste of something both delicious and reprehensible and cannot be satisfied by a more sedate life with Alcide. Thus when Gamiani sneaks into Fanny’s bedroom for another night, Fanny doth not protest much. Alcide, ever the Peeping Tom, watches again from a hole in the wall.
On the one hand, the book’s style and complexity of its characters work strongly in its favor. The translator does a phenomenal job of conveying what must have great wit and charm in the original French as he does with the following comment, “Among connoisseurs of innuendo, no device is regarded with more respect than the raised eyebrow. Scorn and skepticism, complacency and amusement, suspicion and disdain… all lie within its purview.” The wit of Alcide, the naiveté of Fanny, and the deep unhappiness of Gamiani are laid out succinctly but with wonderful depth.
As erotica, however, the book failed, even though it bursts at its seams with threesomes, domination, bestiality, dildoes, and orgies. Rather, de Musset draws a powerful but intensely unsettling picture of disillusionment with the power of love to provide meaning for sexual desire. I should be very clear that there is no happy ending – Gamiani’s final experiment explores the potential of pleasure in the final spasms of death.
Although Gamiani is deftly translated and nicely packaged, I found it distasteful and disturbing rather than arousing. Unless you are a de Musset fan or have the stomach for scenes in which devils desecrate the Catholic Holy Sacraments in a large, supernatural orgy, I’d give it a pass. If you are in the mood for truly erotic historical fare, then you should be aware that classics of the genre such as Fanny Hill, The Pearl, and My Secret Life are all in the public domain and online.