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Lyle Zapato

Les Pieuvres de Paris

Lyle Zapato | 2015-08-10.6821 LMT | Cephalopods | Entertainment | Retro

Decadent Parisian women partying on the back of an octopus.
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Les Pieuvres de Paris ("The Octopuses of Paris") is a French novel by Pierre Zaccone. Sadly, it's not about giant octopuses hosting drunken parties on their backs as they float down the Seine. Much like the equally misleading Trail of the Octopus, these octopuses are only metaphoric.

My interest here is mainly for the proto-fin-de-siècle and charmingly naive cephalopodic title illustrations. The one above is, I believe (see at end), from 1875 in Le Journal illustré, which provided images for the unillustrated serialization in their sister publication, le Petit Journal. The one below is from the title page of the 1878 book (scanned PDF available). Both are by Henri Meyer.

More decadent Parisian women partying on an octopus, which is ensnaring men.

I have not read the whole book since I can't find an English translation (not surprising since Zaccone's French Wikipedia page doesn't even bother to list this work [as of this posting]) and the actual subject matter -- tut-tutting the decadence of Parisian women via a soap-operay plot -- doesn't interest me enough to slog through machine-translating a 500 page novel formatted in such a way as to cause OCR problems that require extensive manual correction.

In lieu of a synopsis, here's a rough translation of an advertisement for the book from Le Petit Parisien, which really trowels on the purple prose:

Within this original title, the Octopuses of Paris, the eminent writer Pierre Zaccone has made a novel very popular and very moving in which, through a vivid image, he wanted to establish a thrilling parallel between the disgusting and terrible octopus that people the seabed and these dangerous creatures living on earth who do not deserve the name of women, because, despite their graceful beauty that attracts and seduces, they are veritable octopuses whose charms are infinitely more formidable than the ferocity of the sea monster from which they merit the name, and which Victor Hugo, in his figurative language, called an aspect of scurvy and of gangrene... a glue steeped in hate... a viscosity with a will..

Yes, dear reader, the Octopuses of Paris exist in large numbers, they are the social octopuses; they live and are agitated around us, swimming in an orgy of luxury and mud, between pleasure and shame; sinister sluts, drinking without pity from the gold and blood of their victims; femmes fatales, haughty and cruel, selling their soul and heart; considering love as a trap and man as prey, clinging to him like a marine octopus, this living glue, attaches herself to the fisherman who she approaches to suck his blood and suffocate him in her iron tentacles!!!... Woe to him that lets himself be taken by the seducing eyes and mournful song of the siren!

The social octopus is there who lies in wait in passing to hug him and clinch him within her infernal claws out of which he will come more than mad, miserable or criminal!

Yes, it is everywhere, this octopus without pity, this viscosity with a will..., this glue steeped in hate..., she is insatiable with gold, debauchery and pride; this is a fatal demon that dominates by pushing crime; this is the corruption that destroys the soul; this is the hideous wound and burning that eats away the heart; this is the evil that crushes man; this is the infamy living and cruel that poisons forever his family, his honor, his life; in a word, this is the sinister genius that hovers over the gallows!!!

Such are, dear readers, these feminine monsters PIERRE ZACCONE so rightly baptized The Octopuses of Paris, and you will learn about their criminal exploits.

Never has a popular writer revealed with more dramatic power than in this strange novel he wrote in a style full of fire; it is a living study, of a color bright and strong, which will be, we hope, a resounding success.

This ad is also a bit misleading since I can't find even a metaphorical reference to octopuses (apart from describing one woman throwing her arms in front of her "like two angry tentacles") until the very last chapter when Zaccone starts quoting Hugo's influential anti-octopus rantings; and the only real octopus in the story is near the end when a man named Bridard is showing the male narrator how to spearfish octopuses off the coast of Brittany.

After catching one, Bridard tells the surprised narrator that there are also Octopuses In Paris, but quickly reveals he's talking about human creatures whose nature is like that of octopuses, and proceeds to justify the book's sensationalistic title in slightly less lurid terms than the ad copy:

"The octopus has multiple aspects of which it is essential to consider, if you want to know the whole; it's not enough to say that she is a monster, it is not enough to talk of pustules and the suckers on her tentacles, we must also paint the nonchalant grace of her movements, the exquisite delicacy of her forms, the strange fascination she exerts when she maneuvers through the jags of black rocks... I have observed this beast... there is of the hydra no doubt, but also of the siren..."


"It's the same indolent grace," he said, his eyes fixed on the octopus which continued its changes, "the same faculty of fascination, the same formidable apparatus to catch and retain prey. Everything is charming elsewhere in its appearance. Her view is nothing that causes dread; the body has inviting undulations at night, she is beautiful, she illuminates, lighted she is phosphorescent, and we can perceive it, beneath us, in darkness deep, blossomed into a pale irradiation!

"Who would suspect the four-hundred pustules-suckers under tentacles of exquisite slenderness? Who would suspect that this sensitive thing is a monster?...

"Neither you nor I, certainly.

"But take heed to pass within her reach, do not get too close to her lair... because you would be a lost man, and there are very few who have been able to wrest from her grasp.

"It isn't whether she is armed to kill, the danger is not there... It is something else, a hundred times more terrible.

"Once hooked on her tentacles, you are not your own; you belong to her... you feel penetrated by mouths greedy and sensual; the effort you attempt to snatch yourself from this hideous sucking only further reinforces the bond that holds you, and you exhaust in vain, hopeless, against a silent monster, deaf perhaps and even more implacable than it is invulnerable!

For the octopus has no tangible heart... Her body, you have seen, is a compound of sticky materials, fleeting, impalpable, that the hardest fang can not even tear... a viscosity with a will! — What to do? — Be devoured once caught without even having the energy to start the fight...

The scene is illustrated by Meyer thusly:


For more about Les Pieuvres de Paris beyond the mere octopus-enthusiast angle, here's some lit crit by Amy Wigelsworth that includes it: "Sex and the City: Rewriting the Feminine in the Mystères Urbains" (English version is below the French).

Note: I got the 1875 illustration from Getty Images. Their licensing claims on it are nonsense, since it's obviously public domain. Simply scanning an image doesn't grant you copyright, Mark. Furthermore, they sloppily don't include its source. Saying it's from the "So-and-so Collection" is not a proper citation since some random hoarder is not the actual source. It would be like people from now on saying it was from the Lyle Zapato Collection just because I put it here. I had to infer that it's from Le Journal illustré based on the caption and research about the relation between that magazine and le Petit Journal. The French National Library doesn't seem to have the former, that I can find, so I can't verify and could be wrong.

End of post.