Dedalus is one of our most innovative and worthy publishers. Both qualities are borne witness to in first translations of excellent foreign literature (New Finnish Grammar being a conspicuous recent example); a continuous string of novels mapping the more bizarre territories of human experience and thought (Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf springs to mind, a rare case of a work being as superbly-written as it is eccentrically-titled) and a range of anthologies that are imaginatively and carefully curated.
In this last category, The Decadent Sportsman, kindly provided by the publisher for review, recently insinuated its way through our letterbox, to lie in a louche and seductive manner in the hall; no mean feat to accomplish through a layer of cardboard packaging.
Each book in the Decadent series, of which this is the fourth, is presented by the fictional duo of Durian Gray and Medlar Lucan. Our hosts are disciples of modern decadence, a religion the central purpose of which is 'transforming one's life - however sordid....into a work of art'. The relevant presiding deity is the Marquis de Sade; the prophets include D.H. Lawrence and Oscar Wilde, and the required rituals count among their number bizarre and painful sexual activity, the elaborate abuse of intoxicants in all forms and being impeccably dressed at all times. Around each theme, the editors weave a triple-stranded tapestry of sumptuous and outrageous material, these strands being: their own beautifully-jaded observations on life in general and on their own eventful existences; a series of relevant and often bizarre lists, facts and other information from the real world and choice, often lengthy extracts from various genres of literature which can delight and surprise even the most experienced reader's palate.
Allow me to give respective examples from the current publication. One of the earliest and best editorial contributions is a Position Paper to the IOC on 'the Inclusion of Sexual Athletics (Fornicastics) as Recognised Sports in Future Olympic Games'. Typically, this idea is developed at length and in wonderful detail, including a systematic definition of nomenclature ('Individual fornicastics (formerly termed masturbatics')) and calibration of scoring. Among the strange factual nests that are plundered are two lists which attempt to categorise different types and levels of pain, and the life and exploits of Algernon Charles Swinburne, while the quotations include William Hazlitt's extraordinary description of a prizefight. This is only to scratch (or lightly flay, as Gray and Lucan would prefer) the surface of the book, among whose other highlights there are a fascinating discourse on gladiatorial combat, some caustic observations on the failings of modern sport and the observation that 'sleeping with a jockey is like a night on a pebble beach'
As are its counterparts, Sportsman is framed by the device of Gray and Lucan having washed up in a particular locale, (this is usually because they are fleeing the attentions of debt-collectors and the law agencies). On this occasion, we find them in a crumbling Cuban town house which also hosts a boxing gym, and it is from their growing fascination with particular aspects of pugilism - 'there is no more beautiful sight than that of a polychromatic bruise or a bead of blood against dark skin' - that they launch upon their own extraordinary exploration of sport and sportspeople.
This is certainly a book for broad-minded sports enthusiasts, lovers of the curious and the bizarre in life, art and history, and anyone who thinks that best-selling novels about modest sadomasochism define the edge of literary risk-taking.
Tune in again on Friday for the next post in the new, exciting thrice-weekly format.