If the word fantasy wasn’t so strongly associated with bearded twats on a horse and the like, then I’d use it to describe Jeanne’s Journal. Because that’s what this book is: fantastic. In fact, it’s outrageous.
Staircases made of solid air, flesh-eating sand, spray-painted sapphire-eyed cats, human plants, high society cannibal parties, paralysed human statues covered in phosphorus… these are just a handful of the impossible phenomena that exist in Jeanne’s world. She often mentions them in passing, as if they were perfectly normal.
Jeanne’s Journal is very unique. It might be described as existing within the French tradition of the fantastique, but perhaps it’s more accurate to call it alchemical S&M. It’s a bit like if À rebours was written with a pulp economy and pace, the delicate, tormented Des Esseintes replaced with the driven, contemptuous Jeanne. Both books feature impossible plants and bejewelled pets, but while Des Esseintes immersed himself in a carefully created synthetic world of sensation, Jeanne already lives in a world where the impossible and fantastic is commonplace. The reader follows her as she descends into ever more visionary and dreamlike environments.
Sex is, unlike in the coy À rebours, always explicit. In fact, all descriptions are explicit, matter-of-fact and to-the-point, which gives the novel’s creations a sharp immediacy. Sadism is often present and the novel exists in a similar tradition to de Sade, working as it does within the dream logic of erotic fantasy. But Jeanne’s Journal is no “livre philosophique”. Its politics are of a vague feminism and aristocratic sexual freedom, its philosophy alchemical.
Mercier himself is – as the back cover has it – “dedicated to the occult and the fantastic”. The book jacket has a number of interesting details. The pink cover has a drawing of Jeanne holding a whip and looking innocent and fragile – quite the wrong expression for her character to wear. The back cover features a photo of Mercier – also holding a whip – displaying the vagina drawn on the palm of his hand, along with a strange blurb that describes him as “[a]n avid reader of literature dealing with the bizarre, he was also a leader of a gang of youths in his village and later became a judo expert.”
As well as all that, Mercier was a film director, making what he called “witch cinema”. In Pete Tombs’ and Cathal Tohill’s Immoral Tales, Mercier’s La Goulve (released in 1972, the same year as the English translation of JJ) is described as belonging to a rare group of films “that seem to have sprung out of nowhere, that seem to have no antecedents, creating their own grammar and going their own way, regardless of our aesthetic or artistic preconceptions.” They describe the experience of watching La Goulve as “like having your skull taken off and blown into.”
As detailed in this article on Esotika, Mercier has had a strange career. Two of his early books, including Jeanne’s Journal, were banned in France and his films never gained critical acceptance. He is now some kind of guru figure and is uncomfortable with his fantastique past.
Jeanne’s Journal is unfairly obscure. As Mercier says in his short introduction, “Death by silence is the fate of all who refuse to follow the safety of the well-trodden paths. But whoever dies such a death can always place his hopes in resurrection.”