Friday, August 20, 2010


Ponson du Terrail’s great criminal mastermind Rocambole was introduced in France in La Patrie in 1859 in a newspaper feuilleton called Les drames de Paris that has remained in print to this day. Rocambole’s adventures were popular all over the continent, in Belgium, Spain, France, Italy and Germany. In England he appeared in 1867 at the Grecian Theatre in a wild melodrama called The Knave of Hearts. The author was William Suter.

Feuilleton is French, from feuille, “a leaf.” The word was also a pun on Octave Feuillet (1821-1890), the originator of the French newspaper serial. Its interesting that “flying sheets” as sold by flying stationers -- street hawkers and ballad singers "on the fly," was a term for English broadsheets, usually printed on one side, sometimes just text -- sometimes caricature like the broadsheet "comicalities" of C. J. Grant, the Cruikshank’s, John Leech, and Phiz. In Germany “Fliegende Blätter” the comic periodical published by Braun & Schneider translates as “flying leaves.”

The creator of Rocambole, Ponson du Terrail, was a favorite with the caricaturists of La Lune and La Petite Press, in one picture stirring his characters into a boiling pot, perhaps this was the origin of the term “pot-boiler.”

The author’s greatest influence was Sue’s Mysteries of Paris, which had in turn been influenced by The Memoirs of Vidoq, the “French Jonathan Wild.” Rocambole was the grandfather of Moriarty, Zigomar, Rouletabille and Fantomas. Ponson du Terrail wrote most of his manuscripts at a small coffee-house on the Boulevard du Temple, in Paris. When he died the café was renamed Café Rocambole in his honor.

Most recently (2009) Rocambole was the subject of a bande dessinée from Delcourt’s Ex-Libris series of classic tales of literature where he keeps good company with Dickens, Poe, Kafka and Voltaire. The scenario was by Frédéric Brrémaud with great art by the Italian cartoonist Federico Bertolucci.

Excerpt from Parisian Notabilities Bentley’s Vol. XVI 1864

“In these pages I have already given some interludes from a very chequered career in Paris, extending over ten years. I now purpose consulting my diary and telling my readers something about various strange characters whom I either met or heard of during the period. I cannot commence my picture gallery with a worthier type of the day than the most popular novelist who has stepped into the popular shoes of Alexander the great, and is becoming more and more adored by the lovers of sensationalism with every romance his prolific pen produces.

The Vicomte Charles Dieudonné de Ponson du Térrail is a gentleman who earns his fifty thousand francs a year, and hence is a highly respected personage, who in the great gold balance, in which everybody is weighed in Paris, stands higher than a councilor of state, who has only twenty-five thousand francs a year. Since the new Empire it has been fashionable to give any man who distinguishes himself in any way the agnomen of Napoleon; and thus Ponson du Térrail is called, and not unfairly so, the Napoleon of the Feuilletons. He has really acquired the first place in the rez de chausée of the daily papers. He rules there as an unbridled autocrat; everything is laid aside when he appears with a “to be continued,” and many thousand readers, male and female, certainly read Ponson’s Feuilleton before they turn to current events.

The great significance of the Parisian feuilletons dates from the time when the two most celebrated romance writers, Dumas and Sue, commenced the publication of their sensational and monstrous works, which day by day, kept the readers in a state of excitement, and spread through Europe in wretched translations. It was stated with amazement that Dumas was paid a hundred thousand francs for his “Monte Christo,” Sue an equal sum for his “Wandering Jew,” and even double for his “Mysteries of Paris.” Such a thing could not be comprehended, and such was the case with the romances themselves, which were nothing but a pot-pourri of impossibilities, absurd crimes, and eccentric scenes of virtue, but which pleased through their very eccentricity and impossibility, and were not merely read, but devoured.

From that period all French romances passed through the feuilleton, though not with the same success, and, only to mention one author, George Sand made her début before the public in this way, and in a few years laid the foundation of her present enormous fortune; though she wrote her first romance in a wretched garret on the Quai des Augustines. Such prospects were so tempting as to produce hundreds of imitators; but as in Paris only novelty draws so long as it is novel, the same was the case with the feuilletonists -- the wares gradually fell in price, the gold mines were exhausted, and the dream of California was unattainable by the majority. After the February revolution politics exclusively occupied heads and pens, until the coup d’etat put an end to liberty of the press and political discussions, and turned the attention of the French once again to more innocent and less dangerous literary pleasures.”

The entire Bentley’s article can be read HERE (pp. 343).

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