THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue




‘That mass of flesh, usually called an arse’: Obesity, Sex and Death in Teleny.

Diane Mason


In Teleny, Camille Des Grieux, René Teleny’s male lover, is involved in two public sexual scenarios, both of which result in the demise of one of the participants.  In the first instance, Des Grieux recalls visiting a seedy brothel with a group of heterosexual friends, a rite of passage to celebrate their transition from student boys into adult, educated men upon ‘leaving college’.[1]  In the second, Des Grieux and Teleny attend a ‘symposium’ (p.112), a gathering of homosexual men for sex, at the home of Briancourt, a wealthy general’s son.  On the surface, given the disparate sexual and, indeed, social, foci of these scenes, the tragic outcomes of each may appear to be merely the coincidental consequences of carnal misadventures.  On closer examination though, what Des Grieux specifically perceives to be the ‘loathsome’ (p.38) ugliness of obesity is a factor shared by one of the operators in the two amatory accidents.  Stoutness, in Teleny, proves to be repellent in a woman yet fatal for a male.  It is fruitful to consider why this might be so.


Given his avowed sexual preference for ‘males of the prize-fighter’s type’ (p.32), it is hardly surprising that Des Grieux feels ‘somewhat shy’ (p.35) about visiting a conventional brothel with his college fellows.  From the outset, he is clearly repelled by the grubby world of mercantile, heterosexual exchange, associating it explicitly with ‘all the horrors of syphilis’ (p.35).  The brothel indeed offends all of his senses.  The ‘slum’ has excoriated paintwork, reminiscent of the stigmata of a ‘loathsome, scabby, skin disease’ (which could be syphilitic in origin).  Once inside there are ‘muddy’ stairs, ‘tawdry’ (p.36) rooms and a ‘loathsome smell’ (p.37).  It is peopled, too, with similarly repellent characters.  The brothel-keeper is a ‘ghoul-like’ and ‘toothless’ (p.36) hag and the whores on offer for the young men’s delectation are, respectively, skeletal and ‘in the very last stage of consumption’, ‘pock-marked’ and ‘repulsive’ and ‘old, short squat and obese’ (p.37).


Notably, it is the obese woman, known as ‘the cantinière’ (p.37), literally one who works in a canteen, who is the object of Des Grieux’s particular abhorrence.[2]  In a sense, she is still ministering to the hungers of her clients but, as one who totes her erotic wares in a brothel, she, herself, is the dish on the menu and, in the eyes of Des Grieux, it is not a very tasty one.  Her belly is like ‘a huge heap of blighted wheat’, her ‘huge’ genitalia have the look of ‘stale butcher’s meat’ (p.38), her backside resembles a ‘huge mass of flabby hog’s lard’ (p.39) and her perfume is that of ‘stale fish’ (p.38).  This corpulent character is expressly associated with tainted and unappetising foodstuffs and it is, perhaps, ironic that, in his 1883 work on ‘Obesity’, the British physician W. H. Allchin described that condition as a ‘perversion of nutrition’.[3]  In other respects though, given the cantinière’s textually evident sexual rapacity, she is something of a freak in nineteenth-century medical discourse.  According to Allchin, obesity was ‘in some unknown way, curiously but distinctly associated with the degree of development of the sexual functions, and in an inverse direction.’[4]  In what Des Grieux views as a ‘nauseous’ girl-on-girl sex act with the ‘consumptive whore’, the ‘fat one’ (p.41) is insatiable in her demands for sexual stimulation.  As a result, the cantinière is eventually ‘bathed in blood’ when her ‘cadaverous’ partner in crime bursts a blood vessel in ‘a fit of lubricity’ (p.42) and dies.  The outsize prostitute’s behaviour, like that of the Spahi[5], a man enlisted in the Algerian cavalry at Briancourt’s symposium, is in direct opposition to Allchin’s explicit assertion that, in the obese, ‘The sexual appetite is frequently deficient in both sexes, and sterility is common in women.’[6]  Within this medical context then, the libidinous leanings of both the cantinière and the Spahi can be viewed as ‘unnatural’.  In Teleny, though, only the overweight female is permitted to live.


Although it could be argued that the cantinière’s antics with her fellow functions as an act of same-sex desire in a heterosexual world, it is just that: an act, performed by two heterosexual women for financial reward rather than a genuine expression of lesbian feeling.  As such, it merely serves to reinforce Des Grieux’s distaste for heterosexual sex which, for him, is invariably lethal.  Moreover, to emphasise this conflation of Grand and petit mort, the cantinière does not climax until she feels ‘the warm blood [of the dead consumptive] flow in her womb’ (p.42).  There is something almost vampiric about it.  As Des Grieux attests, ‘the death-rattle of the one mixed itself up with the panting and gurgling of the other.’ (p.42)  He is ‘horror-stricken’ (p.37) and disgusted (p.41) by the vileness of the brothel and its occupants and it seems fitting then that, in an environment characterised by ugliness and disease, it is the fleshy whore whom he finds the most ‘loathsome’ (p.38) of all that survives.


In stark contrast to the ‘frowsy’ (p.37), heterosexual world of the brothel, Des Grieux’s second foray into the public sexual arena occurs when he and his lover, René Teleny, are invited to a homosexual ‘symposium’ (p.112), hosted by Briancourt, a ‘very rich’ (p.114) young man whose ‘manners were those of the French nobility’ (p.113).  In Teleny, the event is described in paragraph after paragraph of sensory and sensual hyperbole.  Briancourt’s house exudes exoticism and opulence, and the lush surroundings and ‘over-heated atmosphere’ (p.115) promises homosexual erotic pleasure in all its forms.  Although Des Grieux is said to be ‘abashed’ (p.117), he is nevertheless spellbound, feeling that he has ‘been transported into the magic realm of fairyland’ (p.114).  The rooms are not only filled with priceless treasures, but also youthful and ‘good-looking’ men, ‘almost all naked’ (p.114), whose ‘lascivious attitudes’ expressed ‘the most maddening paroxysm of debauchery’ (p.115).  To Des Grieux’s eyes, this is a healthy and almost perfect world informed by the aesthetic ideals of Greek Love predicated upon the ‘young, vigorous and physically robust’ male body – a male body, too, that is somehow ‘unspoiled’.[7]  Indeed, the virginal aspects of Briancourt’s acolytes is emphasised inasmuch as ‘ruby drops of blood’ spot ‘their naked thighs’ (p.115), suggesting that the symposium is, as much as anything, a site of initiation into male same-sex pleasures.[8] 


There is, however, a singular gross presence in this homosexual paradise.  Among the nubile revellers, Des Grieux singles out a face he perceives as somehow ‘familiar’ (p.117).  The ‘familiar’ figure is that of the Spahi, a man well-versed in the same-sex erotic arts of Algiers, described as ‘lust incarnate’ (p.116) and a ‘past-master in lewdness’ (p.117).  Here though, it may not be merely the Spahi’s face that provokes Des Grieux’s memory, which may even be tinged with a sense of anxiety.  It is the Spahi’s body that appears to be the real focus of his attention and, indeed, revulsion.  After buggering one of the guests, the Spahi calls for a ‘broad flask’ (p.124) to be ‘thrust’ (p.124) into his own anus.  The arse in question is not a pretty sight.  According to Des Grieux, his ‘buttocks’ are ‘as voluminous as those of a fat old harlot’s’ (p.124).  It is almost as if Des Grieux is – for the moment – transported back to the brothel and the heterosexual scene that had sickened him so much.  As in the case of the cantinière, the text emphasises the sheer magnitude of the Spahi’s sexual orifices, the cavernous nature and excessive laxity of his anal opening with its ‘thousand wrinkles, crests – or gill-like appendages – and swellings all around the hole’ (p.124).  Swellings or ‘warty growths’ around the ‘anus’ could be a signifier of syphilis and, again, this links him to the brothel as a potential source of infection and disease.[9]  The Spahi’s boast of having had ‘scores’ (p.123) of lovers also suggests that he has been indiscriminate in his choice of sexual partners, rather like the old prostitute.


One can deduce from the text that the Spahi is an obese man, emphatically revealed by Des Grieux’s description as a fellow reveller lubricates ‘that mass of flesh, usually called an arse’ (p.124), ready to receive the bottle.  The whole emphasis is on the ugliness and size of his backside, the implication being that, although he pleasures others, he has to make do with a bottle himself as no finds him attractive enough to perform the service.  Moreover, the neck of the bottle is lubricated with ‘the grease of a pâté de foie gras’ (p.125), a meat dish made from the livers of force-fed geese (notably the birds are literally fed to death), a further, if perhaps obscure, indicator that the Spahi is a man of excessive appetites and gross size.  He is anathema within Briancourt’s opulent, good-looking, gay-sex milieu.  Although obesity was acceptable in cultures such as the ‘Hottentots’ of Africa (where portly posteriors were the norm), the same was not true of the ‘Greeks and Romans’ who regarded obesity as ‘disgraceful’.[10]  Within this context then, the Spahi is a crude and grotesque presence in an otherwise beautiful, refined and rarefied world and, therefore, he cannot be allowed to live.  His bulk and ugliness must be excised from the text, thus restoring Des Grieux’s faith in the superior nature of same-sex love.  In a final and fatal echo of the brothel, when the bottle breaks at the height of orgasm, leaving part of it lodged in his anus, it is his own blood that the Spahi feels flooding his insides rather than that of a dead partner (p.126).  The Spahi is escorted back to his home where he shoots himself rather than face ‘the sneers of all the nurses and doctors’ (p.127) as his sexual peccadilloes would be exposed.


In conclusion, one should remember that, despite his size and lack of physical charm, the Spahi is invited to attend Briancourt’s select gathering.  His function is, perhaps, to provide a contrast, the ‘beast’, serving only to emphasise the ‘beauty’ of his fellow partygoers.  Whatever the truth of the matter, the Spahi’s miserable end seems to suggest that the lush and lascivious world of Briancourt’s symposium is, to paraphrase a popular film title, ‘no coterie for obese men’.




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[1]     Anonymous, Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1995 [1883]), p.35.  Further references will be to this edition and included in parenthesis in the main body of the text.

[2]     I acknowledge the help of Terry Hale, Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Hull, in translating from the French.

[3]     W. H. Allchin, ‘Obesity’ in, Richard Quain (ed.), A Dictionary of Medicine (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1883), pp.1051-54, at p.1051.

[4]     Ibid., p.1051.

[5]     A Spahi is ‘a Turkish or an Algerian cavalry-man’.  See: Rev. James Wood, Nuttall’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language (London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1898), p.618.

[6]     Allchin, ‘Obesity’, p.1053.

[7]     Chris White (ed.), Nineteenth-Century Writings on Homosexuality: A Sourcebook (London/New York: Routledge, 1999), p.120, 119.

[8]     The scene recalls Des Grieux’s own ‘loss of virginity’ at the hands of Teleny.  Describing his initiation into anal sex, Des Grieux asserts that ‘the skin [around his anus] extended to such a degree that tiny, ruby beads of blood trickled from all around the splitting orifice’ (p.96).

[9]     Frederick Taylor, A Manual of the Practice of Medicine (London: J. & A. Churchill, 1891), p.114.

[10]    Allchin, ‘Obesity’, p.1051.