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  • Writer's pictureValeria Pugliese

Introducing Philippe Jullian and my latest reading: Flight into Egypt

I have been a Philippe Jullian affectionate reader and vintage book collector for approximately three years.

Philippe Jullian (1919 - 1977) was a French illustrator, art historian, biographer, aesthete, novelist and dandy.

Philippe Jullian
Philippe Jullian, ca 1950. Source:

I initiated myself to Philippe Jullian with "Dreamers of Decadence" ("Esthètes et Magiciens" is the original title in French), exquisite catalogue of Symbolist art which surely contributed to the 1960s fin de siècle revival.

Dreamers of Decadence is, sure enough, dedicated to Mario Praz, italian-born art and literature critic, scholar of English literature.

The book does for the visual arts what Mario Praz's "Romantic Agony" did for literature.

The reader is welcomed by the most decadent epigraph:

"He who has seen Beauty with his eyes
Is condemned to Death;
He can serve no purpose on earth,
Yet he will tremble before Death,
He who has seen Beauty with his eyes."
(August Graf von Platen, Tristan)

Gustave Moreau's unfinished painting, "Les Chimères", becomes what I fantasized being a a visual "Virgil " (reference to Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy; the Roman poet Virgil escorts Dante through Hell and Purgatory), a symbolic guide among a dying Beauty, legendary, mystical and macabre Chimeras, Nostalgia, accompanying the reader up until the major arcana of Decadence, detailed in the section of the book titled "A Short Anthology of Symbolist Themes".

Les Chimères (The Chimaeras) - Gustave Moreau, 1884

The book's title font is the same as DeMerteuil; my maximalist self loves, and over-uses, calligraphy swirls:

I put my hands on "The Symbolists", loan from Hammersmith Library (a vintage copy is in my Ebay basket, I already know this will be purchased soon...) I read and collected the biographies "D'Annunzio" (I have got two editions; one in Italian, one in English) and "Robert de Montesquiou, A Prince of the Nineties".

Gabriele D'Annunzio's biographies in italian (Tattilo Editrice, 1974) and english (Pall Mall Press, 1972)

Then lockdown happened, my splendid 25th year of existence wasted in a WFH-Eat-Complain-Sleep-Repeat neurotic routine.

I am a Taurus, indulgence and laziness seduced me daily, multiple times, I did my best trying to silence them both and be at peace with my productivity standards (and yes, I admit, in these terrible meaningless months, often I failed).

So I hoarded books, I read slowly but more than usual because:

"All good people read good books

Now your conscience is clear

I hear you talk girl

Now your conscience is clear"

(Yes, I listened to a good dose of 80s too; my lockdown book hoard can be easily justifiable by the quote above; the song is the fabulous "Twist in my Sobriety", Tanita Tikaram, 1988).

The new additions to my Philippe Jullian collection are the following:

- Flight into Egypt

- The Collectors

- Oscar Wilde

- Dizionario dello Snobismo (The Snob-Spotter's Guide)

Dust jacket original illustration from Philippe Jullian

I read the first and last of the list, the remaining two are still patiently waiting for me.

My latest reading: Flight into Egypt

A Frenchman on vacation in Cairo encounters a blind Scandinavian beggar; the beggar intrigues the Frenchman with a series of licentious stories of his former past as indulgent blonde and handsome Nordic student, willingly kidnapped while in Cairo and brought into a decadent court in the middle of the Egyptian desert.

Each encounter is furtive, either hidden in streets' corners, tombs, hammam, each story is told in exchange for a monetary contribution, which leaves the reader doubting, every time, if what told may represent the truth or not.

The serraglio's scenario is depicted with the Orientalism of 1001 Arabian nights; the days are slow and sultry, the nights are freezing outside, on fire within the palace's rooms, the ruler Madame is the frigid last survivor of a Russian dynasty, European aristocracy courtiers parade in a spectacle of crinolines, wigs, masks, in a triumph of ridicule ambitions, favoritisms and transvestism, flamboyant distractions concealing the tired virility of the libertine and the dishonor for the exile.

They slightly differ from some of the Divine Marquis' naughty crews in the "use" of children; while De Sade obscenely raped and killed children without too much consideration apart from their virginity, Philippe Jullian narrated of a court were children were abducted and sexualised (of course), they were even bought and sold (even worse), although they were the celebrated and adored personification of the collective court nostalgia of Youth, little gods and goddesses of Beauty, whose plump and agile bodies mixed with a hint of seductive childish naughtiness were the sole prerequisite to access power and protection from the honorable high members of the court; this representation made me remember a quote from "The Picture of Dorian Gray":

"Because you have the most marvellous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having."

Monsieur, the court baboon, is a paradoxical character who, in its bestiality, seems to be the sole courtier with some decorum left.

The Scandinavian young courtier clearly perceived the hypocrisies of the court, embellished exile of promised endless pleasures hiding a darker shadow possessing the deep unconscious of the courtiers, a "spleen” made of profound boredom, melancholy, dissatisfaction, oblivion, tragic awareness of a meaningless existence.

As a reader, I quite enjoyed how Jullian quietly educated me in perceiving this spleen tormenting the courtiers and how their shadow is physically represented by the Other Side, land of the unknown were the exiled courtiers, the ones who asked "too many questions", were sent.

The beggar concludes his story with a description of the Other Side, court's shadow now explicitly illustrated, a dusty realm of crudest realism, human horrors, stench, maladies where the zombie-like inhabitants trade the worn-out precious fabrics for medicines.

The "shadow people" crawled silently until the entrance of the once beloved court; the court has been taken with brutality, victory celebrated with a dionysiac soundtrack made of primitive percussion and contortion barbaric dances.

The court decadence's is celebrated with the latest toast of pure alcohol, last remaining beverage following the cut of water pipes caused by the upcoming Egyptian invaders.

The finale is an inferno of flames and assassinations: the bling beggar concludes his narration with:

"In a flash of light I saw the great shadow of Madame tottering in the flames, a parrot that flew off uttering a piercing shriek, blue and pink dresses stained with blood, the Grand-Maitresse with her hair on fire, then nothing more except a blaze of blood in both eyes."

My fascination with Jullian lies with his persona, the dandy-aesthete, his elegant erudition, his taste incredibly similar to mine (in topics, aesthetics and, allegedly, Moroccan men).

Flight from Egypt was my first fiction book of Philippe Jullian; it has been for me the most exquisite decadent escape in these terribly boring times.

My only note would be on the register: I would define it too "dry" for what should be a luscious succulent narrative although, who am I to criticise Jullian, author of landmark art history catalogues and biographies; I am pretty sure Flight from Egypt linguistic register has been heavily influenced by the genres that Jullian indeed mastered.

A note as petulant Italian: there is this character, an Italian pervert "Prince of the Church", a Cardinal being absolutely indecent around the court; below some quotes in Italian which were grammatically incorrect.

I left some correction notes for the posterity: two quotes, about a majestic cock of a young adonis and the Cardinal losing his religion over it; I had quite a lot of fun with this!

The epilogue would be the verbatim review of Angus Wilson about Flight into Egypt:

“The Flight into Egypt is a deceptively elegant book, for in it Mr. Jullian makes a very serious and disturbing criticism of our times, which, however ambiguous and even distasteful its implications may he, must be met.
Anyone who knows his previous work will expect him to offer this criticism with wit and serious frivolity; and he does. The Cairo drop-out who is the story’s Scheherazade gives to his novel what Sade failed to do through literary ineptitude.”
What sex is concealed by these crinolines, their rustle competing with the palm trees by the side of the Red Sea? What famous faces are hidden behind these masks? Is it really Anastasia, can it be Maurice Sachs who run this scandalous boarding school where pretty children are trained in the art of pleasing? Can that be the Colonel Lawrence? Haven’t we met these arrogant and lascivious Marquises, these sinister and affected colonels somewhere before? Why are they here? To escape a Nazi past, or to surrender to pleasures which in Europe would land them behind bars? Do they dance better to the sound of the harpsichord or to the whip, these creatures who at midnight revels sometimes drown the nightingales? Are they ghosts or slaves?
Monsieur, the pet monkey of the so-called Grand-Duchess, is the last witness of this Firbankian apocalypse. Philippe Jullian, author of the much-admired lives of Robert de Montesquiou and Oscar Wilde, and painter of the exotic, finds him in the streets of Cairo. He follows his blind keeper into Turkish baths, into cafés, and into tombs, and elicits from him, as from a modern Scheherazade, the secrets of the Flight into Egypt. It could also he called All Aboard for Sodom. Is the tale he hears a fantasy, or is it, as the author tempts us to believe, true?"


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