Paul Bonnetain’s Charlot s’amuse (Charlot plays with himself ), a novel about a compulsive masturbator, may be an obscure novel today, but when it was published in 1883 it quickly became the centre of a literary and legal controversy, sparking an obscenity trial the following year. Masturbation, or to use the nineteenthcentury medical term, onanism, was widely regarded as a cause of degeneracy, illness and national decline in late nineteenth-century France, and a work of fiction which deliberately took as its subject the life of an onanist was regarded as nothing short of perverse. Its author, who was given the nickname of ‘Bonnemain’, or ‘good hand’, after the novel’s appearance, was prosecuted for having committed an ‘outrage to public decency’ (outrage aux bonnes moeurs), under the law of 29 July 1881. The President of the Cour d’assises believed the novel’s subject matter to be so

offensive that he ordered the proceedings to take place à huis clos, or as a closed trial, so that journalists would be forbidden from relaying information to the general public. Indeed, the relative obscurity of the novel in our own time can be regarded as a continuation of the work of censorship: even though Bonnetain was eventually acquitted in the trial of 1884, the accusation of obscenity arguably left its mark on the novel so that, even today, it is sidelined in the French literary curriculum. The eponymous protagonist of Charlot s’amuse is the offspring of a degenerate

family that includes an epileptic grandmother, a nymphomaniac mother and an alcoholic father. His compulsive masturbation is portrayed as a hereditary trait, and much of the narrative’s tragedy lies in the futility of his attempts to fight his innate urges. The novel is intensely anti-clerical; the Catholic institutions to which Charlot is sent, such as the Brotherhood of the rue des Récollets and the school in Saint Dié, are depicted as hotbeds of deviant sexual activity. As an adult, Charlot spends some time in the army and then moves to Paris, where his sexual obsessions worsen. He eventually marries a woman called Fanny Méjean who, like him, suffers from an inherited condition. His attempt at family life ends in disaster: Fanny runs away and leaves him with their newborn son. Charlot is driven to despair and commits suicide by jumping into the Seine, taking the baby with him.