“The Autobiography of a Flea” is a historical work of erotica first published in the late 19th century anonymously, and later was attributed to Stanislas de Rhodes. Like the works of the Marquis de Sade, the book is simultaneously a socio-political commentary and philosophical novel. While the erotic elements tend to not be as extreme and perverse as Sade’s work, it shares in common a philosophy of society and a disdain for the clergy and the aristocracy / upper class (Sade’s work was earlier and straddled the French Revolution, and so things had changed on this front.) But, for example, in this book, two lascivious and hypocritical clergymen play key roles in the story that would not be unfamiliar to Sade’s readers.
The story starts with discussions (and wagers) regarding a competition that is coming up between women who work for the village’s main employer, a vintner. Whichever woman tramples the most grapes, wins a substantial prize. Our narrator is a libidinous, little flea who follows the sexual antics taking place in this French village. From the flea, we learn about the competition through discussion before, during, and after amore by two village couples. Two women who are likely to be front-runners make a salacious wager that involves the other’s husband. Each woman confesses the wager to her respective husband, but the husbands each have confidence in his wife to win, and so neither is concerned about the competition. Little do any of them know, the vintner has stacked the deck in favor of the fairest maiden in the village, who he intends to marry – despite the fact that he is old, feeble, and disgusting.
This fair (re: young and gorgeous) maiden has a suitor, and she is about to be intimate with him for the first time, when the village priest interrupts them. The priest then uses his knowledge to manipulate the young woman to his benefit. (Ultimately, he is joined by an English priest on sabbatical who involves himself with a couple village widows as well as in the priest’s nefarious plot.) The village priest simultaneously seeks to please the vintner (because the old man is the church’s leading patron), and at the same time he pursues his own pleasure. So, the young woman is forced into marriage, and into allowing consummation of said marriage — though the old vintner repeatedly shows himself not up to the task and is usually comically premature.
The author echoes a theme from Sade’s philosophy, which a society that is anarchic under its feeble institutions, i.e. in which the strong do whatever they please to the weak. The lead character, the maiden, is constantly humiliated and run roughshod over whenever she tries to move against the flow of this anarchy. Counting on the strong to behave virtuously only gets her punished and humiliated. It’s only when she starts moving with the flow so as to game the system by acknowledging and heeding this power disparity that she starts to see success in getting her way.
As with the Marquis de Sade’s work, this book could correctly be claimed to be excessively pessimistic and Hobbsean (philosopher and author of “The Leviathan” who believed people were brutish and self-interested.) I found it to be cleverer and less gratuitous than the works by Sade that I’ve read. Both the use of the narrating flea to give the reader a well-established point of view and the story — which exists (in contrast to many works in this genre, including Sade’s work “120 Days of Sodom.”) I’d recommend this book for readers of historical fiction and erotica (particularly if one enjoys — or can tolerate — the sado-masochistic dynamic.)
[Note: there are a couple versions of this book, but – as near as I can tell – the story is consistent between them. It’s the character names that vary. The book is set in France, and features one English clergyman (kindred spirit to the village priest.) However, the more common version of the book features more English-sounding names, but there is a version with more typically French names. e.g. the lead, Bella, is Laurette in the latter edition. I read the version with the more French sounding names, but read a plot summary of the other edition, and the story was the same in broad brush strokes at least.]