Prélude Charnel – An erotic story with many angles

Sometimes researches into honest erotica throw up some fascinating chains of events, and the book first published 1934 in French as Prélude Charnel is one of the most fascinating.

The first edition of Prélude Charnel

A well-written and very credible narrative of a young couple’s (well, at thirty-three he is not so young, though he is relatively inexperienced; she is eighteen) discovery of the joys of sensual exploration, it was supposedly written by the Paris-based publisher Robert Denoël, and published under the pseudonym Robert Sermaise by Denoël’s publishing house Editions La Bourdonnais. The copyright notice says that the book’s rights belong to the publisher, which would later lead to protracted legal action, and for the first ten years the unillustrated version sold well, being reprinted four times between 1936 and 1939.

Robert Denoël in 1945

Robert Denoël was killed in suspicious circumstances in December 1945, having been accused of collaboration with the German occupation. During the war sales of Prélude Charnel had continued unabated – it was welcome light reading during a time of hardship and separation, and it is estimated that more than a hundred thousand copies had been sold by 1945. With Denoël’s death and the apparent lapse in copyright, coupled with the end of hostilities, several publishers took advantage of the circumstances and started publishing their own versions of Prélude Charnel.

From 1947 onwards, things became very messy. On legal advice Robert Denoël’s widow Cécile started a series of cases claiming breach of copyright, questionable both because the original contract was between ‘Robert Sermaise’ and Denoël’s own publishing house, and because the rights then appeared to belong to the publishers rather than to any author. This didn’t stop specialist Paris publishers producing several ‘subscription-only’ versions, some illustrated; the first English-language edition also appeared at this time, published by Vendome (again a Parisian publisher; no British or American publisher would have dared) in 1950 under the title The Fleshly Prelude.

Among other illustrated limited editions (a 1947 version illustrated by Francisque Barlet and published by Editions de la Joconde; another in 1953 with illustrations by Albert Carlotti and published by Presses Libres), two stand out – the first for its quality and the second for its popularity.

The first was published under the title Initiation Amoureuse in 1950 (though its title page says 1943) by Georges Guillot, its title page giving the author as Robert Sermaise and the illustrator as ‘une artiste célèbre’. Confusingly it also gives the place of publication as ‘Buenos-Ayres’, maybe because the illustrations were too risqué even to admit publication in France. The ‘artiste célèbre’ was Suzanne Ballivet, at that point at the height of her career, and her illustrations can be seen on her Initiation Amoureuse portfolio page.

The cover of the 1957 Deux-Rives/Chimot edition

The second, and by far the most popular illustrated version, was published in 1957 under the original title by Deux-Rives, with twelve brightly-coloured illustrations by Édouard Chimot – these can be seen on the Chimot Prélude charnel portfolio page. Chimot was not the publisher’s first choice of illustrator – Paul-Émile Bécat produced a sensitively-drawn series of sketches for illustrations to the book which can be seen on the Bécat Prélude charnel portfolio page, but for reasons unknown (maybe he wanted to charge too much?) they were never turned into finished illustrations.

Meanwhile the legal case by Cécile Denoël  and the Denoëls’ son Robert against perceived infringements of the copyright trundled through the French courts, complicated by a parallel claim by the family of Robert Courau that he rather than Denoël/Sermaise was actually the author of Prélude, a claim which was upheld in 1975. One result is that no new edition of Prélude has appeared in French since 1975, a sad fate for such an important work.

On the other side of the English Channel and two decades later, the London-based Erotic Print Society was looking for suitable material for its limited editions, and among other sources EPS founder Jamie Maclean rediscovered Suzanne Ballivet’s illustrations for Initiation Amoureuse. In 1994 EPS produced a French-style boxed edition of Initiation containing reproductions of the ten full-page and fifteen in-text illustrations from the Guillot edition. The box also included a new English translation of Prélude, which gives Suzanne Ballivet credit for the illustrations but intriguingly ascribes the author as ‘anonymous’. Did EPS really not know who had written Prélude, or were they playing safe in the knowledge of the French legal situation? It is also interesting that some of the EPS versions of the illustrations have quite different colour schemes to the Guillot versions; you can compare the two versions here (the 1943/1950 Guillot edition) and here (the 1994 EPS edition).

As with French versions, there is sadly no currently-available English-language edition of the book.

You can find a detailed illustrated publishing history of Prélude, including fascinating details of all the French court cases, at Henri Thyssens' website (in French) (opens in a new window).