Tuesday, April 4, 2017

as we venture into the realm of the fays: Bluebirds, by Catulle Mendès

Snuggly Books, 2017
originally published as Les oiseaux bleus, 1888
translated from the French by Brian Stableford
163 pp

"...who would assume the task of writing fairy tales if he did not have the right to transform, in the course of his tales, the most hideous individuals into young ladies dazzling with beauty and adornments?" -- 110

I just loved this collection of French tales  -- it's one of those "sorry, I'm out of the real world right now so please leave a message" kind of books that I look forward to finding and only every so often do.

In describing this book to others, I've said that it's a collection of "fairy" tales for adults, but that description isn't quite accurate as I embarrassingly discovered after finishing the book while reading the introduction that talks about the evolution of the French conte.  For our purposes (beware of what's coming next  - I love reading about the history of literature so it will be a moment before I actually get to the book),  in the seventeenth century, a new "fad" was created when
"collections of reconfigured folktales and imitations thereof began to appear in several European nations," 
and became a hit with the "literary salons associated with some of the leading ladies of Louis XIV."  Authors of this sort of  "salon literature"
"deliberately employed and exaggerated the elements of the merveilleux in such traditional tales, in calculated flagrant defiance of the dawning 'Age of Enlightenment' that ruled such material superstitious, obsolete and unworthy of credence."
One particular "promoter of salon literature" of the time was the Baroness d'Aulnoy, who, in the same year that Charles Perrault published his Contes de ma mère l'Oye (Tales of Mother Goose),  put together a collection of tales called Les Contes de fées.   This little factoid is noteworthy since (and I swear I'm getting around to my point about wrongly labeling this book a collection of fairy tales in case you've wondered where the hell I'm going with all of this)  as Stableford goes on to say that
"The nearest equivalent to the French word féerie is "enchantment," and fées are, strictly speaking, enchantresses (as in the enchantress of Arthurian legend known in English as Morgan le Fay), but the title of Madame d' Aulnoy's first collection was translated into English as 'fairy tales,' thus foisting that label on an entire genre of subsequent English fiction, most of whose included stories do not, in fact, feature 'fairies' as prevously defined and deployed by such influential domestic writers as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser." 
He also notes that while Mendès' stories often feature "individuals very similar to the fairies of previous English literature and art," the "genre defined by Madame d'Aulnoy," became adapted for children's literature. The truth is though that "the production of such tales in the French salons was intended for the use of adults."  Finally getting down to where I said I'd be going, the stories in this book are less "fairy" tale than as Stableford puts it, "fakeloristic contes" and a "specialized collection of pastiche folktales"  which happen to involve "fays" in most cases, and trust me, there are several here that are certainly not meant to be bedtime reading for children.

Because there are twenty-seven of these little contes to be found here, there is no way to quickly go through each one, and I probably wouldn't anyway since the joy is in the reading and I wouldn't want to mess that up for anyone considering this book.   There are quite a few that made me laugh -- offering just two examples here, "The Dreaming Beauty,"  a sort of riff on "Sleeping Beauty," carries the traditional tale to a new level as a prince gets his comeuppance after waking the sleeping princess; "The Bonnet Collector" gave me a serious case of the giggles after reading Stableford's footnote about the French usage of the term "flinging (or throwing) one's cap or bonnet over the windmill," which was likely not taken from Don Quixote.  Then there are the darker ones in which I could clearly see elements of later Decadent fiction, including "The Lucky Find," in which Amour and Beauty step into a property shop to find something they've lost.  And, while they're all wonderful little tales, to add to the few mentioned above, I did have my favorites  -- "The Beauty of the World" (in which the author makes a great point), "The Maladroit Wish," in the vein of "be careful what you wish for...", and "Isoline-Isolin," the nature of which which I won't even hint at, and "The Three Good Fays," another one with a beyond-true ironic ending.

There is great wisdom to be discovered in the sheer irony of these tales, so even though they're short, they're also quite complex, deserving of a slow, careful read.  I just love when I find works like this, and this time, it's left me wanting more of the same.  Hint hint, Snuggly.

Highly, highly recommended, it's absolutely beautiful. My copy came from Snuggly, so a huge  merci bien, mes amis to the great people there.

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