Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Demons of the Night: Tales of the Fantastic, Madness, and the Supernatural from Nineteenth-Century France (ed.) Joan Kessler

0226432084
University of Chicago Press, 1995
326 pp

paperback

And it's back to France once again with this stunning collection of tales, nine of which are newly translated by the book's editor, Joan Kessler.

A few days ago I was asked by someone about the similarity between the "scare elements" of French tales like these and those I'd find in an American collection from the same time period.  Well, for one thing, I'm not overly familiar with American stories of the same period, but for another thing, I have to admit being thrown off by this question, so I borrowed from Terry Hale in his introduction to  The Dedalus Book of French Horror: The 19th-Century, trying to explain that it depends on who you read and when they wrote as to what you're going to find in their work:
"Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Romantic writers of the 1820s and 30s brought to the genre narrative sophistication and their own set of macabre fears and anxieties concerning such matters as the death penalty, anatomical research, the cholera epidemic, infanticide, and man's inhumanity to man; the rise of spiritualism in the mid-century presented a fresh collection of moral problematics; finally, the end of the century, especially under the pioneering work in the discipline later to become known as psychology, witnessed a renewed fascination in diabolicism and morbid sexuality." (35)
I also noted that Hale  suggested that it was "the psychological insight of Poe" that stood as the "original impetus" for "contes cruels" while, as he stated, the "contes fantastiques" of the sort that are in this collection, were inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman, "the literary lion" who "introduced a range of themes, ideas and narrative techniques" that helped to "renew" these sorts of tales, which would "remain in vogue" over seven decades. (31) 

There are many other factors that go into the making of these tales, much too lengthy to list and to explain in a nutshell;  I hope  my short answer was  understandable.  What I didn't say is that I don't really approach any of these stories to be hit with the "scare element" -- that's not at all why I read them.  If the frisson of terror climbs up my spine now and then, hooray, but I look at my reading of the works of these authors as a way of discovering how they each engaged with past and contemporary anxieties as well as themselves.

Ms. Kessler says of these authors in her introduction that
"Their works repeatedly probe the subject of the unconscious, often through the metaphor of the divided self or the landscape of dream and madness.  As they gravitate toward those areas of experience inaccessible to rational understanding, they actually lead us to a more complete notion of our own minds, with their web of tangled, contradictory motivations and impulses."

Briefly and with no more than brief annotations from me here, there are thirteen fantastic tales in Demons of the Night, appropriately led by Charles Nodier's "Smarra, or Demons of the Night" (1821).  I had read a Dedalus book some time back called Smarra and Trilby, two tales written by this author and neglected to post because of time; his Infernalia is waiting to be read on my Kindle.   "Smarra" takes the reader immediately into the realm of dreams, but wait -- there are dreams within dreams, with the only real anchors to be found in this multi-layered story at the beginning and end, and even then there is a big question that needs asking.   In this case it isn't necessary, but it would be very helpful to be familiar with The Golden Ass by Apuleius; I had to give it a read before I could finish my first go round with this story.   Next up comes Balzac's "The Red Inn" which is absolutely great.  The overall meaning of the tale will become clear as you read it, but the getting there involves one man whose thoughts about committing a particularly heinous crime become a reality -- but when the deed is done, he can't remember doing it.  Obviously there's more, but you won't hear it from me. Balzac is followed by "The Venus of Ille" by Prosper Mérimée,  which starts out with a sort of MR James vibe before it gets positively dark and deliciously creepy, with an ending I swear I'll never forget.   This story is followed by two absolutely delightful tales by Théophile Gautier, "The Dead in Love" (aka "Clarimonde) and "Arria Marcella."  In the first, which I can only describe as a story of a man with a divided self, a priest finds himself mesmerized by a beautiful woman at the exact moment he is to take holy orders; in the second, a trip to a museum to view artifacts of Pompeii leads one man to the woman of his dreams.   "The Dead in Love" will hold you spellbound until the last word -- it's also one that requires a lot of thought in the long run for more under-the-surface readers.




from La Plume et Le Rouleau

Continuing on we find Alexandre Dumas with his "The Slap of Charlotte Corday," which I'd already read in One Thousand and One GhostsThis piece reiterates the absolutely riveting story of Solange so don't miss it.   Next up is my favorite piece of writing in the entire book, de Nerval's rather poignant "Aurélia, or Dream and Life"This story, which was written during several stints in different asylums, has been studied left, right, and upside down, and because of the depth and the richness of what's in this story, a number of different interpretations have emerged.  I'll just give a little teaser from the Introduction, in which the editor notes that "The narrator-protagonist's plunge into madness is depicted as a journey into the self..." and here, I'll add that it's a story that touches on the connection between his own madness and his mythologizing dream life, without saying anything else.  Sadly, shortly after he'd written this story, de Nerval committed suicide.   Following de Nerval is Jules Verne's "Master Zacharius" that reminded me in a big way of the work of Hoffman.  It follows the story of a master clockmaker whose clocks begin to slow down and stop working; he will, before all is said and done,  become engaged in a struggle for very his soul.  I can't remember where I read it, but someone writing about this story referred to it as an examination of the "power-hungry" side of science, and that's about right. Considering much of Verne's other work, well, no surprise there. 


I chose this photo on purpose: "Je suis l'autre" is a huge clue as to the contents of this book. 


Coming into the home stretch, we start with two stories from an author whose work I love, Villiers de l'Isle Adam, "The Sign," which takes us into the zone of uncanny coincidence, and "Véra," a story of a "love-obsessed" husband continuing on with his life after the death of his wife.   This one is very well done, pushing the envelope between reality and illusion to the very last word.  Supernatural? You be the judge.    Two tales of madness follow from another favorite author, Guy de Maupassant: his most well-known story, "The Horla," and his "Who Knows?"  I'm not going to discuss either of these but I will say that for me the joy in reading this author's work is that I find myself thinking "it could be this" or "it could be that," and realizing that my head is potentially getting as messed up as de Maupassant's protagonists who strive for rational explanations of strange phenomena.  By the time I'd finished these two stories, I felt so off-kilter that I had to seriously put this book down.   Personally, I think this man was a genius writer whose work ought to be read by everyone with an interest in the darker side of the human psyche.  Last, but by no means least, we have Marcel Schwob with his strange tale "The Veiled Man," which takes place entirely in a small train compartment.  I'll just say that it is quite possible that beneath the story he gives us there is an entirely different version.

Overall, this has proved to be another favorite book, one that I can absolutely without any hesitation recommend to all.  I get that French literature of the 19th century isn't everybody's thing, and also, if you're looking for something solely to scare the bejeezus out of you, this just may not be it.  These stories are things of beauty, not something you read simply in the hope of getting a few chills up your spine, although it happens quite a bit here.   Beyond great, really; I live to find collections like this one. 




Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki

9780140445800
Penguin, 1996
originally published 1814
translated by Ian Maclean
631 pp

paperback

Believe it or not, the moment I turned the last page I wanted to read this book again.  Given its 600-plus pages, that says a lot, and I ended up not rereading it, but I very easily could have.    I loved this book and I loved the people in it, but I spent most of the time in awe of the author's imagination.

I will say right up front that this book will not be for everyone. It can be  incredibly challenging because of the way it is written as a set of stories within stories within stories, which are often stopped and picked up again later rather than just finished at once, which in a couple of cases may require some backtracking. Reader expectations also play a role here.  For example, I was reading Amazon reviews and came across one from a very disappointed reader who said that he was upset because he'd started this book with the expectation of a "fantasy work" but instead ended up with literary fiction.  No comment on that one, but my point is that it's best to just go into it without any preconceived notions, because really, there's so much going on between these covers and so many different literary styles used here that to give it any sort of label would just flat out be folly. As the back cover blurb says, it's "entertainment on an epic scale," and really, that's how I'd approach it.  In short, relax and go with the flow and you will be rewarded.

The novel begins with the discovery of a set of several handwritten notebooks, all written in Spanish. The French army officer who is in Saragossa at the time of its capitulation in 1809 found them, and held on to them. Later, after leaving Saragossa, he is taken prisoner by the Spanish, and stripped of all possessions.  He begs to be able to keep these notebooks, and is given permission by the captain to do so once the captain realizes that this manuscript "contained the history of his ancestors."  The prisoner did much of his time at the captain's home, where the captain translated the work into French, while the prisoner took down every word.  The manuscript, as it turns out, is the story of young Alphonse van Worden, an officer in the Walloon Guards who has been ordered to Madrid.   In trying to find the shortest route, he ends up in the Sierra Morena between Andalusia and La Mancha. It is an area known for brigands, gypsies, smugglers and other bad types, but Alphonse has no fear, and takes no heed.  As he makes his way through the area, he comes across the deserted inn known as the Venta Quemada, and it's here that this tale really begins.  Eventually he will find himself in the company of several others, where they all share their stories.  It is Alphonse's journey through the Sierra Morena and these shared experiences that make up this novel; to say more would just be wrong.

The back-cover blurb reveals that these tales consist partly of "characters transformed through disguise, magic and illusion," and that idea, more than any other, plays out over and over again throughout this book.  One such story made me laugh out loud, but there are spots of humor everywhere. Also found here are stories that date back to the days of Cleopatra, stories filled with arcane and esoteric lore, lots of erotic moments, political intrigue based on historical fact; there are demons, ghosts, and the Holy Inquisition; there isn't a dull moment anywhere.  It truly is "entertainment on an epic scale."  At the same time, I can see a sort of method in this author's madness in the way he tells this story, which I won't discuss here because it would involve spoilers.

It's hard to describe this book in a succinct, general one-size-fits-all kind of way since it is different things to different people.  For example,  as some have said, it can be "an encyclopedia of the dark side of the European Enlightenment," a gothic tale, an "absurd, through-the-looking glass version of Spain under the Inquisition," as one scholar noted (do NOT go to that link until after finishing the book), a kabbalistic text (don't go there either), or a play on Tales From the Thousand and One Nights.  It's very easy to see all of those ideas combined in this book, especially in hindsight, but there are places in my notebook where I've marked instances of all of these and more while reading.

I loved it -- others may not share my experience, but it's one of those rare books that left me with a sense of loss after finishing it, knowing I'd come to the end.  Each and every second with this book was just pure reading bliss.