Monday, September 01, 2008

The Unloved

My Fantoms is a collection of short stories by Théophile Gautier (1811-1872). His name may sound familiar to you (or it may not); he belongs to that second tier of 19th-century French writers who always seem to be hovering in the literary background while figures like Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Zola fill the center stage. You come across his name in the introductions and prefaces to their works – “…as Flaubert wrote to Théophile Gautier in a letter dated May 12, 1852…” or “Hugo’s poetry would later inspire the masterpieces of Théophile Gautier” or “...(Théophile Gautier’s novel Spirite would explore a similar theme)…”, that sort of thing. Aside from his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, the average reader has been hard put to find other works by this author, whom Baudelaire called “one of the masters of writing, not only in France but also in Europe.”

Fortunately, this volume from New York Review Books helps to remedy that situation. It contains seven stories spanning the length of Gautier’s career. All but one – a reminiscence of his childhood friend Gérard de Nerval – are gothic tales of horror and the supernatural. However, these tales are very different from the kind of ghost stories which English readers are accustomed to. They are spiced with a level of eroticism which readers of Poe and Lovecraft may find surprising. While the reader wanders among the typical paraphernalia of ghost stories (crypts, gusts of wind bursting open casement windows, characters with cat’s eyes, excessive use of the word “drear”) suddenly the plot veers suggestively, but unmistakably, into subjects like necrophilia, voyeurism and masturbation. Gautier yokes together the erotic and the horrifying.

The “fantoms” in this book’s title are all women. Some of them are real, some are fantasy, some are statues or figures in tapestries come to life, some are spirits long dead, and at least one (my favorite) is a vampire. They are beautiful, of course, and their beauty mesmerizes, haunts, and occasionally destroys the stories’ heroes. But this is not merely a gallery of femmes fatales; Gautier’s women also deeply love the men whom they enthrall. They are not only providers of sex but of the deepest love imaginable; they are their soulmates. And the horror in these tales, as well as their emotional power, comes from the destruction of that love due to malice, accident, or madness. Like James in the “The Beast in the Jungle” Gautier understands that the most terrifying prospect for people is not the undead or ghosts or demons or other such trumpery but rather the prospect of losing those we love and who love us back and the turning of one’s life into a long prospect of loneliness and regret. “No one is truly dead until they are no longer loved,” one of Gautier’s fantoms says and that sentence is rightly used by translator Richard Hughes as the motto of this collection.

Gautier was a one of France’s greatest Romantic poets and wrote with a gripping visual power. A brief sample will give a taste of it. The most powerful story in the book is “The Priest” (“La Morte amoureuse” in French), a tale in which the newly ordained Romuald falls in love with the beautiful but degenerate Clarimonde – who also happens to be a vampire. Although they never speak, she becomes an obsession to him. He is sent away to a distant parish. Years later he hears that Clarimonde is dead (she perishes after an eight day orgy, we are told) but she starts appearing in his dreams. Soon the priest is leading a double life; by day, as it were, Clarimonde is dead but by night she lives in his dreams where the two of them lead a life of love and debauchery in Venice. Soon Romuald cannot tell which life is real and which is the dream/nightmare. At one point Clarimonde is lying deathly ill on her bed in Venice. Romauld narrates:

I was sitting beside her bed one morning, and taking my lunch from a little table so as not to leave her alone for a single minute. While slicing a piece of fruit, I chanced to cut my finger rather deeply. Streams of scarlet blood immediately began to pump from the flesh, and a few drops splashed over Clarimonde. Her eyes lit up and she took on a wild and savage expression of delight that I had never seen before on her face. She sprang from the bed with an animal agility, the agility of a cat or a monkey, and threw herself upon the wound and began to suck it with unspeakable sensuality. She drank at it in little sips, slowly and appreciatively, like a connoisseur savoring a vintage wine from Jerez or Syracuse. Her green eyes were half closed, and the black pupils lost their roundness and took on a narrow almond shape. Every few moments she broke off to kiss my hand, and then once more pressed her lips against the lips of the parted wound to bring forth a few more drops of red. When she saw that the blood would run no more, she stood up with glistening, brilliant eyes.

It was a stroke of genius on Gautier’s part to make a priest the victim, and a willing one at that, of a vampire. After all, in Christian mythology a vampire would be the inverse of Christ. Christ gives his blood to the believer so that they can gain eternal life, he dies so they can live. The vampire, though, takes the blood of his victims so that only he will live; they will die or become vampires (the undead) themselves. Also remarkable in the passage above (and there’s a lot of remarkable in the passage above) is his comparison of Romuald’s blood to wine – once again, an inversion of Christian, or in this case Catholic, imagery since it is wine which is drunk in the Mass to symbolize (or not) Christ’s blood. And by the end of this story Gautier has so blurred the lines between good and evil, waking and dreaming, and the sacred and the blasphemous that the most malevolent and hateful character is not Clarimonde but rather the Abbot who “saves” Romauld.

These tales contain more than just eroticism and horror, though, they can also be fantastic and surreal, even, at times, hilarious. In “The Opium Smoker” the narrator, dreaming that he is at a friend’s house, notices that the ceiling, previously black, has now been painted a dark, inky blue. The friend denies that any re-painting has occurred:
“Well, my ceiling obviously found it too tedious to remain black. So it changed to blue. Apart from women, I know nothing so capricious as a ceiling. What you have there, is simply a ceiling’s caprice. Perfectly ordinary occurrence.”
Lewis Carroll could scarcely have put it better. As the painter Onuphrius Wphly (in “The Painter”) sinks into madness he imagines that his reflection steps out of the mirror and slices off the top of his skull, “like someone lifting the crust of a pie.” Out pour all the ideal women he had ever imagined, all the heroines of novels he wanted to write, all the figures he would ever sketch, etc. Finding his apartment crowded, he decides to go out and attend a party. His unexpected lobotomy is no hindrance to his social life; rather the reverse:
Ironically, being less than his usual self, he was more adapted to the others. In consequence he was considered to be particularly delightful company and much wittier than normal that evening.
My only complaint about this book is that I wish it contained more than just Gautier’s fantastical tales. He was after all a poet, dramatist, travel writer, journalist, and for thirty years one of the most important critics of literature, theater, and art in France. A more comprehensive selection of pieces by this underappreciated writer would have been better. But who knows, hopefully, My Fantoms will spark a new interest in him, and his works will suddenly be, like the heroines of these stories, revived.

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