Monday 21 November 2011

Tales Of Supernatural Terror by Guy de Maupassant, Pan Books (Selected & translated by Arnold Kellett, 1972)

Like Theophile Gautier before him, (see my ‘Clarimonde’ review of the 8th November) Guy de Maupassant was another protégé of Hoffmann and his tales of paranoid delusion.  Striking in their difference – even to this novice - is the unnerving suspicion he merely enlarged upon what he himself experienced.
  Among these sixteen swift tales it seems it is the author, rather than a character of his own devising, who narrates.  Either Maupassant never bothered to delineate separate voices, or he remained happy to let the reader assume each were his own.   Certainly, the narrators – if they are plural - are faceless, anonymous; separate names never given us.
  Turning back to Arnold Kellett’s Introduction, a picture is painted, tactfully, between the lines, of a mother’s boy with an overactive imagination who - hating work - got lucky, fucking his way to a modest literary success.  Flaubert – a friend of Mme. de Maupassant – initially guided him, Zola initially published him, and English poet Algernon Swinburne was rescued from drowning by him off the Normandy coast.
  What concerns Maupassant more than the ambiguous source of the terrors described is the effect these terrors had on his characters psyches.  Or, should I say, his own.  He is too scared to seek the source.  In Britain at the time, it was best to keep away from such things in case they were ‘unholy’ or dangerously scientific.  The excuse in Maupassant’s France was pleasingly more personal and pragmatic; keep away because your own mind is too powerful and this power we have yet to understand and harness.
  Clearly, he is communicating these effects based upon his own psychosis.  He seems to be playing out his innermost fears in public as a means to, perhaps, overcome them.
  What intrigues is precisely when this occurred in life.  He’d contracted syphilis before he reached 30; on passing 40 it had reached his cerebral cortex, inciting hallucinations, some of which he turned against himself.
So, the paranoia described across this collection was, quite likely, his own.
  In an earlier collection, Editor Gerald Gould claimed ‘Maupassant, of course, overwrote,’ whereas, here, Kellett states, ‘though he is easy to read, he is notoriously difficult to translate – mainly because of his strict economy of expression.’  Clearly, they cannot both be right.  The good news is Kellett’s assertion rings truest.  You will whip through these tales, without fear of any grandiose Gallic pretension or over-stylised description you might have anticipated.
  ‘The Horla’ is the most famous of these.  A more accurate depiction of a nervous breakdown in progression – its transcendent highs and plummeted lows - you will not find among the files of your average psychotherapist.  (This reviewer should know).
  ‘Who Knows?’ – a phrase of helpless resignation repeated throughout -appears last, from the private mental hospital Maupassant was staying at up to his death aged 43.
  Don’t let this fool you, however.  A second piece of good news for the first-timer to this author is the wry sense of humour, rarely mentioned and likely underused.  The last line in ‘The Wolf’ gives away Maupassant’s true position as a creative artist and I won’t spoil things by repeating it here.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Sunday Times on Penguin Books

I feel it necessary to temper the novice author's enthusiasm with a cautionary note. Saw in today's ST a piece on Penguin Books starting to publish short story ebooks by well known authors. After years of agents claiming no one wants the short story any more, this rather flies in that particular face. Am concerned about the mark-up of £0.99 - £1.99 though. Where does this leave the writer who doesn't mix with London's West End literati, and trying to scrape a living? Will the ebook now encourage them to take on more new names? If not, I suspect there are not going to be the opportunities beyond your own laptop that many seem to think.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Clarimonde and Other Stories by Theophile Gautier, Tartarus Press

You cannot be forgiven if the only Vidal you know of owns a chain of hair salons.  More forgivable might be the assumption that the one true Gautier is also in Fashion.
  After all, most readers of the strange and uncanny rarely venture toward the authors of Europe.  I know it has taken me some blinkered years to look beyond my immediate shelves.
  This is hardly surprising.  This French author, active between the 1830s’ and 1860s’, was only accepted into his own country’s literary canon in 2002, according to the only other recent English translation of Theophile Gautier’s work; My Fantoms, published by the New York Review of Books in 2008.
  Quite why is something of a mystery.  It cannot be the regard of fellow vagabond dissentients such as Charles Baudelaire whose blasphemous, poetical The Flowers of Evil dragged him back to a religiously censorious court on numerous occasions, while still managing republication in his lifetime.  Neither can the issue be with the work itself, which, also Byronic in inspiration, was no more controversial.
  The most likely reason is what Brian Stableford alludes to in his new introduction to Tartarus’s latest release; the ‘moral rigour’ of his subsequent admirers.  Or, as it might be interpreted; ‘Gautier would’ve been such a great writer if only he hadn’t been so infernally kinky.’  The grudging, belated acceptance of Baudelaire by the literary Establishment was enough; a second prick-kicking Romanticist on the subs bench was probably better left there.
 Yet, what might have been considered kinky then intoxicates now.  Read this for the prose style alone, which, for anyone who has read his one anthologised story ‘Loving Lady Death’ (‘La Morte Amoureuse’) - re-translated as the title tale here -  will already have experienced his stunning, sensual evocation of place and time.  This continues in the other eleven tales.
  ‘King Candaules’ astonishes, as, by its end, you realise it is, effectively, a feminist fable against male pride and presumption.  Penned by any other hand, the wife would have been deservedly executed in a coda of preening masculinity.  In Gautier’s, his Queen gets precisely what she wants and on her own terms.  In ‘One of Cleopatra’s Nights,’ a young man also makes the mistake of feeding his obsession.  But, again, he is not punished for sinning in the eyes of any Church; only for the callousness of the advance.
  Elsewhere, the female protagonist Jacintha, in ‘Onuphrius,’ and the female Mummy in ‘The Mummy’s Foot’ each coolly take charge of their destinies after volatile male presumption.  While in ‘Jettatura’ the male lover is again spurned, and ultimately destroyed, seemingly by his own paranoia, fired by the pagan superstition of those around him.  (A contextual nod back to the paranoiac fantasies of E.T.A. Hoffmann – one of Gautier’s biggest influences). There is little doubt from these that Gautier, unlike many in his field before or since, openly adored women - a refreshing change.
  I must comment on the book itself; one of the most beautiful of Tartarus’s releases in recent years’; purple boards with a lemon silk bookmark and an apposite detail from Jean-Andre Rixens' Pre-Raphaelite-ish ‘Death of Cleopatra’ upon its signature, cream-coloured cover.  Steeping each copy in essence of violet or lavender might have gilded the lily, but not been a touch out-of-place.