Two Gothic Novels – Old & New

Château D’Argol by Julien Gracq, translated from French by Louise Varèse
Publisher: Pushkin Press, London (2013)
ISBN: 978 1 78227 004 1
The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
Publisher: Doubleday, New York (2014)
ISBN:  978 0 38553 815 2

Château d’Argol

Like real estate, a Gothic novel is all about location, location, location.  Whether it be a Southern Manse, a moldering European castle or a gloomy family estate – success ultimately depends on the setting.  Once an author gets that right everything else is up for grabs.  Hero or heroine? Truly horrid or amusingly satirical? Supernatural explanations or Scooby Doo ending?  No one cares as long as there’s at least one secret passageway.

Published in France in 1938, Julien Gracq’s Château D’Argol was influenced by the late German Romantics (taking as one of its themes the idea that genius is supernatural and unable to exist within societal norms) and the work of Andre Breton (to whom the novel was dedicated).  Albert is a wealthy, indolent and arrogant young man – an intellectual who espouses the philosophies of Hegel – who has purchased an isolated medieval castle on the coastline of Brittany.  A huge estate surrounded by a dark forest and near the water – Albert spends the beginning of the novella exploring it while he awaits the arrival of his best friend, Herminien.

Herminien, when he arrives, brings with him a beautiful young woman named Heide. Somewhat predictably a love triangle forms between the three. Heide, though, is not the apex of this triangle. Despite a promising start, where she intellectually holds her own with the two friends, she quickly assumes the role of an object to be passed between them. Each man using her as a kind of surrogate for the other.  Theirs is the true relationship driving the plot of Château D’Argol. Albert, particularly, is obsessed by his cynical and jaded friend.  His interest in Heide no more than an extension of that obsession. Herminian’s motives are harder to place. Heide is one in a long line of lovers - all of whom (according to Albert) are eventually treated cruelly and ridiculed.  How Herminian views Albert – the my impression is that Herminian does not possess Albert’s wealth or resources, making his motivations predatory.  The result is a dark, disturbing and violent tale.

The nature of the violence obfuscated by the flowery, antiquated language of the prose (reminiscent of William Morris’ work).* Château D’Argol features almost no dialogue.  Instead, metaphors saturate Gracq’s writing – descriptions of the landscape providing insight into the characters’ psyches.  His repeated reliance on metaphor to create tension can (particularly in today’s world of pared down prose) feel overdone.  And yet, in the context of a gothic tale – it works. The metaphors thicken the prose, imbuing it with menace, building layers of foreshadowing.  Nature is a harbinger.  The paragraph below eventually ends with Albert receiving news of Herminian’s & Heide’s imminent arrival.

The storm was raging over Storrvan.  Heavy clouds with jagged edges rushed out of the west, almost brushing against the tower, and at moments enveloping it in streamers of vertiginous white mist.  But the wind, above all the wind-filled space with its unbridled and appalling power.  Night had almost fallen.  The tempest, passing as though through a head of fragile hair, opened quick fugitive furrows through the masses of grey trees, parting them like blades of grass, and for the space of a second one could see the bare soil,black rocks, the narrow fissures of the ravines.  Madly the storm twisted this grey mane! Out of it came an immense rustling; the trunks of the trees, before hidden by the frothing leaves, were bared now by the wind’s furious blasts; one could see their frail grey limbs as taught as ship’s rigging. And they yielded, they yielded – a dry crackling was the prelude to the fall, then suddenly a thousand cracklings could be heard, a cascade of resounding noises drowned by the howling of the storm, and the giants were engulfed. Now the shower let loose the icy chill of its deluge like the brutal volley of handfuls of pebbles, and the forest answered with the metallic reverberation of its myriad leaves. Bare rocks glinted like ominous cuirasses, the liquid yellowish splendour of the wet fog crowned for an instant the crest of each forest tree, for an instant a yellow and luminous and marvellously translucid band shone along the horizon against which every branch stood silhouetted, and made the drenched stones of the parapet, Albert’s blond hair soaked by the rain, the cold wet fog rolling around the tops of the trees, shine with a golden gleam, icy and almost inhuman – then went out and night fell like the blow of an axe.

The elaborate style and tangled symbolism is more suited to a 19th century author than to one writing in the 2oth.  Gracq’s American contemporaries – Hemingway, Fitzgerald & Faulkner – had all published their modernist masterpieces a decade before.**  Joyce’s Finnegans Wake would be released a year later in 1939.  Even to readers in 1938, Château D’Argol must have seemed of another age.

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The Supernatural Enhancements also can be categorized as a gothic novel.  One updated to more suit our modern world.  Think Gothic Fusion. Edgar Cantero is  a Catalan author who writes in three languages: Spanish, Catalan & English. For this book he chose English and borrows from the idea of the Gothic novel only to quickly abandon it in favor of a DaVinci Code style puzzler.

The initial premise/setting is similar to Château D’Argol in that a young man, referred to only as A., finds himself in possession of a rambling estate.  A’s house is located in Virginia, left to him by a distant relative he’s never met.  He and his companion/love interest: a punk rock, teenage girl who happens to be mute (I feel as if there should be a more eloquent way to write that, but there you are) travel from Europe to America.  They arrive and  discover that A.’s relative died under sinister circumstances – by jumping out his third story bedroom window.  More distressing is the revelation that this particular mode of suicide runs in the family. The deceased relative’s father also committed suicide in the same way, from the same window… as may have his grandfather (I’m a bit fuzzy on the geneology). Regardless, our two protagonists soon discover that their new home is the meeting place for a secret society.  And that a ghost lurks in one of the bathrooms.  And that a general curse seems to hang over the place.  And if you think I just gave everything away, you couldn’t be more wrong.

The narrative is told through letters, journal entries, video recordings and interviews.  Every time you think Cantero has run out of plot twists another one appears.   Not always to the good.  The Supernatural Enhancements is entertaining at a very superficial level.  Cantero introduces so many characters, ideas and strange digressions (the book is a veritable encyclopedia on how to break a code) that when it comes time to wrap up the actual mysteries it feels very hastily done.  I half expect there to be a sequel (which I doubt I will read).

The Supernatural Enhancements did make me wonder: what would a true 21st century gothic novel look like?  Val McDermid’s redux of Northanger Abbey?  Anne Rice’s  The Witching Hour (a good, stand-alone book though I found the other two parts of the trilogy unreadable) and  Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind trilogy occurred tome, but are out of the running if only because of the periods they are set in.  There needs to be technology included in the plot in a meaningful way and more of a sense of a global world - something Edgar Cantero attempts to incorporate into The Supernatural Enhancements but which is overwhelmed by minutiae.  Or is the contemporary gothic novel already here?  The purview of the Sci-Fi / Fantasy author?

What do you think, readers – Have you read any good gothic novels lately?

 

*Gracq  referred to Chateau D’Argol as a “demonic” retelling of Percifal.  The Grail Legend was a favorite among the Pre-Raphaelites who surrounded Morris.   Not to mention influential in Morris’ own writing – particularly his classic fantasy novel The Wood Beyond the World.

**The Sun Also Rises (1926), The Great Gatsby (1925) & The Sound & The Fury (1929).

The Conductor & Other Tales by Jean Ferry (translated from the French by Edward Gauvin)

Conductor4

Some interests spring fully formed from within, sending us off on a mission to gather information.  I find that my obsessions more often evolve. I find myself returning to the same subject at completely random intervals, unintentionally or even unknowingly, until a gradual immersion occurs over time.  In this way I began reading Sartre in high school because I was (and remain) obsessed with pandemic literature – of which The Plague is a brilliant example. My introduction to Borges came later via a sous chef in North Carolina who, after coming out to ask how I’d like my ostrich prepared, joined a friend and I for drinks. The discussion turned to books and the next morning I found his card on my windshield. “Ficciones” Borges written on the back.  A year or two later Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistant Knight & The Cloven Viscount was passed around my circle of friends – though, thinking back, it seems impossible that I hadn’t already read If On A Winter’s Knight A Traveler.  As for Oulipo, I can’t remember where I first heard that name. Perhaps Electrico W?  Or the Three Percent Podcast?  But Surrealism as a literary movement, separate from a visual one, came to my attention through a very specific (and completely unlikely) source - the Japanese author Kawamata Chiaki.

Only in the last month did I start connecting all those books to the French College of ‘Pataphysics; a shadowy  (and willfully nebulous) institution which came into being at the same time as Surrealism,  and would go on to  spawn Oulipo.

The Conductor and Other Tales is the one and only book of fiction written by Jean Ferry – a French filmmaker, script doctor and surrealist author whose most lasting literary achievement was his critical analysis of the French literary icon and personality Raymond Roussel.*  It is a collection of short stories – some only a few paragraphs in length - dealing with the fears and anxieties that are a basic ingredient in the human psyche. They are the stuff we deal with in nightmares (normal nightmares, not the horror shows of Wes Craven’s and George Romero’s slumber). Ferry was enmeshed with the Surrealists –  exhaustion, sleep and/or dreams are mentioned by almost all his narrators.  And the stories, themselves, resemble dreams  - or rather, the kinds of puzzles and wordplay which surrealists love and have long represented as dreams. Think of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (aka -”This is not a pipe”). Surrealism, as does everything eventually, becomes a “type” – and these stories by Jean Ferry are of a type.  But, in my opinion, they represent the best of that type.

The Conductor, the story for which the collection is named and onto which André Breton lavished praise, deals with a common nightmare scenario.  The narrator is a conductor on a train that never stops.  Everyone – the passengers, engine crew, attendants - are trapped.  There is an unlimited supply of coal and tracks, and enough food so that no one goes hungry.  But no one can disembark.  Ever.  The conductor remembers a time when the train did stops in stations, but that seems to have been a long time ago.  He can’t recall why or when things changed.  He goes on to talk about how he and the passengers have come to accept the situation, the mental adjustments they have made in order to do so.  Always the conductor addresses the reader directly  - making you feel as if you are sitting beside him in the engine car.  As if you, too, are trapped on the train with him.  The Conductor bears all the hallmarks of classic Twilight Zone episodes.  So much so that I actually researched online whether Ferry had ever written one himself (he had not).

My Aquarium is a strange little story.  The aquarium it refers to is filled with little creatures which are the physical embodiment of the narrators’s suicidal thoughts.  He keeps them imprisoned in a box and feeds them like pets, hoping they will never escape.  Like most of the stories in The Conductor and Other Tales, it is short.  At under one page, it’s an unintentional precursor to flash fiction.

The Society Tiger – perhaps Ferry’s most famous short story and one of the earliest to be translated – is  the name of the vaudeville act featured in the story.  A woman appears in the theater between acts, escorted to her seat by a companion: a tiger dressed in evening clothes and standing erect like a man.  The two take their seats in a box visible to the entire audience and the tiger proceeds to perform the affectations of a gentleman.  The narrator hates The Society Tiger – for he alone realizes that the beast is always on the edge of breaking his mental restraints and attacking the audience.  It is a deeply disturbing story (particularly the ending) that seems to sympathize with the tiger.

You probably noticed a pattern emerging.  Many of these stories are structured like jokes:  the obvious set-up, a slight misdirection and then the punchline. Some are very funny.  Some disturbing.  Here, for example, is the entire text of The Chinese Astrologer:

The Chinese Astrologer wears out his years calculating the date of his death.  Until dawn each night he amasses signs, figures. He ages, becomes a stranger to his fellows; but his calculations advance. He reaches his goal. Astrology will reveal the date of his death. Then, one morning, the brush falls from his fingers. From loneliness, from fatigue, perhaps from regret, he dies. He had but one sum left to perform.

Allow me to liken the Chinese astrologer to the intellectual who died of exhaustion at a young age for, on top of a draining, harassing, and poorly paid day job, he put his every spare moment toward preparing a monumental and definitive critical edition of Lefargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.

Edward Gauvin’s translation is wonderful – written in a way which is chatty, informal and friendly.   He’s kept the  prose contemporary in tone, though some of the ideas and stereotypes Ferry puts forward are dated.  The narrators are all storytellers and Gauvin has achieve the effect of making us feel as if we are listening to, instead of reading, the stories.  He seems to be very familiar with Ferry and his fellows – not only contributing a translator’s note to the edition, but publishing numerous online articles here and here.  Oh, and remember this?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the physical book, itself, is charming.  Wakefield Press (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and not affiliated, to my knowledge, with the Australian publisher of the same name) is a small, independent publishing house that understands the value of a well-made product.  Their books are relatively small (4-1/2″ x 7″) paperback editions with tastefully subdued covers and details such as french flaps, patterned endpapers, black & white illustrations (in the case of The Conductor and Other Tales drawn by Claude Ballaré) and beautiful formatting.  Objects to be coveted by any self-respecting bibliophiles.  And Wakefield seems to specialize in books by members/friends of the College of ‘Pataphysics.  I recently bought both Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting a Place In Paris and A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan.  I’ve been meaning to read something by Perec for ages – he was a character in Chiaki’s novel.  Mac Orlan I’ve never heard of, but I’m almost finished with his book.  Needless to say, it is wonderful.

The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe.) by Rene Magritte

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 939663 01 6

*It speaks volumes that most of my readers are at this point in the post thinking – who is Raymond Roussel?  You will not find that answer here.  I recommend trying here.