Captive by Claudine Dumont, tr. David Scott Hamilton #WITMonth

Captive CoverThe plot of Claudine Dumont’s debut novel, Captive, is fast-moving. We’re given just a glimpse of the protagonist’s, Emma’s, life before she’s ripped out of it. “I’m afraid of the dark. That’s what happens when I drink too much. And I drink too much. Often. And for some time now, even on weeknights. I can’t get to sleep without it. I can’t forget the empty box of my life without it.” Everything that follows depends on readers’ acceptance of what Emma’s words imply – that what came before was worse. That up until this point Emma has only gone through the motions of living.

Because after three pages everything changes .  Emma is kidnapped from her apartment and drugged. Two pages later she wakes up alone, in a locked, gray room. There are no windows and no furnishings other than a mattress on the floor. No food or water. She’s been both washed and dressed, but she has no idea who took her or why. During a panic attack she blacks out.

I don’t get up anymore. I lie on the mattress. I open my eyes. I close my eyes. I don’t dream anymore. I’m not sure if I sleep. I drift. Conscious, unconscious. But it’s always grey. And time doesn’t pass. Nothing changes. A hell in which nothing happens and nothing moves. As if I were already dead. Something has to change. I need something to mark the passage of time. So I don’t go crazy…

Short chapters and sentences are Dumont’s forte.

It’s a bit unnerving how quickly Emma grows accustomed to her new home. Pitchers of water appear which she suspects are the vehicle by which they (her captors) are drugging her. She still drinks. Her acceptance of and complacency about her circumstances is both frustrating and comforting. Emma’s life in the outside world was no life at all, remember? She used alcohol to insulate herself and in her captivity, strange it may seem, she has found the perfect substitute for tequila.

And then everything changes again.

Emma wakes up to find she has a roommate. They become subjects in a series of experiments. The suspense ramps up chapter by chapter. As far as quick reads go, Captive can’t be beat – it’s as easily digestible as an episode from The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. The pacing is perfect. Emma’s narrative voice and her reactions, though unusual, are plausible. It’s easy for the reader to buy into the bizarre premise on which this strange little novella is based.

Everything in the pages of Captive works. Dumont is a good writer and David Scott Hamilton’s translation captures the urgency of the story. If it has a weakness, it is the parameters Dumont set for herself are too small, too confining. There’s more to this story.  Captive is the second act in a three act play, and I’d like to be allowed to it through the entire performance.

Title:  Captive

Author:  Claudine Dumont

Translator:  David Scott Hamilton

Publisher: Arachnide Editions, Toronto (2017)

ISBN: 978 1 4870 0051 6


Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2017!  August seemed like the perfect time to start the blog back up again, so until the end of the month I’ll be featuring reviews of translated books by women writers.

WIT2017

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The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy, tr. Howard Curtis

Title: The Brotherhood of Book Hunters
Author:   Raphaël Jerusalmy
Translator:   Howard Curtis
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 230 8

The eighteenth century romance novel tradition with its lush descriptions of landscapes and settings is  just one of  the many threads Raphaël Jerusalmy weaves into a novel which features the 15th century French poet and rogue Francois Villon, a real-life figure with a shadowy historical record.  Add to this the Medici family, a journey to the Holy Land and a Jewish conspiracy as fanciful and ambitious as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (minus the anti-semitism) and you’ll begin to get a sense of the scope of the author’s vision.

Slowly advancing across the still burning scrubland, through ravines over which darkness was spreading, Djanoush at last reached a promontory from which the outline of the lake could be seen in the distance. His traveling companions gazed down at the fabled landscape in silence. A sparrow hawk hovered, describing broad circles, weaving his flight in the invisible weft of the sky, patrolling the sheet of water in search of prey. The Sea of Kinnereth, as the Hebrews called it, stretched as far as the horizon, lined with wild rushes and willows. The white domes of Tiberias glittered on the western shore. To the east, the grim mass of the Golan rose into the clouds, covering the tranquil waters with its threatening shadow. Opposite, in the distance, where the haze of the lake gave way to a sand-filled mist, Judea began.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is a  historical adventure story in the style of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Or, if we’re looking for more contemporary comparisons, with Michael Chabon’s 2007 novella Gentlemen of the Road, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and, in a roundabout way, the short stories of the sci-fi/fantasy writer Fritz Lieber will do nicely. The basics of what ultimately grows into a rather complicated plot are as follows: François Villon is approached in prison by the agents of Louis XI.  The French King wishes to shift the power between himself and the Vatican by encouraging the circulation of pamphlets challenging the dogma of the Catholic Church. To this end he tasks Villon with convincing printers & booksellers from across Europe to set up their shops in Paris. And once that is accomplished he sends Villon – accompanied by the poet’s friend Colin da Cayeux (Fafhrd to Villon’s Gray Mouser) – to the Holy Land on a mission to acquire rare manuscripts from the time of Christ which are guaranteed to undermine the Pope’s authority once distributed among the masses.

What the King & Villon do not realize is that more people are involved in this game of Renaissance intrigue than they know. The Medici family, backed by a shadowy organization known as the Brotherhood of Book Hunters, have their own plans for poor Villon. And no one seems to consider the possibility that Villon may just have a few plans of his own.

“What good wind brings you to the Holy Land, Master Villon?”

“Contrary winds. Zephyrs of escape and trade winds of fortune.”

Raphaël Jerusalmy has a true gift for sprawling scenic landscapes and carefully lit interiors – in this way he is the novelistic equivalent to the director John Ford.  Often he spends more time on the particulars of a room than the people in it, leaving his characters emotions and motivations opaque through much of the book. There’s a noticeable absence of internal dialogue in the pages of The Brotherhood…, particularly among the main characters.  This is a marked and noticeable contrast to the Franzen-style psychoanalytical navel gazing frequently found in contemporary literary fiction.  But Jerusalmy seems to be after something else entirely. His prose is performative, delivering moments of deliciously decadent melodrama.  Take for example the passage below in which Colin de Cayeux dramatically enters a tavern, summoned there by Villon.

The door of the tavern opened suddenly, blown inward by a gust of wind. Spray and hail crashed onto the flagstones, sprinkling the sawdust and the straw. The dogs growled, the drinkers bellowed, the cats threw themselves under the tables. Their shadows swayed in the red light of the newly fanned flames of the hearth. Threats and curses rang out. Framed in the doorway, dripping with rain, a man stood silhouetted against the whiteness of the hail. He was motionless for a moment, ignoring the tumult. A black velvet cloak floated around his shoulders like beating wings. Only two things were visible on this untimely specter: a wan smile and, below it, the milky reflection of a knife.

Cue the sinister music.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters was released in English by Europa Editions in 2014, the second of Jerusalmy’s novels to be translated into English, and received moderate attention and lukewarm reviews. His tendency to view his characters with the same panoramic lens he uses for the scenery – zooming in only briefly to record a reaction or fleeting emotion before sweeping off to the next plot twist – is a deliberate, but perhaps not always successful, stylistic tick. His use of the third person omniscient narrator is masterful, but (perhaps as a result) his book is not character driven enough to appeal to the genre reader. Nor is his writing experimental enough to draw the attention of the die-hard translation crowd. What he has done is written a solid, entertaining and (admittedly) cinematic novel filled with lovely passages that fire the imagination – the perfect book for Fall nights curled up in a comfortable armchair under a warm blanket.

Federico checked on last time that the volumes were in good condition, then called the clerk and ordered him to wrap them. He walked Ficino to the door of the shop. The old scholar took off his hat to say goodbye to his host, then again pulled it down over his ears. The rain had stopped. The clerk arrived, holding the precious package at arm’s length, and was already rushing outside, forcing Master Ficino to gallop after him. Federico watched them scampering toward the rainbow that crowned the end of the avenue. He half expected to see them fly away on the horizon and whirl around amid steeples and towers, gaily beating their wings beyond the orange roofs of the city.

In for a Penny, In for a Pound: The Factory Novels by Derek Raymond

The Factory Novels by Derek Raymond (published by Melville House)

The Devil’s Home On Leave

How the Dead Live

I Was Dora Suarez

 

RaymondBundleSweeney Todd, the notorious barber of Fleet Street, first appeared in an 1846 Victorian Penny Dreadful entitled “The String of Pearls: A Romance”.  Dreadfuls were cheap chapbooks, sold for a penny a piece (later reduced to half-pence, or Half Penny Dreadfuls) which churned out sensationalist serialized fiction for London’s newly literate mobs.

 In that first incarnation the Demon Barber of Fleet Street sent his victims to their deaths through a trapdoor rigged behind and beneath his barber chair.  Usually cause of death was from the broken neck or skull which occurred upon landing.  It was only the survivors of the fall who Todd would  “polish off” – slitting their throats with his straight razor.  The remains were then taken to a Mrs. Lovett, the proprietress of a nearby meat pie shop, by means of a connecting tunnel.  The bodies were ground up and used as pie-filling in pastries sold to an unsuspecting public.

History has shown that what is sensational and lurid to one generation becomes humdrum to the next.  Over time Sweeney Todd went from being a villain to the hero or, more accurately, anti-hero. The violence escalated and he began slitting all his victims’ jugulars, the trap door merely an expedient means of conveying the bodies into the basement.  Originally tried and hanged for his crimes, in later versions (notably Sondheim’s 1979 musical adaptation) Todd is killed by his own razor.  Even Mrs. Lovett’s fate became more violent – poison is replaced by being burned alive.

Perhaps the most disturbing escalation is that of Todd’s assistant Toby Ragg. In “The String of Pearls” Toby is a young man banished to an asylum by Todd & Mrs. Lovett when he begins to feel remorse for the his part in the murders. He appears at the end to testify against Todd and then goes on to lead a peaceful life as a domestic servant. Skip forward 161 years to Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation and Ragg has evolved into a young orphan boy who loves Mrs. Lovett as a mother – making her betrayal all the more horrifying when she conspires with Todd to kill the child.  Ragg escapes and returns in the final scene to slit Todd’s throat as revenge for Todd’s murdering  Mrs. Lovett.

This long and convoluted introduction has a point.  Derek Raymond, author of the five novels that make up The Factory series, is by many considered the father of British crime noir. But Raymond is also very much a descendant of those penny dreadful authors of the 19th century.  His writing relies on the same formula  of sensationalism, horror and mawkish sentiment.  He explores the same genres – detective stories, gothic horror and gore – which made the dreadfuls popular among young boys.  Yes, he was heavily influenced by Raymond Chandler and the noir films and novels of the 40’s & 50’s – but Derrick Raymond cast a wider net than some give him credit for. Not just quoting (and the books contain a surprising amount of literary quotes), but in a sense paying homage to Dickens and a host of lesser known authors from the Victorian period.

Each Factory novel describes a case solved by the unnamed, maverick detective in A14, the Unexplained Deaths department of a London police station nicknamed the Factory.  They feature a cast of reoccurring characters: the unnamed detective (of course), his superior “the Voice” and his nemesis Inspector Bowman in Important Crimes. On the whole, the unnamed detective is a loner in the tradition of hard-boiled literature, but manages to find a few allies who share his desire to find justice for the dead.  The Devil’s Home On Leave, How the Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez are the middle three books of the series.   The Devil’s Home On Leave, the most conventional and least interesting of the three, investigates a contract killing and delves into the criminal underworld of 1980’s London.  How the Dead Live is a gothic love story complete with a decaying mansion, lovers tragically separated.  The plot (tweaked for the 20th century) and prose style are in the vein of Mary Shelley or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The fourth book – the last to be published during the author’s lifetime – is the most contemporary in that the major plot points rely most heavily on current events. The victim, the titular Dora Suerez, is dying of AIDS at the time of her murder.

These novels – romances if we call them what they are – were intended for male consumption.  Like Chandler’s LA noir novels and the Westerns of Louis L’Amour there exists a clean line between good and evil. The villains have no redeeming qualities.  The women are madonna’s or whores.  The heroes are seldom rewarded, or even respected, for doing what is right.  There is a certain amount of fantasy fulfillment involved.  Male readers relate to the protagonists because they want to be like them: honorable and good. Modern knights-errant looking to protect the vulnerable.  The fact that these heroes are imperfect and damaged only makes them more identifiable, and the fantasy more attainable.

Raymond also trades in darker fantasies. One of his many careers before settling on writing was as a pornographer. The graphic nature of the physical and sexual violence increases with each book, becomes more literal and less literary, so that by the time we’ve reached the opening scenes of I Was Dora Suarez (the fourth book in the series) the descriptions of the murders convey the disturbing lurid voyeuristic fetishism of a snuff film or torture porn. In those first few pages the killer brutally dismembers his victim, ejaculates into her wounds and licks up her blood.  He defecates in the corner of the room.

Bowman said:’Why do so many of them feel they have to do that?’

‘It’s egoism and overexcitement,’ I sad. ‘It’s part of a very complicated way of getting your rocks off  it’s also like someone illiterate signing some document with an X.’

He stirred the stool with the tip of his Regent Street boot. ‘What chance do you think you’ve got, catching him?’

I said, ‘I’ll get him.’

‘We think so, too, said Bowman. ‘but don’t think we’re going to do you any out-of-the-way favours.’

‘I’ll find my own way of getting any help I need,’ I said, ‘and as for favours, you may find htat by putting me on this you won’t have done yourself any.’ I added: ‘Just fuck off now, Charlie, will you? I want to be on my own.’

No detail is left to the imagination.  As each layer of the mystery is peeled back events become more and more sordid.  It starts to feel as if a line is being crossed, the one that Val McDermid discussed in a 2010 interview. “Murder is not a parlour game; it’s not a cheap thrill, and some people write about it like ‘Let’s get onto the next victim and have a cheap thrill’. I don’t like the kind of writing that glories in violence, that treats victims as disposable objects.”

The author redeems himself, barely. Readers, through the detective, come to know the victims intimately.  And while the perpetrators of violence have motives – those motives are stated rather than explored.  It is how the victims came under the purview of Unexplained Deaths that Raymond truly cares about.  How the timeline of their lives came to converge with their murderer’s at the moments of their deaths.  In How the Dead Live we gather information through conversations the unnamed detective has with the victim’s husband; in I Was Dora Suarez we read excerpts from Dora’s journal. The dead are treated with respect, empathy and kindness despite the violent circumstances of their deaths.

 ‘…However, my dead remarry in the air I breathe, invisible yet solid, reliving their situations in this wet house – a calm, upright spirit is the one response to evil, and that is our fight.

‘At least I know now what I have lost here I can never lose again.

‘Oh God, if I had been born stupid I would have gone to my death like an ox and been eaten for my meat by my tormentors without ever knowing or caring why.’

Empathy and some interesting stylistic innovations are the marks of this author’s work.  One of the most unusual and effective trick is the way Raymond incorporates cockney rhyming or “Geezer” slang into his characters’ dialogue. Criminals “do bird” in prison.  Snitches are “grasses”. The “Factory” is another name for the police station. To an American reader it’s like a foreign language – completely disarming.  The story could just as easily exist in the recent past or a distant and gritty dystopian future.  The novels are, in fact, set during Margaret Thatcher’s London – something not immediately apparent based on, nor particularly relevant to, most of what takes place.

The choice to leave the two central characters (the unnamed detective and his superior, the Voice), nameless adds to the feeling of being outside of time.  It  reminded me of Philippe Claudel’s novel The Investigation. Perhaps the anonymity is meant, as it was in Claudel’s novel, to express some kind of post-modern nihilism on the part of the author?  Or maybe Raymond was just bad at coming up with names?

Most likely the latter.  For as enjoyable as they are, the Factory novels are every bit as campy, sentimental and contrived as those early 19th century Dreadfuls. The unnamed detective, in particular, can only be described as emotionally overwrought – his thoughts and dialogue expressed in deep purple prose. The tragedy in his back story is extravagant: a mentally deranged wife in an asylum for killing their only daughter; a partner who, wounded in the line of duty, is now paralyzed and sidelined; regular conflicts with fellow officers more concerned with personal glory and career advancement than justice for the dead.

I haven’t picked up the final book of the series, Dead Man Upright, yet.  And I’m not sure if I will. It was published posthumously, and so like all posthumous works you can’t help but wonder what level of completion it was left in by the author. I’m also more worried about what Raymond and fate have in store for the detective than I like to admit.  I don’t hold out much hope for his making a good end.  He’s too emotionally raw for the work he does. Too isolated from society.  He doesn’t seem to have the sense to buffer himself with alcohol and dames and wisecracks like his American counterparts. No, I don’t believe this series will end well for anyone.  In fact I’d wager complete scorched-earth devastation taking place in the final chapter.  Emotional subtlety – subtlety of any kind if we are being honest – is not Derek Raymond’s strong suit.

Women Writing About Horrible Things – Two French Novellas (a #WITMonth post)

Le Necrophile (The Necrophiliac in English) by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Don Bapst and Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter, are unflinching character studies – depicting mankind in its darkest moments and (as is the case of Le Necrophile) at its most depraved.

TITLE:  Le Necrophile
AUTHOR: Gabrielle Wittkop
TRANSLATOR:  Don Bapst
PUBLISHER: ECW Press, Ontario  (2011)
ISBN:  978 15502 2943 1

 

TITLE:  Beside the Sea
AUTHOR: Véronique Olmi
TRANSLATOR:  Adriana Hunter
PUBLISHER: Tin House, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 935639 42 8

One criticism I wanted to address during Women In Translation Month was that women authors write exclusively about “women’s issues”. Or, worse, the categorizing of their work as “chick-lit” or “relationship” novels.  As somehow homogenously feminine and, as such, more easily lumped together and dismissed from the company of books written by men.  With that in mind I have deliberately chosen two books that are challenging and complicated – novels not easily identified as or typical of literature associated with women.  Le Necrophile (The Necrophiliac in English) by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Don Bapst and Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter, are unflinching character studies – depicting mankind in its darkest moments and (as is the case of Le Necrophile) at its most depraved.

The Necrophiliac is not a metaphor (as I initially believed when I bought it). Instead it is the very literal title of a disturbing and disturbingly beautiful book about –  there’s no way to put this delicately – a man has sex with corpses. Lucien, the protagonist and narrator, is an antiques dealer.  He has no friends; no family. He is a loner;  for reasons that very quickly become apparent. He reads the obituaries the way normal people read the personals. Sometimes he attends the funeral. Then at night, while everyone is sleeping, Lucien drives his Chevrolet to the cemetery to dig up his date. The relationship can last for weeks at a time.

He has no set type.  Men, women, the very young and the very old all have their specific attractions. The Necrophiliac is written in the style of a personal journal and the graphic descriptions of the sexual encounters will make your skin crawl.  There is no easing readers in.  From page one Lucien is revolting, breaking multiple taboos. By having him narrate his own story Wittkop manages to humanize him – but barely so.  Only the beauty of the prose keeps you reading.

I went this morning for a stroll around the Ivy Cemetery, charming under the snow like an ornate centerpiece made of sugar, strangely lost in a plebeian district. Watching a widow decorate the tomb of the deceased with a little Christmas tree, I noticed suddenly how rare they’ve become, those women in full mourning in their floating veils – though often blond – who for the most part – usually, not always – professionals who practised their art behind the family monuments with an absolutely depressing absence of brilliance and sincerity.  Widows’ meat.

The passage above is one of the few in The Necrophiliac that won’t cause you to flinch. And, fortunately, is still indicative of the author’s style – which is lovely and devoid of the cloying prose style inherent to most Gothic novels. In fact, if you can move past the subject matter The Necrophiliac is surprisingly engrossing. The writing is truly gorgeous. Don Bapst translation manages to capture the contemporary Gothic flavor and the voluptuous imagery which, combined, creates a truly unique reading experience.  The size is perfect; ninety-one pages that can easily be consumed in one sitting.

And – fortunately – the book is not without some humor.  As you can imagine Lucien has a difficult time keeping cleaning ladies.

This appears to be the only book by the author, Gabrielle Wittkop, that is currently available to English readers. Before her suicide in 2002, at age 82, the author had written several novels, short stories and poems.  She saw herself as “the heir to de Sade” and is widely read in both France and Germany.  Her popularity in those countries allows me to hope that more of her work will eventually find its way into the hands of English translators.

________________________

Véronique Olmi’s novella Beside the Sea, translated by Adriana Hunter, is another book that describes the world through the eyes of a troubled protagonist.  The initial premise seems innocent: the narrator takes her two young sons on an impromptu seaside holiday. But from the first sentence – “We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.” – it is apparent that all is not right. What unfolds is heartbreaking.  Both boys will be dead by the end of the book.

Beside the Sea explores difficult subject matter of an entirely different nature than The Necrophiliac. Matricide takes the place of perversion – and suddenly perversion seems the more palatable of the two.  This is not an easy book by any definition. Beside the Sea is another (mercifully) short novella  – only 119 pages.  But every one of those pages feels like a punch in the chest.  From the mother’s rough, uneducated voice (the grammar is ever so slightly off); to the anxiety of her two small boys ; to the ineptness of the social workers meant to help them.  There is nothing pretty about the story or the prose.  Nor is there anything comforting.  Olmi writes fiercely – refusing to shy away from all the horrible little details that make her story painfully believable. She has created a main protagonist who invokes readers’ frustration as much as she does their pity. The book’s two small children aren’t angelic – they behave & misbehave as little boys do. And their perfectly drawn imperfection makes you want to protect them from what is coming all the more.

Omni excels at character development, relying on her readers to pick up on all the little clues her oblivious narrator let’s drop.  Social workers, concerned teachers, poverty and absent fathers are all mentioned in passing.  The eldest boy, 11-year old Stan, has taken on the role of adult that she is incapable of filling.  Kevin is still too young to understand what is going on and still retains some innocence.  “Mom! Kevin cried when he saw I was awake, and that’s a wonderful thing! The way a little’un says hello to you in the morning, as if you were the surprise of the day, the piece of good news he’d given up on.”  Both boys love their mother, but Stan has learned not to trust her.  She, in turn, loves them.  That is never in question.  But she is psychologically unable to care for them properly.

We’ll go to a cafe, I said, but neither of them looked convinced by that and I added We’ll order and we’ll be served! They looked at me suspiciously like I was telling a fib, so I got up an then I couldn’t help smiling – never mind my gappy gums, I was too proud of myself, I rummaged through the blue sports bag, took out my tea tin and tipped it out onto the bed, regretting it didn’t make more noise: I spilled out all my money! All of it! Everything I’d put by to have fun someday, all my little savings scrimped from the change at the baker and sometimes at the supermarket.

The kids didn’t touch the money, they looked at it, cautiously, like they were meeting someone new. Can we have ice cream? Kevin asked to make sure, and I was convinced he was no longer missing school. Stupid! Stan said quietly, in a cafe you drink coffee! And, anyway, there’s practically only twenty-centime coins left! Really? I said. Only twenty-centime coins? And I looked a bit closer. The boys sat down next to me on the bed, peering at my treasure like some strange creature. It’s true there weren’t many ten-franc coins, but hey! It was my scrimpings, not an investment, a bit extra, okay! I didn’t want them to see my disappointment, but at the same time I resented them for showing so little enthusiasm. Stan started counting the coins with such a serious expression you’d have though he was picking up something I’d broken, sorting out some stupid accident, that’s what they teach them at school: to be distrustful…

I don’t believe Omni expects readers to sympathize with the mother, yet she manages to humanize her.  That, in itself, is an achievement.  It’s also the key to the success of Beside the Sea.  The characters and situations are hyper-realistically drawn, as if the author recognized the weight of the subject matter – the horrible, chilling, heartbreaking act that drives the plot – and realized it alone would have  to carry the reader through.  Anything else would be disrespectful – a Lifetime movie no one wants to watch.  So Véronique Omni makes the intelligent decision of telling the story without resorting to emotional manipulation or literary devices/embellishments. Without tears.  The only false note is the final sentence, which shuts the door too neatly on a situation that is anything but. Otherwise Beside the Sea is an amazing novella, one that deserves more accolades and attention than it will probably ever receive.  Therein lies the peril of taking on societal taboos in a complicated and meaningful way.*

 

*versus the exploitative 

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).