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 Island of Last Truth by Flavia Company, translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin

Dr. Matthew Prendel is an enigma.  Attractive, quiet, independently wealthy – he is the perennial subject of cocktail party gossip.  The most persistent rumor being that he was once shipwrecked on a deserted island.  We’re told Prendel’s tale, the “true” version of what happened to him, from his lover.  The conceit of the novel is that she,  Phoebe Westore, is the author, not Flavia.  The book is written in such a way as to support this illusion, opening with a preface where Phoebe explains her relationship to Dr. Prendel.  She reveals the promise she made to Prendel to write down the story of the shipwreck only after his death.  The Island of Last Truth is her fulfilling that promise.

We were lovers for almost seven years.  One of my aims was to endure longer than his shipwreck.  As if some kind of rivalry or a competition could be established with something like that.  “You always want to defeat impossible opponents, Phoebe; opponents that aren’t even there.  You take after your mother.”  My victory has been bitter and, in truth, transient, because a “shipwreck” endures much longer than a shipwreck.  It is like a lantern: it illuminates what you shine it on and the rest as well.

I don’t want to give too much away.  The plot is full of unexpected shifts.  Company wastes no time getting her protagonist onto the island and, once there, piles on the suspense.  Prendel is not alone on the island. Nor does the story end with him escaping it.  Nor is it all about him.

“…Part adventure story, part noir, and part mystery…”* I would add psychological thriller to that list.  Laura McGloughlin has written a nuanced translation that captures all of the melancholia and foreboding of Flavia Company’s strange and wonderful novel.  What works best in The Island of Last Truth is the perspective from which it is told.  The main body of the book, describing Prendel’s experiences, are told to us in the third person by Phoebe.  The rhythm of her voice remains consistent as it moves from Preface, to storytelling, and the end of the book where she attempts to fill the gaps in the story she’d been told.  So fully realized a character is she that an image begins to form in the reader’s mind: of Phoebe listening to Prendel as he tells her his adventure.  And then later writing it all down, occasionally pausing to stare into the distance, lost in her memories.  It’s all very intimate.  This is not only a book about a shipwreck, but about a woman trying to make sense of the enigmatic man with whom she had a relationship with for over seven years.  A man, she comes to realize, she never knew at all.

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 60945 081 6

*taken from the jacket copy

a thousand morons by Quim Monzó (translated from the original Catalan by Peter Bush)

Thousand_Morons-frontPierre Charles L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott carefully planned Washington DC – with its precise grid of streets, beautiful tree-lined avenues and stunning perspectives. Older cities like Boston or lower Manhattan developed more organically, the seemingly haphazard  pattern of their streets dictated by the habits of those who used them.

A good short story collection can grow like a city. Either organically – as when an author writes stories and publishes them together once he has enough for a book (like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, or Salinger are good examples). Or through careful planning from the get/go – think James Joyce, Jennifer Egan and William Faulkner.  Obviously the critical thing is that the stories, themselves, are good. But a planned collection adds a layer of complexity for the reader. The stories can be linked or not. They can be built around a group of shared characters, set in the same historical period or geographic region. The more ambitious the author the more abstract the themes held in common become.

And then there is Quim Monzó.  Whose short story collections appear so meticulously planned, but whose individual stories manage to still feel spontaneous and dashing.  His new collection, a thousand morons, is exactly what it claims to be. A collection of portraits – mostly sketches – of morons.  Men & women from all walks of life behaving idiotically.  But these absurdities, these quirks of behavior and situation, are completely familiar.   The “moron” in the title is all-encompassing. The situations are simultaneously tragic and very funny.  Monzó explores the absurdity of the human condition while avoiding the obvious literary contrivances that go with it.

A young man visits his father, Mr. Beneset, in a nursing home.  Their conversation is nothing special.  But as they speak the father is donning lipstick, stockings, a bra and a dress.  This quirk, the component that unbalances us, moves the story away from the mundane and towards the sublime.

In Love is Eternal another young man bumps into an old girlfriend.  They rekindle their half-hearted romance.  When he learns she is dying he decides to make her remaining days happy, only to have the situation backfire on him completely.

In Praise a simple comment by a best-selling author, a sentence of praise for a debut collection of short stories, creates a domino cascade of expectations and obligations that traps the protagonist in a farce.  Praise is a prime example of how Monzó writes comedy with an underlying somberness – the impression he gives is that though these situations are silly and ridiculous to the reader, they are serious matters for his characters.

He could say: “No, I’ve not read it.  The fact is that recently I’ve only been re-reading the classics.”  He knows that for years when asked in interviews about the current books he was reading, Terenci Moix would always respond that he was re-reading the classics, period.  In theory, it is a strategy one can only use if one really has read the classics.  Because the interviewer could then ask which classic you are re-reading and, if he knows it, he would catch you out.

But that is only in theory, because in practice the ruse can be used without running into problems.  Nowadays, the likelihood one will run into somebody who has read a particular classic is miniscule.  Nonetheless, just in case, he ponders over what else he could say.  He could say: “The fact is I read so many books that I never remember the plots.  I know I liked it.”  That is not a lame response. Even Montaigne was often unable to remember what he was reading…

a thousand morons is divided into two parts.  Part 1 contains seven short stories of approximately 10 pages in length.  In Part 2 the stories are more numerous but even shorter, about 3 pages or less.  They are more like sketches or flash fictions than traditional short stories.  Monzó has truncated the narrative arc, moving quickly from beginning to end with very little detail wasted between.  The stories in Part 2 are snappy.  Joke – punchline: the annunciation goes differently than expected, a mother watches as technology disconnects her family, we witness an inane pick-up at a cocktail party and a hostile restaurant takeover.  It’s all situational irony, carefully planned and brilliantly entertaining.

It is the second collection of Quim Monzó ‘s short stories, translated by Peter Bush, to be published by Open Letter.  The first, Guadalajara, was cerebral and written in a dense prose.  In it Monzó played complex games with his description of space, interpretation of other authors’ works and with words.  a thousand morons is very different.  He’s left the literary games behind and simply held up a mirror.  The reader will easily recognize his- or herself in these stories.  There is nothing technically breathtaking in the writing, per se, other than its economy (which, actually, is rather breathtaking). He deftly – s0metimes brutally) depicts the emotions and eccentricities which lead his characters into the situations he is describing.  According to Quim Monzó, human beings write their own farces and (in the spirit of Sartre) create their own hells.  We star in our very own comedies every day without the slightest awareness that we’re doing so.

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 41 2

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Guadalajara by Quim Monzó (translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush)

Quim Monzó’s  (a Catalan author)  book, Guadalajara, contains 14 short stories – divided into five parts and grouped according to common themes. Unusual care seems to have been taken in considering the order they are arranged in.  It’s a stunning collection – and one of my favorite books of 2011.

The comparisons that immediately come to mind are Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths or Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. All three collections contain densely written stories, with plots constructed around abstract ideas rather than narrative action. All three authors write clear, almost elegant, sentences and tell their stories in formal, polite tones. But Monzó’s writing  also reminds me of the (unlikely) American author: John Cheever. Cheever, whose stories unfold slowly.  His carefully crafted plots begin in one place or with one idea, but morph and evolve into somewhere (something) entirely unexpected.  The classic Cheever example being The Swimmer, in which our perception of the main character changes in harmony with the landscape he travels through.

Another trait that Cheever & Monzó share is their fondness of what my high school English teacher liked to call “little epiphanies” –  subtle and startling moments of revelation – ideas that overtake the story and its reader.  Think of them as a refined, thinking-man’s version of the now ubiquitous plot twist.

Guadalajara opens with a stand alone tale about a boy who refuses to take part in a gruesome family tradition.  When a child reaches the age of nine the ring finger on his/her left hand is cut off.  What begins as a standard (if somewhat macabre) coming of age story, Family Life becomes more tangled as the consequences and repercussions of the boy’s decision ripple out. It is one of the few times Monzó sticks with a traditional story structure, one with an easily identifiable beginning, middle and end.  But even here, the final line starts to unravel the logic.

She is pretty and has a lovely smile and a lock of brown hair that hides half of her face, the way some women hide a glass eye.

The next group of stories will be familiar to most readers.  Old favorites which have been revised and reinvented.  Outside the Gates of Troy presents an alternative version of the fall of Troy  – one in which  the Trojans leave the wooden horse outside the city gates  with the Greeks trapped, slowly dying, inside.  Gregor is The Metamorphosis turned inside out, the cockroach becoming a teenage boy.  A Hunger and Thirst for Justice transforms the legend of Robin Hood into an indictment against the redistribution of wealth.

Parts 3 & 4 contain my personal favorites from the collection.  In these, Monzó’s characters travel in a series of continuous loops, always returning to the beginning – constantly reinventing and revising the future (the premise of this section is anticipated by its predecessor). Like the Ouroboros: the serpent that eats its own tail – these stories enact seemingly endless cycles of renewal & re-creation.

And so, a man & woman (Life Is So Short) tentatively start & finish a relationship while trapped in an elevator.  They’re rescued and we believe the story is over, only to watch as it begins again.

In The Power of Words we meet three men: one man who only talks to himself, one who refuses to speak unless he has something valid to say and a third who speaks continuously for the sheer enjoyment of hearing his own voice.  The brilliance of this particularly story is in the way the author seamlessly transitions from the thoughts of one man into those of another.  Monzó controls his readers’ perspectives like a camera man, panning from one character to another, zooming in & out. Each character makes an observation about the next, until he cycles through them all and returns to the first. 

Centripetal Force, the only story in Part 4, is the most Borges-like.  It is the literary equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing.

In Guadalajara’s final stories Monzó focuses on individuals: a test taker, a forgetful prophet & his son, citizens caught up in a war and a reader.  They are all nameless, often genderless, perhaps even archetypal – the next logical step in the evolution of the characters whose stories we’ve already read.  They exist and act in closed systems, traveling in continuous circuits.  They differ in that they are shown (or discover) escapes – trap doors built into the narrative.  In the last, called simply Books a “passionate reader” attempts to choose a book from the four that sit on his table.  He dissects each option, weighs its merits and discusses how it came into his possession.  He picks each one up in turn, reads a few pages, puts it back down and attempts to decide which one to read through.  It’s an internal conversation any bibliophile will recognize.  The choice that he makes (or, doesn’t make) is the perfect denouement to this intricately and exquisitely crafted collection of stories.

Publisher:  Open Letter, New York. (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 9348 2419 1

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