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 President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain, translated from the original French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is another playful offering from Gallic Press, whose The Suicide Shop I reviewed just last month.

As he picked up his second oyster he glanced discreetly to his left. The President had put on his glasses and was reading the menu.  Daniel took in the famous noble profile, seen in magazines, on television and every New Year’s Eve for the past five years.  Now he was seeing that profile in the flesh.  He could have put out his hand and touched François Mitterrand.

The waiter returned and the President ordered a dozen oysters, and the salmon.  The large man chose mushroom pâté and a rare steak, while Roland Dumas followed the President’s lead with oysters and fish.  A few minutes later, the wine waiter appeared with a silver ice bucket on a stand containing another bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé bathed in ice.  He uncorked the bottle smoothly and poured a little into the presidential glass.  François Mitterrand tasted it, approving it with a brief nod.

Daniel poured himself another glass of wine, and drank it down almost in on, before taking a teaspoon of the red shallot vinegar and dressing an oyster.

‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week…’ Daniel heard François Mitterrand say as he ate his oyster.  Never again, he told himself, would he be able to eat oysters with vinegar without hearing the words: ‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week’.

The premise is relatively simple:  The French President François Mitterrand loses his hat in a Parisian brasserie.  Well, technically, Daniel steals it after dining next to the President and his party.  Through the course of the book the hat continues to change hands and transforms the lives of the four characters who wear it.  The prose is straightforward.  The story sweet.  Like The Suicide ShopThe President’s Hat has the slapstick quality of a French comedy.  It is not particularly complicated or challenging, but very engaging.  The relaxed, gentle tone in how it is told reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series – slightly more whimsical.

Which reminds me of a friend of mine who went to a book-signing by Alexander McCall Smith at Barnes & Noble.  She came back completely charmed.  The author relayed an anecdote in which someone asked him why there were no car chases in his novels.  He laughingly replied that he felt it would be irresponsible of him to include a car chase in one of his books.  That his readers might not be able to handle that level of excitement.  But, as a compromise, he had included a shopping cart chase in the new novel he was there to sign.  It received a huge laugh and a smattering of applause from the crowd.  They knew it to be true.

There’s always been a readership for quiet books in which very little happens.  Several examples come to mind. The types of stories found in Ladies Journals were very popular when Ladies Journals were in their heyday. Today, the Persephone Press seems to thrive on catering to the  quiet reader with re-prints of books by women authors from the first half of the 20th-century.  And while planning this post I kept thinking back on some of my favorite books/authors from when I was younger: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jack & Jill, Under the Lilacs and Eight Cousins were read multiple times; and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series.  Those books had more in common with McCall Smith novels than what I read now.

So I’m wary of being too hard on or of dismissing The President’s Hat simply because I don’t have much to say about it.  I did read it in one sitting, cover to cover, and enjoyed it (particularly the little twist at the end).  I loved each of the characters who found the hat and became completely wrapped up in their individual stories.  This may be the perfect book for a quiet evening at home.  Antoine Laurain appears to have no aspirations other than to amuse his readers with a tale well told… which he does.  At least this reader was amused.  And I’m sure my friend who reads Alexander McCall Smith will love it.  In fact, I just sent her the recommendation on GoodReads.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 908313 47 8

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Reading Assignments for the 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival

Fall is here… more or less.  The weather is still closer to 80 than 70 degrees.  And the view from my window looks nothing like the cover of the L.L. Bean catalog that just arrived in the mail (a couple sitting on the tailgate of an old pick-up truck, a lake surrounded by pines, fall leaves covering the grass).  But it is September and in a few short weeks it will be one of my favorite days of the year.  The Brooklyn Book Festival is being held on Sunday, September 22nd.

I’ve already put together my spreadsheet (yes, I put together a spreadsheet) of the panels I’ll be attending.  I’m a sucker for panels.  I always overbook myself, forget to eat and leave way too little time to tour the tables set up in Brooklyn Borough Plaza.  This year’s line-up looks especially distracting with a number of translated authors in attendance.

There are at least three books I hope to read before the Festival day arrives.

The Assignment: The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Sound of Things FallingMy Reason:  There’s been a ton of buzz around this novel.

The Panel:  Personal Stories, National Memory: Fiction can be as narrow or contained as a single consciousness, or open up and embody something intrinsic to an era or nation. Alexander Maksik (A Marker to Measure Drift), probes the shattered inner world of a Liberian war refugee; Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Sound of Things Falling) captures the dread and violence of his country’s drug war years, and Oonya Kempadoo (All Decent Animals) offers a polyrhythmic, panoramic view across contemporary Trinidadian society. Moderated by Anderson Tepper. Special thanks to the Colombian Film Festival New York.  (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street)

The Assignment:  HotHouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux by Boris Kachka

HothouseThe Reason:  History about books, where can you go wrong?  Plus, I always like to attend at least one “industry” panel.

The Panel:  Publish and Perish? E-books are killing publishing! The corporations are killing publishing! Self-publishing is killing publishing! While headlines continually bemoan the end of the literary world as we know it, others argue that the reports of publishing’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Janet Groth (The Receptionist) and Boris Kachka (Hothouse) take a look inside two of our most storied institutions—The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux—and consider the past while taking the pulse of the literary world today. (Brooklyn Historical Society Library, 128 Pierrepont Street, 3PM)

The Assignment:  The Corpse Washer By Sinan Antoon

The Reason:  This was a coin flip – between The Corpse Washer and Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s Where the Tigers Are At Home (Roblès sits on a 4PM panel called Lost and Found: The Journey Begins At Home).  I’ve been reading a lot of French novels lately and decided on something different.

The Panel:  What Fills the Void After War? Three acclaimed writers from countries that have known conflict and political unrest discuss war’s aftermath and how it informs their work. With Irish writer Colum McCann (TransAtlantic), Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane) and Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon (The Corpse Washer). Moderated by Rob Spillman (Tin House)  (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street, 5PM)

If you’ll be in Brooklyn on the 22nd here’s the link to the 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival events schedule.  You know, so you can make your own spreadsheet!

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The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, translated from the original French by Sue Dyson

Gallic Books is a small UK press that publishes French books translated into English. They  were founded in 2007 by two Random House alumni.   Later in September I’ll be reviewing The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain. It tells the story of Daniel Mercier, an average man who finds President François Mitterrand’s black felt hat and puts it on.  “It’s a perfect fit, and as he leaves the restaurant Daniel begins to feel somehow… different.”

Intriguing, right?  I can’t wait to find out where the author intends to go from there.

The Suicide Shop is an altogether different book by an altogether different author.  Yet, the two novels are similar enough – whimsical plots that don’t take themselves too seriously – for the personality of the publisher to begin to show itself.  Gallic Books seems to delight in the slightly off-kilter.  They’re a refreshing new (despite being established 6-years ago this is the first I’ve encountered them) voice in the world of translations.  A world too often dominated by dense, cerebral novels at one end of the spectrum and Nordic Crime fiction at the other.

The Tuvaches are a family of French shopkeepers who provide a very specific service to the citizens of a post-apocalyptic Paris: selling the implements necessary for suicide. Their motto: “Has your life been a failure?  Let’s make your death a success.”  In the Suicide Shop you can find handcrafted ropes with which to hang yourself, candies laced with arsenic mixed in jars with regular candies (Russian roulette for the very young), a poison du jour mixed-up by Madame Tuvache daily and – for those of an artistic temperament – a poisoned apple painting kit (complete with a small canvas and a paint set so that you can paint the apple before eating it).

Death has been good to this family.  The Tuvaches have successfully operated The Suicide Shop for generations.  But that changes with the birth of their youngest son.  He is a child who laughs, and smiles and wishes the customers a good day.  He has an outrageously sunny personality and it’s beginning to rub off on his older siblings.  Such happiness is (forgive the pun) killing business.

Quirky, silly, delightfully light-hearted –  the story rolls along with the comic timing of a French cabaret.  The author, Jean Teulé,  is also a film maker and The Suicide Shop was made into an animated film.   The books structure lends itself to a screen adaptation.  Each chapter is a set piece, advancing the plot in self-contained scenes that jump forward in years.  And just when you think the author has decided to end on a cliché, you arrive at the jaw-dropping last sentence.

My one small, nit-picky criticism is Teulé’s decision to place his family in a dystopian future.  While it doesn’t take anything away from the story, it doesn’t add anything to it either.   No time is spent developing the world other than to make it clear that suicides have increased with the decline of the society.  And so the insistence on events happening in some distant future – when they could have just as easily happened in a manipulated present – feels superfluous.

But, overall, this novel is a quick and entertaining read.  Written at roughly a YA level, Sue Dyson does a wonderful job capturing the upbeat swing of the prose in her playful translation.  I’d classify The Suicide Shop as dark gray versus black comedy (for example,  it’s nowhere near as dark as the 1988 film Heathers) – so everyone from junior high school students up to and including adults should find something to enjoy in the ever-amusing antics of the Tuvaches.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 906040 093

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All My Friends by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump

All My Friends is a book of short stories by French author Marie NDiaye.  The second book released by Two Lines Press – a new publisher associated with The Center for the Art of Translation in California, – it is translated by Jordan Stump.  I’d heard many good things about NDiaye, and Stump seems to have an affinity for translating unusual narratives, so I was looking forward to reading this book.

Which makes it hard to admit that on first reading I found the collection somewhat disappointing.  The five stories are not linked, but they share a common theme – the main character’s inability (or is it unwillingness?) to connect with reality.  All five are written in the first person and each narrator drags the reader further into the rabbit hole of psychosis.  Because our perception of what is going on is so severely limited and dependent on a series of unreliable narrators, many of these stories are disorienting.  NDiaye makes little effort to distinguish between what is reality and what is delusion.  What breadcrumbs she leaves are sparse – small, easily overlooked clues as to what is actually going on.

The first story, “All My Friends”, is about a retired teacher stalking a former student.  The student is now his housekeeper.  His obsession with her dominates his life and defines his remaining relationships.  She, in term, loathes him – and seems to take a kind of sadistic pleasure in tormenting him with her disdain.  At least that’s what he believes.  The situation, as these situations tend to, crumbles.  The final scene is chilling… but a bit confusing if you think too hard about what triggered it.

“All My Friends”, along with two of the longer stories in the collection: “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day”, are particularly challenging.  The narratives are fragmented. and at times difficult to follow.  These short stories read as exercises, character sketches intended to be absorbed into a larger work (a novel perhaps) at a later date?  They lack emotional weight as stand-alone stories.  These narrators are so unreliable – their memories and perceptions so distorted – that it is impossible to believe anything they say.

I became increasingly suspicious… not to mention a bit paranoid.  I did not trust these people, but they were all I had.

And that’s what makes this collection so brilliant.  We are shown the world and events only from the narrator’s perspective.  And that perspective is a bit skewed – to say the least.

Jimmy’s dog ran towards her, leapt up, dampened her cheek with a hearty lick.  For the few seconds that the dog’s eyes were level with Brulard’s, she had the brutal feeling that she could see her own anxious soul reflected of submerged deep inside them.  The dark mirror of the dog’s pupils seemed to be showing her not her own miniaturized face but something else, unexpected, inexplicable – as if, Brulard told herself at a loss, her appearance had suddenly changed beyond all recognition, or as if the dog’s incomprehensible black eye were reflecting Brulard’s true, secret being, of which she herself had no notion, which she couldn’t describe, even on finding it thus revealed in the gaze of that pitiful creature.

The remaining two stories are less complicated, but equally rewarding.  They’re also easier to summarize than “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day” (which, though convoluted, are still wonderful) .  In “The Boys” we meet René: an awkward, teenaged boy who spends all his free time at a neighboring family’s farm – the Moers.  On one visit he witnesses the mother selling her attractive, younger son.  Though this event will ultimately tear the family he idolizes apart, René becomes convinced that this is the path down which his own happiness lies.  Things, needless to say, do not go as planned.

René, as a character, is fascinating.  As you learn more about his life you realize that in his family he is the golden boy.  René’s mother gives him the best food at dinner.  His brothers and sisters admire him.  But his family circumstances are very different from the Moers’.  René’s family appears to survive at the edge of starvation.  His mother is a prostitute for the migrant laborers in the area and all the children have different fathers.  And so his vision of himself waivers between grandiosity and soul crushingly low self-esteem.  Remove the strange circumstances this story places him in and René could be any young man-boy with a high opinion of himself that he has done little to justify.

In “Revelation” NDiaye switches from the son to the mother.  A woman takes her mentally handicapped son on a bus ride with the intention of abandoning him once they reach their destination.  This is a very short story, only six pages long, and focuses entirely on the mother’s emotions.  At first she tells us of how she hates her son.  How he annoys her and how she mistreats him at home.  “He’s unbearable, she sometimes thought.  And also: he seems not so much insane as stupid, appallingly stupid.” Yet, we are told –

She was angry with herself for that.  This son was not cruel.  His capacity for meanness had waned even as the mother’s aggressive rancor grew.  She realized that her despair and her rage were fueled by nothing other than the progressive disappearance of those emotions in the son.

The mother, like all the characters in these stories, is self-absorbed.  She is concerned with events only in how they affect her, and as she sits next to her son she does not think about what will happen to him.  She has already begun the process of re-shaping the narrative in her head.  This son becomes the only son who understood her.  She is abandoning him because he is driving her mad, but once he is gone she will love him because of the loss her represents to her.*  She will make the most of the situation and will miss him as much as she previously despised him.

All My Friends is a slim little book.  After finishing and absorbing (and you definitely need time to absorb) what I’d just read, I couldn’t help but wonder what a longer story by this author – with all its edges softened and gaps filled in –  might look like?  That’s the tease of All My Friends.  A bit like If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, Marie NDiaye’s stories are just strange enough and interesting enough to spark readers curiosity.  And then leave them impatiently waiting for more.

Publisher:  Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 23 8

*Children, as a rule, do not fare well at the hands of adults in Ms. NDiaye’s world.

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