Friday, August 30, 2013

Jacques Yonnet: Rue des Maléfices

One doesn’t have to spend a lot of time in Paris to sense that it holds many mysteries, but the more time one spends there, the more such mysteries begin to manifest themselves: occult symbols in the architecture, centuries-old esoteric societies, marabouts and mystics, a whole secret city. After a quarter century of frequent visits there, I was flabbergasted that I’d never before encountered Jacques Yonnet’s stunning 1954 book, Rue des Maléfices: chronique secrète d’une ville – or, as the title is somewhat more sensationally translated into English (perhaps by the marketing department) Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City[i]. It’s easily the most unusual book I’ve read about Paris and one of the few that has completely jolted me out of any smugness about my own familiarity with the place. No, says Rue des Maléfices, try as you might, you’re not ever really going to know this city. But the door Yonnet’s book opens upon Paris throws an illuminating light nonetheless, permitting unforgettable glimpses of the city’s most shadowy, ensorcelled corners, “into the mysterious fluxes that pulse in the darkest secrecy of the City’s veins.”

I hasten to point out that Rue des Maléfices is not, strictly speaking, a book about occult Paris. I’d probably have skipped it had it been, and had it not come to me through fittingly mysterious circumstances (my own visitation from the past, a vanished Paris acquaintance from 15 years ago who by sheer coincidence showed up again this year living in the apartment directly above me in San Francisco). Rather, Rue des Maléfices stands at the unusual intersection of a personal obsession - a passionate interest “in everything related to Paris as it used to be, and whatever survives of its old traditions” – and the impersonal Second World War, during which Yonnet, a journalist and “technical education supply teacher, curious by nature,” worked clandestinely with the Resistance, relaying radio messages to help coordinate bombing runs on German positions.  Traveling within a fairly circumscribed area of occupied Paris between the Left Bank poles of Place Maubert and “La Mouffe,” Yonnet’s orbits roughly parallel Paris’ “lost” river, the Bièvre (now a mostly subterranean stream covered over by the city’s growth and all but invisible except to the most inquisitive seekers), a unifying element that emphasizes the hidden past lurking beneath the flickering present and lends a depth and gravitational pull to Yonnet’s concentrated portrait of Paris under the Occupation. Many writers might have built their book around their daring exploits in the Resistance, but Yonnet often treats his dangerous work as a self-evident obligation and as almost incidental (at least until its hazards interrupt the narrative with cold violence), and the war as something of an impertinent interference in his excavations of Paris’ past and depictions of its present.

Recording in charcoal as well as in prose (a few sketches are included in my French edition of the book, along with photographs by Yonnet’s close friend Robert Doisneau), Yonnet displays an insatiable curiosity about the characters with whom he interacts in the bars, cafes, flophouses, and secret corners of the city: fellow members of the Maquis, gangsters, gypsies, informers, poets, prostitutes, immigrants, spies, madmen and others from the lower depths: “a gang of Bohemians of whom [he was] in some sense the key player and prime mover,” given his genuine interest in their stories and his consequent ability to win their confidence. Through anecdote, dialogue and historical accounts - and no small amount of humor as well as horror - Yonnet conveys his portraits in a narrative that possesses the drive and suspense of a thriller.

Yonnet’s interests range widely, from insightful explorations of the city’s history to endlessly fascinating casual observations concerning, among other things, origins of idiomatic expressions, locations of crimes and of events almost mythological in their power to enchant, bits of Parisian history spread over a millennium, incidents of bizarre psychiatric phenomena of the sort one might find in an Oliver Sacks book, opinions on art and craft, a digression on tattoos, and atmospheric evocations of Occupation life in the bars and cafes of the area. Among the more memorable portraits is that of Keep On Dancin’, a ruthless but gregarious and heroic gangster on the lam from the Nazis and the police, who, when not brutalizing his betrayers, genially shares with Yonnet his own profound obsession with Paris’ buried mysteries. 

Though Rue des Maléfices manifests a particular interest in the mystical, even cabalistic side of Paris, Yonnet is careful to maintain a skeptical, empirical mien. His book thus comes off not as an account by a believer pre-disposed to the sensational and bizarre, but as that of a sharp observer who has simply left a door open to the possibility of events beyond comprehension - “fantastic but fantastic on a human scale.” Rue des Maléfices is filled with stories of coincidence, the supernatural, and improbable, sometimes inexplicable phenomena: a watchmaker who makes watches that run backwards for nobles determined to remain young; the apparent transformation of a human into a fox; an elderly gypsy who with a look stops an attacking dog, leaving it trembling and sickening unto death; an exploit that involves Yonnet and a distinguished British professor on a furtive series of inquiries that put them in touch with a disgraced priest who performs exorcisms.

An openness to the mysterious also serves partly as a bulwark against the Occupation itself. While Yonnet observes that, “these days,” a cheap employment of the occult is, after all, useful to megalomaniacs - “It requires only the slightest sense of mystification to get anyone acclaimed by any crowd” – his turn towards the mystical acts as another sort of resistance, a conviction that the monstrosity of the Nazi presence is another aberration doomed to failure, especially up against the immense weight of history in a city that has seen as much  as Paris.

Part of the mesmerizing power of Rue des Maléfices stems from this long view, its timeless determination to excavate Paris’ past while a World War is raging. Yonnet’s attention to the mystical is in part a consequence of the derangement of the times, a recognition that “the most innocent words, the most harmless gestures in certain places and at certain times acquire an unwonted importance and weight, and have repercussions that far exceed what was intended,” and in part a more personal response given the necessity of navigating potentially fatal encounters by relying on instinct and intuition. It’s hardly surprising that Yonnet would place stock in such metaphysics, exhibited, for example, through his “sixth sense” hunches that invariably prove right about the dangers of the missions he undertakes. At one point he notes that “just as a war between men is not a human-scale phenomenon, danger that assumes a human form and a human quality is much more related to time and place than to its extremely unwitting vehicles,” and agrees with one of his compatriots that  “…the study of paranormal phenomena ought to be pursued in depth, especially during the times when serious upheavals such as the present war were afflicting the planet.”

Like many of the bars and bistrots Yonnet mentions, the “Rue des Maléfices” of the title actually exists, and in an inquiry typical of Yonnet’s persistent and meticulous investigatory skill, he digs through centuries – and multiple transmutations of the street’s name – to arrive at the street’s tenebrous origins. Tourists who today explore what is now the narrow Rue Xavier Privas, with its cheap Greek restaurants and souvenir vendors, might tread more lightly if they were aware of the strange and lurid events that have unfolded there over hundreds of years. But Rue des Maléfices is perhaps not a book for tourists; one’s rewards in reading it are magnified by a familiarity with the city, not to mention an openness to the city’s innumerable secrets. Yonnet says as much in closing, when he wishes he could one day “follow on the heels of an attentive reader,” who may find among “all the ‘keys’ scattered through these pages…the key to their own front door.” You may be that reader. Stranger things have happened.

[i] The English translation is by Christine Donougher and published by Dedalus Books. Another French version of the book goes under the anodyne title Enchantements of Paris

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Caroline Blackwood: Corrigan

One of the more rewarding corners of 20th century literature must surely be that occupied by darkly comic British women writers, among whom there seems to be a superfluity of talent: Beryl Bainbridge, Muriel Spark, Barbara Comyns, Angela Carter, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor – I am leaving out scores. Wielding an especially sharp knife for carving out (and up) her subjects is the Irish/English writer Caroline Blackwood.

Corrigan, Blackwood’s last, longest novel, features a few well-tread topics - the difficulties of marriage, mother-daughter conflicts, the upstairs/downstairs dynamics of class - but also elements seldom encountered: a main character in a wheelchair; a self-aware fashion model; an inherent sense of fair play, with the emphasis on that last word; and copiously flowing champagne. It also contains a clever plot that made me wonder if Georges Polti, author of the classic The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, had ever encountered a writer like Caroline Blackwood. Those few of his formulations that might apply here – Fatal Imprudence? Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal? Crimes of Love? – undergo such subversion in Blackwood’s hands as to be scarcely recognizable. This is the third Blackwood novel I’ve read, after Great Granny Webster and The Stepdaughter, and I relished being back among her unpredictable turns of plot, deftly drawn characters, biting but humanistic humor, and effervescent, incisive, worldly-wise social observations.

Corrigan’s opening finds the elderly Devina Blunt, bereaved three years before by her husband’s death, still mired in sorrow in her Wiltshire home. Her life undergoes a sudden transformation, however, with the arrival of the wheelchair-bound young Irishman Corrigan – he prefers only his surname - rolling through the countryside to collect funds for a new library for the St. Crispins hospital. Corrigan’s interruption of Mrs. Blunt’s static grief falls like a drop of brightly-tinted solution into water – a gradual diffusion that irreversibly colors Mrs. Blunt’s grey world. His gift for conversation, sympathetic ear and unfiltered frankness affront and disarm at the same time, forcing Mrs. Blunt from her cocoon of sadness. Though Corrigan departs empty-handed this first visit, he leaves a palpable void that Mrs. Blunt fills with hope that he’ll return soon. He does.

A series of subsequent encounters follows, aided in comedic effect by one of Blackwood’s indelibly drawn secondary characters, Mrs. Blunt’s bustling, motorcycle-riding Irish servant, Mrs. Murphy, a necessary but grating presence in the house:

Mrs. Murphy never climbed Mrs. Blunt’s stairs, she always stormed them like a military unit making a headlong charge to gain some useful vantage-point. She was very short and her squat body carried enormous weight. Yet she still moved around the house with a pointless but frenetic speed. When she charged up Mrs. Blunt’s staircase, she always managed to make the carpet slippers that she wore, since shoes hurt her swollen feet, sound just as menacing as the running tread of regimental boots.

With each visit Corrigan seems to nudge aside his Irish counterpart as he draws closer to Mrs. Blunt, now aflame with a desire to do something useful:

She felt that, like someone in the Bible, her eyes had been opened by Corrigan. She suddenly understood that grief had made her cruel and she thought that at last she knew why her relationship with her daughter had become so distant and strained…when she thought about her life as compared to that of Corrigan, she felt that whereas he had found a way to escape from the prison of his infirmity by the use of his mind and imagination, she, who had never suffered from any physical disability, had crippled and imprisoned herself by her refusal to use her brain.

Inviting Corrigan to move in, Mrs. Blunt awakens to activity at an accelerating pace and with expanding ambition: renovating the house to accommodate Corrigan’s disability, learning to drive, and purchasing up adjoining land to create a farming cooperative. In moments of leisure, she and Corrigan recite poetry, converse about literature and life, and pop open one bottle of champagne after another.

Mrs. Blunt’s daughter, the unhappy Nadine, is meanwhile stuck in London in her own domestic stasis, minding twin toddlers and cooking for the “ungrateful young people” her patronizing husband invites to dinner. Neglectful of her mother since her father’s death, Nadine is nonetheless concerned when she hears of Corrigan’s presence in the family home. She takes up the offer of her closest friend, the high fashion model Sabrina (another of Blackwood’s unforgettable characters: a bright young woman acutely aware of the brief shelf life of her career and a complete slob everywhere outside the camera’s frame) to pay a visit to Wiltshire to find out what’s going on.

The ensuing events upend expectations and add depth to Blackwood’s characters, who, as in her other novels, come off the page as singular beings irreducible to simple behaviors. Though Blackwood can be merciless in describing the witless or those who hew closely to convention (an obsequious minor character is “a little squirt of a boy whose energies seemed to have gone into cultivating a crop of acne boils”), her characters are almost always bigger, and often better, than they - or we - thought they were, conveying a genuine interest in the capacity of persons to be multi-faceted, surprising, and deeper than their surface appearances might suggest. Blackwood’s faith in human complexity extends to her characters’ navigation of social situations and problems; in Blackwood’s world, rigidity or reliance on expediency and authority to determine what should be done are intolerable paths. Rather, Blackwood invokes a sense of fair play that, in challenging situations, prioritizes the real life emotional and psychological consequences for people over the distancing technicalities of principles or rules. Even in serious matters - perhaps especially in serious matters - a generosity that rewards playfulness and the use of one’s wits makes Corrigan a wry work that celebrates the triumph of these qualities over conformity, banality, and ploddishness. If almost no one in Corrigan turns out to be the persons we assume them to be – or even the persons we may later suspect them to be – it’s thanks to Blackwood’s magnanimous refusal to underestimate people. And though this magnanimity combines with a particularly black humor in unfolding human contradictions and perplexities, it would be hard to imagine any reader (other than perhaps the most rigid of teetotalers) not enjoying this ride – especially with so much champagne flowing. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

“Humanity turned to jelly” – Léon Genonceaux’s Le Tutu

A few years ago, during an ambulatory conversation interrupted by the need to step around some of the ubiquitous dog droppings that punctuate the streets of Paris, and which supposedly assure one’s return to the city should one happen to step in them, my French companion commented, “It must be said that we French have a very particular relationship with shit.”

As Exhibit A in support of this assertion, it would be difficult to do better than offer an exchange of letters from 1694 between Elizabeth Charlotte de Bavière, Princesse Palatine, Duchesse d’Orleans to her aunt the Electrice of Saxony, Sophia of Hanover (I will conveniently ignore that both wrote in German and neither was French by birth). In conversational tone, the Duchesse and her aunt rhapsodize about the pleasures of defecating, the optimal times and places, its benefits for health and beauty, its democratic ubiquity (“...the entire universe is filled with shitters”), and conclude that “one would as well not live at all, as not shit at all.”

One can skip directly to these letters online, but then one would be miss out on an even more indecorous narrative that surrounds their appearance in an eccentric 1891 French novel, The Tutu: Morals of the Fin de Siècle (Le Tutu: Moeurs Fin de Siècle), written under the pseudonym “Sappho” and described on the cover of a new English translation by Iain White as “the strangest novel of the 19th century.” According to White’s introduction, Le Tutu was all but lost for a century, published only in 1991 after being brought to light 25 years earlier in an article that revealed its existence and attributed it to Paris publisher Léon Genonceaux (whose Belgian birth I’ll also ignore; Paris does things to people). Genonceaux had accomplished literary feats high and low, including publishing the first unified collection of Rimbaud’s poetry, an important re-edition of Lautréamont’s  Les Chants de Maldoror (excerpts of which also appear in Le Tutu), and a swarm of salacious works that landed Genonceaux in repeated trouble with the authorities. His most serious problems occurred just as Le Tutu headed to press. He was forced to flee Paris, and the few copies he’d printed - only five of which are said to exist today - found their way into the world by being passed hand to hand.

As a particularly madcap example of the style established by Lautréamont and Huysmans, among others, The Tutu cooks up a full complement of Decadent ingredients, including an indulgence in death and the corruptions of the flesh, obsession with the morbid and sordid, irreverence towards morality and religion, pursuit of rare sensation, and an appreciation of oblivion:

A truly happy man is one whose brain has been emptied, whose legs, hands and ears have been cut off, his eyes put out and his sense of taste destroyed. He no longer senses, no longer thinks, he is animalised, he is out of this world.

Le Tutu also serves up all manner of bodily functions and grotesqueries, some of which, even given my tough stomach, leave me nearly enfeebled in contemplation of repeating them. But generally such provocations are so excessively over the top, so clearly designed for shock value and delivered with such capricious delight (imagine a late 19th century Parisian John Waters) that it’s difficult to be appalled for long.

As the novel opens, Le Tutu’s chief character, Mauri de Noirof, is headed home at five in the morning from a night of debauchery, so pickled that he cannot recognize his cab driver. This inability to recognize those he knows is a recurrent pattern. On the rare occasions when he goes to work (as a publisher), he’s convinced it’s his first day on the job despite everything seeming oddly familiar. Trained as an engineer, he’s also a diletanttish dandy, an amateur of grand, crazy ideas – having a clod cow walk a 500-meter-high tightrope strung between Paris and Marseille, for example – or the effort on which he settles his attentions, building tunnels for lightening-fast trains that can zip from Lyon to Paris in a mere 17 seconds (resulting in a rapid depopulation of Lyon, whose residents fall prey to the now convenient seductions of the capital). De Noirof launches upon a series of adventures, spurred on by his general dissoluteness and debauchery, not to mention an oedipal complex to top all oedipal complexes (he reads the Duchesse and Electrice’s letters to his mother in an Ubu-esque dialogue concerning his desire to marry and impregnate her, as all other women disgust him and as his talk of marrying a tree has left her unenthused). Despite a rich curiosity cabinet of conceits that would have pleased the Surrealists, Le Tutu’s narrative drive is loosely tethered to a fairly linear plot involving de Noirof’s attempts to marry himself to a wealthy, increasingly obese alcoholic and to navigate paternity of a child birthed by his mistress, a two-headed circus freak, while at the same time maintaining his devotion to his mother, with whom he dines on human brains while they dream of loving one another “on high”:

“The only thing in the world that matters is us. Nobody will ever guess at the sublimities hidden within our hearts. Nobody else here on earth eats the brains from corpses and drinks the spittle of asthmatics. Let us act so that we might die in the satisfaction of having experienced, we alone, the True Sensation, of That Which Does Not Die.” Then she added: “Give me some money.”

I’m not giving a lot away with these revelations; there is more than ample weirdness where that came from. And yes, a tutu is involved.

Elements of Le Tutu appear strikingly modern, for example the collage-like nature of the narrative, mixing varieties of text, theatrical vignettes, a musical composition by God (lyrics by The Word, with Saint Paul on third violin and Jesus Christ on cymbals), and dreams (including one in which God appears as a buff young hedonist recuperating from a 700-year orgy among the seraphim), or the kinds of language games played decades later by members of the Oulipo movement. In one scene, an exasperated de Noirof urges his prostitute girlfriend to communicate exclusively via the first syllables of words, a challenge to which she replies by asking how he’d handle a phrase like “the sky is no more pure than the depths of my heart” (a ripost that might well be put to Oulipians in general).

The decadent effrontery Genonceaux heaps upon bourgeois values is pleasantly, even hilariously, balanced by the sheer imagination and wit of The Tutu. One might well wonder, given the book’s odd history and the haziness surrounding its discovery - there are things it would be pleasant to believe - whether it could all be an elaborate, grandly accomplished hoax. But in the deliriously fertile, rebellious period of French literature from which it appears to have emerged, nearly anything seemed possible. And even if Le Tutu were to be a hoax, the fact should scarcely diminish any appreciative reader’s delight in this wild, demented, exultant book. This English translation should count as a significant literary event.