July 19, 2012
Almost four years ago – it never seems so long – I read and enjoyed Marcel Aymé’s novel Beautiful Image, brought to us by the reliably interesting Pushkin Press (with their reliably handsome ‘jewel’ edition paperbacks). Pushkin is, as they say on shop windows, under new management, though presumably this title was in the works long before that. The new owners of Pushkin have stated their desire to expand its interests beyond Europe; a welcome ambition, if they can also keep us fed with curious and entertaining volumes like this.
The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1943; tr. 2012 by Sophie Lewis) was originally titled Le Passe-Muraille. Even with my schoolboy French, I can thrill to such a concisely evocative phrase. So much said in one compound word! It is also the title of the first story in the collection, which is sufficiently famous in France that there is a statue or sculpture in its honour in Montmartre, where the story is set. (The statue is not in Rue d’Orchampt, where the passe-muraille lives, but in nearby Rue Marcel Aymé, which is either a tremendous tribute or an almighty coincidence.)
Curiously, ‘The Man Who Walked Through Walls’ is not one of the strongest stories here, though its high concept and punchy plot make it an obvious opener. The man is Dutilleul, a clerk who discovers this strange power in his early forties. Refreshingly, he immediately decides to use his ability for malicious ends, first by revenging himself on a hated boss, and then by embarking on a life of crime. Aymé’s clear-eyed insistence on seeing the worst in people is as welcome as it was in Beautiful Image (where a man found his face completely altered, and soon set about seducing his wife). The premise of the story may be capable of being summarised on the back of a tweet, and the ending may be a bit of a trick, but the meat is less in the opportunity than in what Dutilleul (and Aymé) does with it – rather as John Wyndham’s novels are not so much about the speculations (walking plants, creatures from the sea) as about the human response.
The longest, and perhaps strongest, story in the book comes next: ‘Sabine Women’, which has a similarly snappy conceit.
On the Rue de l’Abreuvoir in Montmartre there lived a young woman named Sabine who had the gift of ubiquity. She could, at will, multiply herself and exist simultaneously, in both body and mind, in as many places as she pleased.
Bingo! And so Aymé fires off in another direction. He doesn’t care about plausibility – well, obviously he doesn’t, but what I mean is that he doesn’t bother to seek internal logic or to work out a background. It’s just there, and that’s that. This can cause head-scratching, as when we wonder about the solipsism of the character: we are told that her bodies are “animated by one soul”, but the seat of consciousness seems to shift depending on where it is handiest for narrative purposes. Again, here Aymé’s protagonist doesn’t waste time in spreading herself out to do good works. She takes up with a young painter named Theorem, and indulges herself with him while simultaneously appearing to be a dutiful wife. Her husband notices the change. “If you could only see her, when we stay up of an evening, in the dining room – one would think she were speaking with the angels.” (Aymé adds, mischievously, “For four months, Sabine continued to speak with the angels.”) While her husband is oblivious, Theorem, who knows her secret, becomes wild with jealousy at the notion that she might be multiplying herself elsewhere. He is right to worry: within three months, the “insatiable seductress … had spread nine hundred and fifty copies of herself around the world.” And that’s not the half of it. Aymé takes his idea and runs with it merrily, far beyond reason, until the reader is pulled up short by a terrible act (hinted at in the title). Like Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, it seems to explore the idea of goodness coming from bad deeds.
By the time we have two more stories in this vein – one where a government struggling with overpopulation decides to limit citizens’ living hours per month, and one where countries exist in two time zones at once – it seems as though Aymé is a simple high-concept artist, ploughing a furrow of weird tales as a successor to Théophile Gautier. But the remaining stories in the book concentrate on the characters, and speculative qualities are secondary (there are two scenes of entry to heaven after death) or absent altogether. We have wildly varied stories then, from ‘The Proverb’, where a strict father’s softening toward his son turns out to be the worst horror of all, to ‘Poldevian Legend’, where a devout and observant woman is forced into ironic humiliation by her own piety.
Most surprising, and refreshing, however, is ‘The Bailiff’, a neat tale where the most prominent feature is Aymé’s wit. The lead character is sent back from the pearly gates after death to do better deeds and avoid eternal damnation. This he does by spreading his wealth and recording his philanthropy in a book. “I spontaneously increased my maid Mélanie’s salary by fifty francs a month, although she’s a slattern.” It shows pleasing variety in Aymé’s skills, so that even if the shorter length of these pieces means they can’t match Beautiful Image for intensity and force, the range of ideas and imagination on display make it a literary delight worth more than a moment of your time.
September 13, 2008
The only problem I have with the reliable Pushkin Press is that all their books seem so appealing that I am foxed by choice and usually end up reading none of them, or else playing safe with another Stefan Zweig. When I say ‘appealing’ I mean not only the subject – 20th-century European fiction, usually novella length – but (predictably) the appearance. Many of their books are produced in what they call ‘Jewel’ format: squarish small paperbacks with thick matt covers, with the tactile ribbed texturing of laid paper, which I’ve attempted to show below.
Beautiful Image (La Belle Image) by Marcel Aymé was published in 1941 and is now translated into English for the first time. It’s what a Hollywood pitcher would call a high concept story, the premise both archetypal and novel: what happens when a man suddenly discovers that his face has changed? The results could be either comical or (for once, genuinely) Kafkaesque. Raoul Cérusier discovers his problem – and opportunity – when his identity photographs are rejected by a bureaucratic office. “I give you my word that these are photographs of me. It’s incomprehensible. You have seen them wrong. You must have seen them wrong.”
Even when he suspects the truth, he doesn’t want to believe it – and who can blame him? He knows that when he tells other people, it will be no more than a curiosity of minor amusement to them.
Anybody, I assured myself, could dig up “something very strange which he cannot explain” from the depths of his memory. There’s nothing more ordinary. At the time of the experience, it was bizarre, even frightening, but retold, it becomes nothing at all. In reality, nothing had actually happened.
This is a hint that Cérusier’s narrative may not be reliable, but his reactions are real. Initial self-disgust at the metamorphosis – “a landslide which swept away all my defences” – gradually becomes a sense of endangered opportunity. We learn that he may not be an entirely trustworthy person, and that he has recently ended an affair with his young assistant at work, Lucienne. We gain a tantalising glimpse of a pleasingly perverse relationship of power, of how Lucienne “likes to take revenge” for her abandonment:
For instance, when we’re working at my desk facing each other, she might calmly lay down her pen or document, take my face in her large, hot hands and gaze ardently into my eyes while, silently, she blushes all over, like a man. Overwhelmed, holding my breath, I await her orders. I even hope for them. She knows it, but if I risk making the least gesture, she drops me with a kind smile and returns to her work. I always feel a terrible disappointment, which fades as soon as I’m alone, and even becomes a point of satisfaction when I have my wife beside me.
With other hints at his level of selfishness, it comes as no surprise that Cérusier quickly begins to adapt to his change of face and to change his fate accordingly. “I shall have to resign myself to adopting a slightly different kind of morality, something more akin to that of a fare-dodger.” That is, he decides to move into the flat above his family and to set about seducing his wife. ‘A slightly different kind of morality’ just about sums that up, though we are quickly reminded that anyone who eavesdrops – whether on a conversation, or an another life – never heard anything good about himself. Nonetheless, seduction is made easier by Cérusier’s new face being rather better-looking than the old one, and he also finds it attracts others, which he reflects
might become a source of trouble. The discipline I used to impose on myself no longer applied. … The poor man may well boast of his virtue in the face of the temptations to which rich people succumb. In truth, he has no idea what it is to be tempted to misuse one’s wealth.
Set against these opportunities is the inevitable sense of loneliness which befalls a man who can no longer be known to anyone, who to all intents has fallen to earth from a clear blue sky. “The universe that used to rotate around me is gone. … There was nothing left of Raoul Cérusier but my belief in his existence.” Cérusier confides in his uncle, which leads to some broad comedy of car engines, pigs, and mistaken names. More significantly, Aymé explores how deeply even our closest relationships depend on appearances, as well as how we “won’t accept certainties that aren’t acknowledged elsewhere.”
Translator Sophie Lewis, whose rendering is all that one could wish for (that is, I never felt I was reading a translation), provides an afterword which gives useful background to Aymé and his work, as well as some insights into the themes. So, having braved a random Pushkin, I’m glad to have benefited from a book every bit as interesting, readable and provocative as, well, as Stefan Zweig. The drawback is that it confirms my original suspicion that everything Pushkin publishes is worth reading, and paralyses me into inactivity once more. Until next time.