Last week I read Jean Ray’s 1943 gothic novel Malpertuis. I ordered a copy after reading Michael Cisco’s effusive praise of the book, which he calls ‘A Pagan and Catholic and Gothic and Carnivalesque and Modernist and Surrealist Tragedy.’ The quotations that follow are taken from the translation by Iain White, published by the Atlas Press (pictured left).
Now that I must describe Malpertuis I find myself stricken with a strange impotence. The image recedes like the castles of Morgan le Fay; the brush becomes like lead in the painter's hand; so many things I would wish to fix by description or definition vanish, become vague and dissolve into misty nothingness.
There it stood with its enormous pillared balconies, its flights of steps flanked with heavy stone banisters, its cruciferous turrets, its germinate barred windows, its grimacing, sculptured child-eating serpents and tarasques, its studded doors. […] Its façade was a severe mask in which the beholder vainly sought any serenity, a face feverishly twisted in rage and anguish that fails to conceal the abominations that lie behind it.
Jean Ray was one of several noms-de-plume assumed by the Belgian writer Raymond Jean-Marie de Kremer (1887-1964). Ray was a prolific author who wrote journalistic pieces, stories in Flemish (as John Flanders), stories for young readers (under a variety of pseudonyms), scenarios for comic strips (including, from about 1948, Tintin), and about a hundred booklet-sized instalments of the Adventures of Harry Dickson, the American Sherlock Holmes. Malpertuis, Ray wrote, was the product of ‘ten years, perhaps twelve, of nights and voyages, over the whole world. I wrote, discarded, burnt, then the scissors and the glue-pot came into play with the survivors.’ It is regarded as its author’s finest work.
The story begins with the theft of a collection of manuscripts from a monastery. The thief takes the trouble to sort the disordered papers into a patchwork narrative, whose main thread concerns Malpertuis, the house in an un-named coastal town to which young Jean-Jacques Grandsire is summoned by his dying uncle Cassave. The old man bequeaths a vast fortune to his several relatives, provided they all come to live permanently at the house. In the months that follow, Jean-Jacques is witness to weird and horrific events, and the reader discovers that no-one in the house is quite who they first appeared to be… It is a thickly-atmospheric tale that struck me—perhaps owing to its piecemeal composition—as having something of the quality of a stop-motion animation somehow set into prose: I enjoyed it very much.
In 1971, a movie-version of Malpertuis was released. It featured Orson Welles and Susan Hampshire, among others, and was directed by Harry Kümel (best-known, perhaps, for Le Rouge aux Lèvres, aka Daughters of Darkness, also released in 1971), who managed to put together Flemish, French and English-language versions of this ‘bizarre, lurid and baffling,’ film, which, I am sorry to say, I have not seen.Posted by misteraitch at March 6, 2005 06:00 PM