March 06, 2005


The cover of the Atlas Press edition of Malpertuis.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.
Cover of one of the French-language editions of Malpertuis (1/3). Cover of one of the French-language editions of Malpertuis (2/3). Cover of one of the French-language editions of Malpertuis (3/3).
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.

Promotional poster for the movie version of Malpertuis (1/2).

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.

Promotional poster for the movie version of Malpertuis (1/2).

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

I ordered it at once. It sounds very interesting!

Posted by: Johan A on March 6, 2005 09:44 PM

Jean Ray is great!
Check his short stories, too.

Posted by: dctr on March 10, 2005 09:05 AM

Being a belgian I was wondering why the Jean Rey's happen to be belgians.

One possible explanation is - in the french speaking part of BE- the proximity of France, where there has always been a much more accentuated clicvage between "high" and " low" culture.Indeed the French can be very solemn.The french speaking belgians wanted to be different from the outset.
However this is just one part of a possible explanation. Bruegel, flemish, was very good indeed, however he painted nothing but "ordinary " things.While J P Rubens, also flemish, painted like a dutchman : haughty people, aristrocrats.
Did you notice that all great surrealists were french speaking ( not flemish)? I could go like that for hours. But I'm still puzzled.

A suggestion. Have a look at the painter Leon Spilliaert.He was from Ostend. Bilangual : he spoke the local dialect of Ostend( flemish ) and french. A true belgian. Have a look at "La Baigneuse" :

Posted by: bernard on March 13, 2005 10:53 AM

I would like to recieve a novel for your collection: Palm-of-the-Hand. It looks interesting, and I would like to learn of Japanese culture. My name is Kim Goodell. My mailing address is [edited out] Thank-you for your generous idea of free books!

Posted by: Kimberly Goodell on April 27, 2006 03:43 PM

Sorry Kim, that book is long gone. I’ll probably be giving away some more books soon, so keep an eye open for that.

Posted by: misteraitch on April 27, 2006 03:53 PM
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