Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The horrors of Dumas, and others

Horror at Fontenay, by Alexandre Dumas.

Let me start with the double horror of the cover — the grotesquerie it depicts and then the travesty of design (let's just say it belongs to another era).

Then there's the horror of the smell of my second-hand (quite probably eighth- or twenty-third-hand) copy, ferociously tickling my sinuses every time I opened it.

The horror of the translation: it's translated and adapted by Alan Hull Watson (who has also translated De Sade and Huysmans). In his introductory notes he states that "considerable revision and re-writing, some elimination and some expansion were essential, together with paraphrase rather than translation, more or less throughout," on the assumption that Dumas dashed off these pieces, for whatever reason, without careful thought. Watson took it upon himself to add details to "improve characterization" and "heighten atmosphere," while eliminating unnecessarily wordy descriptions. Hmmm.

The horror of the ending: well, it's not Dumas's ending, it's Watson's. Whatever cuts and additions Watson made throughout the story, as much as the idea of them makes me cringe, they aren't noticeable. The ending, however, is both a little far-fetched and too neat, needlessly. From what little else I've read of Dumas, I don't think he was troubled by having to have all the little loose ends tied up; seemingly important events or objects might remain forgotten, and some characters' secrets remain secret. So Watson's end didn't feel genuine.

But the horrors within this slim volume are delightful. The book starts with a man presenting himself at the mayor's house, confessing to the murder of his wife. He claims the severed head of his wife spoke to him and bit him. After the scene of the crime is investigated and testimony taken, the mayor invites many of the witnesses (of the confession) to his home for dinner, the main topic of conversation being the events of the day and whether the murderer's tale is to be believed.

Dumas himself is a guest at the mayor's dinner party (as is an allegedly almost 300-year-old man), so the stories have a stamp of validity, as if to say these things really happened to a friend of a friend of mine... (a fairly standard technique these days, but effectively engaging nontheless).

All the stories bear the mark of Dumas. A bit melodramatic perhaps, but heart-wrenching:
Words cannot describe my feelings during the next few moments, for hardly had my hand reached down to grab a head than I felt my fingers being pressed by lips which still retained something of the warmth of life in them.

The only way I can express it is by saying that I experienced such an access of terror that the sheer intensity of my fear somehow restored my courage. I removed my fingers from their proximity to the lips, seized the head by the hair, and going back to my chair, stood it on the table in front of me.

As I looked I was petrified as a man turned to stone. The lips seemed still warm and living, the eyes were half open, and the head — the head was that of Solange!

I thought I must be insane, and I remember, shouting over and over again: "Solange! Solange! Solange!" Then the eyes opened wide, and, looking at me, seemed to light up for an infinitesimal part of a second, while two large tears trickled slowly down the cheeks. Then they closed once more, never to open again in this life.


Love and honour, and revenge and justice on these counts, are not terminated by mere death. The sense of chivalric duty is strong. Guillotined heads, hanged men, the desecration of the Royal Tombs. There's even a vampire story (which predates Dracula).

The stories were published in 1849. While there's nothing startlingly horrific here, nothing new, it's interesting to note that the conventions of the genre were only just being established.

These stories were intended as the introduction to a much larger collection, for which Dumas supplied the general title of "Les mille et un fantômes," but it seems he abandoned the project. Too bad, cuz this book's a gem.

Some reviews and background.
French text of Les mille et un fantômes.

Dumas was keenly interested in the question of whether a guillotined person suffered pain after being beheaded. It seems a number of his characters are interested in "the occult sciences." Alchemy and mesmerism figure in his tales. He wrote a play about a vampire and is credited with having written one of the first modern werewolf stories.

Must. Read. More. Dumas.

The horrors of Friday the 13th
- J-F's mom wants Helena's company for the weekend. On announcing the plans to Helena, she has a fit of hysterics. (After a couple hours, she does come round to the idea.)
- I do not procure a copy of Lemony Snicket's The End.
- Traffic en route to J-F's mom's place is hellish. (Not really an effect of the curse of the day, but the first time I've experienced it since a bridge collapsed along our usual route.)
- J-F tries to buy cigarettes, but the dépanneur has had its license suspended. (Not a bad thing in the grand scheme of things, but the minutes between J-F deciding he wants a cigarette and eventually actually having one are decidedly unpleasant.)
- Upon deciding tonight's the night we're going to try the pizza from the place down the street (four and a half years in this city, and we've yet to find a pizza joint we're willing to call our regular), we arrive to the news that their oven is broken. (We settle for the sub-par pizza from across the street.)
- Arriving home, we crack open a 12-pack to find it contains only 11 beers. (I haven't gotten over this yet.)
- Inexplicably, we have no trouble finding a copy of Art School Confidential to rent. (Not a bad thing — a very good thing, in fact — but surely a supernatural intervention, even if benevolent compensation for all the other horrors of the day.)

Things that went right this weekend: child-free evening, with pizza, beer and cigarettes, and a movie.

Helena returns home from her grandmother's with a nasty cough and fever and stays home from daycare yesterday. Her sweetness in her vulnerable state is overwhelming, even if fever does cause her to be a bit (more) temperamental (than usual). Again this week she insists on cuddling on my lap to watch Doctor Who, and again I worry what trauma watching the program may inflict on her. First thing on waking she tells me what fun it was watching Doctor Who with me, how the wolf became moonlight. She insists on going to daycare this morning, but explains that if she's coughing a lot she'll ask the éducateur to phone us to pick her up. She's being very together.
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