Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Poète impeccable, parfait magicien

Who in hell is Théophile Gautier?

"Posterity will judge Gautier to be one of the masters of writing, not only in France but also in Europe," attested Charles Baudelaire. So how come I've never heard of him?

Then one day not so long ago, his name crops up three times over the space of a few hours.

1. I've been wandering through Baudelaire this summer. I find that he dedicated Les Fleurs du mal to Gautier and that he regarded him as a great influence.

2. I pick up some brochures for the upcoming orchestral season, to bookmark those events that might be of interest to me. I notice that Les Nuits d'été are Gautier's love poems set to music by Berlioz. (Perhaps I will go.)

3. I receive an email informing me that NYRB Classics is releasing Gautier's My Fantoms.

The review copy I requested showed up shortly thereafter.

[In another instance of serendipity, while catching up on my blog reading I find that Imani has encountered Gautier: the lyrics, with music, and about the cycle.]

My Fantoms is a collection of 7 stories spanning Gautier's career. They are supernatural in their subject matter and vaguely erotic in their telling.

My favourite of the lot, from which I offer two excerpts, is "The Painter," for how it renders the artist's disposition, the artistic experience.

But as well as this, Onuphrius was a poet. There was no way in which he could ever escape his self-knowledge, and what contributed more than a little to his continual state of acute nervous excitement, which even Jacintha could not always control, was his obsessional reading. He read nothing but tales of legendary marvels, ancient chivalric romances, mystical poetry, treatises of the Cabal, German ballads, and volumes on demonology and witchcraft. In the midst of the bustling world of reality around him, he created from these books an inner world of visionary and ecstatic experience, which it was given to very few others to penetrate. From his ingrained habit of seeking the supernatural aspect, he had the ability to make the most ordinary, down to earth circumstance give rise to something weird and fantastic. You could have put him into a square, white-washed room, blank from floor to ceiling and with windows of opaque glass, and he would have been able to spot some uncanny apparition quite as easily as if he had been in a Rembrandt interior, flickering with uncertain light and awash with sinister shadows; such was the power of his mental vision acting on his physical eyesight to distort the straightest line and complicate the simplest object, like those curved or multi-faced mirrors which falsify everything placed in front of them, transforming them into grotesque or terrible presences.


The prose is dense in description, verging on florid, but real, and aspiring to surreal. There is poetry in every detail, a lust for life as Gautier's characters brush up against death.

Later in this story, the devil slices off the top of his skull:

This unexpected lobotomy did not seem to do him the least harm, expect that after a few minutes he heard a peculiar kind of buzzing above his head, and looking up he saw that all of his thoughts, no longer contained by the top of his skull, were pouring out in a chaotic stream like budgerigars fluttering from an open bird-cage door. All the ideal women that he had ever imagined to himself soared out of his head with their individual dresses, mannerisms, and modes of speech (though it ought to be said, in Onuphrius's defence, that they all looked like Jacintha's twin-sister); with them went the heroines of all the novels he had ever planned to write. Each of these women drew after them a cortège of lovers, some wearing heraldic tunics of the Middle Ages and others the top-hats and suits of eighteen thirty-two. After these came all the majestic, farcical, or monstrous human types he had ever dreamt up; then all his sketches for future paintings, set in every historical period and geographical location; then all his philosophical ideas, floating in the form of soap-bubbles; and finally, everything he remembered from his years of adolescent reading. All these continued to stream out into the air for well over an hour, until the whole studio was full, and the men and women walked up and down the room without the least hint of embarrassment, chatting, laughing, and arguing together and obviously feeling quite at home. Dumb-struck, Onuphrius could not think what to do with himself, and finally decided the best thing was simply to leave them at it, and go out of the studio.


The collection as a whole reminds me a great deal of Alexandre Dumas's Les Mille et un fantômes, or what I know of it. I'm delighted to learn that Dumas and Gautier travelled in the same circles — namely Le Petit Cénacle, a group of artists known for its extravagance and eccentricity — and I like to imagine they told each other ghost stories late into the night.

Théophile Gautier: Impeccable? Perfect? I don't know. But entertaining, sensuous, witty — yes. The man knows how to turn a phrase.
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