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MALPERTUIS, A Pagan and Catholic and Gothic and Carnivalesque and Modernist and Surrealist Tragedy

The term “grotesque” originates in Italy during the early Renaissance, when decorative motifs representing a then unknown Roman aesthetic were uncovered during the excavation of some old bathing grottos. Plants, animals, people, monsters and gods all woven together in long slender ribbons of illustration on the walls; these grotesques were pictorial where arabesques were abstract, and seemed to trace an open-ended sequence of transformations through a play of interlacing forms. The term swiftly developed all sorts of applications as European art became more diverse, and, by the time it was applied to works of literature, it had come to mean especially fanciful, even weirdly imaginative. The grotesque was still the underworld, and it referred to that art most saturated with imaginary things, and the most wildly imagined things. The grotesque was associated with the seemingly incessant European carnivals, in which all established order would be inverted, opposites like ugliness and beauty, life and death, comedy and tragedy, would be brought so close together as to be crushed nearly into each other.
The literary grotesque peaked in sophistication with Rabelais, and then dwindled down into a domesticated form, whimsy, by the eighteenth century. To a certain extent, it revived in the Gothic, and what Bakhtin calls the Romantic Grotesque, which is genuinely grotesque, but marked by a greater emphasis on melancholy, deception and betrayal, suffering. The lighthearted playfulness of the earlier grotesque is largely gone away.
Malpertuis, by Jean Ray, is a late example of the Romantic Grotesque, a modernist Gothic novel, and an immensely great one – a truly loveable one. Its melancholy sits stably on top of the events like a broad heavy ceiling, but the space beneath is airy and open because Ray doesn’t so much as glance at the sentimentality that normally mires down most Gothic novels. It has the proto-modernist textual complexity of a Gothic, with four narrators marshalled by a fifth, the thief of the original manuscripts, and Ray’s use of this multiplicity keeps the novel from closing in on itself, from taking itself too seriously.
And Ray’s heedless brio, even sloppiness, his bizarre imagination and wacky energy put a stamp of incongruity on everything in here, so that, page for page, it reads like satire while it retains, as a whole, (like a mixture of Rabelais and Crowley) a mystic earnestness or sincerity that isn’t affected. Malpertuis is gloomy and giddy. There is no put-on Gothic solemnity, but a sort of medieval sensibility that takes the Gothic back to its more broadly populist and carnivalesque roots, wide enough to cover any human modality – love, humor, etc. Ray uses the Catholic church principally as a source of folklore; it is not really present so much as a religion or a culture, but as a mythology of countersigns. This is real carnival, a dynamic medieval morality play full of weird allegories that are hard to trace but replete with cryptic significance that really seems to amount to something. And, like any good “surprise” story, it can be reread; in fact, it was plainly written to be reread, so that the reader’s foreknowledge of the surprise only enriches the work.
Malpertuis – the house itself, modelled on Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, is mentioned with much shuddering but not much description – Ray is strikingly stingy with the details in fact. Where the typical Gothic novel is voluble, his is telegraphic and terse, even bewilderingly reticent. He has a very effective way of suggesting that there is all this wild activity going on between all characters behind the scenes, indicated by the brevity and accelerated pace of the narrative. The magic of this novel is the magic of what isn’t there – not a house infused with glamour by the author’s desperate antics, but a novel with no precedent, a magical riddle. For all that the book is shot through with quotations from Hawthorne and other sources, Malpertuis is a completely strange, intensely vivid, and wholly original haunted house, in part because it lives both in haunted-house-time and in myth-time. There are all these enigmas in Malpertuis that are all the more strange in that they are mysteries whose answers couldn’t possibly matter, that don’t make sense even when explained, just like any other myths. Why the Dickensian names, that invite you to decrypt them: Cassave – the breaking-opener? Philarete – who loves the best? Sambuca – harp-player? Malpertuis is the name of a sinister fox in medieval folklore ... and what does that have to do with the house, the novel?
Ray has been called the “Belgian Poe,” but the resemblance is not especially strong, and Ray is too distinctive to be well served by any comparisons. It is unfortunate that so little of his work is available in English; Malpertuis, a mid-sixties vintage collection splendidly entitled Ghouls in My Grave, and a latter-day retranslation of much of that collected material from Midnight House renamed My Own Private Spectres. His episodes of alarm are completely strange and unprecedented, his conceits are entirely anomalous. It’s his crazed intensity and wild zest for the bizarre that appeals to me, and the fact that he seems to believe what he tells. In Malpertuis, the more than half-crazy Lampernisse stalks about the house keeping close watch on all the lamps, because someone or something constantly extinguishes them, and he has an unaccountably intense need for light. At one point, he drags the narrator to the attic, where he intends to lay a modified rat-trap for the light-extinguishers. The narrator will later find a tiny severed hand in that trap.
It is modernist in its self-consciousness, its textually sophisticated use of quotations and assembled documents, but most of all in the use of characters who know they are characters, at least intermittently, beings encountered as artifacts, alive and aware on the page. The book thematizes its content, so that it reflects back on the composition of the book, and the relation of the characters to the author. Beings created by human beings existing independently and which are perhaps – shudderingly one imagines it with a thrill that is not all fear but has in it notes of joy, longing, even pride – conscious and aware forces, imaginary beings that are nevertheless real and distinct like language and justice and beauty. Malpertuis can be compared to Pirandello’s play, but with a fantastic awe and gorgeous sublimity of thought infused into it, an immensely rare and impressive accomplishment.

Michael Cisco
19 January 2005


Michael Cisco is the author of The Divinity Student, which received the International Horror Guild’s award for Best First Novel of 1999, as well as The Tyrant (2004), and a number of other forthcoming novels. He’s just finished his PhD at New York University, and considers himself “The Melville Guy.” His column Jungle Mind appears monthly on The Modern Word.

For Michael Cisco’s previous columns, visit the Jungle Mind Archive.

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