“‘. . . No one is truly dead until they are no longer loved.’” Théophile Gautier’s contes fantastiques: My Fantoms; selected, translated and with an introduction by Richard Holmes

“. . . it is faith that creates gods, and it is love that creates women. No one is truly dead until they are no longer loved.”

. . . Nothing, in fact, actually dies: everything goes on existing, always. No power on earth can obliterate that which has once had being. Every act, every word, every form, every thought, falls into the universal ocean of things, and produces a circle on its surface that goes on enlarging beyond the furthest bounds of eternity. The material configurations only disappear from the common gaze, while the specters that break free from them go out to people infinity. In some unknown region of space, Paris continues to abduct Helen of Troy. Cleopatra’s galley swells its silken sails on the azure blue of an ideal Cyprus.

I started reading My Fantoms back in October. Some days, I’d breeze through one story, and on other days — most days, really — Théophile Gautier’s world was damn near impenetrable. But this book has the distinction of being the last NYRB Classics book on my shelves. I owed it — and myself — not only my devotion, but at the very least, my attention.

I first read the introduction by Richard Holmes. This man was the best man to have written anything about Gautier, to select these stories, to translate them. If only because his feelings toward the man and his work go beyond the academic — Gautier is an important figure in his life, especially in his youth. Holmes remembers a summer in Paris, back when he was a [starving] journalist.

Slowly it was Gautier who became the benign, reassuring presence in my attic room. As an act of friendship, almost of personal gratitude, I began to translate his strange stories, very few of which . . . had ever appeared in English.

In fact, Holmes even copied out, by hand, three hundred pages of Gautier’s manuscripts. I liked this little history between the translator and the author. It made me look forward to the stories.

But it really was difficult going. Gautier was firmly in the 1800s and I’ve never been much comfortable with classics. Although Holmes’ translation wasn’t the problem, it was the stories themselves — the images conveyed and the pervading atmosphere occasionally served as a smokescreen. I dunno. I did like what I was reading when my mind focused. I was able to see Gautier’s aesthetics, his thrust, his central image — as described here by Holmes:

Gautier never provided a collective title for his stories, and in France they are known generically as his contes fantastiques. Yet in them he repeatedly used the collective term fantômes to mean female spirits. His fantômes are all seductresses, ravishing mischief-makers, soft-hearted vampires, generous courtesans, fatal temptresses, or simply ardent thousand-year-old muses. What they have in common is that they all come back from the dead, seeking human lovers.

In the story “The Adolescent,” a beautiful woman springs out of the tapestry every night and seduces a randy, well, adolescent. In “The Priest,” a man about to be ordained into priesthood is struck feverish with love at the sight of the unearthly, beautiful Clarimonde, who happens to be a vampire. Of course. In “The Tourist,” a, er, tourist [not very creative titles, yes?] meets Arria Marcella, yet another beauty, one who also happens to have died centuries ago during he eruption of Mt. Vesuvius — and upon sight, the tourist Octavian felt the memory of all the other women he had once thought he loved flicker away from his mind like so many insubstantial shadows.

But it’s not all temptation. In “The Actor,” a man making a name for himself by playing the devil gets a visit from the actual Devil, who informs our actor that his performance isn’t exactly up to snuff. In “The Painter,” a painter suffers the haunting of a poltergeist — messing up portraits, ruining brushes and paints, and eventually wrecking relationships and the man’s sanity.

In Gautier’s stories, it’s always either a haunting or a seduction. And especially in seduction, there’s a horrific quality. Then again, even in those haunting, there’s a hint of glorious temptation.

Huh. It’s only as I write this that the I can verbalize what I’ve felt Gautier was conveying all along: That a single entity always has a mirror image, and if you look a certain way, these two can appear to you at the same time. Much like an echo, or a double exposure. And Gautier has chosen to focus on the grotesque, the horrific, the proto-Gothic: malfeasance and seduction, two sisters, arms linked.

Again, it was hard going, this book. But I trudged on. Because I trusted Richard Holmes. Sure, the contes fantastiques didn’t impact me the way it did him — but this is his book, and I’m really just peeking in.

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9 comments

  1. Your blog title reminds me of the incomparably judicious saying of Nando Parrado, “The opposite of death isn’t life; it’s love.” Hope you’re well. Cheers, Kevin

  2. Blog posting title, that is.

  3. Now, in fairness, those title come from Holmes, not Gautier. Go to the list of Gautier’s titles, near the back of the book – they’re a bit more creative. “Onuphrius Wphly, ou Les Vexations fantastiques d’un admirateur d’Hoffmann” for example.

    What did you think of the one that’s not really a conte at all, the tribute to Nerval?

    1. Now, in fairness, those title come from Holmes, not Gautier. True, true. I would’ve loved to post the original in French, but I knew I’d only be doing it because it sounded — and looked — nice. And Holmes does make it all that in good ol’ English.

      I was jarred at first, re Nerval. [I’ve dug through your archives and have read your many posts on Gautier!] I was used to the playfulness — well, Holmes set it up so: With “The Adolescent,” the whole randy teenager set up. And then you see Gautier maturing in content and form with how Holmes arranged the stories. Anyway, though jarred, I liked it — it’s one of my favorites, along with “The Tourist” and “The Painter” — but I felt as though I couldn’t talk about it the right way — Gautier proved rather difficult for me, since he’s not my usual fare.

      And thanks for pointing out the original titles. I was kind of miffed about their laconic feel, all of them!, but it never ever occurred to me to check Gautier’s originals titles. Not that I would’ve understood them, but at least I would have better understood Gautier’s aesthetics.

  4. This sounds like a very challenging book. And I normally never really feel like reading about seduction (I am often surprised that these things could be written about back then, call me naive), but you made me very curious. I think I’ll start with an “easier” NYRB, although I’m not sure if there are that many that are easy-reads..

    1. I wanted to add to that, that “. . . No one is truly dead until they are no longer loved” is such a beautiful idea. To me, at least.

    2. I’m not sure if there are that many that are easy-reads.
      No, there are many! There’s an entire Children’s Collection. May I recommend The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati.

    3. I second Amateur Reader — there are lighter fare — Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, for example. I just found this one very difficult because I’m not used to reading books from this time period — something I’m trying to remedy. All in all, even though I needed to constantly adjust, I was very satisfied.

  5. […] My Fantoms, by Théophile Gautier. […]

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