French Supernaturalism - Interregnum - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

French Supernaturalism
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

I have, up to now, not said much about supernaturalism or Gothicism in France. While it is true that several of the leading—as well as some of the lesser—novels of the Gothic period were translated into French, French writers wrote little in this mode themselves. From the late seventeenth century onward, the French appeared more attracted to fantasy—either as manifested in the fairy tale (Madame d’Aulnoy’s Les Contes des fées, 1697) or in the folktale (Antoine Galland’s translation of the Arabian Nights, 1704—17)—than in pure supernaturalism. Aside from Jacques Cazotte’s Le Diable amoureux (1772; The Devil in Love), a humorous tale that seems more a parody of Gothicism than a genuine contribution to it, there is little in French literature during this period that is of direct interest to our study.

Some attention should be paid to the work of Charles Nodier (1780—1844), who not only wrote several late Gothic novels—among them Les Proscrits (1802; The Outlaws) and Les Tristes (1806; The Sad Ones)—that reveal his obsession with death, but also several significant works featuring vampires. He not only collaborated with Ginette Picat-Guinoiseau on a dramatic adaptation of Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” entitled Le Vampire (1820), but also used vampires or vampiric figures in such novels as Smarra (1821) and Trilby (1822). Late work by Nodier is more in the fairy tale tradition and appears to reveal the influence of E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Supernaturalism of a very distinctive sort was practised by two French writers, Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo. The works of both writers attest to the manner in which fantasy and horror can be put to the use of fundamentally mainstream concerns of character portrayal and social commentary.

Balzac (1799—1850) wrote a number of pseudo-Gothic potboilers early in his career, in the 1820s, although few if any of these involve the supernatural. By 1829, however, he had commenced his immense series of novels and tales, “La Comédie Humaine,” that would establish his international reputation. One subset of these works was what he termed contes philosophiques (philosophical tales), although it appears that some of the components of this subset were incorporated after the fact. The unifying thread that links these works is a psychological one: the supernatural (or a suggestion of it) is used as a device to reflect upon the transforming nature of external events upon the human psyche. The most striking work of Balzac’s in this regard is Le Peau de chagrin (1831; variously translated as The Wild Ass’s Skin or The Magic Skin). Here we are introduced to a young man, Raphael, who appears at the end of his rope and wishes to commit suicide. Wandering into a curio shop, he is shown a wild ass’s skin, and the aged owner of the shop claims that it can grant wishes—under certain conditions. The central condition governing the skin becomes immediately evident: although it can indeed grant wishes—making Raphael, for example, instantly and fabulously wealthy—every wish it grants shrinks the size of the skin, and Raphael is told that his own life will be correspondingly reduced.

At this point the novel treads close between the borderline of fantasy and the supernatural, seeming more like a modern fairy tale than a work of terror. Balzac’s fundamental interest is the effect of the skin on Raphael: it compels him to behave in a highly unnatural manner, since in order to preserve the skin and prevent it from shrinking, he must rid himself of all desires (for any wish that flits through his mind is immediately granted by the skin, which shrinks accordingly), and in spite of his great wealth he turns into a feeble ascetic, eschewing rich foods, women, and all the other facets of life (especially in one of his station) that one would normally expect. It is manifest that the supernatural or fantastic premise has been fashioned chiefly for the purpose of probing Raphael’s tormented psyche.

From our perspective Le Peau de chagrin gains some relevance when a zoologist studies the skin in an attempt to determine its nature and properties. The zoologist presently throws up his hands, forcing Raphael to conclude, “There is certainly something infernal in the thing!” (219). This gesture at a pseudo-scientific “accounting” of the magic skin brings the novel more in line with supernaturalism. In any event, by this time Raphael has, in spite of himself, fallen in love with one Pauline, and his fate is inevitable: he dies in longing for her, as the skin shrinks to nothing.

Le Peau de chagrin is a powerful and relentless study of character and, in a sense, comes close to being a novel of psychological terror in spite of its supernatural premise. That premise is, as I say, closer to fantasy than to strict supernaturalism, because (as I have explained in Chapter I) the “rules of the game” have essentially been arbitrarily established by the author without direct reference to any trope derived from folklore or superstition. Moreover, the supernatural element occupies an almost vanishingly small role in the overall novel, being chiefly a catalyst for the events and for the psychological probing of the protagonist. I hardly need say that this is not meant as a criticism of the novel, merely as an indication of the purposes for which Balzac generally employed the supernatural.

Only two other works by Balzac centrally involve the supernatural. The short story “L’Elixir de la longue vie” (Revue de Paris, 24 October 1830; “The Elixir of Life”) is a rather buffoonish narrative in which the dying Bartolommeo Belvidero tells his son, Don Juan, that he has a magic lotion that, when rubbed over his dead body, will bring him back to life. Don Juan, however, would prefer that his father remain dead. Nonetheless, he rubs his dead father’s eye with the lotion—and sure enough the eye opens. Realising the value of the substance, he doesn’t waste it on his father but instructs his own son to do what he failed to do. The son complies, rubbing his dead father’s body with the lotion, and Don Juan is immediately reanimated, running amok in the process. The story reads like a parody of Gothic excesses, and may well be so. This may also be the case with “Melmoth reconcilié” (1835; “Melmoth Reconciled”), a conscious sequel of sorts to Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. A bank cashier, Castanier, encounters John Melmoth at the very time when he is about to embezzle some money: in a sense, Melmoth acts as an embodiment of conscience. But Melmoth is also not shy in expressing his supernatural powers:

“Who is strong enough to resist me?” said the Englishman, addressing him. “Do you not know that everything here on earth must obey me, that it is in my power to do everything? I read men’s thoughts, I see the future, and I know the past. I am here, and I can be elsewhere also. Time and space and distance are nothing to me. The whole world is at my beck and call.” (316)

Castanier accepts Melmoth’s bargain, allowing Melmoth to die in peace, happy and repentant. Castanier, for his part, not only begins to adopt Melmoth’s mannerisms and attitude to life but also, in a brilliant and chilling touch, his physical characteristics: “There was a change in the cashier’s appearance. A strange pallor overspread his once rubicund countenance; it wore the peculiarly sinister and stony look of the mysterious visitor. The sullen glare of his eyes was intolerable,; the fierce light in them seemed to scorch. The man who had looked so good-humored and good-natured had suddenly grown tyrannical and proud” (323). Castanier himself leaves no doubt as to the nature of his alteration: “Castanier felt that he had undergone a mental as well as physical transformation” (326). And, exactly as with Melmoth in Melmoth the Wanderer, Castanier “felt the awful melancholy of omnipotence” (330). This single sentence effectively conveys Balzac’s fundamental message: human character, pliable as it is, can be metamorphosed out of recognition by external circumstance. The rest of the long story—in which Castanier, yearning for heaven, seeks desperately for someone to accept the bargain in his turn, finally finding a hapless clerk to do so—comes close to self-parody, but Balzac has made his basic point.

La Recherche de l’absolu (1834; The Quest of the Absolute) focuses on a man named Balthazar who seeks the philosopher’s stone, chiefly the means of making gold out of other substances. The novel has no supernatural elements except one fleeting suggestion of it: when a Polish man tells Balthazar that the Absolute is “One Element common to all substances” (72), his put-upon wife thinks he may be the Devil (“Only the Tempter could have those yellow eyes, blazing with the fire of Prometheus” [74]). Nothing much is made of this, however, and the novel is a relentless probing of the obsession that renders Balthazar a self-absorbed maniac and impoverishes his family. We similarly need spend little time on Balzac’s two novels, Louis Lambert (1832) and Séraphita (1835), both of which seem designed to expound the Swedenborgian philosophy. The latter does focus on a strange, androgynous, and possibly supernatural creature who is first called Seraphitus, then Seraphita, but its tedious didacticism renders it an aesthetic failure.

As for Victor Hugo’s curious early novel Han d’Icelande (1823; Han of Iceland), set in the wilds of Norway in the year 1699, there is no genuine supernaturalism at all, even though the enigmatic central figure, Han of Iceland, is referred to variously as the Antichrist (46), a “supernatural being” (52), and “in league with the powers of darkness” (59), and is seen performing such appalling acts as killing a wolf with his bare hands and presenting one Lucy Stadt with the skull of the child they had borne two decades earlier, when Han had raped her. Early in the novel, Han’s history is supplied:

“According to tradition, some Iceland peasants found Han, then a child, wandering in the Bessesled Mountains. They were about to kill him, as Astyager destroyed the lion cub of Bactriana, but the bishop interceded on his behalf, and took the cub under his protection, hoping to make a Christian of the devil. The good bishop made every effort to develop his diabolical intellect, forgetting that the hemlock in the hot-house of Babylon never changed into the lily. This imp of darkness repaid all his care by taking flight one fine night across the sea, in the trunk of a tree, previously setting fire to the episcopal manor to lighten up the way. According to the old women’s tales, this is the way the Icelander reached Norway, and he offers the most complete type of a monster, with all the benefits of a good education.” (51—52)

This passage, among many others, suggests that Hugo (or his characters) is laying it on a bit thick as regards Han’s diabolical nature. Indeed, in the course of the narrative, in spite of his atrocious behaviour, he gains a certain modicum of sympathy by the role he plays in the coal miners’ struggle against their tyrannical bosses. Han d’Icelande is aesthetically crude and unpolished, but its protagonist was manifestly an anticipation of the figure of Quasimodo in Nôtre Dame de Paris (1831).

The work of Balzac and Hugo is really a kind of prelude to the true commencement of French supernaturalism, which really did not hit its stride until the next few generations, in the work of Gautier, Mérimée, and Maupassant.