Mademoiselle B. by Maurice Pons

The swirling mass of insects crawling over the cadaverous face, devouring the eyes, plundering saliva as if it were nectar.

Tying in with my translation of Maurice Pons’ short story “Honeymoon” in the latest issue of The Coffin Factory (a terrific new magazine! Check it out!), I humbly offer this consideration of his 1973 novel Mademoiselle B. No real spoilers, especially for a book so light on plot, but passages are quoted at length.

Maurice Pons’ Mademoiselle B. may be the most understated vampire novel ever written. Readers for whom this seems faint praise, or scant recommendation, should look elsewhere for their fanged thrills. English language readers whose interest this piques are advised that used copies may be found relatively cheaply online in Patricia Wolf’s serviceable translation (St. Martin’s Press). Alas, editions in both languages are saddled with covers seemingly inimical to preserving mystery, and prominently featuring bat-like creatures.

These covers do a disservice to a novel founded on an excruciatingly patient, even dreamy sense of suspense. And yet Pons plays with our expectations. We know, going in, to expect vampiric hijinks. But what, really, is a vampire? The mysterious Mademoiselle B. is never glimpsed shapeshifting, or sucking blood. Interactions with her are so scarce and hazy that it’s hard to tell if garlic, stakes, sunlight, or silver will hurt her. What if anything explicitly vampiric does she do? Well, she saps men of the will to live. Or drives them to death. After several meetings with her, whose natures remain undisclosed, or sometimes merely one, men are liable to commit suicide. And in this early description, Pons indulges faintly Gothic fashion while alluding to something like the glamour vampires are known for:

“Mademoiselle B. is not especially pretty. Nor is she especially young.

My first thought on seeing her pale, tired face in the doorway, I recall, was how hard it would be to guess her age. Her eyes, two narrow almond-shaped eyes as icy blue as a frozen pond; her thin smile—for she was smiling—reflected an astonishing youthfulness, but a youthfulness that was also ageless. Her hair fell in bangs almost to her brows, fanning out in fine downy wisps over cheeks and temples. It was pure white, but whether the whiteness derived from cosmetics or from congenital albinism was open to question. She resembled the classic image of some lifeless young maiden risen from the grace to wander among tombstones draped all in a flurry of tulle, gossamer, frills, and ribbons, whose many layers all but obliterate their transparency but for the barest outlines (beneath what served as her blouse) of firm, ripening young breasts, like artichoke buds, perched at a dizzying height just below the base of her neck.

Extending a hand sheathed in a white lace glove, she said, still smiling, ‘Come in, sir. Don’t stand out in the rain.’”

Evil is often thought of as simple, but monsters can be complicated. Perhaps, then, Mademoiselle B. is most frequently billed as a vampire novel, in cover and category, for reasons of convenience.

The book begins with a body in a river. However, it stakes its claim on reality through far less shocking, far more middling and complacent means. Its narrator is one Maurice Pons, a writer retired from the backbiting Parisian literary scene to a charming Norman hamlet, Jouff, peopled with colorful rural characters. Much like the real Maurice Pons, who lives in Andé, a village brochures often (figuratively) describe as a magical haven. This confusion of self and character, person and persona, an old literary tactic, is a source of much of the novel’s authority and verisimilitude. Pons plays it to the hilt, encouraging confusion, ascribing his own novels to his identically named narrator. (Stories about writers usually bore me, but stories about writers featuring the fantastic have somehow a special dispensation. It may be because writing about writers often concerns failed creation, but fantasy that creation can take on terrible life. Reality is to realism as realism is to fantasy.) Another thing that grounds the novel is Pons-the-narrator’s psychological impasse. He’s at loose ends in life, stalled in middle age. “Dear Maurice Pons,” his editor sighs, “what a strange profession ours is. A profession that involves purchasing quantities of excellent paper and blackening it with ink, only to resell it for the price of used paper.” Perhaps Pons has something like writer’s block, but it is the least of his concerns; the living is so pleasant, and “Forty year olds who persist in writing are a pain.”

What else? Pons the narrator has a son, Fabien, and an ex-wife, Christiane, who left him for lacking ambition. He’s had several girlfriends with tenures of varying lastingness, but the current one, Michèle, lives in Paris and weekends with him. Monday mornings usually find them risen late and hurtling down country lanes to make the train, though missing it is no big deal: the aimless, amiable Pons merely drives her the rest of the way and is back home in time for breakfast having fetched that French staple, fresh bread (about half the bakeries in France are closed on Mondays, having stayed open Sunday, when all other shops are shut, to supply dutiful churchgoers). He likes these drives. His mind wanders. “Only at the wheel of my car, stimulated by rattling pistons and the rumbling camshaft, do I feel my intellect and imagination functioning most harmoniously. In this sense, you could say it’s a professional tool.” Amidst such pleasant ruminations one brings us up short: “I also know it’s how I shall die, some winter morning, in a fit of blinding madness.” Pons goes on at length to describe the malfunction of the tie rod, the mechanics of the accident, delighting in chilly detail. “A white train will pass, whistling into the frosty air. They’ll find my body mangled and bleeding, the face mutilated beyond recognition—that’s the final image I’ll leave behind me on earth.” Is this prescience, or merely self-pity? That Pons the narrator is a man who thinks he knows how he will die is curious. By the end of the book he will move from waiting for it to welcoming it, with reason to hurry.

Pons proceeds to offer us the sociology of a French village. His is a very French book in some ways, from the jokes about Parisians and provincials to the off-color country anecdotes to its sure feel  for the pace and rhythm of French country life. The satire is exceedingly gentle: the proof that Mademoiselle B. is human resides in her having a birth certificate. Few things are as indicative of the Republic’s faith in Cartesian organization than the national identity card each citizen must carry. Stories of death in small towns are often about how the town falls apart: concentric waves of effect rippling outward to shatter the community along buried fault lines. In this one, the town stays together, through no special effort on their part. It’s just that death is a part of this landscape, and has been for centuries. There is something at once alarming and reassuring, ancient and wise, repellent and resigned about the villagers’ acceptance. Supernatural evil is just one more memento mori.

The narrator Pons is a terrific example of that lovable type, the amateur detective who cannot really be bothered to care that much about his case, for whom gathering information is a kind of woolgathering, and interrogation a leisurely pastime; for whom justice is a hobby, which like any hobby has its share of absent-mindedness and puttering about; who in his contentedness can muster no special urgency that might exclude the possibility of stopping for coffee or a beer at a nice café. (For some Americans this might seem to describe the idyll of living in rural France.) Indeed, says he, “my friends will vouch for the fact that I am very firm about principles but very flexible in applying them.” The laid-back, bemused distance of such detectives from their tasks is usually, in such stories, what gives them insight. Arguably, this very affability, this dreaminess unto distraction, blinds Pons to the story’s final tragic turn.

What info Pons gathers is confined to town gossip, either about Mademoiselle B. or the suicides from which the book takes its structure. In almost the exact middle is a gorgeously morbid set piece that begins in horror and veers blackly comic. Or is it the other way around? At least 20 pages are devoted to the sight of the corpse in the tree and the difficulty in getting it down. It has one of the most oddly spellbinding descriptions of a hanged man I have ever read. Virtually the entire village, and even a pompous regional official, are gathered in the woods.

“The man was hanging from the main bough of an oak on the fringe of the woods. He dangled fairly high above the ground, from a thin rope roughly ten feet long. The impact must have been shattering. The body rocked gently in the breeze, or rather swiveled slowly back and forth like a fat black sausage strung up to smoke over the fire. He was a man around forty. He seemed to be almost swimming in his clothes, as if his suit had suddenly outgrown him. Yet his fingers protruded from the coatsleeves, puffed and purply. Sudden death must have caused his feet to retract, for one shoe had dropped into the grass, leaving a sock suspended from the trouser leg.

The noose, oddly enough, had slipped down under his chin, thrusting the head backward and tilting it slightly to the right. His eyes were rolling; his tongue, which seemed to have doubled in volume, gushed from a mouth caked with thick, frothy spittle.

No, it was not a pretty sight. But even more repugnant to us on the grassy slope facing the great oak was the swirling mass of insects crawling over the cadaverous face, devouring the eyes, the ears, the nasal cavities, plundering the unctuous saliva from mouth and tongue as if it were nectar. There were hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, droning in the morning silence like the rhythmical throbbing of an electrical pump.

‘The hornets have taken over,’ Rendu whispered.”

The local firemen, unprepared to combat hornets, sustain injuries that lead to an impasse. Rendu, the village jack-of-all-trades, climbs nimbly up the tree, out onto the limb, and safely above the hornets, cuts the rope. The body plummets “straight down, landing upright on his feet.” The impact doubles “him over into a heap… a shapeless mound of rags, coiled on the ground in a fetal position, face down,” and the villagers begin running from the enraged hornets. The firemen douse the buzzing body with carbonic foam, and the hornets flee. A suicide note with the same misspellings as the drowned man’s from the beginning is found in a pocket: “No publissity please”. This is all described in loving, impish detail. And later, when the crowd has scattered, Maurice Pons climbs the tree himself, goes out on a limb, and sees… a clear view of Mademoiselle B.’s house. The lady is at the window, watching, but what of it? All this evidence is circumstantial, and even if it weren’t, what it might prove remains unthinkable.

As elsewhere, Pons favors a style of insinuation and restraint leavened by occasional irony or charming self-deprecation: placid, objective, and unassuming, befitting a writer who doubts the point of his craft, all the better to hint at conundrums, to ponder the unexplained and inexplicable, to suggest (but rarely more than suggest) the supernatural. There are always mysteries we pass over tacitly, the abysses we agree to ignore; such agreement constitutes a binding principle of society. What such a sane and reasonable man refuses to say, the conclusions he refrains from drawing, keeps us guessing. As in his stories, the mischief of Pons’ style lies in his withholding, the tension between his refusal to indulge and the plainly macabre or brutal places his plots take us. At every point, Pons works to undercut the horror seeping, insisting its way into his story and setting:

“I was vexed with myself for succumbing to the romance of Gothic castles—especially when in this case the castle turned out to be a sadly prosaic gatekeeper’s lodging abandoned by the defunct Paris-Orléans railway company.”

Yet in any creature story anchored in reality, there is the slow awakening to belief:

“What common curse had so crippled their spirit as to compel this savage self-mutilation, this erasure of their human image? What encounter, what dread obsession had driven them down woodland paths to secret altars of agonized expiation. Impossible to say; yet impossible to doubt any longer that at some crucial point in their destinies loomed the forbidding house of Mademoiselle B.”

O what of our monster, our Mademoiselle B.? The closest we get to the alleged vampire is hearsay, this strange origin story:

“Antonin had worked hard most of the day. It was one of his relatively sober periods. He had chipped away part of the plaster with a hammer and dislodged a fair number of cinder blocks with a crowbar. They say—but who will ever know the truth, much less believe it?—that in prying loose, inch by inch, the last cornerstone, he discovered, wedged in an interstice, on a bed of moldering plaster between two stones, a bundle of rags, straw, and old papers.

Why, instead of simply tossing it out with the other refuse, did his curiosity prompt him to undo and sort through it? And what did he find in this plaster-coated parcel that seemed to have been crouching there forever in shrouded solitude? They say he was shocked to discover some kind of tiny creature, which at first he took to be a frog holed up for the winter or a hibernating bat, and who seemed suddenly blinded by the daylight, whose vacant eyes began to blink, whose heart began to pulse, faintly but inexorably, through the paper. Yes, a heartbeat.

I repeat that it could have been merely a frog or a bat. In an earlier book of mine I related a fascinating childhood discovery I made in the maze of evacuated trenches adjoining the Rhine fortifications at Strasbourg, of a colony of frightened, blinded, palpitating frogs who were wintering in slimy loam among the shell casings. Also, in moving into my house in Jouff, I evicted whole families of squeaking barbastelles which had probably been nesting for ages in the joints of ancient beams. We know that chiropters are mammals. The females possess two wee downy breasts with pink nipples. They nurse their young. I also remember that on a trip I made one winter to that astounding country, Estonia, for the filming of my book Passage de la nuit, we plucked up, so to speak, a young polar she-bear fast asleep in the hollow of a willow tree deep in the snowbound forests bordering the Gulf of Finland, above Tallinn. But not even the wildest dreams could conjure up a bear in these parts, there are no bears around here. And how could a frog or pipistrelle ever manage to wrap itself in those papers and rags? How would it have survived the winter, or ten winters, or maybe a hundred ? And how much less could a human offspring, male or female . . .”

Here the monstrous is linked to the ravages of history, of which the stoic land has seen so much. Much later, we get Pons and Fabien, father and son, flipping through a fantastical bestiary (Claude Roy’s Arts fantastiques) to find the picture that best expresses the true nature of Mademoiselle B. as they have imagined it for themselves. The image Pons settles on is the one reproduced threefold for the American cover, Athanasius Kircher’s 17th century illustration “Bat, Known as a Flying Cat, from China”: Pons describes it thusly:

“With membranous wings outspread like a shroud and pinned to a door with crude nails, the velvety creature without arms or legs resembles a combination of vampire bat and barren female sphinx. Still, she’s a woman. She has a woman’s silken flanks, or rather those of an adolescent girl, the rounded contours and gentle depressions, the firm young breasts, like artichoke buds, planted high on the slopes. She has, in the hollow of her belly, the inevitable, fascinating navel—oh woman, born of woman, perverse and contrary! She has, below her belly, the insidious, shadowy orifice… the cleft orifice, pathway to other worlds. A woman, yes… with dimpled, slightly feline features, pointed ears, a flat nose, eyes like bitter almonds sunk into the soft down of her forehead. A vision of horror, captivating horror. A creature mutilated yet living, flayed alive and crucified in its own blood.”

It will only reinforce the sense I have given of the novel’s quietude that this amounts to an almost climactic or at least pivotal scene, shot through with almost equal parts menace and tenderness. For Pons comes to this realization about both Mademoiselle B. and his son:

“Only then did I realize that apart from the detective story aspect of some local happenings, he, like myself, was in quest of some fundamental, arresting truth, as if behind those icy blue eyes or under those white lace gloves, the lady possessed the key to a secret anchored in the hearts of men.”

It is common to observe that our fascination with monsters comes from recognition: we are kin to monsters because the true monster lies within. Much the same way, in stories of the fantastic where the central issue is belief, one explanation for the unexplained is often ourselves.  But that is only half the story. The monster, having been externalized, has a life of its own. The monster is at once both self and other; together, these contribute to its irreducibility as symbol.

Monsters are more than our failings personified; they are impersonal forces, like accident, and horrible randomness. But even then, it is arguably from our failings, or from guilt over them, that we go to meet monsters, that we recognize the justice of chance. The monster we meet is the one we deserve—or so we tell ourselves in this last-ditch attempt at wresting a shred of sense from the flaming wreckage. There is no end to the mystery of our failings. Our flaws are a bottomless abyss.

When is a vampire like a death wish? When you have lost all reason to live, and all your hopes but one, which has the virtue of being an eventuality.  We all have our ineluctable appointments in Samarra, but is that any reason to break the speed limit?

The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Clarion alumnus Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright foundation, the Centre National du Livre, and the American Literary Translators’ Association. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. Other publications have appeared in F&SF, LCRW, Podcastle, Pseudopod, Postscripts, Subtropics, Conjunctions, Tin House, and PEN America. He is the contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, and translates comics for Top Shelf, Archaia, and Lerner.

One reply to “Mademoiselle B. by Maurice Pons

  1. Pingback: …aaaand we’re back!