Marcel Brion: Invitation to the Voyage

The first of two posts discussing the work of French fabulist Marcel Brion (1895-1984).

A music hall violinist is haunted by a Vivaldi sonata only he can play, which has the power to start fires and summon the devil. A man wanders into a painting of a Dutch trading port, where a trawler captain on his deathbed relives, even as his wife poisons him, the day he netted a rotting mermaid. Music from a glass organ summons ghosts into a garden to re-enact an unforgiven scene of spurned love. A traveler in a distant desert land crosses paths at a tavern with the prince of death. A writer on the fringes of a war is brought through a secret passage to witness the passing of a figure of mythical ruthlessness, the Grand-Marshal of Fear. A man, obsessed by a condemned palazzo whose owner refuses to sell, sneaks inside only to be caught between an inventor and his female captive, who are plotting their escape from Venice by hot air balloon. The reclusive eccentric Lorimer White, sole denizen of an abandoned theatre, seeks to bequeath his marionettes to a sympathetic soul who will care for them. A man, trying to find his way back to a room whose number he has forgotten, finds behind the doors of his hotel a series of increasingly outlandish landscapes, from deserted squares to carnival shooting galleries to “a man seated at a table who held out a book, a knife, and a hat in quick succession and then, discouraged, cut off his hand, focused on the blood that spurted out, as if from too narrow a pipe, into a paper basket.”

The son of a Marseille lawyer, Marcel Brion hailed from a family with Irish and Provençal roots (his surname a Frenchified O’Brien). Novelist, essayist, biographer, historian, the author of more than a hundred works, he is best remembered as an all-around man of letters, of a kind that no longer exists. The product of a classical education, fluent in seven languages, he was a veritable—often literal—Renaissance man, becoming an authority on German Romanticism, Italian Renaissance art, and classical music. He penned lives of Giotto, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and da Vinci; Turner, Cézanne, Kandinsky, and Klee; Schumann and Mozart, Machiavelli and Lorenzo de Medici, Goethe and Kipling, Tamerlane and Attila the Hun. Decorated in the Great War, he was a member of the Academie Française, an Officer of the Legion of Honor and the Order of Arts and Letters. A regular contributor to the leading literary revues of the day, Brion in his editorship of Le Monde’s foreign literature pages brought to French attention a range of authors including Rilke, Joyce, and Dino Buzzati. He was a humanist, a scholar, and a romantic. At the age of 29, he quit the bar to become a writer.

The range of his expertise, seemingly diverse, ultimately formed a sort of whole: a Europe that made sense, an unbroken continuum of culture and beauty. He was an heir to glorious centuries of artistic and intellectual tradition that flowered before the 20th century. Why, then, was his fiction, largely overshadowed by other literary activities in his lifetime, obsessed with night, death, decay, disaster, dreams, escape, and loss? His fictional output, almost entirely fabulist, explores an underside, charts the gaps and crevices in the great edifice of civilization, of which he was otherwise such a model citizen. And in any history of the Francophone fantastic, he rates unfailingly high.

Brion’s reputation for fantastical short fiction rests primarily on two collections: Les Escales de la haute nuit (1942, “Waystations of the High Night”) and La Chanson de l’oiseau étranger (1958, “Song of the Foreign Bird” or, if you will, “Song of the Bird from Distant Lands”). The first has had a durable life, first resurfacing in 1971 (in the influential Marabout fantastique paperback imprint that popularized the genre for a new generation, leading to its resurgence), and again in 1986. The second, containing tales written from the ‘30s to the ‘50s, takes up several tales from an early chapbook, Théatre des esprits (“Theatre of Spirits”). Both were reissued in the posthumous collected Contes fantastiques (1989).

Make no mistake, these are extremely traditional stories. Their props, motifs, and iconography all draw from a classical repertory that, played straight, can seem a bit cliché today: ghosts, decrepit manors and crumbling palaces, puppets and dolls, doppelgangers, forgotten streets, seamy Venezia, imps, carnivals, statues, baroque grotesquerie, a certain dated orientalia. His themes, too, appear either timeless or old-fashioned, informed by his affinity for Kleist, Tieck, Novalis, above all Hoffmann and Achim von Arnim. Yet they are dignified, exalted, even made resplendent, by a magisterial prose style and a peerlessly sustained sense of mystery, often in the absence of traditional plot or character psychology.

Brion brings the full scope of his erudition to bear in his dense prose. Highly poetic, self-consciously wrought, it exploits the ornate syntactical structures for which French is infamous, only to test their stress and fatigue in describing the impossible. It can seem fusty in its veneration for classical canons of beauty; finicky in its exactitude; when not musical, then merely repetitive in its layering of imagery; belabored in its exhaustive detail; and mannered in its high-art gravitas. Yet at its best it feels profoundly considered, beautifully laden, a marvel of intimation and perspective. It makes his worlds feel inhabited, every last object possessed of the “rigorous materiality” he was after, description worked thoroughly into the grain of their wood. His stories almost seem to progress as a series of still lives; “La Capitaine,” for instance, turns the relatively simple event of a boy kidnapped by a tapestry into more a rumination on that traditional, fairly predictable plot than any attempt to deploy it for suspense or surprise. Brion’s titular “haute nuit” is no everyday phrase, but like a rare coin bears the stamp of its maker: “high” night in the sense of high seas—open, remote, a place where anything at all might happen. All you’d have in the way of clues about the nature of that anything was the word of someone who’d come back from it, as isolated by their experience upon their return as they were isolated by distance while away.

Throughout his life, Brion’s curiosity was always drawn outward, toward the Other—almost any Other, whether international or supernatural, foreign or esoteric. And so, perhaps fittingly, no matter their topic, Brion’s stories often take the form of a voyage, ever pushing into the unknown. His narrators are frequently wanderers without plan or destination, reporting on strange scenes or otherworldly sights. It’s almost like travel writing of the fantastic. As at the end of Kelly Link’s “Flying Lessons,” when June steps “off the map of the known world,” Brion’s “Song of the Foreign Bird” ends with these words: “And we walked above them [the birds], already far from the city shutting its gates behind us, knowing we would not return, since ahead of us lay space.”

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.