“There was a story, probably apocryphal, that James T. Kirk had once said that captaining the Enterprise was like making love in a fish bowl. You couldn’t make a move without someone voicing an opinion about your technique.” ~ David Gerrold, Star Trek: The Next Generation – Encounter At Farpoint
So, let’s talk about technique. This week we present, side by side for comparison, two short-shorts of similar setting, action, mechanics, and thematics, by two authors of entirely different temperaments. The ingredients: fish, porous aquarium walls, lonely men, and erotic currents both beneath and on the surface.
The first is by Marcel Béalu, whom I’ve discussed before in the context of a longer story, “The Water Spider,” though he’s best known for his short-shorts. This one, “Le Bocal,” was first published in the “Théâtre Souterrain” section of Mémoires de l’ombre (1944), a volume that went through numerous reprints from a variety of publishers, starting with Gallimard, then going on to Éric Losfeld’s* Éditions Le Terrain Vague, the mass-market Marabout Fantastique (1972) imprint that did much to popularize the fantastique, and most recently, the classy literary indie Phébus (1987), which specialized in obscure reprints. “Le Bocal” was also included in another selection of Béalu’s shorts, L’aventure impersonnelle et autres contes fantastiques (Le Terrain Vague, 1954; later reprinted by Marabout, 1966, and again by Phébus, 1991). It was also among a selection of 10 Béalu shorts featured in issue #67 of Fiction (June 1959), the French sister publication of F&SF, alongside stories by Alfred Bester, Fritz Leiber, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Poul Anderson, and editor Alain Dorémieux.
Without further ado:
“The Goldfish Bowl” by Marcel Béalu (translated by Simon Watson Taylor**)
Impossible to concentrate on my book with this fish swimming round and round in its bowl! My gaze kept on wandering back to this luminous, moving creature, the one particle of life inhabiting my solitude. After staring fixedly at the glass for a long time, it seemed to me that its guest had passed through the transparent wall and was swimming around in the room, mocking me with its golden undulations. One day I got so annoyed that I smashed the bowl. The floor glittered as though with a flash of sparks. To make my revenge sure, I picked up the tiny creature which gave one last wriggle in my hand. Then, as it finally lay still, I found to my utter amazement that the icy object I was grasping between my fingers was a golden key. The key! … I understood in a flash. Racing from my room like one possessed, I hurried across town and, with the aid of this marvelous key, let myself into the house which even the previous evening had been forbidden territory to me, the house of the woman I loved. She was waiting for me, completely transformed, a thousand times more beautiful than when I had last seen her in my dreams. I clasped her in my arms, and for one brief moment her writhing movements reminded me of the goldfish’s final convulsions. But already she was encircling me with the caresses of flowing rivers. And as I reached a paroxysm of voluptuous pleasure the walls around me began sparkling like crystal, while an icy coldness began to invade my limbs and I could feel, in helpless horror, my skin gradually become hard and scaly.
What can be said about this? The action is swift, and the navigation deft between registers of reality and dream. In fact, the reality is hard to locate and quickly left behind. Expert compression makes the successive transformations even more alarming. There is a whiff of fairy tale (the golden key, the beautiful woman, the crystal palace) and, at the end, a pinch of parable. Love and death are linked in their endless dance, and just as at the end of “The Water Spider,” voluptuous surrender leads to horror. Reviewing it for Fiction #224 (August 1972, reprinted at Noosphere, the online French speculative fiction database), leading SF writer Jean-Pierre Andrévon describes it thus: “You think you hold the key to the greatest love of your life and you wind up a goldfish in a bowl.” Meanwhile, reader JNP, at his blog De Spookrijder, rightly compares it to Cortazar’s “Axolotl” and the drawings of M.C. Escher. Sensual details keep the story from melting away into metaphor, and yet metaphor is clearly a source of its power.
The second story is “Le Brochet,” by Belgian Jacques Sternberg, black humorist and speculative nihilist. Sternberg, who also started with Losfeld, also excelled at flash fiction, and beside him, Béalu’s work more resembles the prose poem. Sternberg had a mad energy, and may have overproduced; if Béalu was an explorer of dreams and interiority, a retiring poet and bookseller, Sternberg was a fierce satirist of his time, a friend of Roland Topor, a precursor of the Panic Movement. “Le Brochet” was one of two Sternberg stories anthologized in Marcel Schneider’s memorable milestone Histoires fantastiques d’aujourd’hui (1964).
“The Pike” by Jacques Sternberg (my translation)
I’d had it for a week.
I’d put it in a great glass cube on the mantel.
Its size was slightly shocking when unfurled in its entirety, as if tacked to the room’s broad wall.
At night—every night—I’d pull up a chair and sit right in front of the aquarium, watching.
The pike almost always positioned itself across from me. Slowly, by millimeters, it drew closer to the wall of glass. Then it would stop, and watch me back.
All I could see of the pike then were great lips drawn downward at the corners, stretched in a strange pout of contempt or disgust. Those empty, colorless eyes; its knack for staying completely still, or fluttering its fins so faintly as to graze the inconceivable.
I could watch it for hours at a time, wondering what on earth it was plotting. For bit by bit, I had grown convinced it was waiting for something, I couldn’t say what, no doubt an opportunity, a promising opportunity to suddenly— Nor did I know what, exactly, it might suddenly spring into… That much was almost certain when I watched its glum face, the face of a sly object; it was all jaw and its jaw was all rictus, but hiding something… I knew what it hid. One evening, the pike had given me a glimpse behind the scenes: teeth like blades, planted in implacability.
All this worried me, but that worry was seductive; it was the very reason I was fond of that fish. I wouldn’t have loved it with such panicky passion if I hadn’t known it to be dangerous and deceitful; on the other hand, I would certainly have done away with it had I really believed I was in any danger.
What had I to fear? What was there to fear?
One night, at last, I found out.
I’d just gone to sleep. No suspect rustling, no sudden light, nothing abnormal around me and yet something happened; some intuition of the unusual in me, definitive, ever more harrowing.
I woke abruptly, sat up, switched the light on.
At once, I turned toward the aquarium.
It was empty.
Seaweed bobbed in the water. It seemed unsteady, a bit drunk.
Thoughts, all absurd, went through my head in a second’s glance. I leapt out of bed, grabbed an empty bottle, and stationed myself by the door, while the most ludicrous questions were demolished by answers no less preposterous.
But they were all wrong, questions and answers alike; reality left the absurd far behind. Suddenly I saw the pike, I should have seen it right from the start, so unbelievable a sight my eyes had passed right over it. The pike was in a corner of the room, rigid, perfectly alive, six feet up between floor and ceiling. It floated there, fluttering its fins, drawing slowly closer as if through water, implacable, headed straight for me, lips already parted beneath eyes of dead wood.
I may have done Sternberg’s twist a disservice by juxtaposing it with the Béalu story: readers are predisposed to suspect the fish’s escape. But Béalu is also breathless, headlong; Sternberg may himself have made his turn toward the fantastic more predictable by making us wait for it. Does the story work as anything more than a Gotcha! surprise?
I think so. Both pieces are after bigger fish, so to speak, than what’s on the page. While Béalu’s logic and leaps of imagery are dreamlike, his prose is rather concrete. Sternberg’s sentences, paradoxically, tail off into metaphysical contemplation, sly objects grazing “the inconceivable,” yet “planted in implacability.” Béalu’s abstractions occur at a macro-level, Sternberg’s at a micro- one.
Nor is Sternberg’s prose less honed for its frank expressions and analyses of feeling. What are the virtues of obviousness? Rather than disparaging Sternberg for relative bluntness, we might ponder the uses to which bluntness might be put, and the instances in which it is effective. Sternberg’s piece unfurls much more like a traditional story, but does that make it more pedestrian? He delivers establishing shot, geography, psychology, and build, while Béalu presents us with something more hermetic and rarefied. To each his own approach. Gaze into the waters, and they gaze also into you. “The Goldfish Bowl” is a circle, “The Pike” is a straight line. Where Béalu contemplates fate, Sternberg writes a dark valentine to the menace of romance. Both insist that the absolute reality of the moment is no dream. Both know that the best way to end a short-short is to leave things hanging.
*The publisher of more than 1,000 books—including works by Ionesco, Duchamp, and Boris Vian—Losfeld (1922-1979) occupies an important place in the histories of censorship and the avant-garde. His erotica list included Sacher-Masoch and Emmanuelle, while his interests in comics (Barbarella) trace the midcentury intersection of experimental and popular literatures.
**A note on the translation: Simon Watson Taylor (1923–2005) was an English actor, a secretary for the British Surrealist Group, and a proponent of ’Pataphysics, that French avant-garde pseudo-philosophy known as the “science of imaginary solutions.” Taylor edited the English language surrealist review Free Union and translated Breton’s nonfiction and plays by Boris Vian, as well as works by Antonin Artaud, Louis Aragon, and ’Pataphysics founder Alfred Jarry. His collection of Jarry’s The Ubu Plays (Methuen, 1968) included translations by himself and Cyril Connolly. He also co-edited, with Roger Shattuck, the famous May-June 1960 special issue of Barney Rosset’s Evergreen Review devoted to ’Pataphysics:
If these names ring a bell, it may be because Jean Ferry had similar attachments. And so naturally, it was while translating Ferry that I made the acquaintance of Taylor’s translations, and came to their close study. He edited an absolutely astounding volume called French Writing Today (Penguin, 1968) that ranged all across the French literary scene at the time, including many fabulists never before or since translated. The list of authors I love in it goes on: Pierre Bettencourt, André Hardellet, Mandiargues, Béalu—all in Taylor’s own translations. Grove released it in the US the following year, cementing their status in the 60s and 70s as the great publisher of the European avant-garde.
I rarely rag on other translators; in a profession filled with nitpicking, I find it unbecoming. And I am never less than impressed the first time I read a Taylor translation, at the limpid fluency, the crystalline meaning, he’s managed to coax from any French text. So since this column is all about alternative approaches, let’s just say Taylor’s verve and fluidity are matched only by the liberties he takes with the original. Sometimes these are arguably improvements. Sometimes they are clarifications—always a tricky call in fantastical tales, which depend on transitions and mystery. Every translator breaks up sentences, re-orders clauses. In his translation of Ferry’s “La Maison Bourgenew,” Taylor goes so far as to re-order sentences and actions. He also adds and subtracts words, embroidering at will. He does the same with Béalu.
The simple fishbowl of the title becomes “The Goldfish Bowl,” rivers are “flowing rivers”; toward the end, the “icy coldness” should perhaps be a “deathly” one, and does the “horror” really need to be intensified as “helpless” or the narrator’s skin as both “hard” and scaly? In fact, to stickle and stick to the French, the coldness should be spreading throughout the narrator’s body, not simply beginning to invade his limbs, and that body is being covered in scales—nothing is said about “gradually.” In fact, the problems really start with Taylor’s interpretation of the first line. The French expostulation is simple “Impossible de lire avec ce poisson dans son bocal !” I might render it as “How could I read with that fish in its bowl?” A translation is a reading, the record of the translator’s comprehension. Here, Taylor’s additions of “concentrate on my book” and “swimming round and round in its bowl” to the first sentence read to me, at least, like the translator explaining the action to himself, and gratuitously leaving it there for fear readers won’t follow. I call these breadcrumbs, best swept away in revision.
Yet for all that, can Taylor actually be said to be betraying the spirit of the original? I have yet to encounter that in his work; he has such sympathy for the kind of work that interests him, and a sure grasp of tone, which he sometimes amplifies with a certain theatricality. Still, small changes can add up to big shifts. The residual literalist in me bridles. For me, at least, Taylor provides an instructive model for the outer limits of acceptable alteration. This is an incredibly useful service, especially for beginning translators hewing to each word and fearing every tiny step away. I like to think that, perhaps with more brainstorming and revision, something of Taylor’s admirable verve can still be captured within closer constraints. After all, constraints are said to force invention.