Jean Muno’s Unusual Tales

The Silver Age of the Belgian School of the Strange

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If the gods of Golden Age of the Belgian School of the Strange are Jean Ray, Thomas Owen, and Franz Hellens, its Silver Age hero is surely Jean Muno. The only child of writer parents, Muno was born Robert Burniaux in a Brussels suburb in 1924—the year André Breton published the first Surrealist Manifesto, as Muno is fond of pointing out. He took his pen name from a town in the Gaume region, where his family often vacationed. A schoolteacher for much of his early life, in 1955 he settled with his family in Malaise (Flemish: Maleizen), a hamlet of Walloon Brabant near Belgium’s linguistic border. For the rest of his life, Muno could not resist making jokes about where he lived, especially given the unsettling fantastical nature of his fiction.

Muno began publishing in the mid-50s, but it was with his fourth novel, L’hipparion (Julliard, 1962) that he really hit his stride, coming into his own as the unique fantasist he was to be. Set on Belgium’s North Sea shore—the nation’s beloved Riviera—it concerns an aging archeologist who discovers a fossil skeleton of the titular equine ancestor, and his ensuing battle to keep his discovery secret. The features of Muno’s later work are all here: lonely little boys lost in dreams, iconoclast codgers, the supernatural suddenly arising from the most ordinary circumstances,  the primacy of the imagined over the real, the satire of small-minded society written in vitriol. In 1963, he followed this with L’homme qui s’efface (The Man Who Erased Himself), a surreal novella about a teacher who, clinging to his umbrella in a storm, is transported to a magical land not unreminiscent of his classroom lessons. Over the next decade, Muno would pen a memoir, a science fiction radio play, a study of Francophone Belgian literature, and more novels. In 1974, he quit teaching to devote himself to writing, and in 1979, took Belgium’s top literary prize, the Prix Rossel, for his second of three story collections, Histoires singulières (Jacques Antoine, 1979). To give some sense of publishing in Belgium, a land of small presses, Histoires singulières owed its extravagant first print run of 3000 copies to Muno’s already established reputation. The Prix Rossel resulted in another run of 3000.

But what strange, unusual, singular tales they are! They are ten, and partake of almost every kind of the fantastic. “Cartoon” is an alien encounter story, wistful and deceptive as a sprinkler-misted flowerbed in, say, Blue Velvet. “The Lady with the Dog” and “Nobody” are old-fashioned ghost yarns, the first about a familiar cemetery walker, and the second about an old, importunate friend. With surreal violence, “The Chair” details the clash of a vacationer and mysteriously sentient beach furniture. Equally short and powerful—almost flash fiction—“Homesickness” takes as its inspiration the famous Magritte painting to develop a melancholy tale of the petty fragility of routine in the face of an indifferent cosmos. “The Ghoul” is a weird tale not unlike Haruki Murakami’s “The Ice Man,” spanning years in the relationship between a man and the eponymous apparition. There are more than passing allusions to existing bodies of fantastical literature: vampires; Greek mythology (plus The Odyssey and Ray’s Malpertuis); Planète, the Francophone revue of “fantastical realism”; the Fortean Times… Muno’s broad embrace of the speculative spectrum lends the collection a showcase exuberance, as if it were a dry run for later explorations, deeper but narrower.

Also consistent in these tales is a scorn for suburbia, its stagnant mores. Muno is adept at dissecting that morally bankrupt land of the averted gaze, and ventriloquizing the puffed-up bluster of its hypocritically indignant inhabitants. These days, the corruption of the suburbs has been done to death, but Muno was writing at the height of suburban social critique and expression of ennui. The squabbles are petty and the stakes low: propriety, dignity, seemliness. The plots kick off with some Cheeveresque trifle over stubbed pride, and yet beneath these one senses an abyss always yawning, of which sudden swerves of phrase or story make us abruptly aware. The good citizens—nosy neighbors in prudish provincial towns ruled by fear and vestigial Christianity—waver between ignorance and precarious comprehension. How paltry are things on which they stake their identity: front steps that “had the clean distinctness of a set of false teeth.”

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A closer look, then, at the collection’s longer stories: “The Voice of Blood” presents a vampire, Monsieur Báthory, of the shabby-genteel aristocracy (a mark of how far his family has fallen is how often he brings it up) attracted to the boarder he and his wife have been forced to take in: a young, flighty woman unhappy in love. Of course vampirism, like much of this collection’s supernatural content, is alluded to (hinted at in glimpses and flashes) but never named. This seems less a classical strategy to draw out suspense than a natural, perhaps national reticence in whatever narratorial voice the author assumes, as if bald statement were in bad taste. There is sibling rivalry, ancestral skullduggery, weird humor and poetry—the young boarder’s blood, a bit high in cholesterol, proves too rich a meal for the unaccustomed Báthory, who promptly vomits—but the story turns on a poignant moment of marital disillusion: a husband shocked to learn, after thirty comfortable years, how little his wife really knows him, when he had considered them “a true couple,” with an “identical way of understanding things.”

In “Glove of Passion,” a trick of synecdoche, the black leather item in question lures the recently unemployed Peter Manderly into something like an affair. It lives in the crack of a café banquette with a coaster, a bottle top, a key ring, and more transient tenants, like loose change. The first time Peter’s hand seeks her out (for it is a she), she nips at him, leaving a whiff of perfume; the second time, she caresses his fingers. Only later does he realize his wedding ring is missing.

As with “Cartoon” and its gently dotty heroine, these stories feature baffled, hapless, or befuddled men often grappling with temptation, and concerned no matter their age with some kind of propriety, to which some insoluble problem is presented, usually in female form. Propriety (“What will they think?”) is intimately bound up with identity (“What do/should I do?”), as perhaps befits the shame society of an overcrowded bourgeois country unsure of its national character. Gossip polices.

Muno can be a very cruel writer, especially in his last lines:

“the triumphant light of summer, inexorable as pain”

“that ever more terrible fragrance of violets… the depraved odor of death.”

“the black hand rising like a bird of prey holding between its claws a pale glove streaming red.”

Much of Muno’s menace, and also his understated comedy, arise from his characters’ studious refusal to confront the uncanny with anything but the resolutely mundane.

“His conjectures were most assuredly far too logical for a story that, as readers will no doubt have noticed, had advanced a bit beyond the margins of the usual chain of events, right from the start.”

Muno’s sense of the fantastic is itself scrupulously anchored in the real. Writing on Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, critic and translator John Taylor, noted that the author’s persuasiveness and ability to unsettle derive from the “parsimony” with which are measured out “the telltale frissons of supernatural fiction.” The same is true of Muno, who has said:

“Although my stories are often strange… they sink their roots into the commonplace, as if the fantastic were the natural extension of the banal, which is the way we prudently live life in my little, too comfortable country, where great spaces and great ambitions don’t exist, where nothing ever happens, but where everything seems possible because we live in our imaginations, in our folly, which erases boundaries, even the boundary that separates us from the ever-present invisible. Is this a natural extension or a permanent menace to established order? Fear or a temptation toward the unknown?”

What makes Muno an exemplary Silver Age author is that he wrote with a conscious sense of tradition, of continuing a lineage. He was a great believer in Franz Hellens’ concept of “le fantastique reel,” the “real fantastic,” which for him translated a specifically Belgian “malaise… not a purely gratuitous literary exercise.” The typically Belgian insistence on prudence and the commonplace seem unlikely soil for a thriving fantastical tradition, but to Muno, “fantasies are the expression of the paradoxical ambiguity of my situation in particular and of life in general.” In 1981, he was one of several noted fantastical writers—Thomas Owen, Anne Richter, and critic Jean-Baptiste Baronian—who collaboated in creating an International Center for the Fantastic in Abbaye de Forest-lez-Bruxelles, which helped unite writers of similar bent and formalize the Belgian School of the Strange as a literary movement. That same year, he was elected to the Belgian Royal Academy of Francophone Language and Literature.

Muno’s fantasy was to prove, above all, a complex working-out of his publicly proclaimed love-hate relationship with his native land. His characters’ dilemmas have that hint of loving condescension native to neurosis and the divided self. “It’s in Belgium that I breathe and choke,” Muno says about his ambivalence toward his homeland, a country 1/12 the size of Montana with 15 times the population. This ambivalence suits the “national ambiguity”: “Belgian writers… express themselves in spite of their dual cultural heritage.” The Belgian fascination with doubles may be credited in part to this national schizophrenia: Belgium is not a naturally occurring country, and should never have existed. It is artificial, a condition imposed by neighboring powers to end the Napoleonic wars. The history of its identity is the history of trying to cope with being a buffer state. Perhaps the story that most directly tackles this question of uncertain identity is “The Medium.” Told in the present tense, it is a progressively chilling tale. Its hero Gerard is a hapless, willing, well-intentioned young man whose identity is eventually subsumed into that of a dead husband whose elderly widow he serves as a caretaker.

It is interesting, then, that in the final story of Histoires singulières, Muno chooses to give his protagonist a measure of freedom and escape, however ambiguous, however uncertain what lies ahead remains. By far the collection’s longest tale, “The Iguana” episodically recounts the dissolution of a marriage engagement, and the narrator’s general awakening… but to what?

“That was when it all began, I think. Everything that happened to me happened in the fringes. As if, from that moment on, bit by bit, I drew away from my regular route to follow one less obvious, but just as real—detour or shortcut?—indicated by mysterious signs… Rest assured: I’m no visionary, I write these lines in full possession of my reason. I am incapable of leaving my lived experience behind.”

A travel agent, he soon finds his nocturnal adventures offer him “the fantastic… as the strange other side of the everyday,” a succinct summation of Muno’s approach. The story ends on a train, in mood and setting like the ending of Let the Right One In.

Muno has been previously translated by Kim Connell: “Glove of Passion” and “Voice of Blood” not only bookend a slim volume of nine Muno stories drawn from throughout his career, but together, lend their titles to that volume: Glove of Passion, Voice of Blood (1986) from the defunct Owl Creek Press. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend seeking out this out-of-print book—Connell’s translations are clumsy and, when not outright wrong, inadequately convey the sprightliness of Muno’s tone—but for interested readers, it is better than nothing. I do, however, owe a debt to Connell for his pioneering work on the Belgian fantastic, and his introductions to his two books are perceptive. Connell personally worked with Muno, interviewed him, and solicited from him an introduction to the Glove of Passion, Voice of Blood, from which I have quoted.

Whimsy, dire irony, sudden surreality, and dashes of the absurd—Muno’s work wears all these hallmarks on its sleeve. His wit and light touch only serve to make the occasional flash of savagery—the claw unsheathed, the fang bared—all the more unsettling. He died in 1988 from a tumor of the optic nerve.

Two-time winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Clarion alum Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright program, the Centre National du Livre, and the Lannan Foundation. 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 The New York Times, F&SF, Tin House, Conjunctions, Subtropics, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Postscripts, and PEN America. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he writes a monthly column on the Francophone fantastic at Weird Fiction Review. His most recent translation is Jean Ferry’s The Conductor and Other Tales, from Wakefield Press.

5 replies to “Jean Muno’s Unusual Tales

  1. Pingback: The Conductor & Other Tales by Jean Ferry (translated from the French by Edward Gauvin) |

  2. Pingback: The Ghoul | Edward Gauvin and Jean Muno | Weird Fiction Review

  3. Jean Muno’s short story “Cartoon” forthcoming in the fall issue of Conjunctions: Other Aliens, edited by Elizabeth Hand and Bradford Morrow!