Weird France and Belgium: A Best Of

Belgian and French authors

“Yet, I also began to have the sense, fostered in part by the cross-contamination of research, that around the world enclaves that never knew one another—writers who could not have read each other—still had communicated across decades and across vast distances, had stared up at the same shared unfamiliar constellations in the night sky, heard the same unearthly music: a gorgeous choir of unique yet interlocking imaginations and visions and phantoms. At such times, you wonder as both a writer and an editor if you are creating narrative or merely serving as a conduit for what was already there.”

So writes Jeff VanderMeer in a searching, enlightening recent article at The Atlantic. Happily, he and his wife the amazing editor Ann, co-founded this site, Weird Fiction Review, for this very purpose: to explore enclaves of Weirdness around the world, Weirdness that may have developed outside of other influences, or braided garbled versions of such influences into its own traditions, or responded to reigning forms of Weirdness but not been heard in return—putting all these in conversation with each other. WFR is a showcase for the Weird in all its international glory, adding far flung members to the “gorgeous choir.” Here the Weird—its ancient and evolving records of encounters with radical alterities—dovetails with the very contemporary project of exploring the earthly alterities of other cultures, at once refuting and embracing universality, or else fractally complicating its older, easier models with new particulars.

A brief index, then, of my selected contributions to WFR since its inception in 2011: authors translated or profiled in the rich field of the French and Belgian Weird, to point your way to some of the rich reading to be found on this site. After all, there’s something of a love affair between French and English literatures, especially where the fantastic is concerned. French Decadents were reflected in the dark mirror of their British brethren and in the American “weird tale,” somber hybrid of fantasy and horror. Even contemporary genrebending movements of literary fantasy like the New Weird (China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer) and New Wave Fabulism (Kelly Link, Jonathan Lethem) cite the contes cruels and fantastique as forerunners. But why should the last communiqués from French shores date more than a century back, or to the Surrealists at best? Consider this effort an overdue letter between two long-divided lovers once close, but fallen largely out of touch, a billet doux to rekindle the relationship between the French and English fantastic.

These traditions, twinned at birth, have as much to learn from their independent evolutions as from their history of mutual influence. Seeing where they vary and diverge can only fertilize, diversify the conversation, and seed the ground for future exchange. The postwar fantastique, steeped in decades of surrealism, drew new life from continental fabulism (Calvino, Kafka, Schulz), which married folklore with experimental form; the South American magic realism of cosmopolitan expatriates (Paz, Borges, Cortázar); and the frenetic inventiveness of a new field, genre fantasy. Contemporary French fantastical movements like La Nouvelle Fiction seek to rouse French writing from “the slumber of psychological realism,” and have much to offer recently renewed interest in the metafictions of Coover, Barth, and Barthelme. The Belgian School of the Strange is another domestically vibrant but internationally overlooked tradition on display here.

Francophonia features writers and styles, from classical to experimental, clever to vengeful, understated to outrageous, wistful to wicked. Here are Académie mandarins and contemporary hopefuls, one-hit wonders and the unjustly forgotten, bestsellers and writer’s writers, scholars and dabblers, outsiders and literati. Some are sui generis, some descended from long tradition; all are united in their use of the unreal. Together, they have won every major literary prize in France and Belgium, and many minor ones, several times over: the Goncourt (in the novel and short story categories), the Femina, the Renaudot, the Rossel, the Grand Prix de l’Académie française (for a single work and for lifetime achievement),  the Grand Prix National des Lettres. Six are Chevaliers of the Order of Arts and Letters (and four of the Legion of Honor)Most of these authors have never been translated into English, while translations of the others are outdated, out-of-print, or obscure to begin with (tiny print runs from tinier presses).

Given the breadth of historical span, the variety of theme and subject, the diversity of form, you’ll find: refashioned fairy tales, insinuating fables, absurdist prose poems, macabre parables, mocking twists, haunting ambiguities, austere mysteries, gory histories, cunning disappearances, unforgiving metamorphoses, unbidden malice, crippling rue, singular creatures, terrible decisions, vertiginous terrors, glorious paradox (cerebrally Borgesian and playfully Lewis-Carrolingian alike), lonely reverie, outlandish ribaldry, radical subjectivities, subtle slippage, sudden madness.

“We like to think that we understand our universe,” writes VanderMeer, “but I came away from these readings with a sense of weird fiction as a potentially powerful way in which to find the distance and the universality to grapple with the negation of that idea.” There are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than are dreamt of in our anthologies.

Some Belgians:

  • Thomas Owen (1910 – 2002): with Jean Ray, regularly cited as a pillar of Belgian fantastical fiction, and the nom de plume of Gérald Bertot: criminal lawyer, art critic, mystery writer, and career manager of a flour plant. In more than 300 stories over the course of his lifetime, Owen refined the tale of supernatural horror to an almost anachronistic degree of economy and purity. His unsettling work has been compared to that of Poe and Buzzati. A consistency of worldview emanates from Owen’s oeuvre: an existential dread, one that Thomas Ligotti correctly identified (in a blurb where he name-checked Owen) as “the nightmare of being alive.” His story “Kavar the Rat”  and a nonfiction appreciation of Lovecraft are available here at Weird Fiction Review; his story “The Women Who Watch” is available at The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review. Audio versions of both stories are at Pseudopod.
  • The only child of writer parents, Jean Muno was born in a Brussels suburb in 1924 — the year André Breton published the first Surrealist Manifesto, as Muno is fond of pointing out. 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. 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 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.” His tale “The Ghoul” is available at Weird Fiction Review.
  • Anne RichterAnne Richter (1939 – ): anthologist, scholar, and formidable writer of fantastical short fiction, editor of the groundbreaking anthology Le fantastique féminin, named for her 1984 monograph on female contributions to the fantastical corpus, in which she asserted: “Women move at the heart of magic realism in a more spontaneous and concrete way than men; they do not reflect on it, they reflect it as though it were their natural and daily element… With neither argument nor pride, women enter easily into the supernatural, whose existence seems, a priori, indisputably obvious to them.” Her work has appeared online at The Collagist and is forthcoming in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology of feminist speculative fiction, Sisters of the Revolution.
  • Eugène Savitzkaya (1955 – ) is a creature of limens, spaces of detente, unlikely juxtapositions. Belgian by birth of Ukranian descent, long admired but little known, Savitzkaya is generally classed as a poet despite having penned plays, essays, and more than twelve novels. And these novels — plotless, impressionistic, glories of language and consciousness, brief unchaptered bursts all from France’s leading avant-garde publisher, Minuit — surely they partake more of poetry than prose? Savitzkaya stands at the consciousness-expanding intersection of Weird and experiment. His work is available online at Drunken Boat and Anomalous, and forthcoming in Gigantic.
  • Bernard Quiriny (1978 – ): heir to the Belgian School of the Strange, contemporary critical darling Quiriny synthesizes disparate fantastical influences from Borges to Calvino, Robert Louis Stevenson to Enrique Vila-Matas in his playful, prizewinning, postmodern takes on classically fantastic themes. He has also written two novels: Les assoiffés (Seuil, 2010), a satirical dystopian alternate history of Belgium as a feminist totalitarian state, and most recently Le village évanoui (Flammarion, 2014). A profile of the author can be found at the NEA Writer’s Corner. His work has appeared in English at Subtropics (with author interviews in English and the French), The Coffin FactoryWorld Literature Today, here at Weird Fiction Review, and Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2012. New work is forthcoming in Bengal Lights and Subtropics.

Some French:

  • The early work of Pierrette Fleutiaux (1941 – ) was exclusively fantastical, and drew the admiration of Julio Cortazar. Her 1984 collection Les Métamorphoses de la reine, contemporary subversions of Perrault, won the Prix Goncourt for short stories. The first story from this collection, “The Ogre’s Wife,” was published in Grand Street (trans. Leigh Hafrey), selected for inclusion in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 1992 by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and also adapted into an opera.
  • There’s something oddly joyous in the stories of Jehanne Jean-Charles, even at their most malicious. She’s been compared to Saki, Bradbury, and Matheson, but the wink of her trick endings is one not of smugness but of merry complicity — a wink from your stylish, daffy aunt, the absent-minded one who wears galoshes, knows magic, and has unmanageable hair. “Isn’t life grand?” she’s apt to exclaim, giddy in the face of blackest misfortune, as if the universe had in causing suffering merely proved its infinite variety and capacity for surprise. Which is not to say that tragedy in her tales lacks suitable solemnity, that moving moments don’t get their due gravity. But bad things do befall the bulk of her characters, without apology or redress, sometimes even without explanation. The famously taboo-breaking Jean-Jacques Pauvert, her editor, said of her, “If she were English, she’d be read the world over.”
  • If Serge Brussolo (1951- ) is often called France’s answer to Stephen King, it is largely because of how consistently his countless titles (almost 200, sometimes at a pace of five or six a year) have become bestsellers. One of France’s most prolific authors, he has has worked with almost every major publisher in almost every genre: science fiction, fantasy, historical (WWII, Egypt, Middle Ages), suspense/thriller, horror, crime, and YA. Brussolo is most noted for his violent originality, the seemingly bottomless fecundity of his imagination, and the breathless sense of dread, a visceral fatalism, that pervades the worlds he creates. Brussolo’s protagonists, sometimes even entire communities, are often cut off from the larger world. Among his recurrent themes are the decay of social order, the illusory consolation of religion, imprisonment, and madness. His prose is marked by a density of playful neologisms, and an energy from feverish riffing on images and ideas that concretizes dreamscapes. His novel The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome, forthcoming in 2016, will mark his English-language debut.
  • André Pieyre de Mandiargues (1909-1991) was a French writer of the fantastic whose prolific output included poems, plays, essays, novels, and short stories. He also translated works by Yeats, Mishima, and Paz. Initially affiliated with Surrealism, he went on to be known for his flamboyant style and fascination with the erotic and macabre. His 1967 Goncourt-winning novel La marge was translated as The Margin (Calder & Boyars, 1969) by Richard Howard, and his novel La motocyclette (Gallimard, 1963) made into the film The Girl on a Motorcyle (1968) by Jack Cardiff. His story “The Red Loaf” is available at Words Without Borders.
  • Noël Devaulx (1905-1995) is the secret master of the 20th century French fantastique. His prose has the shimmer of Mérimée and the seemliness of Flaubert; clearly, he keeps Nerval by his bedside, the better to read it by the light of a Baudelairean lunacy. In his hands, the Kunstmärchen—nine collections’ worth, over nine decades—is reinvented as the vessel of a personal metaphysics; evident in every one is his mandarin mastery of narration. Jean Paulhan, an early champion, famously called his hermetic, exquisite tales, oft-featured in the Nouvelle Revue Française, “parables without keys”: spellbinding, even when perfectly obscure, for the secret to his prose is promise.
  • Writer, poet, and painter Pierre Bettencourt (1917-2006) was, despite coming from a prominent family, a retiring figure and lifelong outsider artist. He self-published his first works on a family-owned press during the Nazi occupation. He later published Antonin Artaud, Francis Ponge, Henri Michaux, and Jean Dubuffet. In the 1950s and 60s he was a frequent contributor to the Nouvelle revue française, and Gallimard later put out a volume of his selected works. He can be read online at Weird Fiction ReviewThe Collagist, and Anomalous.
  • Marcel BealuMarcel Béalu (1908-1993) was best known for the delicacy with which he explored dreams and the unreal in poetry, prose, and painting. A retiring figure, he ran a Paris bookstore by the Jardin du Luxembourg named Le Pont Traversé after a novel by his friend, critic and editor Jean Paulhan. There he held readings for a small circle of surrealist and fantastical writers; it is said Lacan, among his first customers, purchased Shakespeare’s complete works and forgot to pay for them. His 1945 novel L’Expérience de la nuit was translated by Christine Donougher as The Experience of Night (Dedalus, 1997). My translations of his work have appeared in Joyland, Anomalous, Unstuck, and The Café Irreal.
  • Jean Ferry (1906-1974) was primarily a screenwriter, best known for his collaborations with Clouzot, Buñuel, Louis Malle, and Georges Franju. A satrap of the College of ‘Pataphysics, he was known in his time as the greatest specialist in the works of Proust’s neighbor, Raymond Roussel. His only book of fantastical tales, The Conductor, was first published in 1953 and reprinted three times by various publishers, most recently in 2011 by Éditions Finitude.  Andre Breton called Ferry’s story “The Society Tiger” “the most sensationally new poetical text I have read in a long time.” I received a PEN America grant to translate his work, which has appeared in Subtropics, Weird Fiction Review, PEN America, Sentence, Anomalous, The Coffin Factory, Birkensnake, Gigantic, and The Café Irreal. In November 2013, Wakefield Press published my translation of The Conductor.

Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from PEN America, the Fulbright program, the Lannan Foundation, and the French Embassy. His work has won the John Dryden Translation prize and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the French-American Foundation and Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prizes. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and Conjunctions. The translator of more than 150 graphic novels, he is a contributing editor for comics at Words Without Borders.

3 replies to “Weird France and Belgium: A Best Of

  1. I love the Jean Ray I’ve read and I have a copy of your edition of Jean Ferry’s “The Conductor and Other Tales” on my shelf to read ASAP. Might I also add Leon Genonceaux’s “The Tutu” to your list of suggestions? It’s an early pataphysical/surreal work from the late 19th century. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts.