Essay: The Mountain Dead From Life

An Exploration of the French Classic by Its Latest Translator

The following essay focused on “The Other Side of the Mountain” contains some mild spoilers. Visit Gio Clairval’s blog for more on The Weird and a variety of other topics.

The story

In a story written in first person, the narrator always survives, but the beginning of this novella doesn’t bode well. Our young narrator, after an evening awash with wine, wakes up on a ship (the period is undetermined: the narration flows outside of time). He somehow signed up to become a ship boy. After a few days in which the narrator survives a rough welcome onboard, the boat is caught in dead calm. The sailors run out of food and become barbarians who swallow gallons of rum and end up devouring one another. It is in these appalling circumstances that a friendship is born, that of the young narrator with Toine, the ship cook. From now on, their fate is sealed. The unleashed elements create a cyclone that gobbles up the ship in an end-of-the-world atmosphere.

The two survivors find themselves on an island surrounded by a sea of blood, under a red sun. The island is a strange place, with unimaginable carnivorous flowers, a place where the human figure appears only engraved in horrible statues of striking realism. All the villages are deserted. No animal life can be found, only hostile flora. A persistent drumming resonates in the ground, as if the heart of a gigantic beast beat under the mountain. What secrets does this island conceal?

The unnamed protagonist and Toine come to believe that their survival depends on what awaits them on top of the formidable mountain visible on the horizon.

As the horrific situation unfolds, I try to reassure myself by thinking that the story cannot end with the narrator’s demise…

A poet with a painter’s palette

La montagne rouge
, painting by Brigitte Bergeret

No summary can render the poetic tone of the writing.  As Stéphane Aldeguy points out in his preface to the latest French edition (La Table Ronde, Paris, 2008), Michel Bernanos, through his brief and intense work, dreamed of “serving poetry”. He had no desire to develop an allegory or suggest any hidden meaning.  He wanted to gift us with the beauty of an enigma that would find its raison d’être in itself. His intent was to move us by the terrible beauty of his images, without rational explanation, only following the inspiration of an author who wrote as a visual artist would have painted.

Poetry, yes, but not so much in the choice of words or the music of sentences: the interest of this novella is not on the paragraph level; it rather lies in the author’s ability to create an atmosphere of staggering landscapes, unearthly storms and constant psychological disquiet.

This story is a brilliant and peculiar narrative that borrows from the adventure novels in the vein of Stevenson to switch to the fantastic as our two sailors move from one world to another, passing through the mirror, and the writing becomes labyrinthine, baroque, challenging the translator.

La montagne morte de la vie
(literally: The Mountain Dead from Life): What does this strange title mean?

Translating the title was the first challenge, and it soon became clear that it was an impossible task. Even for French natives, it takes some effort to seize the author’s intention.

La montagne morte de la vie does not mean “the dead mountain.” Bernanos’ red mountain died from life as the ivy on my balcony died last summer from the drought (all right, I forgot to water it).

The French title summarizes the central theme of the novella: the idea of death caused by an excess of life and energy: This place is as green as can be.’ The French original reads ‘vert à en mourir,’ meaning ‘green to death.’ The story depicts an unrestrained adoration of Nature by a nature dying from its own thirst for life: It was a world full of life moving towards death. (p. 396 of The Weird)

The man, his life, his works

Michel Bernanos, born in 1923, was the fourth of six children, and the third son of Christian writer Georges Bernanos, an icon of French literature.

Michel wrote under pseudonyms in genres that the literary community considered as minor, small streams compared to the powerful, romantic works written by his father. He told about his father in a confidence to Dominique le Roux that “he felt his paw on his shoulder.” Dominique Le Roux wrote that Michel told him that his father crushed him.”

One day, in the summer of 1964, Michel left his home of Gentilly in the Parisian suburbs. Three days later, he was found dead in the forest of Fontainebleau. He was forty-one years old. Michel Bernanos had made two suicide attempts the previous year. In his preface to La montagne morte de la vie (La Table Ronde, 2008), Stéphane Audeguy recalls that scouts had found his body, his torn identity card and a travel bag empty at his side. “We have the right to regret,” the commentator adds, “that his body was found at all”. There is indeed a sort of legend that begged to be born, an aura of tragedy that would have matched Michel Bernanos’s intent as an author pacing the land of confusion between reality and imagination.

Most of Michel Bernanos’ works of the fantastic were published posthumously. La montagne morte de la vie was published for the first time by Pauvert in 1967 (three years after the author’s suicide). It is the only work signed by the author with his real name, as if he had wanted to exist in the literary world under his true identity just before walking to the other side.

La montagne morte de la vie became an instant success and was regarded as one of the masterpieces of the fantasy genre in contemporary French literature.

All the other books written by Michel Bernanos, poems and novels, were published in his lifetime under the pseudo of Michel Talbert (crime novels published by Marabout and by Le Fleuve Noir) and Michel Drowin for other novels or genre short stories (now also in the catalogues of Le Castor Astral and La Table Ronde).

All of Bernanos’ fantastical novels are set in a tropical forest, poisonous and deadly, reminiscent of the author’s Brazilian experience. We can draw a parallel with the French forest where the author ended his existence.

The author’s father, Georges Bernanos, exasperated by his experience of the Spanish civil war and disappointed by politics in France, had left the country with his family in 1937. He wrote in his diary: I went first to Paraguay, and then Brazil.” “I lived the year before the war [WWII] in a solitary fazenda with my wife and children, away from railways and roads, without any company outside our horses and cows” (but later, we learn from the diary that they also bred zebus). George Bernanos will return to France after the war, to die in 1948.

Michel Bernanos begins to write poems as early as 1938 (at fifteen years of age). In 1939 his brother Yves almost dies from malaria in a risky expedition with a missionary, a slightly lunatic Indian priest. In 1942 Michel, nineteen years old, leaves Brazil for London, where he joins the organisation of the external resistance “France Libre” in 1983. He serves as a submariner until late 1944. After the war, he returns to Brazil in 1946 and creates an rubber plantation  in the Amazonian forest, which will provide the setting of his first fantasy novel and the inspiration for the imaginary forests of the stories published after his death, like the cycle of the Montagne morte de la vie (The Other Side of the Mountain).

In 1948, the year of Georges Bernanos’ death, Michel Bernanos moves permanently to Gentilly, in the Parisian suburbs. In 1953 he marries, has a daughter, and works in the film and publishing industries.

In 1956 he makes a short appearance in a film written by Robert Bresson, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (A Man Condemned to Death Breaks Free).

In 1960, his mother’s death affects him deeply. In the same year, he writes The Murmur of the Gods, his first fantasy novel.

Bernanos’ short novels, novellas and short stories written in the fantastical vein are:

Le Murmure des dieux (The Murmur of the Gods), 1960, as Michel Drowin.

L’envers de l’Eperon ( 1961) (The Back of the Sporn), 1961, published posthumously.

La montagne morte de la vie (The mountain Dead from Life), 1063, written in nineteen day and published posthumously by Jean-Jacques Pauvert in 1967. Latest edition by La Table Ronde, 2008 (editorial line La petite vermillon). Both the previous English translation, by Elaine P. Halperin, and the latest by yours faithfully, are titled The Other Side of the Mountain.

2008 edition, La Table Ronde

Ils ont déchiré Son image. (They Have Destroyed His Image), 1963, a tale of the fantastic, published posthumously. This short story can be read as a complement to The Other Side of the Mountain.

Le Castor Astral, a publishing house in Bordeaux, published in 1987, La forêt complice, a collection of short stories including:

La forêt complice (The Colluding Forest), first published in 1964, as Michel Drowin;

La parole donnée (The Given Word), 1963, as Michel Talbert, previously published only in 1982 by La Pensée Universelle);

Ils ont déchiré Son image. (They Have Destroyed His Image), first published 1963.

Only The Murmur of the Gods was published during the author’s lifetime, under the pseudonym of Michel Drowin.

The immutable forest

Bernanos’ favourite settings, forests, swamps and arid mountains, are the background of characters that walk the threshold between life and death.

As Toine, a father figure, tells the young narrator:

I’m so sorry, son, that you’ve got to be stuck with me in my waking nightmare.  But let’s not lose our heads, or we will never come out of this. Here, everything is a mystery. Don’t expect to find answers. Here, like everywhere else, death prowls alongside of life, only it’s more visible here. . The Other side of the Mountain, p. 396 of The Weird.

The story is an initiation journey where the characters are little by little seized by a fascination for the unthinkable; their experience of the unknown in this vegetable world that has absorbed all animal flesh, among the chatoyant colours of exotic fruits, the encounters with carnivorous plants that know how to deploy every seductive charm to attract and kill their prey; the poisonous sap from the fruits the two sailors are forced to eat for lack of other food; strange moans; a penumbra suffused with a red glow – all of which gradually displaces them into what they sometimes call ‘another world,’ ‘another life,’ or yet an ‘upside down world.’

Still, Bernanos’ fantasy is strictly “natural,” without ever staging the supernatural, and the mystery remains the context of real life. The phobic representations are ephemeral and dissolve in panic fear.

Gaston Bachelard speaks of the “forest as before me, before us… it reigns in the antecedent,” (my translation) and, for Max Ernst “[the forests of Oceania] “are, it seems… impenetrable, black and russet, extravagant, secular, swarming, diametrical, negligent, ferocious, fervent, and likeable, without yesterday or tomorrow.” (Translation by Elizabeth B. Childs).

Timeless childhood” is cited as a trope of the fantasy genre by Todorov; as Freud would say ” beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” returning in the impression of uncanny, which brings back an once-familiar memory altered and translated into something else.

Characters lost in sensory strangeness

Throughout The Other Side of the Mountain, in an insistent, repetitive manner, the characters hear a thumping sound that seems to come from the depths of the earth:

One would think that a giant’s heart is beating under our feet.

The two friends hear a squeaking, a crackling of trees, and someone or something wailing.

After a few pages, colours appear as a counterpoint to this panic atmosphere:

My gaze was captured by the highest mountain far away. The mountain rose as red as a forge fire. And the beating, which had calmed in the meantime, resumed its thumping with diabolic intensity. A long sigh sounded and the pale light dimmed. The forest retook his place, the black leaves stroking the dark sky…

Alone, the mountain kept its red glow against the shadows for a moment before fading into darkness. The unfamiliar stars resumed their diamond-like twinkling. 

It’s over,’ Toine said. He lay down on the ground. I stretched out beside him. 

We can sleep now,’ he said. (p. 397)

The visual illusion is brought back to the level of a natural phenomenon and, as Jules Verne would say, sensible, rational knowledge often manages to “demystify the sensory illusion.”

But the visions continue:

Minuscule beads of blood covered the place where the vine had hugged my wrist. Overcome by disgust, I tried to chase away the horrid idea that the plant was carnivorous. On the ground, the vine continued to writhe like a reptile. (p. 393)

Hideous beauty

Later on, there is a “hideous crust” a petrifying mortar (p. 402). The mineral world triumphs.

A gigantic arc of red sand like talcum powder bordered a thick red wall that rose toward the sky, flaunting the wounds of time. These furrows traced grimacing masks resembling mineral giants petrified during uncountable centuries. 

No plant life was discernable on the vertical wall. The atmosphere reminded me of a sepulchre but without the odour of decomposition, as if time had consumed the compost. (p. 390)

The dead mountain is an agent of entropy. Nothing can reconcile Man with Nature. The universe is hostile. Life contains the germs of destruction, and all living beings of flesh and blood are bound to encounter the void. Redemption and salvation do not exist. Michel’s pessimistic view contrasts strikingly with his father’s Christian faith.

The moving vines gave us no quarter and we had to alter our path to avoid them. If life multiplied its forms in the plant world, the forest remained void of animal life. Not the smallest mosquitoes dancing in the patches of light. We humans were somehow suspended between the mineral and the vegetable. The gift of life was available only for the creatures that wore no flesh, as if no incarnated god had ever visited this place. (p. 400)

What can possibly happen to the narrator in such a place?

An initiation journey

Bernanos takes us on a journey to the end. There is the struggle for survival, the will to face the unknown, the  quest for salvation. But there are especially – and here undoubtedly lies Michel Bernanos’ talent – sumptuous, scary, fascinating images. If the first part of the novella is evidence of a certain narrative effectiveness and contains a few strong moments of horror, the second part offers surreal and absurd visions that are more original and convincing. Images and mysterious phenomena threaten to ensnare the characters, without the slightest respite. The horror takes on wondrous features; nature is never what it appears to be. And a reddish light drowns everything in the ultimate disruption of a lush and wild life.

This novella, utterly original, may superficially remind you of Lovecraft but William Hope Hodgson is perhaps more appropriate a comparison. You could also think of Jean Ray. Still, Bernanos’s view is utterly pessimistic, and the tone of all his fantasy stories (I have not read his noir and mystery novels to this day) is horrific, as distant as can be from Ray’s sly humour.

Reading The Other Side of the Mountain was an unsettling experience (and the depth of the narration appeared to me more strongly on my second reading). Translating it, trying to preserve every single passage of the original, the tone, the meaning, knowing that rendering the author’s tormented style in a language that — besides the influence of French after Hastings — remains proto-Germanic in essence (the debate, if you wish, is open on this point); oh, well, it was a stimulating enterprise.

Gio is an Italy-born writer who lives in Paris with her daughter and a meek Himalayan cat. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Weird Tales, Postscripts, Fantasy Magazine, the HarperCollins anthology Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and elsewhere. She translates literary works from French, Italian, Spanish and German.