Histoires à dormir debout

Marcel Schneider (1913-2009)

© Ulf Andersen/Sipa

Lest it seem every figure I describe in these columns is “major,” “unjustly neglected,” or “not-to-be-missed,” allow me to briefly legitimate Marcel Schneider’s claim to fame in the pantheon of French fantastiqueurs. Among his fifty-odd books — including eighteen novels; eleven short story collections; biographies of Schubert and Wagner; studies of Rousseau, Nerval, and Hoffmann; four volumes of memoirs, essays on games and labyrinths — are two that secure his place even before any discussion of his own work begins. In 1964, Fayard published the first edition of his monumental reference Histoire de la littérature fantastique en France. Encyclopedic in scope and personal in opinion, it has been reprinted twice since (updated for its 1985 edition), and though dated now, remains the work of record, in part for its illustration of historical continuity in the genre. In 1965, Schneider edited Histoires fantastiques d’aujourd’hui for Castermann, and its selection of midcentury French fantastical writing is exhaustive and unmatched; Schneider rescued stories from forgotten magazines with small print runs and set them side by side with standards of the genre by major authors of the day. His first novel, Granite and Absence, was published in 1947; in 1996, the Académie Française awarded him its Grand Prix de la Langue Française for his body of work, though later and even posthumous works appeared.

Schneider, then, is as much a critic as he is author, and his fiction testifies to the depth of his love and erudition for his genre of choice. It is perhaps his vast knowledge of legend and folklore, their structures and motifs, that make him the only of his peers to compose original fairy tales: straightforward stories of dying kings whose heirs are tasked to find things like a scrap of night, a gust of wind, a spark of sunlight. He combines his love of the medieval marvelous of high fantasy — of Tasso, and Ariosto, and Honoré d’Urfé — with a love of history. His prose and culture, settings and plots, all work to give his tales a feel of timeless classicism, obdurately pre-modern. What feels very modern in his books is his unflinching and matter-of-fact depiction of violence.

Which makes his 1985 collection Histoires à mourir debout a very characteristic work in a generally consistent oeuvre. A collection of two novellas and seven stories, it takes as its title a play on a French expression dating from the 17th century but still in use today: histoire à dormir debout, which can refer to a tale from tall to fairy, or a story from shaggy dog to cock and bull, the constant being unbelievability. Literally, it means a story so unlikely or absurd as to make you fall asleep standing up, though the exact connection between absurdity and sleep seems to have been lost to the mists of etymology. Indeed, as Marthe Robert wrote of such tales in Origins of the Novel, employing the very expression, “Stories that make you fall asleep standing up are the ones that are best at keeping you awake.” Schneider (who was far from the only author to pun on the expression: Jacques Sternberg, for instance, did it twice, with Histoires à dormir sans vous [Stories for Sleeping Without You] and Histoires à mourir de vous [Stories of Dying from You], collections about failed love) replaces the verb “to sleep” with the verb “to die.” Decidedly, these tales, far from harmless nonsense, are meant to be more chilling.

The earlier eras that fantasy, whether historical or high, tends to romanticize as raw material were easily bloodier and more savage on a daily basis, something fiction of the time didn’t always spell out. It hardly needed to: violence was a fact of life no one could possibly ignore. Tearing through the gauzy veils of intervening years, Schneider methodically details bloodshed, torture, and lawlessness. The sensation of unvarnished history is further reinforced by Schneider’s focus on defect of soul and body: base deeds, ignoble emotions, ailments, scars, and pockmarks. The three tales set in and around the Reign of Terror are unsparing in their catalogue of Revolutionary depredations. The most remarkable of these, if only for the oddness of its ingredients, may be “Prophecies in Martinsburg,” which features actual historical characters and climaxes in a Christmas feast at the titular castle in Colmar. At the height of the festivities, the Byronesque Italian Romantic poet Count Vittorio Alfieri, lover to the Princess Louise (Bonnie Prince Charlie’s much younger wife), arranges for a young girl dolled up as the infant Cupid to burst out from behind the Tannenbaum:

 “in a pink singlet of softest silk, a blue chiffon tunic; the wings of gauze attached to her back were adorned with sequins and peacock feathers. From a golden quiver he drew out darts and tossed them impudently at the guests… of course it was Love, son of Venus, the terrible and delectable Eros… At last they recognized Delphine, with her curly locks, pink cheeks, and naughty air, playing her part to the hilt… smiling with a mysterious air that made her irresistible.

Alfieri, beside himself with enthusiasm… approached the little deity, lifted her, and displaying her for all to see, cried, ‘Here is the spirit of liberty!’”

For Liberty is the genius of the age, the spirit that will change the world. The guests are delighted, but given how outraged her grandfather is, she might as well have burst from a cake in a bikini. Her grandfather is a blind German poet of good family, an austere Protestant. Already scandalized by the pagan tree, what seems to us now the mild impertinence of Delphine’s costume sends him into a prophetic apoplexy. Eyes rolling back in his head, he begins to declaim:

I see deserted churches and desecrated graves! I see wolves roaming the cloisters and merchants selling holy relics to the highest bidder! I see decapitated bodies falling one after another from a scaffold slick with blood, and hairy bandits bowling with freshly chopped heads on the green… No one, no one will be spared, not even the King, not even God! This is what the spirit of liberty will do!”

This deeply reactionary outburst is reminiscent of the complex aristocratic apologia of Isak Dinesen’s fiction, with its own blend of fairy tale and European history. Schneider, a self-declared aristocrat, was a lifelong right-winger who besmirched his name with the same party, Action Française, that supported Pétain’s Vichy government. But the horror here is also apolitical: it is the inevitability of history, of carnage and destruction.

Nor is “Prophecies in Martinsburg” the only story that revolves around a holiday or solstice. Feasts, celebrations, and carnivals are consistently disrupted by some terrible, often supernatural event that in some way evokes punishment or warning. Schneider does not so much make distinction between pagan and Christian, republican and noble, as situate his story precisely at the point of confluence and conflict, calque and overlap, with its attendant slaughter. If his stories have a conservative moral, it is horror’s perennial one: buried secrets will out. The old, the ancient, the buried and ineradicable irrupting into the now, the veneer of civilized order, the tenuously enlightened present. The revenge of the eternal and enduring.

In “The Tortured Breast,” a prostitute may be a brigand chief returned from the dead during a murderous partisan war. At the private costume orgy of “A Ball in Clichy,” demons, ghosts, bleeding nuns, butchers, skeletons, and headsmen rub elbows with fauns, shepherdesses, musketeers, pickaninnies, and vestal virgins. A guest asks:

‘Suppose the new society comes to pass, and it works on the principles you advocate. When everything is permissible, legal, and even encouraged by the State, when a man can if he so wishes marry his blood brother and dine on newborns in a stew, what will we extremists have left, we who exalt the values of transgression, when there is nothing left to transgress?’

We will have hate, Monsieur.’”

In the dark glamour of Schneider’s romanticism, death is always that consummation devoutly to be wished. The great bandit Némorin, in the story of the same name, tames and makes a lover of a boy of broken spirit whose father he has killed. His men desert him, and his defiance draws the wrath of his former lover, the Lady Corba, but in that defiance he has finally found the courage to die, even as she bathes her face in his blood.

Schneider championed one pole of a great debate in Francophone literature called “the quarrel of the fantastique.” In 1958, critic and sociologist Roger Caillois advanced the claim that the genre’s sole function was to provoke fear; that, indeed, the genre was a “game” or “play” of fear, an exercise in manipulation aimed at eliciting a single emotion. (It should be noted that Caillois is credited with founding ludology, the study of play.)

Schneider, on the other hand, believed that the two things the fantastic best brought to life were fear and desire. “It expresses, and brings into the light, what we might wish to leave unexpressed, obscure, buried deep in secret. Each of us carries a core of darkness within; the fantastic strips it bare.” For him, the genre primarily served “to reveal what lies beyond appearances, reason, the known world,” and that this revelation could be effected by “terror or the sweetest pleasure.”

Here ends Part I of a two-part article on Marcel Schneider. Part II will follow next week.

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. 

2 replies to “Histoires à dormir debout

  1. Histoire à dormir debout… literally, it means a story so unlikely or absurd as to make you fall asleep standing up, though the exact connection between absurdity and sleep seems to have been lost to the mists of etymology”

    I’m guessing that dreams are the missing connection here. To resolve the conflict between the absurdity of what one is hearing and the fact of being awake, one must fall asleep upright, so that it might all be, more explicably, just a passing dream. Fight the absurd with the absurd: always a good strategy :)

    On an unrelated note: many thanks, Edward, for introducing me to Pierre Gould (and, of course, Bernard Quiriny) through your various excellent writings. I’m working through Contes carnivores at the moment — but happily it’s only ‘work’ in as much as my French could be much better! Quiproquopolis is worth the effort alone.

  2. That’s a fascinating theory. It entices with the shapeliness of truth. Perhaps with repetition, or dissemination… Thanks for reading, Tim, and for the kind words. I’m glad you and Pierre have become acquainted (I’m sure B.Q. wouldn’t phrase it any other way). I think some combination of his first two collections represents his best work so far.