(Sure, yeah… spoilers.)
Few writers have a debut like Anne Richter’s — her first book published in 1954, at the age of 15, and translated into English three years later by no less than Alice B. Toklas, who praises in her preface: “Each story of this book shows sensitive observation, delicate choice in its recording, distinction in the relationship of its characters.”
What happened when Richter was fifteen? The “salutary shock” of discovering Kafka, whose fiction would become a beacon in her life. The ax-like revelation from his work that broke the frozen sea within her? “In any true artistic endeavor,” she muses in an interview, “there is cruelty.”
I’ve written about Richter before, an overview of her significant activities as editor and essayist in the field of the fantastic. The daughter of prominent writers — poet Roger and novelist Marie-Thérèse — Richter launched her career under her maiden name Bodart, though these early stories would be her only work to bear that name. Originally collected as Le fourmi a fait le coup (The Ant Did It, “it” being what the butler is usually accused of), the volume was retitled The Blue Dog in English after its final tale, one of Richter’s personal favorites; the title story in French was renamed “The Verdict.” In that story, an ant menaced by illiterate rats tricks them into drinking poison, only to itself be blithely squashed by a mother at the breakfast table.
These fables last no more than a few pages apiece. Largely charting, as they do, the inner lives of the inanimate, they occur in worlds to which humans, as oblivious masters, have no access, or else in animal dreams, from which we are equally barred. Many take place at twilight, midnight, moonlight, or in rot, neglect, the off-season: settings of temporal and physical neglect. Critic Jean-Baptiste Baronian, who would go on to be her champion and editor, calls The Blue Dog “an impromptu bestiary… as if, from an early age, [Richter] had sensed the secret interdependence of earthly kingdoms.” And indeed, among the collection’s more remarkable aspects is Richter’s intuitive sympathy for realms beneath or beyond notice. Her stories are missives from the secrecy of childhood. They move with an abrupt logic, fortified by an inviolate privacy. The charm of her voice is immediately apparent, as is its precocity — the startling, unsettling intelligence, limpid and impartial, that discomfits adults and their history of compromise.
Richter’s characters are mostly creatures and objects: a sagging ceiling, a piece of string, rats, rabbits, a poodle, coffee-pots and chandeliers, a cart road, a cat with spectacles… They have names like Feverish Paw, Little Licker, Bruised Table. She imbues them with an artless candor. Insightful, forthright, disabused, keenly aware of their own natures, they bear few illusions about ours. They are swiftly, poetically established:
“Ceilings are always simple, they have been supporting the roof for too long a time, spiders are their only companions.”
And prone to casually terrible existential realizations:
“It was one morning in late September that Maligrande for the first time became conscious that she was a magpie in the strict and limited sense of the word.”
Thus burdened, they lead lives of stifled anguish:
“I am tired of concealing my real life. I am tired of miserably pretending and wagging my tail for the piece of sugar they hold out to me… My master calls himself a poet… I do not hate him for having subjugated me. I pity him, I even try to love him. But what can I do?
…I will pretend to be asleep on my ally, the cushion.
I am a dog, only a dog.”
It is as if a young Françoise Sagan had been a fabulist.
An anthropomorphism like that of early cartoons animates Richter’s world. It’s a loony, chilly place.
“It was very annoying. The string was unwilling, at any price, to hang from its nail any longer, and the cups refused to sleep on the saucers.”
“He ran into two poodles, a spiritless cocker spaniel who was smoking a cigarette, supinely leaning against a showcase, and a short-haired fox terrier with a worn duffel coat who talked loudly.”
Yet the presiding principle is of unfairness, a world of sudden death and promises broken without explanation: ubiquitously callous, indifferently lethal. Everyday disasters take on a moral force. A fugitive rat spends his days
“making himself small, crouching, fearing every moment that a human being would crush his head with a heedless foot, not suspecting that these feet were too impressed with themselves to be troubled about crushing a rat.”
In another tale, a rat who is “the Caesar” of the rats of London is, predictably, murdered before the Senate, and in another still, a rat named Raw Nibbler advises a younger companion: “We are afraid of the shadow of fear.” Yet sometimes the small prevail, as when a mouse entices a cat with the promise of leading him “to the home of the mice” only to leave him bewitched, “rigid, his tail coiled around him like a magic circle which prevented him from stirring.” But there is little sense of triumph; malice has simply switched sides.
My own favorite is “A Thoughtful Minet to Shepherd Dog” (to avoid levity, I suppose, Toklas left “pussycat” untranslated). It takes the form of a tender oration from a cat in Hades to a dog, his “companion of the old days,” still in the sunlit world above. By the Styx he sits, contemplating “the delightful freshness of a deep river on whose bed human skulls roll along,” toying with a mouse who tried to slip by Charon without payment of coin.
In this tale all of the young Richter’s talents are on display: concision of image, clarity of character, a light touch with the macabre, the bitter wisdom of knowing one’s place in a fixed order. Almost idly, the thoughtful cat indulges his acrimony.
“Into what a pleasant vengeance and long reverie I fell at the sight of the stripped heads of our conquered enemies. ‘Thus,’ I said to myself, ‘behold the mighty, those-who-walk-on-two-paws, the victors of the earth, returned whence they left.’”
His hatred of humans is matched by his fondness for his old friend, as he delineates their fundamental differences in temperament. As elsewhere in the book, Richter proclaims the essences of things in order to construct a metaphysics.
“Oh dog… may you come here as belatedly as possible. Here I find the sweet dimness of a cellar with its window shaded. You would suffocate here, and the shrouds in which people wrap themselves would make you cry out with fear… I like these infernal regions, dog, but you will hate them.”
It’s almost the opposite of James Dickey’s “Heaven of Animals,” where the cycle of predation and is repeatedly endlessly, painlessly “with claws and teeth grown perfect… in a sovereign floating of joy.” But Dickey also states “It could not be the place / It is, without blood.” On this much he and Richter are agreed. The minet’s monologue gathers a terrible power, climaxing in prophecy, crime, and indictment:
“I believe it is the only thing that I owe my masters: death. Were it not for them, would I not still be alive? Was it not they who forgot me one night on the threshold of their door? It was freezing so hard that the countryside was white and my poor cat’s heart was stiff with cold and terror. Friend, go to them now and lick their feet, accept your humble food from their criminal hands. Beware of death: tell them that the Styx will roll along their white skulls in the infernal regions while the animals on the shores howl with joy.”
Richter’s fourth book of stories, from the mid-‘90s, is an altogether different affair. Here the voice is far more hesitant, the structures and conclusions more conventional. If middle age visits upon us all a dark wood, then these stories are written from the gloom. They feel their way along, and if an outstretched hand should fall upon a parting in the curtain of brush, it is as likely to draw back to the face in fear as to recognize a way forward. However alarming, these stories are ultimately compassionate and forgiving, though never without some trace of irony and uncertainty.
In her study Le fantastique au féminin : un art sauvage, Richter advances the thesis that women practitioners thereof produce fantasy more intimately inhabited; fantasy for women writers is not a territory approached and explored, but rather a given, a baseline, a founding assumption. The operative mode is less suspicion than inclusion. One concrete way Richter has pinpointed to illustrate this difference is through the theme of transformation (into animal or vegetable). For male writers, this is usually some form of degradation or reduction, but for female writers, such metamorphoses often open outwards, onto a broader, fuller life: hence, embrace.
There are nine stories in La Promenade du Grand Canal [A Walk Along the Grand Canal], ranging from the outright fantastic to largely realistic with a lingering air of mystery. There is Margot, who collects confidences — “subtle moments” — from strangers; Benoît, brought out of his nocturnal routine by a chance encounter; and in the title story, a disquisition on the stormy relationship of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the first story, “Red Lights and Glasses,” a diagnosis of glaucoma throws the life of an aging man of letters into disarray. On leaving a party late one night, he sideswipes a woman with his car and brings her home. Unable to see clearly, worried he’s wounded her, and seduced by her silence, he ends up raping her. The repugnant scene immediately recalls another early in the story when, on looking out his window, he mistakes his cleaning lady for a bear. The reveal — the rescued woman might well have been a deer — is not only spoiled, but raises more questions of morality and believability than it can address.
There are a number of such places where one wishes Richter might have tread more lightly, or cautiously, but pattern, if not method, emerges from her madness. In what may be the book’s most moving story, “The Blaze,” Claudia returns from her frequent travels to find a little girl, Laetitia, loitering in her apartment building. Bedraggled, and perhaps orphaned — “she just showed up one day,” workmen painting the place next door shrug — she insinuates her way into Claudia’s household, befriending her daughter Claire. Needless to say, Claudia objects. Laetitia unsettles her in a way she can’t put her finger on. But she has other things on her mind. She’s just finished her first novel, drawing largely from her troubled childhood. Her editor Guido loves the manuscript, but Claudia’s getting cold feet about publishing it, and unearthing so much of the past she’d believed put behind. The exact nature of these troubles remain unclear; Richter artfully conveys their menace and sorrow while withholding their specifics. Claudia grows to fear and resent Laetitia, whose behavior — as in any ghost story — is kept eerie by inscrutable motive. When an abandoned shack where the children play goes up in flames, Laetitia is the last child left inside. Claudia, about to dash in and save her, is restrained by a strange inner voice that tells her not to worry; the child will save herself. Lo and behold, she does, and so, metaphorically, does Claudia — but what a risk to take! Perhaps the story feels so immediate because it plays on the fears of contemporary American parents. Summarized in this way, it sounds clumsy and sentimental, like something from a Best American anthology, but the experience of reading it affords the genuine “shock of recognition.” Still, Richter tacks on an unneeded coda involving a photo album and a childhood toy that underlines the point far too neatly.
Baronian has said that for Richter the fantastical is a “vocation,” a calling and purpose, that in her fiction there is “no possibility of happiness and balance without total adherence to mystery, without a metaphysics of the unknown.” The final story, “Gloria Radescu’s Unexpected Offer,” follows much the same pattern of unease giving way to some accommodation with mystery, resulting in a fuller sense of life and greater possibilities. When the old family friend of the title first leaves her apartment to protagonist Jeanne, the latter, still grieving for her father, is spooked and mistrustful. Gloria’s only condition is that an old family portrait Jeanne has always found creepy remain above the mantel. Jeanne is dogged by a mysterious bag lady, but when the dust settles from the death of her mother and a period of generally turbulent change, the painting is back where it belongs. The ancestral relation depicted, a young woman, was
“possessed of a liveliness so full and serene as to fill the whole room, animating it with a painted gaze that fell on Jeanne as soon as she opened the door. It was a friendly but unwavering gaze that seemed to go right through her and beyond her, further still, with wise assurance. And yet, when Jeanne came and went in her room, she sometimes had the feeling that behind the half-closed eyelids, that gaze followed her, approving.”