To mark the second issue of Unstuck, due out this week, I’m devoting the next two weeks to Marcel Béalu, author of “The Water Spider.” But don’t buy Unstuck for my translation: buy it for more than 500 pages of elephant men and minotaurs, magic charms and lost islands, talking dogs and miniature husbands, orphans reared in libraries, zombie bank robbers, mechanical cattle, and many other curiosities. You’ll find new fiction and poetry from writers like Kate Bernheimer, Jedediah Berry, Edward Carey, Matthew Cheney, Brian Conn, Rikki Ducornet, Caitlin Horrocks, and Jonathan Lethem. Unstuck publishes literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, or the surreal — a broad category that would include the work of writers as diverse as Abe, Ballard, Borges, Calvino, Tutuola, and (of course) Vonnegut, everything from straight-up science fiction and fantasy to domestic realism with a twist of the improbable.
“The Water Spider” is without a doubt Marcel Béalu’s single most famous short story. It concerns a writer, secluded with his wife in the countryside, who is seduced by a water spider’s song on a walk in the woods one day. Once in his attic, the insect slowly and painfully transforms itself into a young woman, ostensibly for his sake. His affair with the ensuing creature strains his relations with the fearful nearby townsfolk and his love for his wife. Written in 1947, the story is a skein of delicately handled eroticism, obsession, loveliness, and horror. Thirty-odd pages in French, it was first published as a limited edition chapbook the following year by Librairie des Lettres.
By that time, Béalu had published, with other small presses, several books of poetry influenced by Surrealism, though he had never formally been part of the movement. In 1934, at the age of 26, he began frequenting the pacifist and anarchist scene that would lead to special remarks on his draft papers in 1939: “dangerous anarchist, to be watched.” He served for two years, then returned to hatmaking.
In 1937, Béalu made the acquaintance of critic, poet, and painter Max Jacob, whose 1916 classic The Dice Cup is now seen as a link between Symbolism and Surrealism. It is difficult to overstate the impact this collection of prose poems has had on that singular, overlooked, often avant-garde form, especially where its thematics shade into the fantastic. Few of Jacob’s pieces are longer than a page, some as short as a single sentence:
In Jacob we find, independently of Kafka, the genesis and refinement of the fantastical moment, image, or object, plucked from narrative by the poet’s unwavering glare, or else elaborated into enigmatic fable. Despite a few novels and longer stories, the bulk of the fantastical writing for which Béalu is known falls somewhere between prose poem and flash fiction. His first collection of such “fragments,” Memoirs of Shadow, came out in 1941 from Debresse, but was soon picked up in 1944 by Gallimard, the cream of the French literary establishment, where it drew the attention of André Pieyre de Mandiargues. Mandiargues’ own first book, Dans les années sordides [The Sordid Years] had been a collection of prose poems, and he saw in Béalu a fellow traveler, a member of a rare set who, during and after the war,
“thirsted for un-current events. Like romantics born too late (or too early) in a world of sinister lighting, we tried to make night in and around us to afford thought a zone of shadow where it might freely stray, we were greedy for the slightest traces dreams left in memory, we headed as deep into reverie as possible and stayed there as long as we could.”
Over the course of several collections, Béalu would make the fantastical vignette a form for intimate, reflective expression marked by effortless naturalness of voice. It is this quality precisely that Mandiargues singles out for praise in his preface to the 1964 edition of “The Water Spider,” a story he claims never to have forgotten, and for which he has “a particularly keen admiration,” considering it “one of the most perfect works French literature has given us in the realm of the fantastic… (the fantastical tale, we might add, exists only insomuch as it is perfect).” Mandiargues goes on to note the ease with which Béalu sets the story’s tone — “like a painter or musician,” and his “talent for taking hold of the reader right away and leading him quite naturally along into a supernatural climate.” Transitions are a primary technical challenge in fantastical fiction; the sense of slippage from one reality to another cannot be handled too delicately. Béalu’s style was widely praised for its utterly limpid presentation of events, which nevertheless tipped abruptly into illogic or menace. Candor, artlessness, the sincere and unaffected feeling of truth… this control of tonal subtlety is Béalu’s chief tool in confounding the categories of real and dream, wavering ontologically between the two until the reader is no longer sure which came first, which is foundation and which illusion.
In 1956, the French magazine Fiction, sister publication to F&SF, reprinted “The Water Spider” with a cover featuring Marina Vlady as the title character. The issue also featured stories by Walter M. Miller, Richard Matheson, and Belgian SF grandfather J.H. Rosny Ainé, as well up-and-comers Alain Dorémieux and Gérard Klein.
That same year, Éric Losfeld released Béalu’s Les Messagers Clandestins (Clandestine Messengers), which collected short-shorts going back to just after the war. These 18 stories were later repackaged with “The Water Spider” by the Nouvel Office d’Édition, and this version, prefaced by Mandiargues, became the standard for all future reprints: the 1969 Belfond re-issue, the paperback selection of the Club du Livre Fantastique, the 1994 reprint by Phébus, a boutique high-literary small press (till its 2005 buyout).
To track these subsequent reprints is to track, through literary history, the wild fortunes of the fantastic as a genre, tossed between high and low, its mid-century turn toward the underground as Surrealism, dismissed from the critical limelight, persisted mainly in hybridization with up-and-coming pop- and sub-cultural productions, from film and comics to the burgeoning world of commercial genre fiction.
Losfeld published de Sade and Sacher-Masoch, Ionesco and Duchamp, late Breton, Boris Vian’s fantastical work, almost all of Belgian fantastical black humorist Jacques Sternberg, and Jean-Claude Forest (creator of the comic Barbarella). And this is the complicated nexus where “The Water Spider” resides: poetry, eroticism, the literary avant-garde, and that increasingly popular branch of the fantastic, horror. “I know of few tales endowed with so troubling and insinuating a charm as ‘The Water Spider,’” wrote Mandiargues. “While it always respects the limits of decency, this little tale is among the most immoral I have ever read.” Perhaps it was inevitable that, in 1971, Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe should adapt it to the screen, with Béalu’s help.
It starred Marc Eyrand, Marie-Ange Dutheil, and an Elisabeth Wiener in her mid-20s as the title spider, suitably ravishing but just as overgrown as Sue Lyons was for the role of Lolita. Verhaeghe, a sort of French Volker Schlondorff, went on to become known for his literary adaptations, mostly for TV — at first of more fantastical fare, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Maurice Renard’s Dr. Lerne (Subgod! A kind of French Dr. Moreau), and then of literature in general (Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal), and quite recently, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (variously translated as The Wanderer and The Lost Domain), a quasi-fantastical favorite, if in a different vein. On YouTube, of course, you can find a climactic scene from the story, re-staged in a church. For all ye who click through, SPOILERS.
Béalu was a retiring man, averse to self-advertisement, and today remains largely unknown to the French reading public (partly from personal choice, and admittedly, partly from choice of subject matter). But the years have been kind to his cult presence. That his books have since become staples of every fantastical imprint to rise up and fade away is a testament to the enduring fascination Béalu’s disturbing work exerts.