Jean Ferry: A Figure of the French 20th Century

More on the man behind "The Society Tiger"

"He was a little man, round all over. A sharp eye behind round glasses, close-shaven head, high-pitched voice, and a potbelly that recalled Ubu’s gidouille.” ~ Raphaël Sorin

He was a little man, round all over. A sharp eye behind round glasses, close-shaven head, high-pitched voice, and a potbelly that recalled Ubu’s gidouille.” ~ Raphaël Sorin

Though Jean Ferry (1906−1974) primarily made his living as a screenwriter, he was involved in many notable movements of 20th century French literature. He was a satrap of the College of ‘Pataphysics, an Oulipo guest of honor, and the greatest specialist of his day in the works of Proust’s eccentric neighbor and cult figure, Raymond Roussel.

As a screenwriter, Ferry had an illustrious career, best known for his collaborations with Luis Buñuel, Louis Malle, and Georges Franju. He is known to have done script doctoring on no less than Marcel Carné’s Les enfants du paradis, and co-written Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classics, the murder mystery Quai des Orfèvres and Manon, an updated adaptation of Abbé Prevost’s Manon Lescaut. Late in life, he indulged his fondness for the fantastic by adapting Jean Ray’s gothic masterpiece Malpertuis for director Harry Kümel.

However, Ferry was also a nimble storyteller with a gift for whimsical detail:

It’s just like with the gas that fills the balloons. No one’s giving it away to the anglers; as if by chance, the factories just happen to sell it, and fix prices as they see fit. And so they effectively indenture these poor people. Everything conspires to overburden the bird-anglers. If the catch is bad, if winds are high and the balloons must stay grounded for a week, of course bird prices rise, but factory owners make it up by raising the price of gas. And when the catch is plentiful, it’s the price of birds that goes down. Sometimes it sinks so low that anglers have been spotted tossing the fruits of their fatigue back into the air, rather than surrender them so cheaply. And yet the factories always turn a profit. At the sparrowplant (where children, the sickly, and anglers’ daughters toil for a pittance), the bosses in the olden days were more humane, and left workers the heads (removed before canning). Now they sell them off to coal merchants. Really! That’s what they call progress, I guess…

At night, keeping vigil, they tell stories of the olden days that make youngsters tremble in the baskets where they’re pretending to sleep. They tell of the great serpent of the skies who swallows balloons whole. They curse cargo planes that pass thoughtlessly through fields of traps, moored to small air bladders, that are nowhere to be found the next morning, when it’s time to pull them in. They also tell the story of the angler who left one day and didn’t come back till twenty-five years later. His wife was dead, his children didn’t recognize him. Exiled by tempests far from his usual routes, his balloon had run aground on a deserted cloud. There, thanks to miracles of ingenuity, the brave, tenacious man had managed to survive entirely on carrier pigeons, thriftily sipping water from his cloud (for fear of shrinking it too much), until by sheerest luck a reconnaissance plane came and saved him. This angler’s name — so they say — was Robinson Crusair.

His fiction is playful, rueful, ironic, and absurd, merrily obsessed with what he sees as fundamental, inevitable tragedies: failure and fatigue.

They have flat little heads, whitish and triangular, like certain phonograph needles, needles of a model I believe has been forgotten. The little creatures are nice as all get-out, and easy to feed. They eat whatever I give them: sorrows, pulled, wounds (to pride, and other things), worries, sexual shortcomings, heartaches, regrets, unshed tears, lack of sleep — they down all these in a single gulp and ask for more. But what they like best of all is my fatigue, which works out well, since there’s no risk of that running low. I glut them with it, they never finish, and there’s always leftovers; I can never get rid of it all.

His tone can combine the journalistic pithiness and clubby bonhomie of a latterday Algonquin Round Table acolyte like A.J. Liebling with a truly subversive imagination, casually prolific with original, unsettling imagery:

Who among us, at that age when we grow curious about fantastical tales, hasn’t been captivated by the story of that character who describes himself as endowed by the creator with the face of a hyena, lips of bronze, eyes of jasper, and a reproductive organ much closer to the deadly viper than a harmless phallus? Among other peculiarities of a personality that seems to have been difficult, this individual, mired throughout his brief, unhappy life in what he calls “the green membranes of space” (we credit the expression entirely to him), insists on having it known that it was impossible for him to laugh. I won’t mention here the curious experiment that followed this confession, whose principal accessory was a well-sharpened razor.

Subtle transitions reinforce the veracity of skillfully deployed fantastical conceits, virtuoso passages of invention sustained by mastery of the long sentence and a deeply felt sense of humanity’s plight in a colossally indifferent universe:

The old woman sat down at the table with its oilcloth and coffeepot, and poured herself a brimming cup. Without turning around (from their accent, I could tell they were Scottish, and from the old Davy lamp hanging from the hearth, that they were a family of miners), the young woman said:

Mother, there’s a mountaineer on the wall.”

The old woman glanced vaguely my way, then turned back to the young woman. “Been there long?”

I don’t know, I spotted him just now in the mirror.”

Ferry’s prose reputation is founded on a single volume passed almost samizdat in varying versions from publisher to publisher, first appearing in 1950 from Cinéastes Bibliophiles in a 100 copy print run before finding a home at Gallimard in 1953, under the  editorship of Jean Paulhan, in their Métamorphoses imprint (print run: 1650).  Entitled The Conductor and Other Tales, it was reprinted most recently by the small Bordeaux press Éditions Finitude, who added for the first time in book form four stories previously scattered to the periodical winds, from internal publications of the College of ‘Pataphysics to Gallimard’s prestigious house organ, the Nouvelle Revue Française.

It is difficult to fit Ferry’s output in a single English category: his fictions run short, to flash (narrative) or the prose poem (atmosphere), although a few feature full-fledged, traditional plots. Structures vary: some are letters, some essays, some dramatic monologues, some frank reports of dreams. The sprightly, dilettantish charm of his voice belies expert concision, thoroughly figured thematics, and a felicity for sudden, vertiginous invention.

What I really wanted to tell you is you must never to come to this land. To be sure, one wants for neither food nor water, and the houses are rather comfortable, if one can adjust. No, what’s troubling is the manner of existence. I’ll never get used to it. The solitude here is too populous for me. It’s bearable by day, but at night… the noise of thousands of invisible breaths astonishes and, let me tell you, terrifies. It’s hard to explain. But you’ll understand. Haven’t you, in the dark, ever reached out with your foot for the final step of a staircase, only to find there wasn’t one? Do you remember the utter disarray you felt for a moment? Do you remember those patient explorations in bed at night when, just as you were about to fall asleep, your leg suddenly relaxed and you almost fell who knows where? Well, this land is always like that. Matter itself here is made of the same stuff as that step missing from your staircase. You never get used to it, I promise, and you must never come here.

Perhaps because of this unclassifiable ingenuity, Ferry’s writings are poised to enter several of our own literary conversations in English, at a moment when boundaries between genres are blurring and border-crossings between discourses encouraged. This fact is attested to by the variety of editorial visions across the periodicals in which I have published his work; we live in a cultural moment when Ferry’s deserving fictions might find a wider readership than they did in his own day, as elements of  many avant-garde movements that marked him have, in a process like sweet poison leaching into soil, permanently altered mainstream tastes.

Ferry’s witty and seditious “Kafka, or ‘The Secret Society’” and the abrupt “Robinson,” for example, are firmly of the parable class. “The Traveler With Luggage,” a sordid account of crime and amnesia, would not be out of place in a genrebending “neo-noir” anthology, while his shorts “The Garbagemen’s Strike” and “Homage to Baedeker,” featuring (respectively) a trash heap come to life and bird-fishermen in hot air balloons, might find a home in many a fantasy venue. Pieces like “Carbuncles” and “My Aquarium” extend the tradition begun in French by critic, poet, and painter Max Jacob, whose 1916 classic The Dice Cup is now seen as a link between Symbolism and Surrealism.

No doubt I’m mistaken. Perhaps carbuncles are simply creatures of the Great North, a cross between walrus and caribou, with nothing to do but wander in the fog looking for moist blue-green lichen. There’s so much fog they’ve never seen each other. But – no, no, carbuncles are like her, they burn. It was that detective, with his pipe smoke, who filled my head with fog, fog so you can’t tell the Thames from its banks.

Nor are carbuncles a species of globular insect that stoops to speaking with eagles. Well, then?

Ferry has the sheer writing chops to pull off a piece on idiosyncrasy of voice and opinion alone, as in “On the Frontiers of Plaster: A Few Notes on Sleep.” His 1953 story “Bourgenew & Co.”,  a unique revision of the Shangri-La tale first published in the Nouvelle revue française, was adapted by Claude Andrieux in 1990 into a short film that won several festival prizes in Switzerland, Italy, and France.

Ferry’s single most famous story, “The Society Tiger” (1946), has been anthologized multiple times in both French, most notably in Marcel Schneider’s 1965 Histoires fantastiques d’aujourd’hui, and André Breton’s 1966 Anthology of Black Humor, where Breton said that Ferry’s letterhead should read: “Psychological constructions a specialty. — Large selection of paradoxes, brash ideas, etc. —Always in stock: strong, human subjects. — Poetic details: upon request.” Breton, who also provided the introduction to original edition of Le Mécanicien, is said to have taken Ferry¹s wife Marcelle (a.k.a. Lila) as the inspiration for his book L’Amour fouLes quatre vents [The Four Winds] was an innovative if short-lived ’40s revue whose regular features included “Master of the Fantastic,” where they reprinted Stoker’s Dracula; “Check and Mate,” devoted to crime fiction; and “Beyond the Walls,” for translations. When “The Society Tiger” first appeared in issue 5 of this magazine, Breton called it “the most sensationally new poetical text I have read in a long time.” It has been translated into English three times by different translators in various anthologies, but never has it or have other scattered translations of Ferry appeared in the context of his other work: the original collection, The Conductor. Nor has any greater investigation into his literary legacy been attempted, when in fact his cavalier stylistic brilliance and thematic cohesiveness are best showcased by a more comprehensive presentation of his work. Already a chilling and unforgettable tale, “The Society Tiger” is deepened and broadened when set beside “Memories of Childhood,” which, whether fact or fiction (the latter is likelier), plumbs psychology that “Tiger” stunningly leaves as symbol.

Miss Florence won’t mean a thing to today’s generation, but perhaps some survivors of the golden age (Tziganes and a prix fixe for 60 centimes) will not have forgotten that splendid girl who for two seasons running sent shivers of insidious dread down their spines at the Nouveau Cirque. Miss Florence would walk into the ring in a great evening gown, like a heroine from Henry Bataille, which meant yards of lace and velvet, black glacé kid gloves with pearl buttons, dazzling opaline shoulders, and eyes that were green just so, and suddenly all the men became serious, attentive, focused. And that great fan of pink swan feathers! But she wouldn’t keep her pretty dress on for long, not Mama. With two kicks and a roll of her hips, voilà, there she was in a black satin swimsuit, calves laced up like a genuine Mack Sennett bathing beauty (something still unknown to us then). That packed quite a wallop for the crowd, from the box seats to the back rows, way up there, where the ring below looked like a saucer of light. Monsieur Loyal didn’t need to ask for silence; no one thought about laughing while Miss Florence climbed a rope ladder to the top of the tent. Stirring thoughts filled your head as you watched that sublime derrière, those wild, golden, diamond-spangled tresses, rise toward the heavens. Afterwards, it all went very fast: a line of pink light swept from top to bottom, a splash, and Miss Florence, all smiles and wet skin, sprang from the little bathtub no one had initially believed she’d get in so dramatically. And they clapped, to free themselves of the fear they’d come looking for: to see that sweet, tempting, velvety machine become in a second a flattened pile of bleeding meat, punctured by bones and screams…

A nephew of the great avant-garde literary publisher José Corti, Ferry’s presence on the fringes of many major movements makes him, quite apart from the evident quality of his writing, a fascinating historical figure, a prism that can be turned at will to shed light on disparate literary traditions. Through him, we can trace the lyrical protests of Surrealism, the mechanics of Oulipo, the human heart of ‘Pataphysics, the long shadow of Kafka on the European fantastic, the sadistic excesses of the Panic movement. Ferry both embraced these currents and enjoyed their esteem, gave and received influence. His work, shot through with allusions from Anouilh to Dickens, Klossowski to Bataille, exists at a nexus of other authors like Boris Vian, Pierre Jean-Jouve, André Hardellet, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and Marcel Béalu, whose affiliations with multiple movements often left their work forgotten in the cracks between. But as Roussel did with his marvelous and extravagant tableaux, Ferry has made a place for himself among the sui generis.

An unjustly neglected writer of limited but significant output, Ferry and his oeuvre are ripe for rediscovery, from this, his single volume of prose fiction, to his more personal screen work (Fidélité, written in collaboration with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, but never filmed). Ferry’s stories have also been translated into Spanish and German. My translations of his work have appeared here at WFR, in The Coffin Factory, and The Café Irreal; more are forthcoming in Subtropics and Sentence. The Conductor and Other Tales will make its English debut in November 2013 from Wakefield Press with an introduction providing further critical and historical context.

The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Clarion alum Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright program, the Centre National du Livre, and the Lannan Foundation. 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 The New York Times, Conjunctions, Pseudpod, Podcastle, and F&SF. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he translates comics for Archaia, Top Shelf, and SelfMadeHero.