“We must refuse madness,” writes Marguerite Cassan at the end of “On the Line,” one of nine stories in Develop in Darkness (À développer dans l’obscurité, Laffont, 1967), and this tension between refusal and embrace, suspicion and abandon, fuels much of the book’s conflict, dividing those whom darkness touches from those who tell their tales.
Little is known about Cassan — as a writer. She rates the briefest of mentions in Baronian’s Panorama of the Francophone Fantastic; in a paragraph surveying the flora of the “female fantastic,” he shelves her alongside Martine Chevrier and Christia Sylf in “fairy parables,” calling her stories “beautiful, very beautiful.” Marcel Schneider affords her slightly more space in his History of Fantastical Literature in France, lamenting her disappearance after two collections of “sensitivity, imagination, and humor worthy of Lewis Carroll.”
However, Cassan’s career as an actress is well documented, and perhaps eclipsed her other professional efforts. Born in Nice in 1923, she was raised in Marseille and left the sunny south for Paris to become a “mermaid,” as she put it, with the gift for poetry, taste for enchantment, and flair for theatricality that were to inform her writing. She was of Provençale, Gascon, and Florentine descent, and spent time in the Far East. Both as a writer and actress she worked for stage, screen, and later, television. She also penned sketches, radio plays, monologues for her one-woman cabaret shows, and poetry; her interest in the fantastic extended to adaptations of such authors as Maurice Renard, of the classic Hands of Orlac, and science fiction pioneer Gustave Le Rouge. She provided the voice for Lady in a 33 1⁄3 rpm children’s storybook adaptation of Lady and the Tramp (in French, literally “Beauty and the Bum”), and performed in plays by Jean Renoir and Pierre Boulle. The author of Planet of the Apes later contributed a preface to her first short fiction collection, Stories Askew (Histoires à côté, Laffont, 1963) where he lays out at length his theory that “the value of a literary work lies almost entirely in the way it translates the essential enigma of existence into language: and by that I mean the interactions of spirit and matter,” imagining the day when literary critics will finally recognize this. The ideal critic he construes then offers paeans to Cassan, placing her in the lineage of Wilde and Poe, and singling out for praise her sensitivity to something he prized, a nascent genre of the day: scientific expressions of the fantastic. Although Boulle finds the name “science fiction” barbaric, he cites no less than Einstein and Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, in describing the (meta)physics of Cassan’s tales. And it is true that her collections constitute early exemplars of genre-hopping: alongside traditional conceits like angels, nightmares, faith healers, and people who pass into landscapes painted on dressing screens, are images more technological in origin: giant insects, time travel and interdimensional portals (though never explicitly named), passing a band of seaweed through a magnetic tape player. Like contemporary authors free to pick and choose elements from the histories of genre, Cassan moves with grace, glee, and ease across traditions, wherever her imagination takes her, displaying what Boulle calls “a variety of such rare qualities… as to allow us to suspect that perhaps literature is not yet completely dead. Hope remains so long as audacious adventurers do not hesitate to risk danger on the sea of shadows, there to rediscover the lost arts of imagination and creation. Marguerite Cassan is one of these hardy pioneers.”
The thirteen pieces in Stories Askew have the snap and devilish cleverness of John Collier, often closing on some wicked pun, a habit she carries over more sparingly into her second collection. The stories of Develop in Darkness, uniformly longer, feel more lived-in for their roominess; they afford the old-fashioned pleasure of unfurling at a pace that now seems slightly sumptuous, and serve as a reminder of the degree to which earlier forms of the fantastic were inclined to contemplation, which intensifies anguish:
This language belonging to two worlds, each so distant from the other, filled her with fear. Amfried’s small, enigmatic face rose before her. Did there exist, among animal, vegetable, and mineral, relations that escaped most humans? From the shadows, she felt an invisible curiosity settle upon her, as if she were the object of passionate study. Presences whispered all around her. Barbara felt trapped like a germ in a microscope beam. Her very life was at stake. There was no question now of burrowing deeper under the sheets. The slightest movement could prove fatal. She had to feign sleep. Barbara forced herself to keep her eyes closed, to control her breathing. Sleep overtook her.
On the whole, however, the mood is subdued, understated, and even when rife with invention, rarely phantasmagorical. Between the two collections Cassan published a novel, End on end (Fil à fil, Laffont, 1965) which won the now defunct Prix Sévigné, and that is the sum of her published prose.
Finding cultural equivalents for writing never translated into English is always tricky, but Cassan’s work, with its clear strain of Anglophila, seems to beg for it. There is a fashionable continental fascination for the trappings of archetypal classiness — as the French say, très British—where “Nothing astonishes an individual of fine breeding, especially if he is English.” Cassan’s tone can also have the cool, even steely placidity of Daphne du Maurier. Consider this opening line: “When Mrs. Hopkins raised her eyes, the child was standing before her.” Or titles like “Shadow of a Doubt” and “A Thorny Subject” (her final story “Don’t Stray Too Far” recalls the famous imperative “Don’t Look Now”). There is an art to posing leading questions, and to picking phrases of utterly innocent appearance that can, on a dime, shade delicately into menace — that live, in fact, at this very nexus, this hinge of reality. As with Du Maurier, these stories feel intensely feminine to me, though as a contemporary male writer, I hesitate to say so, and confess difficulty in cataloging my reasons, which can seem to tend too easily toward prescriptive definitions of femininity rather than descriptive appreciations of fiction. Perhaps it is as simple as this: most of Cassan’s stories feature female protagonists, whose observations on human interactions and the world around are wholly convincing and occasionally surprising. Sometimes these stories directly engage difficult conditions under which women lived, as in “The Wife of the Sun,” set in Franco’s repressive Spain. Cassan also excels at writing children, whom she brings to life with special tenderness — make of that what you will. Most often, however, her characters simply notice things differently (I won’t go so far as to say notice realities invisible to men, especially as invisible realities in general are the fantastic’s stock-in-trade). The mere presence of women at the fulcrum of a fantastical tale reminds us how often the classical fantastic featured men and their madnesses, so much so that French fantastical scholar Nathalie Prince wrote a study on it (The Bachelors of the Fantastic, 2002), focusing on the late 19th century.
Cassan’s language, for the most part plain, is adorned here and there with precise loveliness, often when describing nature, and she has her pet words: “chignons of seaweed” strewn on a beach, the “tangled chignons of the season’s last chrysanthemums.” An attunement, a quality of noticing, pervades her prose, informs her word choice; for instance, the varied applications of tapisser, which can mean to carpet, to paper, or to pad: “Plane trees carpeting the loam with rustling yellow and crackling brown” and “a kind of slime upholstering the hollows of the rocks.” When she records the smack of a passing express against train windows in the night, waking sleepers in their berths, I confess a sort of astonishment that this particular detail hasn’t been made clichéd by constant use, so vividly does it invoke my own memories of the experience. It is a staple of rail travel; why have so few bothered including it?
An authentic flavor of France emerges from Cassan’s tales, many of which are carefully set in provincial regions lovingly described with reference to landscape, place names, phonetically spelled accents, and culinary specialties. As a result, her France also feels more palpable than that of many male fantasists, whose dream worlds can feel hermetic in comparison as their prose labors to heighten and transfigure. Cassan’s settings are also steeped in history. Her Spain remembers the repressive Franco regime, her Paris is haunted by its Polish immigrants, her night trains still have nightmares about sudden German inspections during the Occupation, and in “Amfreid,” Mrs. Hopkins’ tragic romances are intimately bound up in the Second World War.
“Amfreid” is an excellent example of the eerie slow burn. Mrs. Hopkins, a widow looking for a place where she will be left alone, takes a house on the gray northern French coast. One day at the beach she rescues Amfried from a crowd of other young boys furious that he has ruined their sand model of Paris by tripping over a piece of driftwood. As a foreigner herself, Mrs. Hopkins develops a kinship with Amfried, whose language no one can understand. But the next morning’s newspaper features a front page photo of a Paris apartment building destroyed by an uprooted tree that bears a strange resemblance to the driftwood from before.
When she came back to the house for lunch, Mrs. Hopkins switched the radio on out of habit. In Moscow they had launched a new plane, a typhoon had hit Hanoi, and they had discovered a Sumerian city in ancient Chaldea. What parallels would these events find in Amfried’s eyes? Would he, in the course of the morning, have shattered a pot of flowers, launched a glider, discovered a bit of glass brought in on the tide? What geranium roots offered up to his gaze the despair of a felled tree? What paper arrow, what kite, had inspired modern aviation? What unearthed fragment, what porcelain shard might prompt an excavation in Babylon? Mrs. Hopkins turned off the radio, grabbed her coat, and set out in search of the truth.
Though by the end Mrs. Hopkins certainly comes closer to what Amfried is, his nature is never labeled. Nor are the words time travel, or any technology that might make it possible, alluded to in “Sensitive Plate,” and yet the French wife of the Polish émigré, returning to the land of his youth, finds and befriends him as a little boy in a spa town. These events are contemporaneous with the present day, in which the older émigré, pining after his wife, receives by mail a photograph depicting her and his younger self that unlocks painful memories. The photographer to whom he tells this tale, in an autumnal rose garden, is left to reconcile its impossibilities. The action of the story ends less abruptly than “Amfried,” whose sudden, dizzying shift in frame of reference in the final pages paves the way for the entire second half of “Don’t Stray Too Far.” Cassan’s most visionary and ambitious tale, it takes the narrator from a placid horse ride in the Camargue to a jaunt through multiple lives across many dimensions. Its ending leaves the reader in freefall, without closure or assurance:
The one true thing is a warning that reaches us from the depths of ageless terror, which mothers pass down through the ages: don’t stray too far.
The collection’s longest story, “The Importance of Being Boxed Up,” plays like an ingenious parody of the drawing room mystery by way of absurd reduction. Adopting the classical fantastical conceit of a mysterious death explained by a letter in a frame story, it revolves around a shrinking potion that has the side effect of predicting one’s death. A person who drinks the potion will not start shrinking until exactly nine months before he or she is slated to die, but if, for example, he or she were due to die in two days, those two days would see nine month’s worth of shrinking. At death’s door, a person can sleep comfortably in a matchbox. “It will clear up the motives of suicide,” notes the inventor of his potion, but its biggest contribution to society will be a total revision of land use, freeing up all the space wasted on graveyards. A whole new line of commerce will open, furnishing dollhouses for those in their last days. Cassan handles her ridiculous device with appropriately malicious merriment but plays it entirely straight.
Boulle credits the “magical atmosphere” of Cassan’s work to her theatrical background, and while several stories from Stories Askew are set in that milieu, Cassan has a knack for bringing out the theatricality inherent in any given situation: the surprising, disarming, beautiful, and sometimes breathtaking. “To describe her talent,” says Boulle,
I might cite an image from one of her own stories: the artist who painted so admirably that when he gave a finishing touch to a butterfly, it flew away. This is the best, the only true technique: gathering and arranging the stuff of a story so that its soul emerges naturally.
Marguerite Cassan passed away in 1989.