Noël Devaulx

The Secret Master

courtesy François Forgeot

courtesy François Forgeot

Noël Devaulx is the secret master of the 20th century French fantastic,” I wrote in 2009. And by that I meant in letters, in essays, in interviews, in conversation, he was the name on everyone’s lips, everyone I was reading and researching. Scratch a French fantasist, find a reference to the former Breton engineer, René Forgeot, whose pseudonym had been almost totally stricken from the ledgers of French literature, whose 13 collections, 2 novellas, and 2 novels (he would beg to differ on the numbers, but more on that below) were out of print a mere decade after his death. But then again, he had labored in obscurity almost all his life. Beginning with L’Auberge Parpillon (Madame Parpillon’s Inn) in 1945 — though select stories had already discreetly appeared in revues — he published steadily until 1994, no two books more than eight years apart and most only three or four. A fifty-year run any writer would envy, during which the lion’s share of his diligent industry lay with the prestigious Gallimard, that house whose own rise is tied to the 20th century, its artistic and intellectual currents. After all, it was Jean Paulhan* who first noticed Devaulx and ushered him into La nouvelle revue française, where whatever the style of the times he would remain a regular contributor. Gide, Camus, Sartre, St.-Exupéry, Queneau, de Beauvoir, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet — in its pages the giants bestriding French letters came and went while Devaulx stayed much the same.

I have never felt capable of writing a novel,” Devaulx once said. “Nor have I ever given it much thought. The short story has always imposed itself upon me.” His handful of novellas—Compère, vous mentez! (1949), Bucrâne (1954), Instruction civique (1986), Mémoires du perroquet Papageno (1993) — could be considered long stories. Only his publisher, he claimed, had dubbed Sainte Barbegrise (1952) a novel, whereas he considered it five connected stories about a single family. Half Devaulx’s tales are under ten pages, and by far the majority employ a first-person narrator most often involved in, rather than merely witnessing, the action. In a 1965 article in Modern Language Quarterly, scholar Mark Temmer observes, “The suppression of the confessional instinct allows for a remarkable variety of impersonal personal viewpoints.” This is important when assessing Devaulx’s style, at once extremely writerly yet voluble and conversational, which Temmer compared to Flaubert and critic Gaëtan Picon, in Yale French Studies, called “patient, courteous, slightly formal,” while Armand Chartier called it “musical, pellucid, sometimes poetic.”

It will be surmised that Devaulx did not go entirely neglected in English. The story “Madame Parpillon’s Inn” featured in John Lehmann’s anthology New Writing and Daylight, which New Directions published in the US. A year after its French release, L’Auberge Parpillon was picked up by Allan Wingate, which decided to retitle the book with another tale from the same collection, The Tailor’s Cake (“Le Gâteau des Tailleurs”). Betty Askwith’s somewhat cluttered translations of these have dated poorly, preserving little of the author’s liveliness and charm. For my money, Jean Stewart’s 1957 translation of “A Ball at Alfeoni’s” in The London Magazine holds up better, though that was his last work to be translated. Reviews of later ‘80s collections turned up in World Literature Today. An exceedingly retiring man, Devaulx gave few interviews, refused the literary life, and refrained from explanation or commentary. Descriptions of him match those of most retiring men of a certain generation: unfailingly polite and never without a tie. For many years, he had a parrot who quoted classical poetry in a voice indistinguishable from his own. Among his awards are the Prix des critiques, the short story prize from the Académie Française, the Prix Valéry Larbaud, and the Grand prix de la Société des Gens de lettres for his body of work. While alive, he enjoyed critical esteem; today even those critics are forgotten.

I have delayed writing about Devaulx not from fear of scaling the most obvious and unavoidable peak but from fear of not doing a personal favorite justice, of inadequately representing something cherished. And turning to the work of others on Devaulx doesn’t really help; one finds the same sentiments echoed from paean to paean (the most common are corralled in this essay) amidst confessions of befuddlement and interpretive surrender.

To be fair, he is difficult. And his difficulty is inextricably bound up in his allure. It’s never Joycean (language), Nabokovian (allusion), or even Oulipian (puzzle), but like these it resists meaning. Which wouldn’t pose a problem if his work didn’t so tantalizingly betoken that very thing. This may in fact be the chief feature, the most immediately appreciable feel of Devaulx’s writing, the atmosphere it so masterfully emanates: his tales seem poised on the brink of some astonishing revelation they inevitably withhold.

In his afterward to L’Auberge Parpillon, Jean Paulhan called Devaulx’s tales “allegories without explanations” and “parables without keys.” In Le Figaro, in a piece later used as a preface to Le pressoir mystique [Devaulx’s second collection, The Mystic Press] André Rousseaux calls them “metaphysical allegories.” In a special issue of the short fiction magazine Brèves devoted to Devaulx, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud says:

in the stories Noël Devaulx chooses to tell us, something is always escaping our understanding, something we’re absolutely sure is there. That something is meaning. Necessarily hidden, perhaps unintelligible to the author himself, like the face in the parquetry or the figure in the carpet, which will only appear if we keep our eyes focused on the distance… evasive at the very moment it seems to surrender.”

When, in his 1953 story “A Ball at Alfeoni’s” (from his 1955 collection of the same name, Bal chez Alfeoni), Devaulx writes

The stories themselves were insignificant, or rather, as stories, non-existent, but the reader was spellbound by anticipation of an event which seemed inevitable, although his expectation was never satisfied. Or else when, exceptionally, the event so eagerly awaited did take place, it seemed only a wry grimace, round which the whole thing closed up again like a block of crystal.”

he might as well be describing his own work. Or, as Temmer puts it, “Noël Devaulx writes as much to be misunderstood as to be understood.”

There is a kind of perfect pacing that stays one step ahead of the reader, shining a light from around the next corner. Isak Dinesen, in “Babette’s Feast” or “Ehrengard” knew the secret of it. Somehow the sense I was so sure it would all make evanesced even as the ending, abruptly upon me, lay bare what the story had really been about all along, while I was looking elsewhere. It was almost too soon, and yet also just right. Then I’d go back, and there it all was.

A certain kind of conviction you’ve missed something can be breathtaking; it sends you racing back through the pages you’ve just read, searching for clues, even as your mind teems with the imminence of their assembly. The magnificence of what you’re about to put your finger on is just appalling. I’ve read enough Devaulx now to know this is an illusion; the wonder is that he manages it again and again, even on re-reads, when most magic tricks betray their shabby mechanics.

You could hardly call Dinesen a page-turner and Devaulx, not at all. One of his favorite structures, in fact, is the placid description — often of a scene, a building, or painting — that gradually, on increasingly closer inspection, discloses some unaccountable anomaly. The effect is of a slow, scrutinizing zoom that magically takes you further in than mere vision would allow. The suspense he manages is one of meaning, and the momentum one of prose: rhythm and insinuation. His economy comes from a mastery of narration, the strategic deployment of information. In a rare interview with Hubert Haddad, he ascribed this absolute economy to writing reports in his engineer days. A German critic once praised him in a way that particularly pleased him: “The words are so tightly assembled you can’t slip a fingernail between them.”

This is another reason Devaulx is difficult: his tales refuse paraphrase. There is the story (now so widely attributed as to be apocryphal) of the author who, when asked by a critic what his book was about, handed the critic his book; he could convey it in no fewer, nor any other, words. So it is with Devaulx. Few writers’ work is so completely itself, with so little extractable content. “This slender story cannot be retold in any other words that would relate it more clearly,” writes Châteaureynaud of Devaulx’s “Visit to a Pompeian Palace,” but the same is true of all Devaulx’s stories. On this point Jean Paulhan concurs: “There isn’t… exactly a point to his stories. Or rather the point is like a pit of a fruit that refuses to come away from the flesh.”

Why should this be? Partly it’s because the author is creating original myths with original symbols, “requiring patience and determination to penetrate… its language, its universe,” as Picon put it. As Temmer points out, “it is in the nature of myth to be hermetic and self-contained.” Partly it’s because what makes a Devaulx story is Devaulx. His props and settings are banal, animated only by his evocations. His tales are mostly setup and his plots light on event. His narrators — as Temmer notes, often “fonctionnaires, the French equivalent of Gogol’s tchinovnik or Kafka’s Beamter, seeking proof of their convictions within the circle of their folly” — consist entirely of their voices: the sum, over the course of a story, of hinted fears, veiled desires, and precise equivocations.

There have been some well-meaning but ultimately clumsy attempts to explain the Devaulx touch. Grasset editor Jacques Brenner calls him a practitioner of the fantastic in its purest form, who “seeks to communicate not intellectually but emotionally with his reader.” One detects a whiff of the Cartesian cogito-snobbery that both exiled and engendered the fantastic as a genre in France. And Paulhan, an avowed fan, runs the risk of calling Devaulx an idiot savant when he says:

He undergoes his themes rather than understands them… the theme finds itself scattered throughout the story: the reader looks in vain for a place where it comes to a point. One can’t imagine Noël Devaulx could have treated it any other way.”

Compliments like these, tributes to happy accident, belie the craft and control Devaulx exercised over his materials. If (almost) nothing happens in Devaulx — if confrontations are eschewed, drama disdained, and his people, at the crucial moment, turn away — it is by design. Make no mistake, the author is a trickster, given to impish esoterism. According to Châteaureynaud, that “singular Devaulx effect” arises partly “from the fact that we are given no clues, unless they be contradictory and fallacious ones, like so much nose-thumbing at our confusion.”

If there is one thing critics agree on, it is the centrality of death to Devaulx’s oeuvre. His stories, says Temmer, “unfold slowly, and their development may be likened to a spiral staircase, which the reader ascends until, exhausted, he reaches the last step to confront death… Sunday promenades turn into frenetic excursions to luminous realms, where, ultimately, they encounter death, disguised or masked.” In listing Devaulx’s themes, Paulhan includes death, madness,

the flight of Time, and morality without God. These are metaphysical or poetic themes rather than romantic ones. Devaulx doesn’t seem to mind much about hunger, ambition, love, or marriage, but he seems more than usually preoccupied with his last hour.”

Picon agrees, dubbing Devaulx’s work “Un Fantastique de la Mort.” Yet he finds Devaulx’s work imbued with

the authenticity, the reality of a powerful world that exists outside of us and with which we must, little by little, come to terms…

Death is not the messenger of nothingness… rather the tie between the beyond and the real. It demonstrates the limits of this world and its inability to give us an account of itself and guarantee its own reality…

In the center of Devaulx’s world an absence is sensed, a vacuum created: death reveals the invisible of which all in this world is but symbol and speculation.”

It isn’t better, but rather, other, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud concludes: “that alterity on which literature and all the arts are founded.”

Over the decades, Devaulx has refined the classical fantastical formula, distilling mystery to its barest appreciable essence. Where the irruption of the unreal was once the climax, Devaulx, who worships at the altar of discretion, has pared it to less than a glimpse: half a sentence, a face in the shadows. Devaulx appeals to my love of things seen in passing, or down a hallway through a door left ajar, and my suspicion that the fleeting, the peripheral, and the barely perceptible conspire to secretly govern the world. The monsters he conjures last less than a minute, but the placid surfaces he loves are forever marred by their faint shadow. In Devaulx, description is action, narration is scene, and implication is event. The reader used to crisis and commotion must reset his emotional gauge to a subtler register. Only then will Devaulx’s discreet terrors hit home. Everyone remembers a pair of eyes opening in La Jetée, but only because the rest of the film is stills. Subtlety, however, is not the only literary quality, and occasionally Devaulx is so subtle that his stories almost deliquesce from existence. It’s hard to argue that so fine an author should be more widely read, when fineness is his gift and his curse. Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud and I once sat in his dining room sharing our mutual admiration for Devaulx. Châteaureynaud shook his head and sighed, “He’ll never be popular.” But one can hope.

Now that the generalities are out of the way, next week let’s take a closer look at a few Devaulx stories, including “Madame Parpillon’s Inn,” “A Ball at Alfeoni’s,” and “The Lady of Murcia.”

* Jean Paulhan is one of the great French editors of 20th century, and one I always mean to find out more about, because his life so deeply touched the lives of so many writers I admire. A champion of many forgotten fantastical writers (including André Pieyre de Mandiargues, André Dhôtel, Marcel Béalu, Jean Ferry, and Maurice Pons), as well as those in more dominant currents (Sartre, Céline, Mauriac, Gide), he was also a Resistance hero, and the inspiration for his lover Dominique Aury’s erotic classic The Story of O. He seems, in short, the perfect model of cosmopolitan political and literary taste.

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 and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, Subtropics, Pseudopod, Podcastle, and PEN America. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he writes a bimonthly column on the Francophone fantastic at Weird Fiction Review.