Discussions of Noël Devaulx often turn around a handful of the best-known, or at least most approachable, stories. And the man has written so many: the count was 105 before his last four collections. I have spoken of Devaulx’s economy; here, for instance, is the opening line of his story “The Lady of Murcia”:
We had rented a large studio not far from Santa Eulalia, beside a Brazilian from whom wealth separated us more surely than the massive door set in our shared wall.
The language is clear, even plainspoken; the sentence structure has a hint of the formality (“from whom”) that on other occasions can become more baroque. The action of this short, swift tale (some 1600 words) is forecast, though not broadcast, right from the start.
“The Lady of Murcia” is one of Devaulx’s most famous stories, frequently praised and anthologized, no less remarkable for being among the more approachable. Like the later “Centaur and the Virgin” or the longer “Lizard of Immortality,” it is a creature story with everything stripped away but encounter and consequence. Upon forgetting to lock the “massive door,” the narrator meets the titular Lady: a hybrid of fur and feather, the feminine and the leonine. As he is neither able to gaze directly at it nor to remember what he sees, the creature is described more in terms of movement than shape, a series of sidelong glimpses. As in Elizabeth Hand’s “Hungerford Bridge”, description of the creature stands in for a great deal. It is theme and event in crystalline form, set in a context of reactions that convey character. But just what, in “Murcia,” is Devaulx driving at? The few hints at psychology prove unhelpful. And after the narrator murders the Lady, Devaulx resorts to a device he perhaps loves too well: the dead faint, followed by amnesia. A staple of ye olde fantasticke, with its bouts of sudden narratorial madness, the move can seem quaint or coy, and tends to date Devaulx’s work. But “evanescent” and the French for “to faint,” evanouir, share a root; Devaulx’s light touch is nothing if not fleeting. His stories’ mystery and allure, their ability to unsettle and to signify, derive from strategic elisions. The only repeated description is of the Lady’s eyes, in which play a continuous and mesmerizing spray of gold flakes. Are we to understand, then, something about murder at the heart of all wealth, or our blindness to the wellsprings of envy? Readings can be imposed, but none impose themselves upon the reader with any certainty. Devaulx has regretted the popularity of “Murcia,” and offered little insight into a story he claims was taken directly from a dream.
I have also spoken of how Devaulx privileges the glimpse, the power he imbues it with. The narrator of “The Centaur and the Virgin” spends most of the story puzzling out the scene he is uncovering as he cleans layers of successive frescoes from a church wall, but when he finally sees the beast, it is from afar, and only for a moment, terrorizing a pagan ritual in a clearing. He watches helpless from his balcony as the girl he loves rends the centaur, man from horse, torso from torso, at the price of her life:
And I saw the divided creature flee, dragging like a husk a rider still incompletely freed from the primitive confusion, his head dashed against the paving stones.
As in the work of Gene Wolfe or Paul Park, information is often delivered so obliquely it seems incidental, an ingredient more of mood than drama. The narrator of “The Lizard of Immortality” comes into possession of the titular creature by accident, while imprisoned by a shaman over a gambling debt. The lizard’s back is studded with emeralds, and the song it somehow whistles is piercing and comforting. Alone, on the run, the narrator prepares to spend the night on the street when the lizard’s song is overheard by two people in a nearby villa, and it is through overhearing their conversation in turn that the narrator, and the reader, first find out what the lizard is.
Only natural, then, that Devaulx should habitually depict death as faceless. When a dear friend returns from the dead in “Eurydice’s Flowers,” the painter narrator reports
She turned around abruptly. I remember screaming because she had no face. When I came to once more, I was alone.
The blank face is a staple of terror, from Roland Topor to The Phantom Tollbooth by way of stretched latex, mummies, and busts mutilated by time — the ultimate, implacable sibyl. Subtracting features, or otherwise blocking them, is a trick Harlan Ellison famously employed, and Lev Grossman borrows from Magritte in his villain for The Magicians, whose face a leafed twig obscures. The Belgian Surrealist’s pearlescent fruit recalls this encounter from Devaulx’s “The Misfortunes of Anthony Suberbordes,” a compressed picaresque set in a mental asylum:
The door opened, but with what exasperating slowness! I had leisure to observe the appearance of the skirt of a frock-coat, of a black, swollen hand. I was nailed down to my chair unable to move a finger. Suddenly my heart stopped beating: the visitor had no face. A sort of wooden pear, beautifully polished and shining on top, emerged from a soft collar knotted with a loose necktie.
“Suberbordes” and “Madame Parpillon’s Inn” rank among Devaulx’s most accomplished stories from his first collection, to date the only one translated into English (by Betty Askwith, whom it is said Raymond Queneau favored). The narrator of “Madame Parpillon’s Inn” is a young traveling salesman who, finding the titular pension a hidden gem, befriends the illiterate widow and proprietress. Like most enthusiastic young men, he is fond of imagining
all the hours of my life, with one exception… even those belonging to extreme old age bore a familiar and friendly aspect, but… when I tried to stare at the last one, it obstinately turned away its head and left me to my own devices… the last hour of all, that was totally invisible.
In a park near the Inn, he glimpses a young woman, but
how can I make it credible that although I carry in my mind after so many years the least trimming on her bodies, her knots of peach-coloured velvet, the sides of her poke bonnets, at the same time her face escapes me, leaving a blank between the fluttering curls, a deep emptiness which the eye plumbed in vain. I think that I was going to yield to terror, I was going to scream or run, when a violent pea of bells sounded from the almonry of the Black Penitents, a stone’s throw away.
In the story’s final scene, the narrator wakes at night to witness an dazzling assembly in the Inn’s courtyard: a convoy of carriages from another age, attended by young women dressed like the one glimpsed in the park. Panicked by this sudden supernatural intervention into his cherished hotel coziness, the narrator is packing and preparing to flee when he picks his own death, that “mysterious fiancée,” from the crowd:
The street was paved with mist into which the coaches vanished. As the last one shaved the corner stone the carriage door indiscreetly flew open. She who is promised to me leant forward a moment and immediately disappeared.
Really, what are we to make of so light a touch? The fantastical element buried in paragraphs of chatter, often ironic, equivocal, and self-deprecating, and then dispensed with so quickly we need to look twice to confirm it is there. May we infer that a certain outrightness of fantasy embarrasses him? Like so many authors, for reasons of cultural standing or authorial intent, he has quibbled with nomenclatures, preferring like Thomas Owen the label “strange” or “unusual” to “fantastic.” I believe it is rather that we are dealing with a complex, subtle, and reticent mind. Much the way worlds are best built with mere passing reference, so for Devaulx everything outer, and by nature incomprehensible, to us is most effectively enriched by mere allusion.
At times, his 1953 story “A Ball at Alfeoni’s” (from his 1955 collection of the same name, and translated by Jean Stewart in The London Magazine) seems an apologia of his work and aesthetic. Alfeoni is a mysterious writer that the narrator has just delightedly discovered via a review copy in a secondhand bookstore. “Every page of this volume, every one of his sentences is charged with irresistible, I might even say intolerable poetic power,” the narrator enthuses to a friend. And yet rumor has it that Alfeoni in person is “a boring pharmacist… a conventional and self-conscious little bourgeois… moreover, the dullest conversationalist one could imagine.” Nothing Devaulx writes is to be taken at face value, but he assigns the titular character a number of attributes similar to his own. Here he seems to be mocking his own retiring habits, his tidy life as an engineer, and his withdrawal from the limelight. Devaulx even goes so far as to praise Alfeoni’s publisher as “a shrewd and subtle man, on intimate terms with the most brilliant minds of our generation” — something Jean Paulhan surely was. Devaulx may be having a bit of fun at his own expense when he has his editor character suspect Alfeoni of “intellectual barrenness… I have never,” that editor goes on, “come across a work of solid merit which did not betray an echo of the great philosophical systems of our time, and a writer is little esteemed nowadays unless he has a certain reputation as a thinker.” Here Devaulx may be assessing his outsider position with regard to the more politicized main currents of philosophy, literature, and criticism in postwar France, and how the fantastic as a genre peeled away from those as well. In an essay on Devaulx from Yale French Studies, Gaëtan Picon observes that
self assertively with the Liberation, French literature seemed to crystallize around certain very definite esthetic and philosophical tendencies. The best writers, the most skillful propagandists, the most subtle and imperious ‘-isms’ determined the success of a certain kind of literature.
However, Picon notes, “Many persistent marginal currents continue, and it appears they are becoming stronger and more daring each day,” going on to name André Pieyre de Mandiargues and Julien Gracq. Mark Temmer would later concur:
For the most part, Devaulx describes events unrelated to general historical truths, enigmatic occurrences that result from the application of formal intellectual principles to purely imaginary ideas and situations. The more fantastic the subject matter, the more precise its treatment, and vice versa. Devaulx reminds one of a geometer surveying a terrain he has invented.
Devaulx also has the editor figure in “Alfeoni” hold forth on his writer’s prose:
I don’t deny there is a sort of verbal magic in the efforts of this self-taught man which has its charm, but… this is an utterly limpid stream and however deeply I gaze into it I can see nothing through it but its very limpidity.
This very much recalls Mark Temmer’s description of Devaulx’s bewitching style:
The style assumes the mood and contours of the theme and flows easily like smoke, drifting in graceful spirals through undisturbed space. Indeed, daydreams require not only a hermetic enclosure for the enactment of the ideal, but also a style that is as timeless as the scene is artificial. Illusion follows illusion, and all that remains is pure prose.
After these literary preliminaries, however, “Alfeoni” takes its fantastical turn. The narrator and his friend wangle an invite to Alfeoni’s villa, where after a long, winding, and meticulously described approach that wears down their certainty in their surroundings (jungles, a child guide, a chilling scream in the night), find themselves in a busy masked ball whose brightly colored participants seem strangely part-animal. Everything is of a heightened, terrible, and elusive beauty:
The very setting enhanced this anguish. The broad bars of shadow, crossed against a background of vividly shimmering colors, recalled that fairy-tale prison in which the captives were overcome with a collective euphoria. Or rather, since this heavy network closely followed the slightest swaying movement of the dance, now sinking, now boldly soaring, it seemed the gigantic net of a birdcatcher in pursuit of the most gorgeous plumage.
Frightened and bewildered, the narrator makes his way to the heart of this gathering, where through a momentary gap in the dance he glimpses a body facedown on the floor, in pool of blood. The he and his friend are swept away once more by the bacchanal. The story concludes a few weeks later:
About our parallel experiences we never spoke, even when quite alone together, even when our eyes happened to light on that little green book, even when Alfeoni’s body was discovered — and then, a last, the Press was lavish of information about him; true, it concerned only his domestic affairs, his financial position, the absolute solitude in which he spent all summer in a vast, tumble-down villa. And then the newspapers revealed his real name, a commonplace name, that suited the pharmacist but was unworthy of the great poet.
Who are these exotic creatures that surround the artist’s corpse with their revels? Did Alfeoni summon them into existence? Was death the price of his art? This enigmatic tale is the closest Devaulx ever comes to offering his thoughts on the role of the artist. Attempts have made to shelve him beside Nerval and Mérimee for style, Novalis and Hoffmann for themes, but as ever, he veers toward a minimalism in outright defiance of interpretation. Equivocation is his mode, which means his waverings of tone and gold-leaf irony must be perfected down to the word.