Pierrette Fleutiaux: The Queen’s Metamorphoses

The French Angela Carter?

Queen's Cover

The ogre’s wife is a secret vegetarian, a purger of eaten meats. A girl when the ogre abducts her, she believes him first an angel (in a snowstorm), then a devil (on a beach), mistaking his swiftness in seven-league boots for flight. The child’s perceptions are convincingly presented, and transparently horrifying; for adult readers, the crime is all the more chilling for how casually it’s handled.

The little girl grows up in the ogre’s house, his slave and then his wife. The ogre is all appetite, insatiable. He brings home doe, sows, steer and fucks the carcasses before eating them.

I have to have it raw, otherwise…”

Otherwise,” the wife says.

Otherwise my hunger is like a solid wall, a web of gray threads, a parching illness, a constant grinding that drives me mad… I need flesh that cries out. My hunger comes back in a rush, and I fill myself with what I need.”

Their seven daughters take after the ogre, with their hungry eyes and pointy teeth. When the wife tries to tell them the story of Red Riding Hood, the little ogresses demand the shade of red be specified. Poppy? Strawberry? Tomato? No! they cry, not satisfied with any color but cow’s blood.

Uneasy, their mother murmurs, “You shouldn’t eat wolves.”

Then, nervous, she goes on, “You shouldn’t let wolves eat you.”

Then, at a loss, “You should eat what is right.”

The ogre’s wife longs for something gentler, warmer, more human. This life wearies her to the point of numbness and disgust. When Thumbkin (Hop‑o’-My-Thumb) shows up, the conversation he has with her in the moonlight plays like the entreaties of an inopportune lover. Yes, as per the Perrault original, the Ogre is tricked into eating his own daughters instead of Thumbkin’s brothers, but the scene plays like a confused and bloody nightmare, rather than a clear case of heroic cleverness.

It is the ogre’s wife who winds up with the seven-league boots, which magically shrink to fit their wearer, and Thumbkin leaves his brothers behind to travel the world in her breast pocket. Over the course of their wanderings, they grow intimate:

The place looks like a big butterfly at the heart of the city, and the wife lands on its back. They have a room in the shining hotel with a bay window overlooking the river at the point where it forks. Thumbkin searches the wife’s body in the places he couldn’t reach when they were flying across the countryside in the seven-league boots. He places himself between her legs and gentle spreads them, he spreads the great purple lips and lays himself down in the middle of that wet and odorous bed, his head on the little pillow at the top and his arms extended in the fur. The window is wide open, and the river waters flow with a strong and steady sound.

After bringing the ogre’s wife to an orgasm “sweeping away her troubles, her memories, her fears,” Thumbkin himself undergoes a magical transformation, until the lovers are the same size. The boots, slipped from her feet during lovemaking, are carried off, in a final, whimsical grace note, by a passing mosquito.

The Ogre’s Wife” first appeared in English in Issue 37 (1991) of the now-defunct New York magazine Grand Street, translated by Leigh Hafrey. It was selected for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and also adapted into an opera by Monic Cecconi-Botella. It was first published as the lead story in Fleutiaux’s 1984 collection The Queen’s Metamorphoses, which won the Prix Goncourt for short stories.

Bloody Chamber

It would be easy to point to this book as the French equivalent of Angela Carter’s 1979 classic, The Bloody Chamber. Both taking Perrault as their point of departure, they share strong female protagonists, feminist subversions of theme and plot, intrusions of modern setting and fictional technique, and a certain sanguinary gusto about sex and violence. They also occupy similar positions in the contexts of their respective cultures and their authors’ oeuvres: with this, also her second collection of short stories, Fleutiaux, whose early fabulist work Cortázar admired, struck a great blow both for fantasy’s literary respectability and for women writing in the field. Though both emerged from the shadow of Bettelheim, neither influenced the other. Carter’s collection, her first to appear in France, came out there in 1985 under the title The Company of Wolves, on the heels of Jordan’s film.

In her preface Fleutiaux, who was born in 1941, states that her turn to Perrault coincided with a turn to the remembered comforts of childhood during a difficult time in her life. For some time, Perrault was the only thing she could stomach reading. And after a period of inner silence, the desire to write returned to her as the desire to re-write Perrault: to raise objections. As Bettina Knapp (who has written on Céline, Artaud, Nerval, and Anaïs Nin) put it in World Literature Today, “To go back to a personal and collective past, offered by the fairy tale, not only helped her emotionally, but redirected her artistic talents.”

Contes de Perrault

It would be facile to link the author’s mid-life crisis to the middle-aged women she makes her heroines if Fleutiaux had not admitted as much herself. Hence the figure of the queen: a mature woman walks through this book in many guises, changing costumes for each tale. For Fleutiaux, Bettelheim’s key words for the function of fairy tales were “to console and to guide.” Together her stories chart the many turnings, strayings, and sufferings life presents: the remote places it can emotionally strand you, the magic that can lead you through.

The Queen’s Metamorphoses consists of 7 longish stories, all based on Perrault with the exception of a Snow White revision. “Riquet à la Houppe”, “The Fairies”, and “Puss-in-Boots” get left out, and Little Red Riding Pants is made to share space with Bluebeard. Armed with a whip, a firebrand, and a cube of super-sticky gum, she makes short work of the wolves. It’s not clear just how old she is when she marries Bluebeard of her own free will, but their relationship has a strange innocence with disturbing overtones: the precocious and independent-minded child charmed by a sophisticated eccentric. When Blue’s beard becomes a private hedge of thorns, he leaves to find a cure, and Little Red Riding Pants finds the room with seven ex-wives locked up in the castle. Although her phallic firebrand delivers him from his beastly curse, it does so at the cost of their unique love:

no longer strong as it was when it was magical, it could not support the handsome man’s weight and broke with a sharp snap. Bluebeard thought his heart had broken and fainted dead away…

Smoke, smoke and ashes, never will the past return! No matter how well-intentioned, the firebrand could not rekindle that flame.

Goodbye, good sir,” said Little Red Riding Pants.”

The hand of Freud lies heavy on these stories, which sometimes wear their psychoanalytical content on their sleeve. “Cinderello” imagines a strapping autodidact, houseboy to his two vain brothers, who, having dismissed the princess as frivolous, falls for the queen. The most rollicking and overtly comic of Fleutiaux’s tales, it features Cadillacs, cross-dressing, cowboy hats, repressed resentment, and a fairy hearthstone who is also a therapist. In the “The Seven Giantesses”, seven magic mirrors tyrannize the hapless stepmother queen, who starves and suffers while trying to conform to her reflected self-image. Under threat of death should her skin be less than perfect, she flees to the forest and falls in with seven sturdy giantesses positively glowing with health and self-esteem. They have names like Big Teat, Voluptua, Clarionne, Fiery-Eye, and Cannonball. Snow White remains a child throughout, godmothered by the giantesses. The huntsman falls for the queen, while the king assumes the villain role and tries to kill her, culminating in a blowout final battle where the giantesses shatter every mirror but the last.

The seventh mirror stayed where it was, and when the king passed by and peered in, he could see his former huntsman, now an aquarium keeper, and his former wife, the queen, now a philosophy professor in a city university, and his former daughter, Snow White, who was preparing — far from studiously — for her SATs….

The king had his throne put in front of the seventh and last mirror, and every night, he doddled his head before images he could not understand, as if before a large-screen TV framed in solver and set with precious stones.

Men don’t get off easy in Fleutiaux’s world. They are either old, and neglectful, or young, and know no better. They are kings and husbands — proud, blind, and set in their ways, petulant when undone — or else princes and hunstmen, kind-hearted but often anguished, powerless, uncertain. Yet even at their most monstrous, Fleutiaux finds the poetry in their curse, their pain and frustration.

Fleutiaux’s prose is brisk and spirited, language of a lyric, even beatific simplicity that soothes and smoothes the narrative along. In homage to tradition, she litters her tales with knowing variations on the classic storyteller’s interjections:

Dear readers, readeresses, forgive me — I’ve been so long making my way through the overgrown maze of this doctored old fairy tale that, having gotten here at last, I want to take my time and not leave out a detail of this ever so remarkable encounter. When, after bramble and underbrush comes the clearing, who wouldn’t want to lie down and tarry there awhile?

Fleutiaux can be cavalier, comically and also erotically frank about sex, tender in her grotesquerie, her horror balanced by warm humor. She loves her queens, cheers them on, and wants them not only to pull through but to do so with some greater understanding of themselves, a leniency toward inherited notions, and an enhanced appreciation for life. Fleutiaux is also patient with dreams. She knows better than to demand meaning from them, and they often simply play as part of her characters’ days, enriching the portrait of life she paints. The most enigmatic story, the most free-floating in plot, is “The Sleeping Queen in the Wood,” which takes its title character on a long, ultimately unsuccessful quest to a bramble-ringed castle on a distant island. An undefined sadness palls this tale up to its end. If she does hand out happy endings in all the others — well, that too is a nod to tradition.

At the same time, these are ungainly stories. They keep pushing forward when you think they’re over, to take you to yet another new place. Fleutiaux has exploded the pace and shapeliness of fairy tales for something more garrulous, less compact. As anthologies of mood and emotion, the stories are surprisingly capacious. Fleutiaux exploits fairy tale trappings to help her heroines through periods of transition, phases in their lives, moments of anomie, aimlessness, grief, and regret. Turning points, doldrums of indecision, open onto new vistas and directions.

The revisionist fairy tale has come so far since the days of Carter and Fleutiaux as to constitute a subgenre; it is instructive to look back and see what started it all. The phrase “fairy tales for adults” is almost meaningless — what is wrong with adults reading fairy tales? — but in Fleutiaux’s conception it is almost always the intrusion of contemporary reality that provides an endnote to so many of her tales.

The ogre’s wife has an orgasm (alas, that most recent of discoveries). “The Deferrals of the Queen,” the more lighthearted of two takes on Sleeping Beauty – the sex comedy of a prince and princess who repeatedly fail to consummate their marriage – soon darkens with the latter’s death. When, at her daughter’s christening, the familiar uninvited witch shows up, it is the queen who comes back to life and, having slept her daughter’s penance for her, declares the curse null and void. Whereupon she turns to her husband:

Now let us wake, my love, and leave behind these trappings of king and queen, and make love.”

And now I must make up what was said next, for there was no one there to write it down. At that very moment, the court and its courtiers vanished as if by magic, the palace too, and even the war, that splendid war, frittered away into a series of confused construction sites no one had thought to check for progress.

The king, the queen, and their child set out in search of a rent-controlled apartment, and recently I heard that they had even left that dwelling behind to live like vagabonds. But I know that they love each other every day, and every night, when the sun sets on the little backroads beside golden fields or sea-beaten cliffs, they sit together by their bicycles and recall the strange events of their lives, that long and inexplicable phantasmagoria.

There seems to be a kind of graduation from the timelessness of a medieval setting to the mortality of the here and now.

No one meddles with these texts with impunity, Fleutiaux remarks. Often, working with these tales thwarted her initial attempts to have them reflect and conform to lessons learned from therapy. “These ancient stories are magical stuff… perhaps their ‘magic’ is inexhaustible and I am not yet done with them. Not I, nor anyone else.”

The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Clarion alumnus Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright Association, 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 F&SF, LCRW, Podcastle, Pseudopod, Postscripts, Subtropics, Conjunctions, Tin House, and PEN America. He is the contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, and translates comics for Top Shelf, Archaia, and Self Made Hero.