Google Franz Hellens and you’ll probably get the mournful portrait above by Modigliani, more famous now for its artist than subject. Born in Brussels in 1881, Hellens was unfit for service and sat out World War I in Nice, where he met Modigliani, as well as his future wife Maria Marcovna. In a late book of essays and reminiscences entitled Documents secrets [Secret Documents], Hellens tells how Modigliani tossed off the portrait a few hours while downing three liters of wine leavened by the occasional stroll for a bit of fresh air. Hellens and Maria were disappointed with the portrait. He describes his reaction in one of his more famous stories, “A Clairvoyant”:
“… it was alive, animated; it ‘spoke,’ as connoisseurs were fond of saying. But there was really no resemblance.
It must be said that not for a single moment had the painter thought to flatter the face before our eyes. It was strangely elongated; stretching the oval emphasized a thinness no doubt full of character, but one unlike my own. Moreover, he had completely done away with the shoulders, such that what little of the body he granted the portrait further contributed to that lack of volume which could not have come from his sitter. Lastly, the few wrinkles already lining my face back then had been exaggerated. That face gave off an air of mental and physical exhaustion justified by the difficult life I’d led till then. Despite all this, what struck me the most was a youthful, even childish character, as disproportionate and paradoxical as the rest, stemming from the deliberate fragility of the construction, and something else still that I could not explain.”
Hellens was a tall, raw-boned man with large, voluble eyes, reminiscent of Jeremy Irons; the planes of his face aged into gauntness. Years later, Hellens was to find Modigliani’s portrait the spitting image of his youngest son, Serge, and this formed the basis for the story, from his 1941 collection Nouvelles réalités fantastiques [New Fantastical Realities].
Franz Hellens is one of three names bandied about, along with Jean Ray and Thomas Owen, in the (un)holy trinity of Belgian fantastical fiction. Rounding out the pantheon at five are two writers who made their name in other literary fields, but each contributed a single memorable collection to the genre: symbolist playwright Michel de Ghelderode with Sortilèges [Maledictions], and poet Marcel Thiry with Les nouvelles du grand possible [Stories of the Great Possible].
Unlike Ray and Owen, Hellens evolved the fantastic away from horror and toward magic realism. His early works were hailed as shining examples of the “real fantastic,” and this was to decide his aesthetic direction: first in fiction, and much later in life, essays where he tried with middling success to codify a theory of the fantastic. The “real fantastic” is a slippery concept at least partly lost to its historical moment. It can sound a lot like the traditional fantastical tale, which takes the shape of reality unsettled by the inexplicable, but for Hellens, it was a much more specific concept, an “unusual refraction of daily reality” that left reality displaced and disoriented. Rather than begin with a far-fetched presence, his general approach was to push reality to the edges of the known and believable, the “extension of reality into the imaginary.”
At the time, dreams and the imagination were the cutting edge of the inner frontier. Hellens’ pursuit of an “inner fantastic” that was “the product of a lyrical soul… essentially poetic” prefigured the Surrealists’ cult of beauty, their explorations of the occult, and their veneration of imagination’s liberating powers. He tended toward emotions gentler than terror, the haunting rather than the haunted, and in this way paved the path for later writers who used the fantastic to mourn lost realms, like Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud and André Hardellet. If death stalks Hellens’ fictional landscape, it is less fearful and macabre than “a far better place to go to,” or at least a far stranger and often ironic one. For like many fantastical writers, Hellens is concerned with the weird in its embryonic, etymological sense: the turns and vagaries of fate.
To read Hellens now is to revisit an earlier stage in the evolution of the genre. His themes are fairly classical: doppelgangers, reincarnation, possession, the cursed object, mind-reading, séances. If stories of the fantastic begin with any invocation to the muses, it is to the gods of belief, and like tales from a certain time, Hellens’ stories do not stint on such prefatory exhortations:
“There are times in the lives of men and nations when the miraculous — or the extraordinary, if you will — becomes the rule for a while and winds up astonishing even the most empirically minded.”
“For any man given to observation, the most pragmatic life offers up, at one moment or another, truly extraordinary circumstances wherein one’s senses are overturned, wherein one’s consciousness takes a strange turn and loses its way amidst inextricable fantasies.”
“What happened — truth to tell, quite extraordinary — at a crucial hour of his life is due neither to his character, since he had none, nor his will, nor the influence of someone close to him.”
De rigueur throat-clearing aside, Hellens’ style is fluent, gentlemanly, and enjoyable, ushering the reader briskly through webs of hearsay and coincidence to mystery’s doorsill. Events are impartially juxtaposed as if the fruit of mere chance, while over the story as a whole the hangs the unreal, an inescapable and faintly menacing atmosphere. A down-to-earth banker finds eternity in the contemplation of a gourd. A Russian businessman is cured of gambling by a brush with a woman in black. In an early story reminiscent of Kipling’s “The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows,” the Armenian Nadajan, obsessed by statue of Shiva, sinks into opium addiction. Succumbing to inexplicable impulses, a notary rights an old wrong and is rewarded with the best meal of his life. A woman must exorcise herself of an ex, but the ensuing altercation ends with her death. A man with an eye for the worm in the apple doubts his friend’s marriage. Only when that marriage ends in murder is he able to see, in photos, what has always been obvious to everyone else: how happy they were as a couple.
Doubles, representations, the demonic metonymy of objects that stand in for absent people: Hellens was one of the most dedicated explorers of the doppelganger and all its permutations, which figure in some form throughout his short fiction. A father whose son is missing on the front is drawn by voices to that son’s childhood room, and dies in his son’s bed. A son wears the suit his father left him to his father’s funeral and, feeling increasingly constricted in it, dies, only to be buried in it. A bust slowly usurps the lifeforce of the businessman it’s modeled on. In a psychic twist on traditional vampirism – no less agonizing, and oddly timely in our age of intellectual property – a famous writer at a career lull finds his every idea fleshed out to perfection by a lesser upstart with whom he once shared a brief mental connection at a séance. And in a very short tour-de-force somehow reminiscent of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, heir to a Dutch East Indian tobacco plantation externalizes his own meekness as twin sister, marries her, and has a child.
This story, for its swiftness and the way it keeps upping its own ante, is one of Hellens’ best and lends its name, “The Double,” to a recent volume of selected stories from Espace Nord, Belgium’s equivalent to the Library of America: a partly government-funded imprint to keep its literary treasures alive. Hellens published six collections of short stories over his career, with some overlap between them, and The Double includes fifteen stories from five of these. Although it focuses on his contribution to the “real fantastic,” sidelining his early experiments in Symbolism and allegory, it is a fine introduction to Hellens’ fantastical work, though this is only one facet of a writer whose prodigious output included essays, memoirs, and many novels only one of which, alas, has been translated into English: the faintly magical realist Bildungsroman Memoirs of Elsinore, by the excellent Howard Curtis. Of interest to fantasy lovers as well is his early novel Mélusine, a Surrealist conflagration if ever there was one, which features the wizard Merlin, a cathedral of translucent stone, and the mythic fairy of the title. First published in 1920, its definitive edition from Gallimard in 1954 won the Grand Prix de la Société des Gens de Lettres (1956). Ten years later, he won the Grand Prix for French Literature reserved for non-French citizens. In a 1971 interview, no less than Vladimir Nabokov, known for his pronounced opinions (and who thought Robbe-Grillet the finest French writer of his time), said, “It is a shame that Franz Hellens is read less than that awful Monsieur Camus and even more awful Monsieur Sartre.”