Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ways of Reading Châteaureynaud and the Fantastic

(Photo of G.-O. C. and me courtesy Christine Bini)

Translators often say that one of the things they like best about their job is research (though writers could claim the same). A proper rendering in the target language involves looking into the subject matter of the source text, with attendant crash courses in history and vocabulary. You can never quite predict the strange side alleys where translating will lead you. While working on the uncollected story “Talking Ape Clobbered by Clowns” (which appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Epiphany) I stumbled across Heidegger’s concept of Geworfenheit, or “thrownness”: “the accidental nature of human existence in a world that has not yet been made our own by conscious choice.” It seemed to describe perfectly this headlong tale of circus life with a climax in which the hapless heroine’s last words as she is hurled from a speeding motorcycle are “Oh Lord, what is this world where I've been flung?” (When I asked Châteaureynaud about Geworfenheit, he smiled, intrigued, and said he’d never heard of it.) In researching the story “Delaunay the Broker,” I scoured the sites of antique dealers to get visuals of silver sauceboats on pedestal bases and collectible decorated snuffboxes, the better to wrap my head around the objects described in French. I even paid visits to auction houses. On the whole, I’m very thankful to be a translator in the age of Google.

Châteaureynaud wrote “Delaunay” in 1988, and Words Without Borders published my translation in November 2005: the author’s English language debut. The discussion that follows may perhaps be most rewarding for those who've had a chance to read the story. Its plot ****SPOILERS**** is simple: the narrator, antiques dealer Edmond Thyll, obtains the services of the titular Delaunay, a broker noted in the business for being able to procure almost any item, down to the last detail, that a client might demand. Delaunay, is, in essence, that magical figure able to make dreams come true (in this case, within the admittedly narrow bounds of antiquarian collectibles, but chalk that up to Châteaureynaud’s sense of humor). No wonder, then, he excites the curiosity and cupidity of the narrator, who takes it upon himself to violate Delaunay’s sole stipulation: that he never ask where Delaunay gets his goods. Sneaking into Delaunay’s apartment, he finds Delaunay’s unsettling, even horrifying diary of the ordeals he suffers in the other world from which he procures his objects. Naturally, Delaunay leaves Thyll’s service, and in the end Thyll is left alone with a copy he made of the diary, “the only diary of the fantastic in the history of literature,” which it seems he will contemplate for the rest of his days.

There are several ways to read this story. One that immediately leaps to mind is as a variation on an age-old cautionary tale: don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. If curiosity does not, in this case, kill Thyll, it leaves him haunted and bereft. As in fables, action and moral are somewhat predictable, speaking to the perennial, if lamentable human desire to ruin a good thing. But is that all we can get from the story?

Châteaureynaud’s skill at sketching character with economy, sympathy, and precision is such that we might also deepen our appreciation of the tale by subjecting it to a realist reading. The realist short story is generally said to “reveal character,” and the psychological exploration of character and motivation is often cited as a goal of “literary” rather than “genre” fiction (scare quotes denote the "common wisdom" aspect of these definitions, rightly contested). Through this lens, the denouement of “Delaunay” has the inevitability of the well-told tale. Instead of speaking to a universal human failing—-ceding to temptation—-the story plots, step by step, the specific ways in which Thyll’s weaknesses prove his undoing. Right from the outset we get hints of the narrator's character from his behavior: vain, snobbish, easily flattered, grasping, envious, and mistrustful. The latter qualities are expanded on when he reveals how he first became acquainted with the private eye that he hires to follow Delaunay: he’d once hired the same man to follow a former lover. There's also direct reference to the narrator's homosexuality, his attraction to Delaunay, and his inability to have lasting relationships. Seen this way, the story becomes an investigation of the drive to covetousness and curiosity in which the fantastic element is merely a device, comparable to a more realist conceit, to shine a light on the operations of these emotions.

Ah, but what about the mysterious Delaunay, who’s never developed? What about the harrowing world he visits, so coyly referred to as “crossing the bar” (no reference to Tennyson intended)? For realists, this is the elephant in the room, and must at least be boiled down to metaphor, if not psychology. But in the literature of the fantastic, the fantastic is the raison d’être. The abiding richness of a fantastical element may in fact lie in its resistance to explanation and its refusal to be reduced to metaphor. It simply is. As Brian Evenson puts it in his preface to A Life on Paper, “Like Kafka, Châteaureynaud has little interest in explaining away the fantastic or in dulling its claws: the dreamy strangenesses to be found in his stories simply exist and must be taken at face value.”

“Delaunay,” then, presents us with a perfect example of story of the fantastic in its classical form, in which an impossible and inexplicable phenomenon, usually the crux of the tale, is briefly visited upon the protagonist. As critic and Surrealist Roger Caillois would say, the fantastic “manifests itself as scandal, rift, or tear, an uncanny, almost unbearable irruption into the real.” Sometimes the light that shines through this crack lays us bare, leaves us shriven. Other times, darkness comes through instead, making us unsure of the world we think to know when suddenly we find it shrouded in shadow.

Finally—and I owe this reading to my friend Ken Schneyer—“Delaunay the Broker” may be taken as a religious allegory. Any broker is a go-between, but one endowed with the power to fulfill desires becomes, in such a scheme, the intermediary between some unknowable Other, like God, and the world of flawed mortals like the narrator. His diary describes experiences tortured and ecstatic as those of mystics, and that other world where “all things are the same” but “the same as what I cannot say” resembles a Platonic world of forms. But in return, Delaunay asks trust: a leap of faith the narrator can't make. When the narrator betrays this trust, he is left with the writings of the prophet Delaunay: holy writ and scripture, a host and reliquary from which the incomparable, uncapturable spirit has moved on.

If you’ve had a chance to look at this story or any others by Châteaureynaud, what are some of your interpretations? Do you read realist and fantastical work with different mindsets or expectations? Share your personal narratives of reading in the comments section!

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