evil

MALPERTUIS BY JEAN RAY

Following the separation of my parents I stayed for a while with my grandmother. I was around seven years old at the time. She lived in a flat, on a council estate in one of Sheffield’s most deprived areas. The living room window looked out upon a run-down concrete playground, which, eerily, never appeared to be in use, despite the large number of children in the neighbouring tower-blocks. The old lady did not own a TV, most likely because she could not afford one, and so would each evening tell stories about strange happenings – involving ghosts mostly – which she insisted she had herself witnessed. Yet most terrifying of all was the story of the circumstances surrounding her arrival in England. I was told that she had once been a member of an old aristocratic and wealthy Scottish family, but, for reasons that were unknown or unexplained, she was dispatched to a sanatorium while still in her teens. There she received electric shock therapy, and, upon her release, was subsequently disinherited and banished.

Whether any of that is true or not is, of course, debatable. I have, partly out of fear perhaps, but mostly in order to spare my mother any anguish or upset, never sought to verify what I was told. However, what is certain is that the unease I had felt upon entry into my grandmother’s home began to intensify to such an extent that it – the flat – was transformed, in my childish imagination, into a house of horrors, one that was large, unwelcoming, and labyrinthine. The ghosts, moreover, became real and malevolent and forever on the prowl. Indeed, according to my mother I began to have waking nightmares, visions, in fact, of a man sitting on the end of my bed, who only I could see. I also, she claimed, started to sleepwalk, and could be found most nights at the front door attempting to leave. Finally, my grandmother – may she rest in peace – was, I was sure, the mad conductor of these evils, rather than the inventor of them.

“Those who lie down to sleep in its vast rooms lay themselves open to nightmares; those who spend their days there are obliged to habituate themselves to the company of the atrocious shades of executed criminals, of men flayed alive, or walled up or otherwise tormented.”

Until I started reading Malpertuis I had forgotten all about my brief stay in a haunted house, although, as this review will show, I, comparatively, got off lightly. The novel was written by Jean Ray, a man who was described by a friend as ‘a Gothic personality’, and was published in 1943. The style, however, is reminiscent of something written at least a hundred years earlier, and the structure – with the use of the framing narrative – is similar to Jan Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript, parts of which first saw the light of day in 1805. Indeed, Malpertuis begins with a sort of preface, which describes the theft of a number of manuscripts from a monastery. The thief then explains that he has attempted to edit and order the manuscripts, which altogether would have ‘constituted a work of colossal size and minimal interest’, in an effort to turn them into a coherent narrative of ‘mystery and terror.’ The resulting story is, he claims, the work of four or five men in total, but the greater part – the kernel, as he calls it – is provided by the journal of Jean-Jacques Grandsire, a young man ‘marked with the brand of misfortune.’

For a book that I found so gripping, that I would call a page-turner, it seems odd that when I think about it now I realise that there is little in the way of plot. Jean-Jacques’s journal tells of a dying man’s family and friends gathering around him. Following his death, his will stipulates that the people there named must live in Malpertuis or forsake their large inheritance. From this point onwards – aside from one or two digressions – we follow Jean-Jacques as he explores the house and encounters all manner of terrible things. So, how to account for the feverish speed and rapt attention with which I read it? Well, one of the reasons that Malpertuis is so engaging is that it consistently poses questions for which the reader wants answers. Why must the characters live in the house? What is the significance of the shop attached to it? What is the link between Malpertuis and the island described in the opening chapter? Why is the beautiful Euryale so distant? What does the Abbe Doucedame know about the goings on in the house? And so on. In many ways, Ray’s novel is something like a Gothic version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with Jean-Jacques acting as the detective.

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However, it is the terrible things that most hold the attention. Indeed, this was perhaps the closest I have come in my reading experiences to straight horror; and, I must admit, I had a blast. Take Lampernisse, a ‘skeletal creature’ with ‘spiderlike hands’, who lives in Malpertuis and obsesses over the lights, which he believes are being put out by a malevolent presence within the house. His ramblings about his plight are both oddly moving and chilling: “There was a time I sold animal black and lamp black, but I never gave anyone the darkness of night. I am Lampernisse. I am so good and kind, and they have cast me into outer darkness.” I am reticent to discuss the many other strange and horrible occurrences that litter the text for fear of spoiling it for those who want to read it, but I can’t resist mentioning that, amongst other things, there is something in the attic, there is a severed hand, there are faceless beings, and devilish beings with haunting mask-like faces, and a number of gruesome deaths.

Malpertuis was, according to the Abbe Doucedame, the name given to ‘the lair of the cunning and evil fox, Goupil’. In conversation with Jean-Jacques, he muses over whether the house that then took this name, the one in which Jean-Jacques etc. live, did so in order to denote evil or cunning. Yet he concludes that cunning is ‘the prerogative of the Spirit of Darkness’ and that therefore, whichever way you look at it, Malpertuis is, in his view, the house of the Devil. This can be understood in two ways, for, as already noted, there is horror inside the house, but the building itself is, in appearance, horrific also. On the facade there are ‘disagreeable carvings’, a facade that is, according to Jean-Jacques, a ‘severe mask’ that ‘fails to conceal the abominations that lie behind it.’ However, although it may seem as though the direction in which we – the reader and the characters – are heading is Satanic, that the mysteries of the novel are to be explained in relation to that, when the reveal actually comes Jean Ray does something incredible and wholly unexpected: he provides one of the most emotionally affecting endings of any novel I have read.

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LES CHANTS DE MALDOROR BY THE COMTE DE LAUTREAMONT

If you have been following my reviews for any length of time you will be aware that there are many things of which I am afraid. Spiders! Fatherhood! Demonic possession! Death! Yet it is increasingly the shark that haunts my mind like he haunts the sea, silently slicing through the darkness until he is upon me, intent on ripping out my throat! He is a ghoul, shaped like a knife-blade. He is swift and agile madness, with the skin of an elephant and teeth like the sharpest shards of glass. How feeble, how ungainly man seems when compared to this creature, how unlike a God.

Given its awesome, horrifying appearance, and its savage power, it is no surprise that Maldoror – the sinister creation of the Comte de Lautréamont, who was himself the alter ego of Isidore-Lucien Ducasse – is an admirer of, and sees himself in, the shark. Indeed, he wishes that he were the son of one and, in Les Chants most [in]famous passage, he actually couples with a female, inspiring the most eyebrow-raising title of any article I’ve ever come across: Shark-shagger. Yet his admiration isn’t limited to these beasts; Maldoror [or the Comte] sings the praises of the louse, the tiger, the ocean, mathematics[!]…anything, it seems, that isn’t human.

Maldoror was, we’re told, once a happy, ’upright’ child, indicating that something [or a combination of things] happened to effect a change in his personality or character. Yet it is also claimed that he felt as though he was ‘born wicked’, and had tried his best to disguise his nature. In any case, one is led to believe – due to the sheer number of rants dedicated to the subject, if nothing else – that an ever intensifying disgust for humanity was at least partly responsible for his subsequent ‘career of evil’. Throughout, Maldoror rails against human weakness of character, hypocrisy, hunger for fame and money, etc.

However, while all that might be enjoyable [especially if, like me, you agree with the sentiments expressed], such misanthropy isn’t unique or even unusual in works of literature. What sets Les Chants apart, what makes them a still thrilling, shocking, and amusing experience, is that Maldoror doesn’t simply hate humanity, he wants to make it suffer, in imaginative, creative ways. My favourite example of this is when he breeds a pit of vicious lice, which he then lets loose upon the unsuspecting public. Moreover, he openly enjoys these activities, so that the book reads like an ode to cruelty and sadism. Children, one assumes because they are representative of innocence and purity, are paid special attention, with Maldoror extolling the pleasures of abusing and then freeing them, so that one is seen as both their torturer and their saviour. He also gleefully admits to wanting to slice off their rosy cheeks with a razor.

“One should let one’s nails grow for a fortnight. O, how sweet it is to drag brutally from his bed a child with no hair on his upper lip and with wide open eyes, make as if to touch his forehead gently with one’s hand and run one’s fingers through his beautiful hair. Then suddenly, when he is least expecting it, to dig one’s long nails into his soft breast, making sure, though, that one does not kill him; for if he died, one would not later be able to contemplate his agonies.”

Before continuing it is necessary to return to that comment, that assertion that Les Chants is funny, especially as a lot of the book’s content is, without question, unpleasant [sadism is, in fact, something that I find particularly abhorrent]. The reason I find Les Chants entertaining, rather than unbearable, is that they are, for the most part, [intentionally] over-the-top, bizarre and vaudeville; and they feature a main character so thoroughly dastardly, such that even the nastiest bits are absurd or almost farcical. The best example of this is when Maldoror is watching a ship sink and delights in the forthcoming annihilation of the crew and passengers. At this stage, the story is engaging, but not necessarily funny. It is when the hero decides to shoot a survivor as he swims towards the shore that the scene is taken into the realm of comedy [although you may argue that what it provokes is the uncomfortable laughter of disbelief].

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[Sedlec Ossuary or bone church, Czech Republic]

There are an abundance of religious references in Les Chants, and God, in particular, is routinely mocked and criticised and doubted. Lautréamont says that God, although powerful, is untrustworthy, and suggests that the creation of heaven, or the bestowing of any kind of eternal reward, is inconsistent with a Being who causes suffering, or is prepared to allow his people to be miserable or wretched, on earth; in one of the most memorable and amusing passages, he imagines God as a kind of blood-thirsty tyrant, sitting on a throne of gold and excrement, wrapped in unclean hospital sheets. Of course, for anyone who wants to offend, who wants to position themselves as anti-establishment, religion is an obvious, necessary target. An author intent on writing filth and getting up people’s noses isn’t really doing his job if he doesn’t blaspheme.

Some critics would have you believe that Maldoror is the Devil, which isn’t the strangest claim, considering how grotesque and seemingly immoral he is. Certainly, there is something of Milton’s charismatic Satan about him; and he does harbour ambitions of overthrowing God and taking his place, indicating that he is no mere mortal. Moreover, there is one quite chilling scene in which he endeavors to tempt a young boy into murdering someone who has wronged him. Yet I prefer not to think of Maldoror as the Devil, as something so easy to digest. To label him thus is almost a kind of comfort. We may not like the Devil, but we do understand him. It is, therefore, far more frightening to think of Maldoror as an ordinary man, although I don’t believe he is that either.

“I am filthy. I am riddled with lice. Hogs, when they look at me, vomit. My skin is encrusted with the scabs and scales of leprosy, and covered with yellow pus.[…] A family of toads has taken up residence in my left armpit and, when one of them moves, it tickles. Mind one of them does not escape and come and scratch the inside of your ear with its mouth; for it would then be able to enter your brain.”

So, what, then, is he? For me, he is a bogyman, a nightmare; he is Nosferatu’s shadow climbing up the wall. One might also call him an outcast, although I’m not sure myself how accurate that is [for you have to want to be part of something to be cast out from it]. He does, however, identify with outcasts, with prostitutes [with whom he claims to have made a pact to ruin families] and hermaphrodites. In any case, what most struck me while I read Les Chants is that Maldoror is essentially a kind of Mr. Hyde, he is the bad in every one of us, the dark side. Indeed, it is said in the text that evil thoughts exist in all men. This theory is given extra weight when you consider that it isn’t always clear who is narrating the book, that while it begins in the manner of someone [the Comte] describing, in the third person, the outrageous acts and character of another man, the majority of it is written as though the one committing these acts is the narrator, almost as though Maldoror has seized control, of the text and of Lautréamont himself.

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA BY MIKHAIL BULGAKOV

I’ve written before about how I often lament the fact that I can no longer read with an open heart, without judging and analysing every aspect of what I am reading. I’ve become ultra-sensitive, overly-critical, and, I worry, perhaps somewhat joyless. I wish, sometimes, that I could somehow go back to being sixteen years old, when I enjoyed pretty much any book I picked up on its own terms, without thinking too much about why and certainly without mercilessly probing the text for weaknesses. However, after rereading The Master and Margarita  – Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous novel about Satan’s visit to Moscow – I have been reminded that being an older [relatively speaking] and more experienced reader can have its benefits too.

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[One of the sketches for an unrealised animated feature based on Bulgakov’s novel by Sergei Alimov]

The first time I read this novel I liked it, but I did not get as much from it as I did on this occasion. That is, of course, on me. More specifically, it is due to the age I was and, consequently, how unsophisticated my reading was at that point in my life. I’ve always loved Russian literature, but my knowledge of Russian culture and history, particularly the period during which Joseph Stalin was in power, is much more comprehensive these days. And so there are things in the text that, yes, as a teenager I may have simply taken on face value, but which, due to my ignorance, may therefore have struck me as frivolous or meaningless. However, what I found as I came to reread the book is that, with more experience and with more knowledge, the things that I would have smiled gormlessly at before I am now able to properly appreciate.

For example, The Master and Margarita begins with two men, two literary types, at Patriarch’s Ponds. While having a conversation about the non-existence of Jesus, they are approached by a peculiar gentleman [Woland-Satan] whom they take to be ‘a foreigner’ and perhaps a ‘spy.’ This isn’t, of course, mere silliness, but is a sardonic wink at Soviet paranoia and the very real fear that one might, by talking to someone one shouldn’t, end up being arrested. Likewise, the conversation about Jesus, the pride the two men take in their atheism, is a reference to Communism’s drive to discredit religious belief [the rationale, I imagine, being that one cannot have something  – a belief in a divinity – that in a sense supersedes the authority of the dictator].

If you are at all interested in Communism and Stalin, one will be aware of what were the consequences of not toeing the Party line, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or saying what could be construed as the wrong thing i.e. you were arrested, interrogated, maybe killed, or shipped off to Siberia. In relation to this, it was apparent to me this time that The Master and Margarita, especially in the early chapters, is full of denunciations and sudden disappearances [it is worth noting that when someone suddenly disappears we often say that it was ‘as if by magic,’ while the disappearances in the text are, of course, literally the result of magic].

“And it was two years ago that inexplicable things started happening in the apartment: people started disappearing without a trace.”

The book is, then, very obviously a political satire, one that trades in often complex allegory. Perhaps the most well developed example is the second chapter dealing with Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Bulgakov’s Jesus is also arrested for saying the wrong thing[s], is, in effect, denounced by various people, and therefore ends up being interrogated and executed. Likewise, in the opening chapter, Berlioz wants to inform on Woland; and another character, Styopa, is essentially exiled to Yalta.

Of course, fear and paranoia, exile and denunciation, were only part of the Soviet experience during the period that Bulgakov was working on the novel [1928-1940]. Throughout, he touches on a variety of other subjects [the housing crisis, being one], and attacks various types, or sections of society, that he considered to be avaricious or corrupt.

“Everyone knows how hard it is to acquire money; obstacles to that can always be found. But not once in his thirty years of experience had the bookkeeper ever found anyone, whether an official or a private citizen, who had difficulty accepting money.”

However, he seems to reserve a special kind of antipathy for artists or those involved in the artistic industry. For instance, poets, editors, and writers are routinely mocked, and, at the hands of Woland and his retinue, suffer the worst fates. One might wonder just what it was about this apparently harmless group that ground Bulgakov’s gears. If one was being uncharitable one could put it down to a kind of professional jealousy, but it would be extraordinarily petty to compose a whole novel in that frame of mind. If I had to guess at the main source of Bulgakov’s ire I would say that he disliked them for what he saw as their complicity. Consider how to be an artist in Russia at that time it was probably in your interests to self-censor, but that it was almost impossible to create something that could not be deemed controversial, and so one was always likely to face rejection or condemnation from cowardly editors and publishers and theatre managers etc. Moreover, some artists went even further and willingly produced or backed State propaganda, this despite knowing that it was, well, not only not in the public’s interest [because they deserved the truth] but that it was also bad art [it’s telling that Bezdomny admits that his poems are terrible]. Of course, you can’t ask everyone to openly and aggressively fight against the machine, some are just not up to it, but, on the other hand, one doesn’t have to oil its wheels either.

On one level, the book is a kind of revenge fantasy. If you know anything about the author’s life you will be aware that he had a personal bone to pick with many of his targets. A number of Bulgakov’s works were banned, and he struggled in vain to get this novel into print, and so having the Devil descend upon Moscow to wreak havoc and cause chaos amongst the kind of people who rejected him must have been incredibly satisfying. Indeed, an important storyline in the novel is about a failed writer, the Master, who too cannot get his manuscript published, who is denounced [there’s that word again] in the press, and who ultimately burns the script [which is also something that Bulgakov himself did with an earlier draft]. For me, one of the major themes in The Master and Margarita is freedom, both personal and creative. In this way, perhaps the most moving scene in the whole novel is Margarita’s flight through Moscow on a broomstick; there she is, naked, high above the city, absolutely free, and having the fucking time of her life.

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One of the surprises for me this time was that I found the book much funnier. Everyone always comments on the humour, and I must admit that previously it had almost completely passed me by. Again, I think some of that has to do with increased knowledge. For example, Berlioz wanting to inform on Satan is not really funny unless you understand something about the climate of the time; likewise, with the immediate designation of Woland as a foreigner, and all the suspicion that this entails, and the experience of Berlioz’s uncle when he tries to appropriate the deceased’s apartment. However, there are also some scenes that don’t rely on a political subtext to amuse. My favourites were the dancing sparrow in the doctor’s office and Ivan turning up at the Greboyedov restaurant in his underwear and Behemoth gilding his whiskers. Yet, having said all that, I must admit that some of the comedy is a little tiresome. There are passages, or episodes, in the text that I felt were sloppy, or lazy, or certainly unsophisticated, where I got the impression that Bulgakov thought that the mere presence of Satan and his retinue was enough to hold your attention and provide laughs, because, let’s face it, any set-up, or situation, becomes more engrossing and amusing if you plonk the Devil or a walking and talking cat into it. A walking cat! And, uh, y’know, that’s surprising…look at how surprised that character is…his eyes all popping out of his head…and, yes, I’d smirk and keep turning the pages, but it was a guilty kind of smirk, such as one might produce if one sees someone fall over.

This also leads me onto a more serious criticism, which is that the novel, at least in the first part, is repetitive; it is pretty much the same thing over and over again. Satan or one of his retinue will befuddle some dude, who, as a result, starts to question his sanity, before disappearing or ending up in the insane asylum. It struck me that this is why I remembered so little of the book after first reading it. You will, I’m sure, have your own tolerance level where this kind of thing is concerned. Mine is pretty high; I’ve read the similarly episodic, and much longer, Don Quixote twice; but unlike Don Quixote, or Tom Jones, The Master and Margarita does not really have a central character upon which to hang these episodes, and so it does at times seem unfocussed and even more rambling. It is worth remembering, however, that Bulgakov did not finish his novel; and so, as with Kafka’s work, these criticisms seem a little mean-spirited. Besides, what saves the book, even during the longueurs, is the author’s compassion and sensitivity and way with a memorable epigram; you’ll be reading a chapter and thinking ‘Christ, this is a drag’ and then he’ll hit you with a line like:

“Punch a man on the nose, kick an old man downstairs, shoot somebody or any old thing like that, that’s my job. But argue with women in love—no thank you!”

And you’ll immediately repent. Ah, I didn’t mean it, Mikhail, you’re a wonderful fucker!

Before I finish I want to say something about translation. I have it on good authority, from a number of Russian speakers/readers, that The Master and Margarita has never been successfully rendered into English. Recently an acquaintance of mine called it, in Russian, profound, and, well, I was quite shocked by that. Profound? As much as I have enjoyed the book that, profound, was one of the words furthest from my mind while I turned the pages. Now, I certainly am not scoffing at this description of the novel; in fact, I cannot even challenge it. Regardless of how we speak about translated literature – i.e. we instinctively want to say that we have read Proust, or Mann or whoever – the reality is that, unless we have access to it in its original form, we have only ever read someone’s idea of a writer or a book, and this someone is, in most cases, not a talented writer themselves.

That I am in no position to accurately judge Bulgakov, or any other foreign writer, is a source of extreme frustration to me. This frustration is made even greater by the possibility, the likelihood even, that I am missing out on something amazing, or, well, yes, profound; but, what, other than learning Russian, can you do about it? Sweet f.a., I’m afraid. Yet one has to wonder why is it not possible to capture that profundity in English, at least to some extent? One of the problems is that it is difficult to translate humour or satire, especially puns, plays on words, or words that have a double meaning, so that the richer, the more layered a work is the more likely it is that it will seem flat in English. Just consider how Ulysses might read in, say, French and how much would necessarily be lost and how, once stripped of certain layers, it might strike a French reader as no more than a tedious trawl around Dublin in the company of an ordinary bloke.

You might wonder where I am going with all this. To be honest, I’m starting to wonder myself. Am I saying that you should not read The Master and Margarita except in Russian? No, of course not; why deny yourself what is a tremendous work of fiction. I guess, more than anything, I am saying that choosing the best translation is vital, that one should always put some effort into it, because while one cannot access the real thing, or have the full experience, one should endeavour to get as close to it as possible. So which translation should you read? Ah, even this question is a tough one. Those best able to answer it will be those who have read the original and several translations. However, as this is my review I’m going to go ahead and give my opinion anyway. It is well-known by now, I imagine, that I have reservations, to say the least, about modern translations in general and the cult of the super-celebrity translator[s] in particular. This group of super-celebrity translators, which includes Michael Hofmann and Pevear and Volokhonsky, in my opinion, allow their ego to dictate how they render a work, by which I mean that each one of their translations will bear their own particular stamp, so that you, or I anyway, would be able to recognise their hand in something even without knowing who translated it. On this basis, I have never, and would never, read P&V’s version of The Master and Margarita. There are, however, numerous other versions, including the much criticised Michael Glenny, the acclaimed Mirra Ginsberg, and Burgin and O’Connor.

I first time I read the book I went for Burgin and O’Connor. My choice, at that time, was dictated by numerous reviews labelling their version the most satisfying. These days, in light of the critical success of P&V, I won’t blindly accept the prevailing opinion. For my re-read, I considered Glenny, who is thought to be the least accurate of all the translators to tackle the book, but whose version, for me, flows best in English; but he was not working from the complete text. I was drawn to the Ginsberg translation, but found, when comparing it to Burgin and O’Connor, that the differences were superficial, so, bearing in mind that Ginsberg was also working from an incomplete text, I decided to stick with my original choice. As with my first read, I found the style somewhat flat and laboured, which I am assured is not the case in Russian. In their introduction the duo claim that they tried to preserve the original word order and the length of Bulgakov’s sentences; and this, I think, explains a lot. If you try to be too literal what you end up with is inelegant, sometimes confusing English, because no two languages follow the same rules, of course. In my humble opinion, rather than pat themselves on the back for sticking so closely to the original, some translators would do better to concern themselves with the soul of the sentences. In conclusion then, the most I can say about Burgin and O’Connor’s version is that it is workman-like and readable and probably, if you want the complete text at least, the best we have at the moment.