A Life on Paper: Stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud (trans. Edward Gauvin). Small Beer Press. 240 pp., $22.00.
The book, you think, must be about the man whose face is on the cover—a face in intimate close-up, with rugged cheeks, deep-set eyes gazing intently yet not at the camera, and a thick bristly comb of a mustache hiding a faint smile: the familiar face of the beloved writer. It’s called A Life on Paper, like a biography; though the author has an implausibly long French name, a good biography could come from anywhere and any book about the writer is worth reading. As a reader you prepare to meet once again that wild, funny, gentle imagination, and you hope for some deeper insight into the dark experiences and emotions which formed it.
But the man on the cover of A Life on Paper is Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, not his double Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Châteaureynaud—who has written nine novels and scores of stories in French, won major literary prizes, and been translated into a dozen other languages—now comes to English-language readers for the first time thanks to translator Edward Gauvin and Small Beer Press. A Life on Paper selects twenty-two of his stories, ranging from the early ’70s to recent years, and I hope it represents just a first installment: the art of the fantastic tale as practiced by Châteaureynaud has too long been excluded from the American literary mainstream.
This introduction to the man whose intense face graces the cover offers glimpses of an imagination both dark and gentle. “A Citizen Speaks,” the two-page story (almost a prose poem) which opens the collection, is a son’s account of his father’s death and of the rust-like blight which pervades their world. As he describes it, “hardly the least curious feature of this kind of decay is that it begins from within, making its way from the heart of a thing to the surface.” From the heart to the surface: that is also the path worked by Châteaureynaud in these stories. Their surface details may seem at times faint or obscured or incomplete, but at their hearts is a world of uncanny beauty, seen from an unfamiliar perspective.
The original fantastic world is that of childhood, and in “A Room on the Abyss” our eyes on this world are those of the schoolboy protagonist Fox. To the red-headed Fox, with no father and a mother destabilized by an unspecified ailment, being different is shameful and even an elevator is a terrifying machine; the permanence of the characters in a children’s book is an epoch-marking miracle. In “The Bronze Schoolboy,” the longest tale here, the poet Dorsay discovers a museum where his childhood is preserved in all the minute details of toys, snapshots, and clothing, alongside every other period of his life, past, present—and at least one future which still has the power to fill his heart with joy. Time, for Châteaureynaud, is not an unstoppable force but a negotiable good, left on deposit and potentially redeemable.
Châteaureynaud celebrates the quiet, hidden beauties of the world and the objects or knowledge we hold tight like talismans to protect us from its losses and horrors. “Delaunay the Broker” trades in such talismans, and is able to produce the exact object of his customers’ unspoken desires with uncanny fidelity—prompting his employer to extreme measures to discover his secret, recounted in a narrative with the fevered intensity of Poe’s or even Lovecraft’s fictional confessions. (Translator Gauvin has found the right register and tone for each of Châteaureynaud’s variations on such classic themes.) Sometimes the objects themselves embody the world’s horrors, or at least provide a psychological focus for them, like the MacGuffin in a Hitchcock film; “La Tête” uses this approach to offer a new and strangely funny take on that old chestnut, the severed head.
The practice of writing itself can be another talisman of protection, and some stories are direct allegories of the position of the artist in a less-than-welcoming world. In “Another Story,” the writer who narrates sees himself as an obscure curiosity, brought by a rich man to his private island to amuse the real celebrities: “I didn’t quite know why I’d been invited. For my talent, they’d said, my works. I wanted to believe it. Nevertheless, every one else in my batch enjoyed actual international fame.” By its end, the writer challenges the reader to decide whether his type of mythmaking is really any different than the celebrities’: what is worth reading—or writing—any more?
The old ways endure, though they could hardly be said to triumph. Blandeuil, the title character of “The Dolceola Player,” returns to his obscure career after a final visit only proves he can’t go home again:
He turned halfway round to brush the dolceola’s scratched leather case with his fingertips. He hadn’t waxed it for a long time. Too long. He had to take care of it, as he did the instrument inside. Did they still make them? He wouldn’t have sworn on it. And when the day came for him to retire, would there be another to play it after him? He entertained the idea of opening a school for the dolceola. He’d reached the point of wondering who’d help finance such a project when the absurdity of it hit him. A dolceola conservatory! Why not an Egyptian embalming institute, while he was at it?
Why not an embalming institute, indeed? The titular figure of “The Guardicci Masterpiece” is a triumph of the mummy-maker’s art. Here is another recurring theme in these stories, another unexpectedly domestic horror: the struggle against mortality and decay. The story “A Life on Paper” centers on a brilliant conceit: a man, distraught over his wife’s early death, documents the life of their daughter in 93,284 photographs. But where Borges’ Funes the Memorious expires from a philosophical obstruction and Calvino’s photographer repurposes his frames as a narrative device, Châteaureynaud’s obsessive is simply a father who has deeply wounded his daughter, the very person he most wanted to preserve.
Although the stories in A Life on Paper have many precedents and parallels in American writing, from Irving to Poe to Twain, the fantastic mode has been in eclipse for a century. In recent years Ray Bradbury’s freaks and dreamers, unfairly relegated to the genre shelves, are perhaps a better match than the biting humor and socio-cultural satire of a Vonnegut, despite their surface similarities. The success of writers like Kelly Link and Aimee Mann may be sign of a renaissance, or merely the exception that proves the rule.
Other literatures don’t relegate the modern fantastic to a lesser tier. Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s closest Latin American kin is not any practitioner in the overstretched category of magical realism but the inimitable Julio Cortázar; Italian readers know not only Calvino’s post-modern play but the works of his contemporaries Dino Buzzati and Tommaso Landolfi and many others. And beyond the many works of Châteaureynaud not yet in English, translator Gauvin says there is a whole school of the fantastic in French and especially Belgian letters.
This kind of tale is foreign not in its language (thanks to Edward Gauvin) but in its mere unfamiliarity. A Life on Paper is itself a talisman for preserving an endangered world. As Châteaureynaud writes of Fox in “A Room on the Abyss,” whose precariousness is all emotional, reading may be for us the most essential journey, the most powerful spell: “Perhaps one day, when he’s learned to read, opening the book like the door to the house where he was born, he’ll go home.”
Matt Rowe is a writer and translator living in Port Townsend, Washington.
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