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Noël Devaulx is the secret master of the 20th century French fantastique. His prose has the shimmer of Mérimée and the seemliness of Flaubert; clearly, he keeps Nerval by his bedside, the better to read it by the light of a Baudelairean lunacy. In his hands, the Kunstmärchen—nine collections’ worth, over nine decades—is reinvented as the vessel of a personal metaphysics; evident in every one is his mandarin mastery of narration. Jean Paulhan, an early champion, famously called his hermetic, exquisite tales, oft-featured in the NRF, “parables without keys”: spellbinding, even when perfectly obscure, for the secret to his prose is promise. Some enticing deferral of revelation extends past his final lines, into silence. Sainte Barbegrise (1952), the second of his only two novels, is all sprightly felicity. An evocation of idyllic childhood shot through with the droll and impossible, its characters include a floating stepmother, a tart-tongued granny, a frog princess, and an astrologer uncle living in a lighthouse. The plot bests paraphrase: episodes cohere into the portrait of a vanished time. At every instance in Devaulx’s writing, content is stitched to style; the golden thread of theme here running through his sentences may be the lasting ways early enchantment refracts our outlook on life. Kindliness and good nature, not to say happiness, are notoriously difficult in literature, and too often the light veil of nostalgia seems more like Vaseline slathered on the lens. Many of Devaulx’s tales are haunted by death and madness, but Sainte Barbegrise reads like a virgin spring, or a breeze from a summer kingdom. It belongs, for its humor, for its merry invention, for its skillful use of marvel, on a shelf with Little, Big, At-Swim-Two-Birds, or The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold.
Edward Gauvin has been an ALTA fellow and a resident at the Ledig House and the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. His translation of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life on Paper: Selected Stories is forthcoming from Small Beer Press.
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