French and Irish Gothic

Last week, we started a new module called Gothic to Modernism.

The previous module, Gender and Sexuality, was excellent. As the only man in the class, I loved that I could have my perspective broadened just by being there. Even so, this is the module I was most looking forward to.

Gothic often means short fiction, which I love because in general it’s more manageable to write and to read. I enrolled in the Irish literature (and film) Masters to give breadth to my reading. I like Yeats, Joyce, Wilde, McGahern, Colfer, Toibín, Swift, Doyle, and Johnston but I want to discover lesser-known works too. Reading more women would be a start (I mean, just look at that list, ugh).

Given the abundance of superstition and folklore around Ireland (even in our tourism), our imagination naturally reaches out to the supernatural. I especially look forward to the encroaching influence of the weird.

I did my Erasmus year in Strasbourg, France and while I was there, I took two of my favourite modules in my BA. One was called The Devil and the Idea of Evil in Nineteenth Century French Literature. The other was called Dreams and Madness. As you can imagine, the texts we read were strange. Most of them were collections of short Gothic horror stories in French.

When you learn a language, you learn to instinctively get the spirit of what’s being said without always being able to literally translate it into your own language. Hence, my renderings of titles in English is a little off from time to time. I’m willing to risk that, though, because these titles are excellent in either language. They had names like La morte amoureuse (The Amourous Death) by Théophile Gautier, Les Diaboliques (The Diabolicals) by Jules-Amadée Barbey d’Aurevilly and La Fée aux miettes (which literally means The Fairy in the Breadcrumbs; I don’t know why, I haven’t read it yet) by Charles Nodier. These collections, combined with the low price, designs and tactile appeal of French books, sparked my academic interest in short fiction.

My favourite of these stories is called Two Actors for One Role and it’s by Théophile Gautier.

Here he is! (engraving by Félix Bracquemonde in the style of Nadar, 1857)

The young Henrich meets up his fiancée Katy in Vienna’s imperial garden. She begs him to give up playing Mephistopheles in Faust lest he damage his mortal soul. He insists that he keep the job so as to develop his career and that she can have a husband of means.

He goes to a pub where many people congratulate him on his excellent performance. A man sits in the corner harrumphing at their compliments. When challenged by one of his friends, the man says that though Henrich is talented, he lacks the diabolical edge. He demonstrates the ideal diabolical laugh; a laugh so chilling it becalms a busy pub. Everyone is stunned for a moment and when they’ve regained their senses, he’s disappeared.

A few days later, Henrich takes the stage again. The mysterious man is there tutting and rolling his eyes at his performance, to the bewilderment of his neighbours. He gets up and leaves through the orchestra’s door. Henrich, backstage, finds the man in a costume just like his. He says he’s worried that the Viennese audience is getting a bad impression of him from the performance and, laughing, he grabs Henrich by the throat and forces him into a compartment under the stage.

The people of Vienna never before had seen so grand a performance, etc. etc. His laugh especially becomes legendary and besides that Gautier describes the performance as “phosphorescent” and “sulphourous”. The only person who isn’t enamoured is Katy, who doesn’t recognise her fiancé and thinks he’s been taken over by the devil. After an impassioned curtain call where Mephistopheles doesn’t appear, Henrich’s unconscious body is found with deep scratches in his shoulders, saved from death by the cross she had given him. A few years later they marry and Henrich never performs again, forever known as a legend of the stage whose last role was the greatest ever.

The Brown Man is an old Munster folk tale. Limerick-born Gerald Griffin had a version of it published in the 1820s. That’s the version we read for our class. My mother tells me her father used to tell it to her, among many others

A widow lives in the wilds of Kerry with her daughter in extreme poverty. A man with brown hair, brown eyes and brown clothes rides up on a brown horse followed by a brown dog. He offers a serious dowry for the daughter. Instead of the estate he promised, he takes the girl up Mangerton Mountain to an even worse hovel than her own. She sleeps on a bed of straw and he comes in pale and cold every night.

One night she follows him and finds him, the dog and the horse eating from a grave. When he comes back that night, she tells him to get her a visit from her mother. He rides out and asks the mother for some of her clothes. The dog and the horse wonder will they eat her soon.

Disguised as the mother, he comes back and she starts to tell him the story before he eventually casts off his disguise and claws her to death with a single plunge of his bare hand. She bleeds profusely and the three creatures have an incredible feast.

These are two excellent examples of why I chose to study French for my BA and continue to study Irish literature as a postgrad student. I just wouldn’t have come across either of them otherwise. The Griffin story is hard to find, even on the Internet. I first read it last semester and went through a few pages of secondary criticism before I found the actual text (on Google books, I think). I probably would never of heard of Gautier and other French writers if I hadn’t been trained to read French prose to college level (though not yet native, sadly) and lived in France for a bit, where I could easily get my hands on French books from the source (though since I got home, I have found French Amazon perfectly adequate, especially since you can actually use euros instead of dollars or pounds).

I also like these because of how weird they are. I had to summarise them so that you’d know what I was talking about but I obviously can’t capture the actual tone of the writing as presented in the writers’ renderings. Each involves some diabolical, demonic or otherwise otherworldy and violent individual(s). The brown man’s aim is to get a fresh corpse for him and his freaky friends instead of digging up mouldering old cadavers while the devil in Two Actors is hellbent on… improving demonic representation in popular entertainment? Each effectively sets the fiends’ motives as understandable but also kinda strange… Fresh food and personal expression are recognisably human concerns but in these stories, they are presented in completely alien terms.

Gautier uses detailed and beautiful language in his story, as befits a prominent member of the French Romantic school. The imperial garden is rendered in depth, not only in the colours of the flowers but in the dryness and navigability of the sand on the path. Henrich’s sumptuous costume is black velvet and fur-trimmed gold and Katy wears a bonnet of black silk over her golden hair. Griffin’s story opens with a simple and imprecise description of a hovel and the man’s clothes are described only as “brown”. This is a story designed to be told off the top of the head around a fire or a table, not laboured over by a French dandy. As something of a Romanticist myself, I adore the gorgeous descriptions Gautier uses. I can create a picture full of evening light playing on deep colours.

I also love the terse simplicity in Griffin’s language. With the French story, I hear myself reading the emotive narrative and young lovers’ impassioned speech in an audiobook voice but in the Irish one, I hear myself talking the way I actually talk to other Cork people and how they talk to me. Gautier writes in the fluid, literate way that French and English writers do. It’s the language of educated aristocrats, the sort of ornate Gothic that takes place in palaces and castles in the ancient forests and mountains of continental Europe or in metropolitan cities like London or Vienna. Griffin’s story is more in tune with the land itself, taking place in the cottages and hovels which don’t hold nature at arms’ length but rather exist within it. In film terms, if Two Actors is a richly-dressed period drama, then The Brown Man is a filthy, grainy short film made by students in the middle of the woods.

The Brown Man, despite its conversational tone, is more disturbing than Two Actors for One Role. The brown man is powerful both in supernatural and societal terms. The mother can’t exactly refuse that amount of money and her daughter spends her final days terrorised by the powers who hold her before being brutalised and cannibalised. I’m sure I could do a symbolical analysis of how the story is really about aristocracy taking advantage of the poor because there’s more than enough in it to support such an analysis. Even so, I think the text offers plenty for my more superficial analysis. Though the actor devil grips Henrich tightly enough to scar him, there is no blood. The story doesn’t present his horror as completely as Griffin presents hers. He writes that “the red blood spouted from so many streams”. Each is violent but the Munster tale is especially brutal.

I read Two Actors for One Role years ago but I don’t think I realised the true breadth of the Gothic until I read them together today. I would certainly describe each as a Gothic tale, even though one takes place in the world of the theater in a global capital and another in the wilds of Kerry. The genre can include an urban romance and a graphic folk tale. Despite their differences, each is meant to shock and delight.

France and Ireland each have a rich culture of tales and short stories and I’m lucky enough to own several books of stories drawn from each tradition. I’d like to write more posts like this where I compare French and Irish literature since I have a background in both. Despite the differences between our countries, I think there’s ample room for comparison between the two. I’ll probably also write about them in isolation too. Classic French literature doesn’t have much translation into English aside from a few outliers, (e.g. Hugo, Dumas, Baudelaire) and Irish fiction is awash with lesser-known stories from other writers than those listed above. Hopefully I can introduce you to some of them. I’d also like to write about the lives of Gautier and his peers, their contemporaries, predecessors and successors, because they lived interesting and intersecting lives.

Looking forward to moving deeper into the Gothic.

Works I discussed above:

Gautier, Théophile. La Morte amoureuse: Avatar et autres recits fantastiques. Editions Gallimard, 1981.

Griffin Gerald. The Brown Man. First published in Holland-Tide in 1827.


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