Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville. QC Fiction, Québec, 2019. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge. ARC

My whole childhood was nothing but dread, drifting, and disappointment. And yet I wanted to be happy.

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville front coverThese opening words of Éric Mathieu’s novel The Little Fox of Mayerville give an indication of most of what follows. Émile Claudel is born in 1945 into an ‘austere, joyless family home’ in the small, gossip-ridden village of the title, a rural place in Lorraine near where, significantly, Joan of Arc had lived. He too is born to suffer France’s pains.

It’s a magical realist bildungsroman; for example, the boy is able to speak from the moment he’s born, and he babbles competently in several languages, quoting from an early age from canonical literature he can’t possibly have read. From the outset this precocity – and everything else about him – arouses only hatred in the rest of his family.

With his red hair and vulpine features he quickly acquires the eponymous nickname. It’s not a token of affection. His slyness, tricks and (often cruel) pranks, usually perpetrated with his only friend Max, don’t endear him to his community.

As the narrative proceeds we learn that he suspects the man he calls father isn’t his biological father (he’d returned from the war, having been a POW, too late for the dates to fit). Much of the time Émile desperately searches for clues about the identity of who his father could be.

His supposed father is a shadowy, barely-present figure. His mother is moody, volatile and unloving towards the boy – he presumes out of guilt about his illegitimacy. She also seems to be promiscuous, especially with a sinister neighbour, Ducal. Could this demonic man be the one? Or was it an American GI who’d been quartered at the Claudel house during the war?

Aged about eight, before he can find the answers to these questions, he’s abandoned by his family and sent to an orphanage, euphemistically called ‘boarding school’. This place makes Jane Eyre’s Lowood seem like heaven. After suffering and growing up there he absconds and has a number of picaresque adventures. Falls in love. The sixties arrive: rock and roll, Bardot, liberation. Kennedy is shot. Maybe what’s coming isn’t liberation.

The novel never flags – in fact at times it’s almost too packed with incident, so the scenes blur. The protagonist is protean: at times feral, a kind of werewolf (werefox?), at others a scared, lonely child. It’s often unclear if what’s narrated is his fantasy. Dreams are interwoven with the narrative without distinction from ‘real life’, adding to this magical quality. Most of the people he meets are monstrous, distortions, like nightmare figures.

The poignancy of Émile’s childhood is the most affecting aspect of the novel: he’s lost, searching for some kind of identity – he assumes finding out about his father will solve this problem. Like most of us, he discovers that the truth isn’t always what you really want to find – or expect. The epigraph to Part III highlights this ambivalence: a quotation from The Brothers Karamazov – ‘who doesn’t desire his father’s death?’

He craves love and affection, and when it’s withheld not surprisingly his dark side exerts itself. I suppose The Little Fox is best summed up as a kind of postmodern fairytale. There are elements resembling Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. But I was most reminded of Truffaut’s seminal film ‘Les Quatre cents coups’– Émile, like Truffaut’s alter ego, barely copes with his abrasive contact with mid-20C French conservatism and duplicity. Its society is scarred by memories of war.  It attempts to gloss over its dubious record under German occupation. Maybe Émile’s quest represents in microcosm that of modern France.

Although the narrative seemed (for me) to lose its way a little towards the end, I was always engaged in Émile’s troubled, delinquent quest. The short chapters, some just a sentence or two, and the nimble, restless narrative voice, create a breathless, other-worldly effect that accords well with the theme.

The translation by this innovative Québec imprint’s fiction editor, Peter McCambridge, is lively and fluent. My thanks to the publisher for the ARC, and a welcome addition to its growing, impressive catalogue.

 

 

 

 

Becoming insane: Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny

Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny. Virago Modern Classics, 2015.

There are 17 very short stories printed in a large font in this slim volume of just 135 pages, so they’re probably best described as flash fiction.

They were first published in German in Switzerland in 1975 with a title that translates as “Little Tales for Misogynists”, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his Guardian article about them. Rather than serving to teach misogynists a lesson, he suggests, ‘it’s something you might give a misogynist on his birthday’. Yes, “his”.

They do provide venomous but curiously affectless little accounts of some pretty horrible women. Their titles indicate that Highsmith takes mischievous aim at some stereotypical female figures in the patriarchy: The Coquette, The Female Novelist, The Dancer, The Invalid, The Middle-Class Housewife, and so on. Most of them behave despicably, and most come to a seemingly deserved or inevitable sticky end.

Highsmith Misogyny coverThe sheer nastiness of the protagonists and the calmly detached tone of the narrative voice that depicts their atrocities before despatching them make for some uncomfortable reading. What was Highsmith playing at? Ok, she’s famous for the twisted, psychopathic behaviour of some of her best-known characters in her full-length fiction, such as Ripley. Here she seems to be up to something different from those novels that induced Graham Greene to describe her as ‘the poet of apprehension’.

The stories read like fairy-tales or parables, with more in common with Kafka’s than Aesop’s, or Angela Carter’s with the feminism and metaphysics redacted. In the first story, for example, a young man ‘asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box – her left hand.’ It’s the insouciant irrelevance of that last phrase that causes such a tingle down the spine.

The young man not surprisingly goes mad, or ‘became insane’ as the narrator blithely puts it. The young woman visits him in the asylum ‘like a dutiful wife’. By now, it’s apparent that every time there’s one of those deceptively anodyne statements in the story, it’s going to be followed by something vicious – and it is here:

And like most wives, she had nothing to say. But she smiled prettily. His job provided a small pension now, which she was getting. Her stump was concealed in a muff.

The women in these stories behave like monstrous caricatures of the casually misogynistic male views and attitudes prevalent in the popular culture of the fifties and sixties – the ultra Don Drapers. Their men drool or despair and often, like the young man with the girl’s hand, ‘become insane’.

One way of reading the stories is to see that the women are in fact simply conforming to that male stereotype that’s been constructed for them. In Oona, the Jolly Cavewoman, for example, she’s described like a Playboy bunny:

She was round, round-bellied, round-shouldered, round-hipped, and always smiling, always jolly. That was why men liked her.

Really? What did men like about her – the curves, or the jolly smiles? Either way they’re shallow and stupid. Oona drives them crazy – literally. So whose fault is that?

Some of the women characters, however, are plain malicious. The Coquette, for example, lost her virginity when she was just ten years old. She ‘told her mother that she was raped.’ She had thus ‘sent a thirty-year-old man to prison.’ Yet she’d effectively seduced him, delighting in presenting herself as sexually provocative and alluring, and she takes pleasure in ruining his life – and his wife and daughter’s. When she pits two suitors who bore her against each other, they collude and kill her ‘with various blows about the head.’ There’s that weird tone again: it’s the detachment of a police report stripped bare of any moral stance.

The world, then, is a mean and nasty place, according to these stories. Men objectify women, who are restricted to roles as submissive, decorative housewives or sex objects. If  women strive for agency or fulfilment, like The Female Novelist, The Artist or The Dancer, they are either deluded or just randomly murdered. Feminists are as morally anaesthetised and unhinged as the Middle-Class Housewife; when they meet, there’s mayhem and death.

Are these just pitch-black comedies? There’s humour there for sure, as I hope the extracts I’ve given indicate – but it’s dark as night. Take the title alone of The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife. Shades there perhaps of Sue Bridewell’s objection to marriage in Jude the Obscure as being ‘licensed to be loved on the premises.’

Or there’s The Breeder: a woman who gives birth to 17 children in fewer years. Her husband’s friends make the expression ‘she gets pregnant every time he looks at her’ horribly literal. He has little option but to become insane. When the wife visits him in yet another asylum he suggests she stand on her head to reverse the process that seemed to instigate her fecundity. The story ends with another typically barbed banality in response to that:

“He’s mad,” Elaine said hopelessly to the intern, and calmly turned away.

It’s that blandly calm detachment and acceptance of the horrific that’s so chilling, conveyed by those two perfectly selected adverbs. Warped humour that’s not exactly funny, but insidious: it’s assumed that Elaine is quite right to have no hope.

On first reading I felt pleased that I didn’t inhabit this bizarre and unsettling distortion or moral inversion of the real world. Looking again at these narratives I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s not such a distortion. Like parables and some fairy-tales, ‘the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.’ In striving to rid ourselves of our daily cares we simply exacerbate them, just as attempts to interpret these tales become parables themselves.

‘Misogynists’ is probably a misnomer, then. They’re really subversive Little Tales of Misanthropy to cheer us all up.

I’ve posted on these other Highsmith titles:

Carol

Edith’s Diary

A Suspension of Mercy

 

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black. Harper Perennial paperback, 2005.

Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o’clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling in Potter’s Bar.

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black coverThe opening paragraph of this curious novel sounds like Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographical descriptions of the grubby margins of urban life. Not just because of the subject matter – the orbital motorway with its seedy squalor alongside – but the hallucinatory style and tone. The bizarre imagery resembles his, too – or maybe it strays into Angela Carter territory, especially in the sections of seedy occult showmanship.

Neither of these tendencies is a bad thing. But I found that 451 pages of grand guignol was a bit hard to stomach. The team at the Backlisted podcast on their Halloween show called this the longest ghost story in English literature . Maybe it is – but it’s too long.

The plot, however, is minimal. Alison is an obese medium whose spirit ‘guide’ Morris is a hideous, malevolent ex-circus dwarf. He’s often accompanied by a sickening group of lascivious, vicious thugs who seem to have haunted Alison since her childhood. They slip between the world ‘beyond black’, referred to as ‘spirit world’ by the ‘sensitives’ like Alison, and squat like cut-price demons in the back yards and under the carpets of the living.

Much of the narrative consists of nauseous flashbacks to the squalid house she lived in as a child with her mother. Emmie was a prostitute who had tried to abort Alison, and neglected her when her crude attempts failed and the girl starts to grow up. She makes no attempt to care for the child, and sells her on to these vile, vicious creatures without compunction.

Alison has constant nightmarish flashbacks to the violence and degradation she was subjected to by this troupe of horrors. These are heightened by being contrasted with the humdrum suburban tedium she inhabits in the ‘real’ world.

She acquires a manager/live-in companion. Colette is skinny and spiritually sparse – the reverse of Alison in every way. Their relationship deteriorates as Colette finally has enough of Alison’s bizarrely horrible conversations with people she can’t see.

There are flashes of dark humour, and Mantel has great fun sending up the boringly conventional suburbanites who are the two women’s neighbours.

In the PS section of material at the end of the book Hilary Mantel says that she researched the world of stagey mediums and found their ‘demonstrations’ ‘threatening, unlikely, and slightly repulsive’ – and it shows in this novel.

I think what prevented me from giving up on this rather nasty story was the conviction with which the author portrays Alison’s haunted world. Alison never seriously tries to convince the sceptical Colette that she really does see dead people, and is no charlatan. Her stage act could easily be a mix of shrewd psychology and suggestion – the punters are mostly credulous and naïve. But the narrative suggests that the nightmare Alison appears to live in is real to her, and her attempts to find out who she is, who her father was, what her true history is (not contaminated memories) is strangely gripping.