Monday, December 14, 2009

NYRB Challenge #14: In which I encounter some scary 19th century vampires. . .

One thing NYRB is really good at is commissioning interesting and noted writers to pen the introductions to their books. I first picked up My Fantoms by Théophile Gautier, translated and with an introduction by Richard Holmes, because it was Holmes' name that caught my eye. I've enjoyed several of his books in the past, most notably his writings on becoming obsessed with his biographical subjects - Footsteps and Sidetracks - and I fully intend one day to read his monumental Shelley: The Pursuit, his biography of the poet which NYRB also publishes (only available in the U.S.)

My Fantoms is a collection of seven stories written over Gautier's lifetime - the earliest published in the 1830s; the last in the 1860s. Gautier is best known for coining the phrase "art for art's sake" and for writing the story behind the ballet Giselle; these magical and mystical Gothic tales are very much in the same - frequently bloody - vein. Most center around the destructiveness of a forbidden or lascivious love as in "The Priest" where the title character falls in love with a beautiful woman that he glimpses while he is taking his vows. She quite literally sucks the blood out of him presenting a whole new take on religious rites. The appearance of vampires is also a guaranteed side effect of taking opium. Holmes notes that Gautier created one of the earliest female vampires in fiction, and essentially combined "the German ghost story with the French erotic tale". Beautiful women step out of tapestries to seduce unsuspecting adolescents, or lure their victims right up and into the grave. Two stories that I enjoyed very much were "The Actor" in which Heinrich gets tips on playing Mephistopheles from the devil himself, and "The Tourist" in which a young man becomes obsessed in a museum by a lump of lava from Pompeii that has preserved the imprint of a woman's breast. Later while wandering the ruins at night, he travels back in time and meets the woman herself with unforgettable results. The last story, "The Poet" has a very different tone - it's a memorial for his flamboyant friend, the poet Gérard de Nerval who committed suicide after an unhappy love affair.

Holmes provides both an introduction and a postscript revealing fascinating historical details about both Gautier and de Nerval's lives and how his own research has intersected with them. A strange but entertaining work.

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