October 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


My Fantoms by Theophile Gautier translated by Richard Holmes

Sometimes an artist’s work is inseparable from his life. This is true of the Romantic Theophile Gautier (1811-1872), a lover of all things sensual and decadent -- the ballet, the theatre, hashish, pink-purple waistcoats of Chinese silk, art-for-art’s-sake, pleasure travel, the creamy-breasted odalisques of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, creamy-breasted women in real life, paganism, fine cigars, and the soul’s battle with erotic temptation. In Gautier’s stories, the soul loses.

Each of the seven stories collected in My Fantoms is a decadent, ghostly seduction -- a delicious little brush with the uncanny that gives the reader a frisson. But somehow, it’s not the trashy thrill of a modern horror story or erotica. Gautier’s work has a strange credibility. When a painter’s elbow is violently knocked away from his canvas by a mysterious force or a beautiful dead woman sucks on the blood of a tortured priest (with its “crimson brightness” and “lovely vein of blue”), Gautier believes it. He makes you believe it. He’s like Onuphrius, his poet-painter protagonist in “The Painter,” who has created “an inner world of visionary and ecstatic experience” drawn from his “obsessional reading… (of) tales of legendary marvels, ancient chivalric romances, mystical poetry, treatises of the Cabala, German ballads, and volumes on demonology and witchcraft”:

From his ingrained habit of seeking the supernatural aspect, he had the ability to make the most ordinary, down-to-earth circumstance seem weird and fantastic. You could have put him into a square, white-washed room… and he would have been able to spot some uncanny apparition quite as easily as if he had been in a Rembrandt interior, flickering with uncertain light and awash with sinister shadows; such was the power of his mental vision acting on his physical eyesight to distort the straightest line and complicate the simplest object… More and more, Onuphrius’s imaginings grew wild and perverse, so that both his painting and his writing were profoundly affected, and a devil’s tale or claw always forced its way into some part of each composition.

Also, Gautier subverts his own genre. Like all the most romantic of the Romantics and the dandiest of the dandies (his friends Charles Baudelaire and Gerard de Nerval, among others), Gautier brings a sly humor and self-satire to even the deepest explorations of art, sex, death and dreams. He’s excitingly tormented, but never morose. Or, not morose the way a Hegel or a Kierkegaard would get morose -- his protagonists do a great performance of frenzied brooding. Baudelaire considered him a master of writing. His relative obscurity in contemporary literary scholarship is as mysterious as his work.

The stories in My Fantoms, lovingly selected and translated by Richard Holmes, chronologically span Gautier’s career -- the first was begun when he had just turned twenty-one, and the last was finished when he was fifty-six. The themes shift accordingly. As Holmes writes, “In no other consecutive body of Gautier’s work… do the veils fall away so dramatically as in these tales of fantasy.” In the first, “The Adolescent,” a young boy is seduced by the Marquise from a painting on the wall of his uncle’s ramshackle Parisian townhouse. In the last, “The Poet,” finished on All Soul’s Day, 1867, Gautier tells the true story of Gerard de Nerval’s suicide by hanging twelve years earlier. He describes de Nerval as a “beautiful, unselfconscious spirit” whose death “produced an emptiness that nothing has filled… I had grown so accustomed to see him appear on one of his brief visits, like some familiar wild swallow, who perches for an instant and then, with one sharp whistle of joy, immediately takes flight again!” It’s poignant to read that this great poet of dreams slept very little, that his life, like his writings, was “part real and part imaginary.” He believed that “love contains nothing but its beginnings. He liked to act out his own life like a play.” Each story in between “The Adolescent” and “The Poet” is truer and meaner than the last, but no less lushly beautiful.

Gerard de Nerval hung himself with a thin strap that he claimed had been the Queen of Sheba’s garter. Theophile Gaultier died at sixty-two, from heart disease. One wonders how he managed to lose himself in art-for-art’s-sake, in mysticism, in fantasies and visions of phantoms, for all those years without teetering into despair like his brilliant friend. At the end of “The Painter,” in his unapologetic apology for ending this unusual story on a “very commonplace” note, he writes, “I would not utter a single false word. I would rather cut my throat.” And in “The Tourist,” set in the dead city of Pompeii, he writes, “Nothing, in fact, actually dies: everything goes on existing, always… In some unknown region of space, Paris continues to abduct Helen of Troy. Cleopatra’s galley swells its silken sails on the azure blue of an ideal Cydnus.”

My Fantoms is the strangest and most pleasing of autobiographies, and somewhere, inside or outside of time and space, Theophile Gautier is still accompanying Gerard de Nerval “with the utmost relish” on his “aimless, vagabond wanderings,” seeing fairy-nymphs by the lindens with their heart-shaped leaves, studying the occult teachings of the Druses, and letting chance (“or, to make use of a more Turkish concept, Kismet”) lead them inexorably back to the very thing they are fleeing.

My Fantoms by Théophile Gautier translated by Richard Holmes
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 159017271X
192 Pages