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Dissolving narrative with Marcel Béalu

By Andrew Hodgson.

Marcel Béalu is a figure, at a glance, singular in 20th century French literature. A marginal figure god parent to no school, writer of no manifesto who, unlike many of his contemporaries, as Henri Peyre writes, “being French … had to formulate, hence to invent, a body of doctrinal views to clarify their own aims and to impress the philosophical reviewers”. Béalu is bizarre; he had no favourite café from which to declaim at his ease to his Sorbonne students; he, in fact, didn’t have any Sorbonne students to declaim to. Though very (very) loosely linked he at no point found himself in the position of championing or slapping down André Breton, or committing to both stances in repeated and rapid succession. From our mid-Atlantic footing looking East to Paris, to glimpse such a writer feels rare; singular. Yet Béalu is one amongst many, not only individuals but groups and post-Breton movements eclipsed by their OuLiPo, SI and NR contemporaries. That garret lurking writer vivid in the anglo encyclopaedia of cliché is an anomaly in the French literary landscape; or at least that which reaches our bookshelves. Publication in France, it seems, relies on radio, TV chat show and Le Monde like a presidential campaign trail much more so than that in our ken. The received image of French literature appears as a competition of whose ego bleats the loudest, and any who feel uneasy with self-promotion, group marketing, or out and out rejected it like Béalu are time and time again shuffled deep down in the deck, a deck here confusingly labelled “Kafkaesque”. An adjective applied at the flick of the tongue to many of the writers I have recently approached, Roland Topor, Béalu, Pierre Bettencourt, Fernando Arrabal, its application is something I find uncomfortable, whether it is intended to describe their outsider status or outsider approach or something else altogether. The adjective wielded seems afforded the power to level all time and space to reduce Kafka to an ambiguous genre and the subject to which it is applied the status of an –esque; a vague –ish; an ambiguous referential referencing the ambiguous.

The preamble to all Béalu’s books reads the same as his Wikipedia. He was born in 1908 in the Loir-et-Cher region of France and died in Paris in 1993. He began his working life at 12 years old and in 1937 while working as a hatter he met and was encouraged to write by “the cubist poet” Max Jacob. Following a decade of poetry his first novel Mémoires de l’ombre appeared in fragmentary form in 1941, and then as a complete text in 1944 followed by “his first fantastic work”  L’Expérience de la nuit in 1945 and Journal d’un mort in 1947 after which he wrote and published a slew of books, collections, plays; he produced films; he painted though rudimentary google searches bring up little of that, founded the journal Realités Secrètes in 1955 though self-published within it rarely; it wrapped up in 1971. In 1951 he became a bookseller, moving his shop around Paris, its spot in the 6th named after the work of Jean Paulhan still stands and still sells books. It was from this shop Jacques Lacan apparently once nicked Shakespeare’s complete works as the anecdote goes. It is a scantly sketched bio already perhaps fuller than Béalu would appreciate. Away from the strictures of Wikipedia, writing in 1964 in Poètes d’Aujourd’hui: Marcel Béalu Jean-Jacques Khim’s biography of his friend begins; “Certain texts can be understood without the need of a biography of their author. And others, au contraire…

I know a lot of readers of Marcel Béalu who have never asked “who is this man?” They were greatly astonished to learn that the man still exists, that I know him, that he sells books on the rue Saint-Séverin, that his spouse is a great actress, Marie-Ange Dutheil, and that he loves his daughter Agnès. That he is of medium height and mid-country, that he has sharp eyes and greying hair, that he hides a gentle nature behind his gruff appearance, that he worships Paris like a provincial, that is to say that he harbours a curiosity that belongs to only him and certain foreigners.  And finally that you can be sure to find in him a friend, that is, if he was to introduce you to those of his and those that haunt his bookshop.

Khim’s roast of Béalu goes on for 80 pages with more than a twinge of irony in his writing a retrospective of a friend still very much alive; an author bio for someone who worked to divest the book of its author, a church of its god. Khim’s bio is entry 133 of the series ‘writers of today’ making odd page-fellows of “A R A G O N”, Emily Dickinson, “Edgar Poe”, Octavio Paz, Rainer Maria Rilke, “POUCHKINE”, Robert Frost, Emily Brontë and Raymond Queneau (amongst 123 others). Entering Béalu into such a broad and strange bracket of the poets today (ignoring the issue of some members’ discontinuity) seems to defeat Béalu’s self-professed project; to be not a poet but a “dead actor”, a creature without a position or point-of-view, to be inhuman; a bodiless voice connected to no workings, a thing of ink on paper.

As Khim’s analysis perhaps finds its crux: Béalu “has little affection for interviews, little taste for publicity. He watches with a critical eye those poets high up in the literary scene … if Marcel Béalu is incapable of playing the game, it is not due to idleness … it is great, his belief that his writing is of more interest than his life, and following this refuses to forge his own legend”. It is in this sense, Khim says, Béalu is “more an actor than a poet”. The pale repetitions of his biographies are then the continuation of that project; the out-of-print, untranslated scarcity of his books the unfortunate consequence.

Forum trawling brings up three books of Béalu in translation, The Water Spider, a short story, The Subterranean Traveller, a chapbook of poems, and the novel The Experience of the Night.  The first two are scarce and the thing of collectors, the third, the novel, was published in 1997 by Dedalus, with the book listed under Bealu. The translation is not available through their website and is– at the time of writing –listed on Amazon for over £100. It can however be found around the internet for much less. The translation itself is at turns wordy and pared back; an altering in cadence not necessarily native to the original. It is shot through with simple editing errors and swathes of text that seem awkwardly interpreted or directly translated; the title itself holding a little too much ‘the’ for it to feel natural in English. Some parts adopting a strong interpretative voice and others seemingly absent of one; the repeated use of the word “togs” for clothes, for example, glares out from the page. The first sections shine through but by the later sections, when the story’s confusion is intended to reach fever pitch, the pages begin to feel a little stale. Though not to detract from the translator at all; Béalu’s writing is erratic and fractured, and the book itself provides a relatively accessible first look into the shattered mirror.

The story itself, the back cover of the translation reminds me, is “the masterpiece of the French Kafka”. Yet Béalu hadn’t read Franz Kafka until 1949, years after writing these books and so perhaps all credit should remain firmly chez Béalu. The narrative begins with Marcel Adrien falling through the streets of a neighbourhood he has never before visited. The pavements “thronged” by a “scruffy rabble” of “grubby kids”, he finds the building of “A. FOHAT – OPTHALMOLOGIST” and traipses the stairs to his office where “a smell of burnt fat mingled with that of cat’s piss rising from the courtyard”. Upon eventually gaining entry to the clinic, Marcel Adrien finds Dr. Fohat has expected him, though he made no appointment, and has kept an extensive file on him. Marcel is diagnosed with myopia, “a fairly common disorder … in people of your young age. You suffer from a stricture of the optic organ. The abundance and diversity of the outside world, crowding at the entrance to this visual duct, causes distortion”, the curing of which “requires a lot of patience and resolution”; he is prescribed black pills to be taken after 12 hours work on an empty stomach and dark glasses to be worn at night as the only tools to guide him on the road to clarity. The journey is fragmented and unstable and gives little for the reader to cling to yet “a book,” as Maurice Blanchot writes, “even a fragmentary one, has a center which attracts it. This center is not fixed, but is displaced by the pressure of the book and circumstances of its composition”. The center, the constant target off in the distance here is the only constant in the text, that is the interrelation of the figures Marcel Adrien and Dr. Fohat. Marcel-Adrien being Marcel Béalu’s full first name and optician Dr. Fohat deriving from the Sanskrit for “the link between the flesh and the spirit”. The fictional Marcel perpetually tracks down the answers to the riddles of Dr. Fohat, and eventually succumbs to the pervading sense that Dr. Fohat is the riddle itself. Any answer is evasive, it “displaces itself, while remaining the same and becoming always more central, more hidden, more uncertain and more imperious”. The dream space these characters inhabit shifts, splits and changes and forever dissolving drops them further into the unreal space they inhabit; the night; the dream; or the ruptured pineal eye of Béalu himself; where perhaps Marcel Adrien might cure his qualms and Béalu find peace in crossing the precipice of death. But it would be myopic to combine Marcel Adrien and Marcel-Adrien, as Blanchot goes on, “to write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself … [the writer] may believe that he affirms himself in language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self … not the writer’s voice, but the intimacy of the silence he imposes upon the word, that implies that the silence is still his”. Marcel-Adrien is “no longer himself; he isn’t anyone anymore”, he is as according to Khim “an artifice”. As Béalu himself wrote in Fantastique du rêve: “I gathered that words no longer corresponded to what I wanted to say, what I felt within me”. Thus the fictional Marcel Adrien in words, disconnected from the being that writes him experiences the horror of being isolated from himself and forever chasing the way back never realises that the world around him, the silence that engulfs him and arbitrary pratfalls that trip him, are the populace of his own internal space. It is this common element of Béalu’s writing that in his introduction to Journal d’un mort Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt calls a “banal promenade” through “guilty space,” that is “destined without a doubt to end badly”. And is apparent in the episode of that text The Intruder, where the “I” of the text describes the day he met himself in the street: “his face was familiar but I didn’t remember anything about him”. And so the mechanisms of movement within The Experience of the Night, Marcel and Dr. Fohat, slip through guises at once familiar and disconcerting; patient, caretaker, socialite, artist, murderer; doctor, business mogul, mad scientist, god at any given turn.

From the first moment on the landing outside Dr. Fohat’s office where Marcel Adrien falls asleep he falls ever further through the subterranean textures of a matrushka of dreamscapes. The structure is native to most of Béalu’s books; a series of dissolving episodes that slip from one to another. It is a structure akin to Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, that skeleton or “serpent” Baudelaire pitches in the following mode:

We can cut wherever we please, I my dreaming, you your manuscript, the reader his reading; for I do not keep the reader’s restive mind hanging in suspense on the threads of an interminable and superfluous plot. Take away one vertebra and the two ends of this tortuous fantasy come together again without pain. Chop it into numerous pieces and you will see that each one can get along alone

The episodes exist within themselves as they are not carried by narrative, like Paris Spleen “it has neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally”. Like in Béalu’s writing where the episodes of the book fall out from underneath one another and besides itself dissolve into the next before the writer, the artificial “I”, or the reader may find any sense of stability. What at first may seem a believable progression of events might, with a slip of the story, become a maelstrom of broken interrelations and then these numerous broken threads tie up in some grand scheme beyond Marcel Adrien’s ken even after the reveal which is then itself arbitrarily dissolved and its faint residue dragged onto whole other plateaus entirely, clinging to the carapace of our lost, blinkered, hollow “I”. The episode with Edith (Piaf?) for example, which begins with a hotel and ends with her suicide. After receiving his medication from Dr. Fohat, Marcel Adrien finds lodgings where he might peacefully follow the strict regimen. He finds a guesthouse with a single room free and an overly eager receptionist. The room is small with a window and a bed, and looking out of the window he sees across the way a strange factory floor partially obscured, he asks the receptionist what it is and she evades the question, she leaves and in an instant is hanging out of another window just across the courtyard flirting. The next day he finds work as a caretaker at Andco & Co. and begins his regimen of 12 hour shifts, no food and black pills. When he returns to the guesthouse the corridors are dark and opening a door he believes to be his he finds the first coup de fantastique:

I could not distinguish very much at first, but as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom they were soon able to pick out from their setting the people moving about in it. They were two old crocks, so covered with wrinkles I could not tell how old they were. However the great number of years that came to mind, I had only to look at them to see how far short of the mark I was in my estimation. They were certainly over a hundred. Their brows had the spongy look of decaying walls, and their mouths were like the cracks curbs of old wells. In the midst of this decrepitude, only their pale eyes still flickered, like faded lamps … she gazed at him affectionately, tucking him up and making a fuss of him. Nor did the spectacle end there! The two dotards began to caress each other, in the parody of youthful gestures horrible to behold. Oh! The tremblings of their skeletal hands! … I had seen more than my patience could bear. It was a relief to return to the solitude of my cell on the floor below … a blur danced before my eyes and I did not waste much time in putting on Dr. Fohat’s spectacles.

Every morning after he looks out of his window to watch the workers across the way conceal whatever it is they are working on; “no doubt they did not like the feeling of being observed by someone emerging from sleep”. He asks the receptionist, now known as Edith again about them and she becomes sad with the realisation that every morning when he looks out the window he isn’t looking for her. Marcel grows increasingly closer to Edith who will not allow him to pay for his lodgings, and increasingly distant from his colleagues who resent him working so hard for such long shifts on his own initiative. The progression is acceptable. Marcel then stumbles again into the wrong room, and another, and another, and finds again and again in each one the same scene of ancient couples surrounded by rot and junk petting one another in the darkness. It appears he has been dragged into some terrifying dark spectacle where all the real that has been built up is in a moment razed, however like Martial Canterel affords his guests in Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus, there is always a schema for comprehension of the fantastic. Edith confesses that the guesthouse is not what it seems, the building was once a doll factory. It was inherited by the niece of its owner who turned it into a guesthouse, her first customer was a stranger who had drifted into the area and they fell in love. She realised that people do not want housing, over all they want love and so set to altering her business model. She invited young girls from the neighbourhood to work on the counter, they would welcome male guests who would invariably end up marrying them and they would be housed in the building to make way for another receptionist, another male guest. The process had however, began to break down and now at 30 Edith had not succeeded in “capturing” a male guest, and exists only to manage the house as it continues, “willy-nilly, to tack across the dark-light sea of its destiny”. Startled by her confession, Marcel retreats to his cubby-hole at work where he keeps his mops and moves in there abandoning the guesthouse. That night he wanders through the building where he works until he finds the mysterious factory floor where by day he had seen from his old room the workers pull the curtains. The room is full of beds where lay dozens of children sleeping unbreathing, piles of tangled bodies. It is here he discovers boxes of black pills and realises that this is all one and the same, it is all the work of Dr. Fohat, and looking up out the windows, “I saw Edith’s corpse, caught in the high-voltage cables above my room, like an enormous night-bird pinned against the sky”. And there the episode ends and Edith is more or less never spoken of again. Marcel Adrien flees the area with his savings from work and ends up in a new area, again, it turns out orchestrated under the guiding hand of Dr. Fohat, who, like everything in this realm including Marcel Adrien, may or may not exist, may or may not be alive and may or may not be just a dream. In this ambiguity the reader is given a series of layered explanations for things that cannot be explained and, unlike Canterel’s machines, cannot be sewn up tight in the rigid prose of exhaustive description, the mechanisms of logic at work in Béalu’s fictions owe nothing to the reality that we expect to exist in a novel, that is one, however bombastic, tantamount to our own; for Béalu up does not point up, but in all directions at the same time. As the themes laid out in this opening episode slip through four others to an ending which appears as an object with the same face yet unfamiliar. Dr. Fohat is dead, his young niece is probably a living doll, his office is now a castle and the living statues intended as servants have become violent murderers; as Khim notes, “it is clear to me that, bearing in mind The Experience of the Night was written in 1943, the robot-men are the German occupiers”, but to say that the whole experience is one of the midnight of modern France would again be to attempt to cursively explain the unexplainable. The episodes that Marcel perpetually falls through are familiar tableaux laid out to be annihilated one after another. Time, space and truth all corrode as increasingly terrifying events roll out around Marcel in a sublime tapestry where everything is what it is not and all a little too real for comfort. Events that are at once startling for their chaos and confusion it is revealed are the carefully exacted machinations of magicians, doctors, scientists, businessmen who are all Fohat, whose creations turn on their creator. The Experience of the Night is carried not by narrative or human empathy, but the terrifying silence of the connecting space somewhere between life and death, a fitful sleepless dream that allows it to degrade past the end of the night, that far off target Céline found himself trapped within. Where we myopic, sleep peacefully unaware of the darkness that engulfs us, Marcel is the sole survivor of a fitful night.

“Sleep,” writes Blanchot, “is my absolute interest in assuring myself of the world … to sleep badly is precisely to be unable to find one’s position”. It is “an act of fidelity or union” with the day against night, with light against darkness where a person lays fixed in their self, fixed in the world. For Blanchot those that do not adhere to the union are suspect, guilty, inhuman, as they drag the dark and vague into the day. As in the guilty space of Journal d’un mort, the “I” of A visitor in the night begins, “I can’t sleep anymore”, and sitting in his armchair watches the waves rush in and fill up his room, waiting for his nightly visit from the frogman to present him with an array of abstract objects parodying the painful thoughts of an insomniac in the dead of night. It is a waking dream that Blanchot would view with suspicion; it is “the unspeakable harassment of a reality which always escapes and which one cannot escape”, it is not real, it is merely “a likeness that refers eternally to likeness”. The fantastic mechanisms at work in Béalu’s fictions are, like dreams are of day, the confused and vivid impressions of a fumbling and desperate area of the mind. Isolated on the page, in a dormant mind, somewhere between existence and non-existence, sleep and consciousness, it finds itself lost in the internal labyrinth of Marcel Béalu. As The Experience of the Night begins; “you have to lose your way seven times in the earth’s labyrinth to be familiar with the echo, guardian of metals and stones, residing in its vaults; the greenish mask haunting its depths; the melancholy of its damp caves, refuge of secret thoughts and monsters.” Without the hand of god; the happy helping hand of the poet to offer us closure, it is this silent space full of monsters within Marcel Béalu, that in writing he extends across the page, that the reader finds themselves party to; sat comfortably in their armchair witnessing the horrifying and beautiful scene of an “I” eternally drowning.


An excerpt from The Water Spider

Marcel Béalu’s entire oeuvre

Marcel Béalu with a sack of cats

Andrew Robert Hodgson is a PhD researcher based at Université Paris Est, and a lecturer in English language and literature at various universities in Paris.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 14th, 2013.