Daniel Haeusser is a microbiologist and an Associate Professor. He reads broadly in English and French, and his book review blog can be found at Reading1000Lives. He also contributes reviews to Skiffy & Fanty, Fantasy Book Critic, Strange Horizons, and World Literature Today. You can also connect with his reviews and book celebration on Goodreads, Twitter, Bluesky, or Facebook.
Wakefield Press continues their noble service of reintroducing English-speaking readers to neglected international authors through fresh translations and rich contextual presentation. Eighth in their well-received “School of the Strange” series, The Impersonal Adventure by Marcel Béalu represents a tale that could equally find home as part of their “Imagining Architecture” that brings together stories of “fantastical architecture, imaginary urbanism, and hallucinatory dwellings.” Béalu’s novella bears striking resemblance to Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, a recent entry in that latter series that once served as surreal inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I’ll return here for a review of Rodenbach’s novella soon, but shades of the themes that Hitchcock explored from that are equally visible with The Impersonal Adventure.
At various points in his life (1908 – 1993) an antiques dealer, bookseller, poet, novelist, and protégé of Max Jacob, Marcel Béalu tried to avoid being compartmentalized to any particular school of thought and inspiration, but became best known as a contributor to the French fantastique, with dream-like echoes of German romanticism. He originally wrote his novella L’Aventure Impersonnelle in the 1940’s, but not until 1954 did French press Arcanes publish the story, and subsequent publications of textual variations followed. Bookended by his introduction and interpretative afterward, translator MacLennan here presents as faithful a reading as possible, while imparting greater ease of readability for modern American audiences. Originally published in four block sections of text without any line breaks, Béalu considered the work a novella of four poems, providing readers reference points of contents, which MacLennan also provides in this issue. But, MacLennan also adds line breaks to separate sections and allow pause amid the whirlwind reveries through misty streets and the ambiguous mind of the protagonist.
The story begins with defining uncertainty and confusion as the narrator ponders his current state within an island city:
“Having concluded the business that brought me to A… there’s nothing more to keep me in this city, but neither is there any pressing need for me to move on to another. Rare are the moments when we feel ourselves once more at liberty.”
Uncertain how to proceed with this freedom, he opens his aide-mémoire notebook to read a fragmentary text he earlier recorded, which includes a faded, partially legible address and a promise that “you’ll certainly find what you are looking for there.”
A few pages later the unnamed protagonist ponders his state of excursion into the city further, prophetically musing that “…the solitary man is drawn to the unknown… But were he to attain the total freedom of which he dreams, it would soon be transformed into a forest of fear.” So wandering, he comes upon the Hotel Providence (Under New Management), where he registers under the name Fidibus, an alias created on the spot in a flash of inspiration. This is the only name by which the reader ever knows the narrator, an esoteric word for the scraps of paper one uses for lighting a pipe.
But, it’s a fitting name, carrying irony with it that echoes the irony in the hotel’s name and sign as well as the title of the novella itself. Fidibus is not serving to ignite much here, but he does seem like a scrap of a tool to be used without his own proper agency or sense of controlled direction. Also written in his aide-mémoire Fidibus finds the name ‘Ogyges’, which he also later finds written as the name of a shop, and learns from a man is a historical reference:
“Long ago, this entire island belonged to Ogyges, my respected ancestor… You’ll certainly find what you are looking for there.”
The likely classical reference by Béalu’s here with Ogyges (Ὠγύγης) derives from its etymology of meaning primeval or primal, perhaps related to island of Ogygia from The Odyssey, where the nymph Calypso detains Odysseus for seven years. In similar fashion, Fidibus has become ironically detained by his freedom in this island city to navigate its ambiguous roads and residents.
Fidibus remarks on the neighborhood around the hotel:
“…old buildings the color of moss, rust, and coal, surrounded by stagnant water, like an enormous steamer with no masts. A few hideous constructions like those that overhang housing projects emerge from that conglomeration…they harbor an ambiguous air of dilapidation and incompletion.”
Amid these he comes across frequent shops advertising furniture, used goods, and (ambiguously) curios. In contrast to the surrounding buildings these shops all seemed constructed to display vibrant ‘slices of life’ in ‘meticulous detail.’ Yet, Fidibus comprehends its an ersatz life, “‘illusions completed by some mannequins placed here and there” that stand out amid the “dirty, disordered, miserably furnished dwellings” that surround, seemingly equally lifeless.
Even with the stores and residences appearing largely unoccupied, Fidibus doesn’t lack for encounters with citizens. Besides the hotel owner, he soon meets an eclectic cast as strange as the city environment: a ‘professor’ and a mysterious ‘spiritual half-brother’, a ‘sinister’ night watchman, and a mute woman without hair, moving among the mannequins, and awakening desire in Fidibus. With such encounters kept brief and episodic, Fidibus never fully becomes comfortable or assured in his sojourn in this city and its many ambiguities. Rather than serving to forge connections through these human interactions the encounters instead highlight “…the often invisible abyss that separates people yawns open here, unfathomable.”
The surreal muddling of real and unreal manifest both in the city and Fidibus’ mind:
“What I took for hopelessly muddled verbosity was the manifestation of an imperishable willpower, what seemed to me to be sentimental prattle was the expression of a marvelous, unfathomable reality. The reality that carries the name of silence, the reality that includes dreams and their fleeting impressions, and everything imaginable and unimaginable, and the foreseen and the unforeseen, the bubble on the thick water of the pond and the smooth back of the whale at the rugged surface of the oceans, the fear in the eyes of the newborn baby and the serenity on the brow of the dying man: the reality that also includes what no one has yet seen, what everyone repudiates or is unaware of, what’s there, ready to appear in this story, like thunder bursting in the skies above the theater while the beauties of spring are blossoming on the stage.”
Béalu’s novella represents one giant surreal knot of ambiguity for both his protagonist and his readers to attempt unraveling. He makes this knot metaphor explicit before the start of the novella with a quote from a Herman Melville novella, Benito Cereno, which shares with The Impersonal Adventure the themes of tension arising through doubt of perceptions, and the fear inherent in uncertainty, in absolute freedom.
Reading The Impersonal Adventure, I became struck with how similar the experience felt to reading a work by Gene Wolfe. Wolfe, who is also surmised to have been inspired by Melville, often played with the same unreliability of character and setting, carefully constructing surreal knots for readers to unravel and harvest interpretation and meaning.
Like with interpretations of Wolfe’s work, any interpretations of Béalu’s novella will likely vary from reader to reader, and no definitive solution to the puzzle of The Impersonal Adventure likely exists. In his afterward, MacLennan writes on the novella through a Freudian lens of psychology, but readily admits this is not necessarily fully valid or unequivocal. With The Impersonal Adventure, ambiguity will reign well beyond its completion.