My Fantoms (New York Review Books Classics) - Theophile Gautier

On n'est veritablement morte, que quand on n'est plus aimée


My Fantoms is a ghostly provocative selection of seven of Théophile Gautier's short stories, translated and compiled by Richard Holmes. The stories are arranged chronologically so that the reader may perceive the progression of Gautier's writing throughout the course of his professional career: the first, The Adolescent,  was written when he was just twenty-one, the last in this collection The Poet was written when he was fifty-six. Gautier's more lengthy works, not presented here, are more erotically imagined.


Some of the tales are sensual, seductive, gothic romances often with spectral, hypnotic, fantastic and otherworldly features. The fantômes in his stories are shadowy outlines, silhouettes, mostly feminine entities; they are "seductresses, ravishing mischief-makers, soft-hearted vampires, generous courtesans, fatal temptresses, or simply ardent thousand-year-old muses."(xxii)  Symbolically, they hint at a portrait of Gautier's own personal relationships.   This taken to be truth, his love life must have been quite volatile and haunting.


In The Adolescent, the main character, an "innocent with a headful of dreams and illusions," visits his uncle's summer house, a "sad relic of bygone days, as ramshackled as if it had been a thousand years old." At night in his bedroom, he witnesses the goddess Omphale, climbing out of the mythological tapestry to seduce him. The experience initially frightening, becomes so intoxicating that he obsessively anticipates these nightly apparitions. Much is alluded here to the loss of innocence.


Gautier wrote with a light tone and often with a sense of humor. He also reflected his training in the arts and his appreciation of textures, form and color in his prose. In The Painter, Onuphrius works on a portrait when it is tampered with by a diabolical spectral being.
"Onuphrius walked over to collect the canvas, leaning with its face to the wall. He put it up on the easel. Just above the line of Jacintha's delicate mouth, an unknown hand had drawn in a pair of moustaches that would have done honour to a drum-major...
For about an hour everything went well. The blood flow beneath the flesh tones, the outlines grew sharp, the forms filled out, the light values were established against the dark, and half the canvas was already alive...He was in the act of painting..the pupil when a violent blow to his elbow knocked his hand aside. The spot of white jerked onto the eyebrow, and his coat sleeve smeared across the surface of the cheek, which he had just finished and was still fresh."


The last tale, The Poet, is a mythical biography of his old friend, Gérard de Nerval who committed suicide in 1855. Nerval, whose own writings were inspired by his obsession for an actress (Jenny Colon, died 1842) was "the one person who understood Gautier" best. The Poet is a nostalgic remembrance of Nerval, illuminating many of their mutually haunted experiences. It reads like a very tragic memoir.
"It is now twelve years since that drear morning in January, when a sinister rumour first began to spread through Paris. In the uncertain light of that cold, grey dawn, a body had been found hanging from the bars of a wall ventilator in rue de la Vielle Lanterne, opposite the iron grille of a street sewer, halfway up a flight of steps. It was a place frequented by a familiar crow, who used to hop ominously about, seeming to croak like the raven in Edgar Allan Poe: " Never, oh! nevermore!" The body was that of my childhood friend and school-fellow, Gérard de Nerval."


Gautier's macabre tales have similar gothic-romance values to those of Edgar Allan Poe. These writings are expressed with a savoir faire - a naturalness- reflecting a bohemian life and pagan musings; obsessive loves and a mild indulgence in eroticism; his view of death as an escape from the pain and suffering of life. My Fantoms is a great introduction to Gautier. Whatever else is gleaned from this compilation, it is certain that I would enjoy Théophile Gautier's lengthier fiction and poetry.