As always, I’m delighted to post writing by my friend Nat Leach. Here Nat contextualizes Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (1948) twice over: by thinking about its uneasy relation to Gothic literature, and by comparing it to contemporary works by the theorists Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas. The resulting essay made sense of much of the novel for me. Enjoy!
Literature can create an experience that, illusory or not, appears as a means of discovery and an effort not to express what one knows but to experience what one does not know.
—Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire, 1949, trans. Charlotte Mandell.
Reading Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (originally published in 1948, and recently re-published by NYRB in a new translation by Joyce Zonana) put me in mind of the work of some of his contemporary French writers of the late 40’s, such as Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas, and the above passage from Blanchot resonated very much with my experience of reading the book. Not only does the protagonist, alone on a strange island, reflect on his own strange experience, but readers are confronted with an unknown world that does not entirely correspond either with their sense of the real world or with their expectations of fiction. While Bosco employs conventions from genres such as the adventure novel and the Gothic novel, he takes them in unfamiliar directions.
The plot itself appears straightforward: the protagonist, Martial de Mégremut, inherits his uncle’s property on the condition that he not leave the remote island on which his house is located for a period of three months, and that he accomplish an as yet unspecified action after that period has expired. The inheritance is not particularly lucrative, but Martial’s determination (which surprises even himself) to remain on the island creates conflict with his uncle’s notary, Dromiols, who tries to induce him to leave. While this is the stuff of adventure novels, it’s also significant that the most dramatic encounter with this antagonist takes place about 2/3 of the way through the book. This underscores that the book is much more about Martial’s internal struggles, of which he himself is sometimes only dimly aware.
Bosco establishes the dominant conflict within his protagonist in the first few pages of the book. Martial belongs to the “gentle and patient” Mégremut family, which is characterized by its amiable sociability, but his uncle Cornélius, from whom he inherits, was, conversely, the last of the line of the Malicroix, a passionate and prideful lineage. Cornélius himself was a wild and anti-social being, and we soon learn that these characteristics were the product of an unhappy past linked to these negative qualities of his line.
Many of the characters, Martial himself included, question whether he is a “true” Malicroix, possessing as he does the “blood” but not the “name” of Malicroix. From the beginning, Martial acknowledges the presence of the Malicroix blood “hidden within the darkest part of myself” and this hidden force often seems to dictate his actions throughout the book, as when his conscious mind decides to leave the island even as he unconsciously determines to stay. The structure of the book suggests that Martial’s journey is a progression from Mégremut (the title of the book’s first section) to Malicroix (the title of its final section), but the ending actually complicates this opposition, showing the Mégremuts to have an unexpected toughness, while Cornélius’ final request has an unexpectedly redemptive quality to it. One significant question raised by the ending, then, is whether Martial’s actions succeed in harmonizing these two dimensions of his character, or whether he remains fundamentally split between them.
Another way of framing this opposition is that the Mégremuts represent sociability and communicability, or the beautiful as opposed to the obscurity and secrecy of the Malicroix sublime. Martial notes of his family: “We are not given to unvoiced sorrow or silent reproach. Faces and gestures speak; voices confirm. In this gentle family we love each other too much not to confess everything, especially the reproaches, the sorrow, the deep roots of tenderness.” Martial moves from the family hearth where everything is expressed directly on the surface to the mysterious island where nothing is clear. His solitude and the force of the elements (powerful winds and blinding snow) produce insomniac reveries and, eventually, feverish dreams as he falls ill after collapsing in the snow. At the height of his solitary anxiety, he observes that “I suspected that because my situation was not reasonable, it concerned my whole self, not just my reason. It was up to my soul to speak, but my soul was silent.” This sums up much about the book; it takes us beyond a merely rational apprehension of events towards their deeper, hidden meanings, which nevertheless remain mysterious. In other words, it reveals the Malicroix at the heart of every Mégremut.
This lesson is also suggestive of the book’s associations with the Gothic genre. On the surface, it is a very Gothic book indeed, with its solitary, foreboding house, mysterious will, passionate, anti-social ancestor with a traumatic past and even a woman with a strange ghost-like quality. The troubling of the distinction between Mégremut and Malicroix is also typical of the Gothic’s tendency to blur boundaries between the rational and the irrational, the human and the inhuman, communal order and individual desire. Categories that, on the surface, appear to be opposites are shown in fact to be intricately implicated with one another at a deeper, unconscious or secret level.
The book also Gothically hints at the possibility of supernatural agency, but these hints are neither confirmed nor rationalized away, leaving it in the category designated by Tzvetan Todorov as “the fantastic,” which constitutes a “hesitation” between the real and the imaginary. The action of the book thus takes on a dreamlike quality, resistant to the faculty of reason and consequently to the limiting logic of genre. For example, when Martial is rescued by a mysterious woman (who later gives her name as Anne-Madeleine, while insisting that this is just her “name of this earth”), we are made to wonder whether she is a supernatural figure come to nurse him back to health, a femme fatale come to deceive him, or just an ordinary woman who lives nearby. She functions in the narrative, variously, as all of these things, but in the end, there is no definitive answer, and only the rational mind would insist on one; it is Martial’s often indistinct perceptions of her that are most significant in this book.
In fact, this is a book full of ambiguous and shifting characters, which seem to correspond to some dimension of Martial’s psyche rather than following their own internal logic. Like Anne-Madeleine, Dromiols’ clerk, “Uncle Rat,” and the old shepherd Balandran veer abruptly between appearing as threats or helpers; for example, Balandran’s initial surliness, coupled with the fact that he stands to inherit if Martial defaults on the conditions of the will, lead us to expect him to become a significant obstacle in the narrative. Instead, he quite suddenly transfers his loyalty to Martial. Only Bréquillet, Balandran’s dog, is consistent in his character, one of steadfast canine loyalty.
Even Bosco’s brief “Notice” to the reader at the beginning of the book frames it as a Gothic text, explaining that some 40 pages that “form a separate, private account” have been removed and that “only someone truly qualified for such revelations might one day break the seal”. This minor detail already suggests the major themes of the book: its secrecy and the notion that there is a single “proper” reader of the secret, just as Martial is the single proper reader of the codicil to Cornelius’ will.
But this centrality of Martial—which is undeniable, as everything is focalized through him—is troubled the fact that his own sense of identity is uncertain and shifting. For example, before his final confrontation with Dromiols, he observes the face of his adversary, unperceived:
Into this mask had flowed a massive thought whose immobility revealed savagery, stubbornness. It fascinated me. For this thought was me, and most likely Dromiols was actually seeing me, inside himself. Troubling impression of presence. I was there. I was solely there. Did I have a life, a will, outside that savage head whose slow meditation revolved around my weak figure? I obsessed him; I was his anxiety, what haunted him.
Bosco goes beyond the convention of the Gothic double in which the antagonist mirrors the protagonist and represents his darker impulses; rather, the distinction between the two characters seems to collapse completely as Martial describes Dromiols by describing his perception of himself within Dromiols, while simultaneously demonstrating Dromiols’ power over him, as they mutually “obsess” and “fascinate” one another.
The “troubling impression of presence” described here characterizes much of the book, and suggests a more troubling experience of the unknown than is typically conveyed in the Gothic. Martial speaks of himself as inhabiting some level of being that goes beyond his experience of his own identity. It is in this respect that the book particularly made me think of Levinas and Blanchot, whose works of the late ‘40s (and beyond) articulate a sense of a self that is not an autonomous master of the world, but is inescapably chained to it. Levinas, for example, writes about what he calls the “there is,” the inescapable fact of being that eludes the rational mind’s attempt to reduce all phenomena to objects of knowledge. Martial is plagued by this kind of anxiety-inducing awareness of the world around him. Compare, for example, Martial’s reflections:
The sharpness of these sensations soon grew so strong I began to suffer from a kind of pure insomnia. Not a normal state of wakefulness, in which confusion alternates with mental effort and is prolonged. I felt as if I had fallen prey to a dry lucidity. A hypervigilance refused to surrender any shadow to self-forgetfulness, and I remained painfully aware of everything.
Insomnia is constituted by the consciousness that it will never finish—that is, that there is no longer any way of withdrawing from the vigilance to which one is held. Vigilance without end (Time and the Other, 1948, Trans. Richard A. Cohen)
This experience of the anonymous, unshakeable awareness of “being” seems to be something more than the anti-social “blood” of the Malicroix talking, a more profound experience of the unknown than that associated with the Gothic.
This contrasts with the book’s ending, which is active as opposed to passive, and describes an action that can only be completed by one person: Martial. One might therefore be tempted to read this as a progression from Martial’s initial state of undifferentiated being on the island to his specialized status as the last of the Malicroix, but again, this seems too simple; the final action is less a resolution than a gesture in the direction of some kind of new order. The book ends without dispelling its profoundly unsettling apprehension of something not just unknown, but perhaps unknowable, because, as Martial says, it is not simply rational but concerns the “whole” silent, irrational “self”.
Thank you Nat for this deeply perceptive reading of “Malicroix.” I’ve been surprised that the book has been called “gothic” by many readers, because I never really saw it that way, focusing always on the “unknowable” and uncategorizable aspects of it. Your analysis helps me to see both why it is indeed gothic and also very much not gothic! I also really appreciate your reading of the ending and the relationship between Dromiols and Martial. Thank you!
Thank you! I think you may have summed up my point better than I did; the book both is and isn’t Gothic in interesting ways. On the one hand, the Gothic is interested in the unknown and the “unspeakable” but on the other, it very often approaches them in conventional ways that claim to know and speak. I’ve long been fascinated by the Gothic undertones in Levinas and Blanchot, but the difference here is that the unknown isn’t an external threat but something inherent within the self/the rational/language itself. Bosco was entirely new to me (so thank you for helping introduce him to me) but this seemed so much what the book is about- the troubling unknown that lies within rather than without. I particularly loved the way the book subverts the Gothic expectations it sets up in order to show us something perhaps even more troubling. For example, Martial’s return to the Megremuts is presented in a highly uncanny way; I kept expecting something awful to happen, but it doesn’t… instead, what disturbs us is the recognition of the extent of Martial’s feeling of estrangement from his home.
I think this is pretty close to how I took the novel. The mysticism, the “more profound experience of the unknown,” is central and necessary to understanding what both Martial and Bosco are doing. Martial is telling the story of how he embraced his inner mystic. The notice, the bit about the “truly qualified,” is the first statement that the text is esoteric in some way. It is surprisingly direct, but I suppose the author of the note is not as committed to indirection as Martial, for whom not-saying is the only true way of saying.
The Gothic element, as I saw it, is so indebted to Hoffmann that I guess I thought of it more as “Hoffmann” than “Gothic.” The doubles, the shift into dream-states, and especially the ending, where a crazy combination of symbolic elements creates “some kind of new order” – how many times have I read that in Hoffmann? One difference being that I do not think Hoffmann means it. It is more like a form of play to him. I should say that to some readers, Malicroix corresponds to their expectations of fiction (I can link to proof, or at least evidence, on Twitter). We’re gonna heal that Fisher King at the end.
The connections you, Nat, make to precisely contemporary philosophers, that is fascinating.
Thanks. I must admit that I struggled a bit with how to take the mystical elements (and thus really appreciated your posts that explained this dimension more fully!) On the one hand, it is clear that Martial’s action at the end has a symbolic and redemptive quality that suggests that he has moved from a state of spiritual confusion to a higher level of awareness. On the other hand (or so it seemed to me), the reader is left with many uncertainties (but perhaps these too are explained if we know how to read them?), so I wasn’t sure whether to read the ending entirely in terms of spiritual progress.
Good point about Hoffman; I hadn’t thought specifically about that connection, but Todorov does invoke him quite a bit in his discussion of the “fantastic” (along with a few other key texts such as Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript). I would certainly agree that Malicroix is closer to Hoffman than to other Gothic texts, and, since you put it this way, it is perhaps that dimension of “meaning it” that I had trouble getting an accurate read on while I was reading the book; I was never quite sure where Bosco was going or whether the narrative was going to turn out to be some form of “play” (and that sense of uncertainty is a big part of what I loved about the book) although in the end you’re right that he clearly does “mean it”.
I’ve never read Hoffmann, but now I see that I must–along with Blanchot and Levinas. Thanks for making all these connections, both of you!
Hoffmann is a crazy delight.
“Parmi les romantiques allemands qui m’ont inspiré, je voudrais mentionner Hoffmann” / “Among the German Romantics who have inspired me, I would like to mention Hoffmann.”
P. 885 of William Van Grit’s “Interview with Henri Bosco” (1974).
Such an excellent post – thank you for this. There is certainly so much in this novel, which is one of the most multi-layered I’ve read and you shed much light on what is, as you say, as book where “there is no definitive answer, and only the rational mind would insist on one”. Fascinating.
Thanks very much. You’re right that there’s just so much in this book; I had to restrain myself or else this post could have gotten way too long!
Well I, for one, would love to read your further reflections! All the themes you mention recur throughout Bosco’s work; this book actually offers more “resolution” than most of the others do . . . Here, at least, Martial completes an action–though, as you say, so many uncertainties remain. Still, we know that he is looking back on these events and writing about them from a place of relative integration and peace, I believe.
Even less resolution? I already wanted to read more Bosco, but this makes me even more curious!
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