Some Notes on the Belgian School of the Strange (3) by Edward Gauvin

Fri 3 Dec 2010 - Filed under: Not a Journal., , | Posted by: Gavin

Some  Notes on the Belgian School of the Strange (3) by Edward Gauvin (translator of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life on Paper: Stories)

That her father was a poet and her mother one of Belgium’s greatest novelists may have influenced Anne Richter’s predilections, but the place she has made for herself in Belgian letters is one all her own. In 1954, she burst onto the scene with her very first book, Le Fourmi a fait le coup [literally, The Ant Did It, the “It” in question being what the butler is usually accused of], a collection of fantastical short stories whose protagonists were often animals or objects. Her story “Un sommeil de plante” from her 1967 collection Les Locataires appears in Kim Connell’s 1998 anthology The Belgian School of the Bizarre as “The Dreaming Plant,” and with its central conceit of a woman turning into a plant recalls Kathe Koja’s “The Neglected Garden,” from her 1997 collection Extremities, and reprinted in the Vandermeers’ anthology The New Weird. In Richter’s story, however, the transformation is a serene escape: through it, the heroine dodges marriage and finds the solitude she has always sought:

“By morning her hands had become open leaves. Her fiancé came to see her again. Worried, he sat down at her side, his face lowered.
‘Listen. I’ve tried to put this off, but I think it’s my duty to tell you. I’ve met a girl… She looks a little like you. You yourself told me that life goes on’…
A breeze came in through the open window. It caressed her trunk, played in her branches.”

Thenceforth Richter would only bring out one collection per decade, with the exception of the 70s, during which she edited several extremely influential anthologies: one on the German fantastic from Goethe to Meyrink, with her husband; one on the complete fantastical tales of Maupassant; and that for which she is most remembered, Le fantastique féminin d’Ann Radcliffe à nos jours (Marabout, 1977). Only four Francophone writers appear; the rest of the contents range broadly in both time and space, testifying that perhaps even then Belgian fantasists were both more aware of and open to global influences, and more informed of their genre’s historical lineage. The preface to this anthology grew into a 1984 book-length study entitled Le fantastique féminin: un art sauvage [The Female Fantastic: A Wild Art], in which Richter considers Shelley, Sand, Lagerlöf, Wharton, Woolf, Dinesen, and her fellow Belgian contemporary, Monique Watteau. She would assert:

“Women move at the heart of magic realism in a more spontaneous and concrete way than men; they do not reflect on it, they reflect it as though it were their natural and daily element… With neither argument nor pride, women enter easily into the supernatural, whose existence seems, a priori, indisputably obvious to them.”

Whether Richter’s argument applies to even most women writers—whether, in fact, female spec fic folk feel liberated or limited by her hypothesis, recognized and redeemed or corseted and categorized—Richter herself certainly seems to enter easily, directly, and swiftly into the supernatural. The title story in her latest collection, L’Ange hurleur [The Screaming Angel], begins, “Clara had a red fox in her breast that would gnaw at her heart. She was born that way, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.”

It was this attempt to isolate, argue, and define a uniquely female fantastic that came in turn to define Richter’s career. Her initial selection of 25 short stories was revisited and expanded to 31 for a new edition in 1995; the contents of both volumes may be consulted here (titles of individual stories appear both in French and their original language). Richter’s story “The Dreaming Plant” appears in the second anthology. Her first book of short stories, written under the name Anne Bodart, was translated by Alice Toklas. Taking its title from another one of her stories, it appeared in 1956 as The Blue Dog.


Some Notes 1 . . .
Some Notes 2 . . .