Monday, 18 March 2019

Book review: The Tailors’ Cake, Noel Devaulx (1946)

Every now and again as a reviewer you come across something so strange and sui-generis that you find yourself looking for things to compare it to among the sister arts. In the case of this book, the closest thing I can think of to illustrate the nature of the short stories in this collection, which were written in the late 1930s and early 1940s, are the photographs of Eugene Atget, a Frenchman whose strange portraits of the places he lived in are so strikingly modern to our eyes even though many of them date from the beginning of the last century. There is also in this book an echo of Italo Calvino’s fabulism.

Each of the stories has a strong dramatic core but the structure that supports it in each case is often not very strong. Devaulx tends to peter out at the end in his narrations, and there is a distinct lack of force at the conclusion of each story that limits the reader’s enjoyment.

If there is anything beyond the magical qualities already mentioned that unites all the stories in this book it is the existence, near the surface of an otherwise bourgeois normalcy, of otherworldly forces, forces that embody something outlandish or evil or, in the case of the story that concludes the collection, something angelic. In one story, two people driving in the hills in a car have their way blocked by rocks and are forced to proceed on foot. They enter a township where the people don’t speak the same language as them but where they are shown the kind of hospitality that is due to travellers. In the morning they wake up and walk through the forest a bit further and come across the town they had been heading for in the first place. The strange town they had initially come across recedes from consciousness as though it had been part of a dream.

In another story a travelling salesman driving in the countryside comes across a large manor and he goes off in search of its occupants. There, inside the walls of the building, he sees many people seated silently around a table. Below, through a grating, he can see horrors and the existence of some infernal creature (the story is titled ‘The Vampire’) is hinted at, a being that demands regular sacrifices.

It is a shame that this author is not better-known in the Anglosphere. These are fine stories that have aged well and they give access to ways of thinking that belong to a time now well in the past. The poetic vision that animates the stories in this book is very strong and so the whole can serve to form a kind of link to a simpler time. The melding of magic and realism in the stories is, furthermore, something marvellous, hinting at things that would come alter in the century, and beyond that this book can be seen to form a legitimate part of the canon of speculative fiction. It will please readers of science fiction if they decide to give it a go.

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