THE DEEP ONES: "Twilight" by Michel de Ghelderode
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Discussion begins on March 6, 2019.
First published in Spells (1941).
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I'm not sure what happened yet. Is it all in the head of the narrator? Has some ominous presence entered the world ("the wrath of god")? Is the whole thing a metaphor for wartime Europe with its "slaughterhouse"?
That said, it was my first taste of Ghelderode and somehow I anticipated a more substantive plot. With that atmosphere and sense of foreboding, even a minor key event would have packed a solid punch.
ETA It occurs to me that this story might well come across quite differently in the context of the collection in which it was first published. I gather Ghelderode worked on these shorts and conceived of them as a collective, so "A Twilight" may not be fully appreciated on its own.
Something similar applied to Shirley Jackson's "The Daemon-Lover", though certainly that story stood on its own plot-wise to a greater extent than "A Twilight".
I think it probably does come across differently in the context of the collection as a whole. I was intrigued enough by the miscellany in >1 KentonSem:, and by the chance to read a non-Anglophone author, to buy the Wakefield Press edition of Spells. So far, I've only read the introduction and the first story (which is more substantial, in the sense of having more of a story to tell, but shares A Twilight's sensibility of conveying the narrator's thoughts and impressions and perceptions - in that sense it's very much in the 20th Century Modernist tradition I would guess.
I think it's also part of a tradition I'm not really familiar with - a European conservative, Catholic tradition. The representatives of this tradition are only names to me that I've seen in passing references (Paul Claudel or Charles Péguy in poems by W. H. Auden and Geoffrey Hill for example - although I see from his Wikipedia entry that Péguy was co-opted by the Right (by Fascists in fact) despite being a lifelong Socialist. Knowing this background, I can't help feeling, would bring into focus what is unique about Ghelderode and what he shares with those other writers.
Another influence - I would guess - is Belgium itself (judging by - limited knowledge, once again! - the novel Bruges-la-morte and a 1994 Jonathan Meades documentary (currently up on YouTube) that argued for a surrealist country, and a particularly gloomy Northern Catholicism unrelieved by the sun and colour of southern Europe.
Hope you post again about the other stories in Spells, especially but not exclusively as they might influence "A Twilight"!
I didn't reflect that the "cattle" at the end might be people to be lead to their deaths in WWII, but I like the idea. (Of such symbolism, that is, not the idea of people being led to their deaths!)
I guess the searchlights are "lunar" because their light is ghostly and without warmth, like the Moon's.
This line here: "hypocritically filling the vat of St. Nicholas." I feel that something is there but I'm missing it.
Perhaps because I've been listening to a lot of Lovecraft lately, and also stories that feature bleak apartments and living areas, so the atmosphere definitely felt pronounced, and I wonder if this story is sort of a one man's look at things that most people just don't see, and we and the man in the story aren't sure which part is real and which isn't, or if something is more real than the others.
I also got a kind of labyrinthian, Gormenghast-like feel from the description of the church.
Searchlights often indicate that someone is being sought out. Would it be our narrator? Escaping "cattle"?
Given that it was written during WWII, I assumed the searchlights were looking for enemy aircraft (or friendly ones, I guess, if you were a Belgian without Ghelderode's German sympathies.)
It was late when I read it, and I was more focused on the atmosphere than the literal writing, so I'm not 100% on things I'm describing.
This to me was like reading a poem without action/actors. Lovely change of pace. Some poems consist of what one might find on one's desk, and just listing the items in no particular order can tell a lot about the person who uses that desk. The story is in the objects and how they're arranged. Baseboard simplicity. It elevates the mundane to place them at the forefront of what's often overlooked or taken for granted. This device needs to be done well to be effective, and it has been.
The religious stuff just washed over me, with very little impact. I will take another look...
ie. " … the level area that surrounds the church of St. Nicholas, where a hundred passageways and blind alleys come to discharge themselves as though into a vat … "
This simply made me think of Villette, which I read early last year I think, for the first time. Before that, Belgium always brought to mind Hercule Poirot! This description evoked wine-making not sacred structure.
"The mud came out of the paving stones or else flowed like fetid lava from the hundred passageways, hypocritically filling the vat of St. Nicholas."
This brought to mind Dante's Peak, where the terror is not so much in the eruption as in the path of lava. Hypocritical in that most of the community likely tried to avoid the churchyard in the evening, heading instead to the pubs. In searching for vice, they want to stay clear of images of virtue. Out of sight out of mind, which holds guilt at bay.
My experience is so vastly different than most, that it likely has no place here. When bumping up against a fallen Crucifix propped on a pillar, leaning forward as though in the midst of the Way of the Cross, for me it's a symbol of love, not unlike a young girl's heart-shaped locket. The carrying of the cross is made more meaningful when Christ buckles under its weight and is helped by Simon of Cyrene, not his Disciples. My father worked as a Parish caretaker for for many years, so I would occasionally snooze after school in one of the pews (once done outdoor litter duty), until he finished with every obscure task I was sure no one would ever notice. He'd wake me for hometime, with the late afternoon sun flooding the place through nine stained glass windows on the south and west sides. Six on each side of the church, for the 14 Stations of the Cross, then three on each side further up the outside aisles, of Matthew Mark Luke John etc. The place was anything but scary, even on a dark and stormy night! Perhaps the author was playing with non-Catholic fears, the misunderstanding between Sacramental and talisman, etc. I agree though, a beautiful pure white statue does seem to glow in the dark. Most of ours are painted, but many are at eye level or much higher up. They are not false gods or idols, but merely an image of a 'family member'. They are revered as a depiction of the person who once lived. Trust me, if anyone showed me a picture of my mother and then spat on it, they'd be swallowing my elbow. The same goes for St.Joseph. A rope makes me think of Quasimodo, but I'm sure they were once more prevalent than they are now in belfrys.
I was made more uncomfortable by the damp room and associated damp smells and the mud flowing through the concrete crevices than by anything described inside the Church of St. Nicholas. He was likely chosen because everyone has heard of him, but few know his origin story. He's been around a long time, so it makes sense that to properly depict a very old Sanctuary, Michel would choose a very old saint. All the more fun, if there is an actual church in Belgium on which this scene is based. (ETA: There is one in Brussels AND in Bruges.)
I see beauty in suffering. The Pieta is the most agonizing image I know, but one I relate to the most as a mother. My mother sang in the church choir for 40 years, and processed up and down those aisles countless times in red robes. Good Friday choral music is sensational. That Requiem, although a piece of funeral music, is the most inspiring piece I know. When I miss my parents, it is enough to pause in the church parking lot. I don't even need to go in to light a candle or visit the Tabernacle. The whole place is sacred to me, inside and out. I could look at a photo but that is only one moment. The church holds a lifetime of family memories, each cherished.
We read a story that is very reminiscent of that premise, and I can't recall the author or title. Despite a run through the DEEP ONES honour roll, I still couldn't identify it. It began with the narrator in church, during Mass, and he sees someone walking around and is distracted ....
Anyone know the one I mean?
" … Everywhere human forms arose and went forward, like resurrected beings emerging from the walls and the pavements. These shades, were they singing, and were the organs expelling the opaque air of their lungs? This collective song might have been thought the voice of a crowd processing in the open air around the church; the song had barbaric overtones, though its inspiration seemed to be sacred. This vocal drone that I wasn’t able to identify didn’t fail to comfort me, just as the renewal of light had done, and it was without fear that I undertook to exit the church, climbing back up to the surface of the city without further difficulty.
Night had fallen, completely. Countless streetlights blazed, the façades wore their familiar faces. Living beings moved about in the reconsolidated city. And the precincts of St. Nicholas were swarming as in times of fairs and cavalcades. The church was encircled by herds. The cattle arrived in abundance, crossing the city from one end to the other, through the old passageways, with St. Nicholas as the cauldron that provided the terminus. It was the night of their holocaust. Their bellows fluctuated, melting together and making a deep pedal note that was counterpointed by sharp bleats and joyful barks. And the majestic cohorts were whipped on by mighty curses. I moved forward, squeezed between the oxen, lost in that flood of rumps and muzzles. The world hadn’t come to an end; the world smelled carnally after the deluge. And, under the lunar searchlights, I went with the musical and so fatally beautiful herds, deported to the cruel abattoirs where the beasts are sacrificed, their blood flowing in torrents in order to appease, who knows which, the wrath of the gods or the hunger of men... "
To me, lunar searchlights are just stars that appeared when the clouds parted. Most of this is face value. I will need to revisit the author when there's more time. Although I'd read these comments before reading the story, the second world war did not enter my mind, even knowing the timeline of 1941. Not even with the mention of holocaust. It was pure poetry for me, not commentary.
Neither of those, though I can see why they came to mind. First-person narrator telling of his own experience, and it was in present tense I think. Story opens with him in the church, complaining about the church music and marvelling that none of the congregants seem bothered by it.
Found a St. Nicholas Church in Bruges but it does not match the image I have in my mind. Certainly looks central though, and features a magnificent bell tower.
That recent one was Vernon Lee's "Amour Dure", also not the one I'm thinking of. Driving me mad, I'll keep looking for it.
Would you be thinking of Chambers' "In the Court of the Dragon"?
Hallelujah! (pun intended) Thanks Andreas, and now I will have to read it this weekend, having inadvertently caused elenchus such unrest. I will keep my tangents contained in future. =)
There is also a St.Nick in Brussels, but too small to suit me, although the age is about right...
"The Église St-Nicolas is a delightful little church behind the Bourse in Brussels. It is surrounded by fine old houses that seem to huddle under it. This small church is almost 1,000 years old, but little remains of the original structure. Its 11th-century Romanesque lines are hidden by a 14th-century Gothic facade and the repairs made after the French bombardment of 1695. A cannonball fired by the French in 1695 is still lodged in one of the pillars. The church holds a small painting by Rubens of The Virgin and Child and the Vladimir Icon painted by an artist from Constantinople in 1131."
This came from one of the links above...
"Frequently suffering from poor health, around the age of sixteen, while pursuing his studies at the Institut St.-Louis in Brussels, he fell gravely ill with typhus."
This makes me think of other creative writers who used illness/dreams as a time to craft their best works. If he was in Brussels as a teen, he easily could have based his story on this real landmark.
The wet and watery atmosphere didn't get to me much at first and I found it hard to really appreciate the mood, though probably because the way he describes things as though sort of swimming makes me think of just that, which is pretty awesome to me. I have a love affair with water that I don't indulge near enough.
I feel that there is a perspective shift going on with the narrator, perhaps beyond his control and for whatever reason be it a dream, hallucination, or having the mother of all head colds. When I think of the statue of Christ and his comment that his twisted face appears in torment as though strangled by someone with a garrote, I imagine this fellow looking at what should be a reminder of the suffering endured by Christ to help humanity (pretty secular here so also not 100% on religious things), turns into torment, and instead of enduring the suffering, it's "help me" and the image has gone from sacrifice to murder. It's perhaps the same with God in the sky, being the only one left. On the one hand, it could be seen as God never abandoning anyone, or it could be more sinister in that there is nothing up there (heaven perhaps) BUT God, and he's laughing at you.
I also think of the wet and mucky atmosphere as possibly being related to simple bodies and flesh and the mundane, ugly parts of Earth and being alive. It's a contrast with the fleshy and profane versus the spiritual and sacred and in this narrative, the fleshy lumps of biology are winning.
And I could well be talking out of imagined things here. I really need to quit posting this sort of stuff at horrible hours of the morning.
Creatively, that's when you drop the filters. Like getting really angry often releases the absolute truth despite warnings of reason. Double edged swords.
Having read all the stories in the collection, I’d stand by what I wrote with regard to the overall mood or tone of it. There are not really any connections, other than thematic ones, between the stories. There is actually another short and relatively plotless piece, which again focuses on a church, and could be regarded as a companion piece to “A Twilight”.
The other stories feature what might be considered standard weird “props” - a wax figure, a masked festival, hauntings which seem to be generated by place or weight of history as much as a specific past event. The protagonists are evidently thinly-veiled versions of Ghelderode himself and as such are solitary figures with no apparent family and little in the way of social interaction.
The introduction to my edition explains the psychological issues Ghelderode had at the time of composition. The weird occurrences in the stories, inanimate objects that seem to be alive, hauntings, psychic attacks and astral travel in dreams, could equally be the symptoms of a breakdown. In fact I think, like Maupassant’s "Le Horla" these stories could be read “conventionally” as records of incidents of mental crisis or collapse.
I can’t avoid discussing one particular story. This was in the first (1941) edition but removed for the books second (1947) edition. It was because it’s blatantly anti-Semitic. In “Eliah the Painter” the Ghelderode character’s misanthropy and transferred self-disgust are directed at the shabby title character. Although he’s as vividly drawn as a minor character in Dickens he’s never allowed his human dignity either by the narrator or Ghelderode the writer. Instead he’s subject to some frankly slapstick indignities but they are allowed to escalate to what at one points is almost a lynching.
It is one of the strongest stories in the collection and beneath the surface almost attains degree of self-knowledge which perhaps could have turned it into a dissection of anti-Semitism, instead of an example of it.