When I saw a hardback copy of Max Frisch’s 1982 novel Bluebeard (in English translation by Geoffrey Skeleton) the other week at my favorite used bookstore, I picked it up and started reading. I loved the cover and was attracted by its slimness—under 150 pages and written almost entirely in Beckettian dialog—but more than anything it was the title. Is it creepy to admit that I have a slight obsession with the Bluebeard narrative? Yes? Chalk it up to a formative memory: When I was around five, a cousin, ten years older than I am, read an illustrated book of Charles Perrault fairy tales to me to tuck me in one night. He read read a few before getting to “Bluebeard,” a story both he and I were unfamiliar with. I know he didn’t know the story because I can vividly recall the shock it produced in him as it progressed, the sense of horror. I remember that he kept going through the story even after the awful violent secret at its core was revealed, simply in the hope that some kind of justice might happen. I remember him telling me, “That wasn’t a children’s story.” He’s right, of course—sample a few paragraphs from Andrew Lang’s translation of Perrault’s version:
Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Blue Beard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.
After having somewhat recovered her surprise, she picked up the key, locked the door, and went upstairs into her chamber to recover; but she could not, so much was she frightened. Having observed that the key to the closet was stained with blood, she tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come out; in vain did she wash it, and even rub it with soap and sand. The blood still remained, for the key was magical and she could never make it quite clean; when the blood was gone off from one side, it came again on the other.
It wasn’t so much the story but an older person’s reaction to the story that impacted me so much. I’m not sure if the book included an illustration that pertains to the images above, but I know that I remember an image of the scene, perhaps one I conjured all by myself—of a closet full of corpses.
The Bluebeard story seems to have largely fallen out of the canon of children’s “fairy tales”; it’s one of those stories that I remember trying to bring up to others as a reference point when I was young. The reference never seemed to land. My students have no knowledge of it. And yet it’s still soaked into the culture—the recent film Ex Machina was a take on Bluebeard, and elements of HBO’s Westworld also allude to the tale. Over the years I’ve read plenty of versions of the story: Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, Donald Barthelme’s “Bluebeard,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Bluebeard,” Anne Sexton’s “The Golden Key,” Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” — but I’d never heard of Max Frisch’s until I saw it in the store the other day. I didn’t pick it up then—I was committed to getting and reading Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, and I didn’t want to pile up too many books—but the blue cover wormed around in the back of my brain and I gave in the other day. Plus, dig this author photo:
“Bluebeard” is an extremely short “tale,” as Mr. Frisch calls it, even shorter than “Man in the Holocene.” Like Samuel Beckett, Mr. Frisch seems to be paring away his stock of expressiveness, moving toward a purer means as he nears his mid-70’s. The book is made up in large part of remembered excerpts from the transcript of a fictional murder trial, interspersed with remarks, comments and reflections by the accused man.
He is a 54-year old Zurich physician named Felix Schaad, who was charged with strangling one of his former wives with a necktie. She had been the sixth of his seven wives, and after their divorce, she had become a high-priced call girl whom he would sometimes visit, although apparently not for sexual purposes. At the time of her murder, Schaad had been married for a year to his seventh wife, and it was she who gave him the nickname Bluebeard, as a term of endearment. “He once said that he already had six wives in the cellar,” she said on the witness stand.
The press had siezed on this bit of testimony. The doctor remembers the headlines – “NO ALIBI FOR SCHAAD/BLUEBEARD IN COURT/DOCTOR’S SEVEN MARRIAGES” – and recalls how “I looked it up in the library: the tale of the knight who had killed his seven wives and concealed their corpses in the cellar was written by a Frenchman, Charles Perrault, in the seventeenth century.”