Max Frisch’s Bluebeard (Book acquired, 3 March 2018)

img_9131

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:

Instead of the blurb, here are a few paragraphs from Richard Gilman’s contemporary review in The New York Times:

“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.”

Advertisements

“Bluebeard” — Edna St. Vincent Millay

bluebeard

“Bluebeard” — Edna St. Vincent Millay

“Bluebeard” by Edna St. Vincent Millay—

This door you might not open, and you did;
So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed… Here is no treasure hid,
No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring
The sought-for truth, no heads of women slain
For greed like yours, no writhings of distress,
But only what you see… Look yet again—
An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.
Yet this alone out of my life I kept
Unto myself, lest any know me quite;
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room to-night
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I seek another place.

Read “55 Miles to the Gas Pump,” a Lovely Horrific Short Story by Annie Proulx

“55 Miles to the Gas Pump” is a very short story by Annie Proulx.

Rancher Croom in handmade boots and filthy hat, that walleyed cattleman, stray hairs like the curling fiddle string ends, that warm-handed, quick-foot dancer on splintery boards or down the cellar stairs to a rack of bottles of his own strange beer, yeasty, cloudy, bursting out in garlands of foam, Rancher Croom at night galloping drunk over the dark plain, turning off at a place he knows to arrive at a canyon brink where he dismounts and looks down on tumbled rock, waits, then steps out, parting the air with his last roar, sleeves surging up, windmill arms, jeans riding over boot tops, but before he hits he rises again to the top of the cliff like a cork in a bucket of milk.

Mrs. Croom on the roof with a saw cutting a hole into the attic where she has not been for twelve years thanks to old Croom’s padlocks and warnings, whets to her desire, and the sweat flies as she exchanges the saw for a chisel and hammer until a ragged slab peak is free and she can see inside: just as she thought: the corpses of Mr. Croom’s paramours – she recognizes them from their photographs in the paper: MISSING WOMAN – some desiccated as jerky and much the same color, some moldy from lying beneath roof leaks, and, all of them used hard, covered with tarry handprints, the marks of boot heels, some bright blue with remnants of paint used on the shutters years ago, one wrapped in newspaper nipple to knee.

When you live a long way out you make your own fun.

Bluebeard’s Castle — Béla Bartók (Full Performance)

Charlie Chaplin’s Overlooked Masterpiece, Monsieur Verdoux

Charlie Chaplin’s 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux is rarely mentioned alongside his early classics like The Great Dictator, Modern Times, or City Lights, which is a shame, because it’s easily one of his funniest. Perhaps that’s because it’s one of his rare speaking roles, although that’s hard to believe—Chaplin is just as funny when he opens his mouth as when he’s cutting physical capers. I suspect that the movie is just too dark for some folks. It is, after all, a black comic take on the Bluebeard story, and I guess the story of a man who marries and then murders his wives as a form of careerism might not hold a general appeal. In any case, it’s hilarious. Here’s a compilation of clips that show off Verdoux’s seduction technique; these are some of the funnier moments in the film—

Monsieur Verdoux is hardly a romantic comedy though. Observed closely, it works as an allegorical commentary on the moral response to the horrors of WWII. These observations are made plain at the end of the film, as Verdoux, put on trial, must first account for his crimes—and then pay for them. Here is the extraordinary final scene of the movie, which contains spoilers, although I believe that one can still watch the ending out of context and later enjoy the film—

We see here the major hallmarks of Chaplin’s greatest films: not just comedy, but also genuine pathos and social commentary, all delivered with acerbic bite that nevertheless reveals a real love for humanity. Highly recommended.

“55 Miles to the Gas Pump” — Annie Proulx

“55 Miles to the Gas Pump” is a very short story by Annie Proulx.

Rancher Croom in handmade boots and filthy hat, that walleyed cattleman, stray hairs like the curling fiddle string ends, that warm-handed, quick-foot dancer on splintery boards or down the cellar stairs to a rack of bottles of his own strange beer, yeasty, cloudy, bursting out in garlands of foam, Rancher Coom at night galloping drunk over the dark plain, turning off at a place he knows to arrive at a canyon brink where he dismounts and looks down on tumbled rock, waits, then steps out, parting the air with his last roar, sleeves surging up, windmill arms, jeans riding over boot tops, but before he hits he rises again to the top of the cliff like a cork in a bucket of milk.

Mrs. Croom on the roof with a saw cutting a hole into the attic where she has not been for twelve years thanks to old Croom’s padlocks and warnings, whets to her desire, and the sweat flies as she exchanges the saw for a chisel and hammer until a ragged slab peak is free and she can see inside: just as she thought: the corpses of Mr. Croom’s paramours – she recognizes them from their photographs in the paper: MISSING WOMAN – some desiccated as jerky and much the same color, some moldy from lying beneath roof leaks, and, all of them used hard, covered with tarry handprints, the marks of boot heels, some bright blue with remnants of paint used on the shutters years ago, one wrapped in newspaper nipple to knee.

When you live a long way out you make your own fun.