I first came across Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud in the pages of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet #25. The story, "A City of Museums," concerns a group of "rats": homeless youths living secretly in public museums. From the first sentence, I felt I'd stepped into an old-world sort of fiction, a story by Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne: a tale told by gaslight, accompanied by meaningful pauses and gulps of ale. "You wouldn't dream of staying here without having booked a hotel room far in advance, for once in town, trying to find lodgings with the locals is hopeless" (p. 139). This sort of tale generally ends with the teller rubbing his beard (yes, it's a he, and he has a beard), and delivering advice or a piece of rueful philosophy. That doesn't happen in Châteaureynaud's world. Instead, the tale opens, revealing a dizzying gorge with something at the bottom you can't quite make out. There's a death, a chalk outline, a slap, a hint of betrayal, a glimpse of dreams pursued in secret, and then it's over.
The story stayed with me, and when a collection of Châteaureynaud's stories, A Life on Paper, was published by Small Beer Press, I bought it. And I experienced, time after time, the sudden jerk, the sense of being swept up by a rogue wind, which had thrilled me when I read "A City of Museums." In these stories, a father records his daughter's brief life in 93,284 photographs; inscriptions with a terrible meaning appear all over a soldier's body; a collector purchases a mummified girl and dresses it in jeans and a sweater; a decapitated head drinks moonshine and begs for death. Yet the weirdness is never left to stand on its own. The tale always takes one more step, yielding powerful imagery or psychological insight. When the living head drinks, it sits in a bucket and swallows the same moonshine over and over; when the mummy meets her end, her erstwhile owner gets married with the insurance money. The startling moments and unexpected turns packed into these extremely spare stories, many of which are less than five pages long, make for a reading experience that is disorienting in the most rewarding way, subtly creepy, and often breathtaking.
Coming across a collection like this before your friends get to it can make you feel smug. After all, you've just discovered an obscure French writer of incredible fantasy stories! Enjoy this feeling, because it's not likely to last long. The photo on the cover of the book, showing the author's white mustache, might give you pause (okay, he's been around long enough that somebody else might have read him), but the jacket copy is truly deflating: "Welcome to a momentous occasion: the introduction of celebrated French author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud to readers of English."
Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud published his first collection of stories in 1973. He's written eleven novels and over one hundred short stories, and has won several top literary awards, including the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt de la nouvelle. In 2006, he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur. So he's hardly "obscure," even though that's what he called himself in a 1992 interview, at a time when his career was already impressive. Compared to Stephen King, he remarked, he's no more than "an obscure and pretentious pedant."
The comment, published in Jean-Luc Moreau's La Nouvelle Fiction, sheds light on several aspects of Châteaureynaud's fiction. First, there's the reference to Stephen King, evoking the popular chiller, a genre that flickers in stories like "Come Out, Come Out." In this story, the childhood refrain "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" conjures up a singular and slithering horror, a monstrosity obliquely linked to the protagonist's childhood trauma and his sinister habit of spying on his own children. Yet Châteaureynaud is also saying, rather emphatically, that he's not Stephen King. He draws a distinction between popular and literary fantasy, a distinction he's clearly not entirely comfortable with (hence the self-deprecating tone), but seems unable to avoid.
Without getting into a discussion of the literary merits of Stephen King or the exact boundaries of "popular" fiction, I'd argue that the significance of Châteaureynaud's comment lies in the slippery nature of the territory he claims for himself. The stories in A Life on Paper sketch that territory, a place as misty as the alternate reality in the story "Delaunay the Broker." In this story, an antique dealer has the good fortune to work with the mysterious Delaunay, a man with a wonderful knack for laying his hands on rare items. "The objects he brought me seemed to have welled up from nothingness . . . or rather from the very desires of those who'd requested them" (p. 89). In fact, this is exactly what's happening: Delaunay makes trips to an unnamed place in pursuit of these objects of desire, and he can find anything, even the nonexistent snuffbox the dealer dreams up as a test. Like many of the stories in the collection, "Delaunay the Broker" makes use of the power of the unsaid: the precise nature of the other place is never revealed. It's a nebulous region, a source of hybrid objects—products not of the past, but of the imagination.
This is a tempting metaphor for Châteaureynaud's fiction, especially because Delaunay's treasures appear to be antiques. Readers of A Life on Paper will come across plenty of familiar tropes: winged men, uncanny doubles, time travel, the River Styx. To say that these themes are treated in a new way would be misleading: there's no taint here of weirdness for its own sake, of the sterile pursuit of untried ways to put harpies and abominable snowmen together just to make something sort of shiny. Rather, there's a sense of a long career (the stories in the collection were originally published between 1976 and 2005) during which a writer has been consistently unafraid to use anything, new or old, that would serve his purposes. The results are almost uncategorizable, providing both the pleasure of curling up with a ripping good yarn, and the haunting disequilibrium of the best slipstream. As Delaunay says of his secret universe: "All things there are the same, but the same as what, I could not say" (p. 96).
"The Beautiful Coalwoman" is one of the most apparently traditional stories in the collection: its medieval setting, linear structure, wood-witch, and seduced knight evoke the folk retellings that form a core part of the fantasy genre. Villagers warn the knight, Maxence, to avoid a witch described in fairy-tale terms: "A hundred [years old] she may well be, but her hair is dark as the crow's wing, and the snow no whiter than her teeth or skin" (p. 130). Of course the knight doesn't listen. Yet he differs from the archetypal tempted knight in that he is neither innocent nor young: he's a seasoned crusader, saddle-sore and dishonored by crimes against widows and children, who envies those who died in their first battle. Maxence's fear of age, his determination to keep up the wandering life of a knight errant when no one cares for his troubadour's song but "himself and the wind" (p. 125), is a warped reflection of the agelessness of the beautiful coalwoman, who looks like a young girl but can no longer even remember playing with dolls. The critique of the chivalric tradition implied by the character of Maxence, who gets peasants to feed him by spinning them "flowery fables," is reminiscent of Cervantes. But if Maxence is a sort of Quixote, he's a variety that emphasizes pathos rather than satire, Quixote in a minor key. "The Beautiful Coalwoman" thus manages to be completely traditional, completely new, and—more important than either of these—completely devastating. Much of its power derives from Châteaureynaud's emotionally charged and evocative prose, beautifully rendered into English by Edward Gauvin.
This is a good place to mention that A Life on Paper won the Long Form Category of the first ever Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award, presented at Eurocon 2011 in Stockholm. I think we're likely to see more Châteaureynaud in English; but for now, if you're like me, and can't read French without pain, you should go out and read these stories. Read "Écorcheville," in which automated firing squads allow desperate people to kill themselves by putting coins in a slot. Read "Another Story," a tale of a billionaire, a porn star, and a siren, which includes a sly nod to Edgar Allen Poe. Read my personal favorite, "The Peacocks," a searing slice of post-apocalyptic life, like the end of the world miraculously preserved in amber. In every story, wait for the jolt: the moment when the steamboat stops chugging lazily up the river, and takes to the air.
Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in twentieth century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. Her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2012. Her web presence is, for the moment, elusive.