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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A gothic pleasure from the "Belgian Poe"., 15 May 2001
This review is from: Malpertuis (Atlas Anti-classics) (Paperback)
Jean Ray's "Malpertuis" was his only novel-length work and the product of many years of revision. Though the novel was clearly an important milestone for Ray, it is also surprisingly lucid and well-paced, not at all overworked. The novel's multiple narratives and "Chinese box" structure are intricate but not distractingly complex. The prose is evocative yet spare, with a minimum of purple passages--hardly enough, in fact, to qualify the story as part of the Gothic tradition. Much of the time Ray spent on the book was clearly dedicated to a careful process of polishing.

Any attempt at summarizing the scope of the novel reveals just how necessary it was for the author to hone a fluid style for this story. The novel's central conceit involves several related manuscripts which are organized for us by one of Jean Ray's alter ego rogues, a well-educated thief who stole the manuscripts from a monastery. With his preface, epilogue and occasional interjections, the thief acts as our textual guide, arranging the narratives into a comprehensible structure. Ostensibly, his only goal is to organize the text for greatest clarity, but in fact his true goal, or Ray's true goal--perhaps there is no difference--is to position the story's pieces to evoke the maximum possible dread.

The oldest of the manuscripts presents a short, cryptic tale of a sea voyage and a foreboding vision of the numinous, planting a massive supernatural mystery at the heart of the novel. However, the central narrative takes place several decades later and relates the adventures of young Jean-Jacques Grandsire. The additional narratives serve essentially to draw links between these two stories.

At the beginning of his memoir, Jean-Jacques tells of being summoned, along with a motley company of acquaintances and family, to the death bed of his mysterious Uncle Cassave. Cassave soon dies, leaving his considerable fortune to the fifteen people he has summoned. However, there are stiff terms attached to his gift: The inheritors must all live for the rest of their lives at Malpertuis, Cassave's mansion. Jean-Jacques soon realizes there is something amiss at Malpertuis (a name meaning either "house of evil" or "house of cunning"). There is something odd in the attic, in the labyrinthine hallways, and in the surrounding wood. There is something even stranger about Malpertuis' other inhabitants: the mad hermit Lampernisse who haunts the mansion's dark corridors, the hulking mute Tchiek, and the diabolic taxidermist Philarete, to name only a few. When the secret of Malpertuis is finally brought to light among this bizarre cast of characters, the mansion erupts into a seething cauldron of terror, and both heaven and earth seem to collapse around Jean-Jacques.

Again, Ray's novel displays the signs of a carefully trimmed and focused work. There is, however, one glaring instance where the trimming stopped short - that being a rather obvious and mundane werewolf subplot near the end of the novel, which seems intended entirely to deliver a dramatic interlude amid the denouement's sheaves of exposition. The subplot is not woven into the whole cloth of the story and comes off looking like little more than a clumsy patch. Still, this small indulgence is easily forgiven in the aftermath of so horrible, so terrifying, so fine a fantasy.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Dec 2009 22:40:02 GMT
This review has been cut and pasted from a website.

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Feb 2011 06:01:22 GMT
A. C. Walter says:
Actually, I wrote the website review. It's my original material, thanks.

Posted on 13 Dec 2012 14:25:21 GMT
Malpertuis is not his only novel-length work, but the only novel-length work that was published during his lifetime. Several unpublished novels were discovered after his death, unfortunately these have not been translated into English.

Great review, by the way!
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