Malpertuis by Jean Ray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Malpertuis is a brooding work of dark genius. It is a puzzlebox, a mystery . . . of sorts. A slow, grey carnival, solemn, but unholy, slowly unfolds. The setting, the house Malpertuis, is like a decaying body, with the inhabitants its organs, fitfully straining to beat, to move, to live. But the dolor that hangs over the place and its . . . people(?) is loden with malaise and despair that eventually stifles all attempts to escape the somber veil of thwarted history that is wrapped in the tangled skeins of fate to the point where the Sisters themselves are strangled by their own threads.
The pace is deliciously plodding. There is a strong sense of something that once was, but is no longer. A vitality that has been sapped and bled into a dry husk blown about by the slightest breeze.
It is beautiful and ugly at the same time. But there is little to hope for in Malpertuis. The cursed place was condemned to crumble by the ambitions of the sorcerer Cassave, whose misdeeds and perversities I will not recount here. Even the author (who may or may not have identified with the un-named thief/narrator) is loathe to approach Cassave's sins directly. If the reader is looking for direct explanations and so-called "plot," they will be hard pressed to find anything of the sort.
Ray's perambulations serve a higher (lower?) purpose: to bring the reader into the gothic labyrinthine walls of Malpertuis. Reading the book is, like walking a labyrinth, a meditation, a strange shelter from the outside world, an escape into an inner world both fascinating and excruciating.
At first, I thought I might be entering a Gormenghast-like space combined with Knives Out. It didn't take long before I realized that this was not the conceit that Ray was working with. In Malpertuis, we are not bound by contemporary notions of plotting and novel structure. This is a kaleidoscopic work, a shattered mirror of perspectives and prose. It is deeply fascinating, in this regard, with the "story" being revealed from different points of view, along with different attitudes toward the subject matter. I used the word "vortical" in my notes while reading, and I stand by that description. This is a whirlwind into which the reader is not merely drawn, but yanked with great force, to be buffeted about non-stop by strangeness and unwelcome revelations.
Now, I know I use this argument all the time, but one of my methodologies for evaluating a work is "would the Brothers Quay make a movie of this? Could they?" The answer here is a resounding "yes". The book has had a cinematic treatment, which is its own piece of art, but not nearly as sublime as this amazing opus.
Strongly, strongly recommended! I can see myself revisiting Malpertuis many, many times. But then, isn't that just the nature of the place itself? I am happily caught in its labyrinth!
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