Thursday, March 08, 2018

Continuing with Fantômas

Back in 2011, I posted some notes about three of the first four Fantômas novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, as they exist in English translation, in acknowledgement of the character's first centenary. Regrettably, I didn't take notes on the third Fantômas novel, MESSENGERS OF EVIL, as I was reading it - and it turned out to be my favorite of those four. Also now available in translation as THE CORPSE THAT WALKS, it's the one in which Fantômas commits a series of hideous crimes attributed to a dead man by using the peeled skin from a dead man's hands as a pair of form-fitting gloves!

Since that time, I've gone on to read the fifth novel in the series, A ROYAL PRISONER, and more recently the sixth and seventh, THE LONG ARM OF FANTOMAS (UK title: A LIMB OF SATAN) and  SLIPPERY AS SIN - which, for many years, was the last of the Souvestre/Allain translations, though twenty-five further titles remained to be translated.

Thankfully, in recent years, a couple of fresh translations have welcomely emerged, published by Black Coat Press: THE DAUGHTER OF FANTOMAS (translated by Mark B. Steele, which directly follows SLIPPERY AS SIN and introduces the major character of Héléne, who is Fantômas'... well, you get the idea) and THE DEATH OF FANTOMAS (translated by Sheryl Curtis, this is a conflation of the last two Souvestre-Allain titles). This abrupt leap to the end of the saga offers little hope that the remaining twenty-two volumes will ever be made available in the English language.  

There was still more after the supposed end of that original 1911-13 saga. A decade or so following the premature death of his co-author (and the series' principal creator) Pierre Souvestre in 1914, Marcel Allain revived the series for eleven further books of his own. Five of these made it into English translation between 1925-28 under the titles THE LORD OF TERROR, JUVE IN THE DOCK, FANTOMAS CAPTURED, THE REVENGE OF FANTOMAS and BULLDOG AND RATS. Long the exclusive province of antique book collectors with deep pockets, these are now available as paperback reprints. I've not read them, but these books tend to be described as disappointments that reveal M. Souvestre to have been the real motivating genius behind the character.

Italian edition cover.
A ROYAL PRISONER (UN ROI PRISONNIER DE FANTOMAS, "A Royal Prisoner of Fantomas") is the great disappointment of the translations. The original French edition, Le Roi Prisonnier de Fantômas, ran 318 densely-packed pages of text, while the English translation from Brentano's runs 277 pages of larger-than-usual type with an uncommon lot of air between the lines. One need only look at the pages to feel short-changed, but to actually compare the English translation to the French original page by page is to see entire paragraphs scattered to the winds. As presented, the storyline feels sparse and incomplete, a reckless job of paraphrasing with little of the picaresque flavor of the earlier books. There is no shortage of new editions of these books, and at least one such reprint series boasts of correcting and modernizing some of their wording, but what this book seriously needs is a new, more thorough, translation. Reading it angered me so much that I didn't return to reading Fantômas for another few years.

Italian edition cover.
Fortunately, THE LONG ARM OF FANTOMAS (LE POLICIER APACHE, "The Crooked Cop") is a conscientious return to form. While there remains a notable discrepancy between the two lengths - 384 pages in French, about 320 in English - neither the story nor its storytelling feel pared down in conversion. Alternately amusing, exciting and appalling, it picks up the ongoing scenario with the hero Inspector Juve in prison, accused of being Fantômas, while his indicted partner, the journalist Jérome Fandor, eludes the authorities by infiltrating the criminal underground and tracing the felonious activities of Père Moche and his gang to the Genius of Crime. Just when things are not looking so good for Fandor, who should announce his arrival in Paris to clean up this unholy mess but the famous American detective Tom Bob (you heard right). Juve is off-stage for the bulk of this novel, which frees the authors considerably to get at the real meat of these adventures, which is the murkier cat-and-mouse game being played out by the resourceful (but still learning) Fandor and the perversely honorable Fantômas himself, who is so much more advanced than his adversary and seems to be grooming him toward a greater destiny. Though a direct continuation of where things were left off in A ROYAL PRISONER, LONG ARM also reactivates narrative threads dropped at the end of A NEST OF SPIES, reintroducing the tragic character of Fandor's star-crossed love interest Elisabeth Dollon (introduced in MESSENGER OF EVIL). The novel is also a feast of malefic highlights, starting out with a brutal hammer murder and continuing with police shootings, the discovery of dead bodies buried in the walls and under the floorboards of various French residences, a masquerade ball at which several different Fantômases appear, an elaborate blackmail scheme, a gruesome hiding place for a treasure in gold, and a lake set afire.    

Italian edition cover.
I was so pleased with this one that I proceeded directly to the next Fantomas translation, SLIPPERY AS SIN (LE PENDU DE LONDRES, "The Hanged Man of London") - which, to my surprise, represents a curious rebooting of sorts, though the story itself remains continuous. First of all, there is a two year gap between this and the previous novel, and much of the action takes place in and around London. To explain in too great a detail would spoil some essential surprises, so just let me say that, while THE LONG ARM OF FANTOMAS concludes most satisfactorily with an important character exposed as one of Fantomas' many artful disguises, SLIPPERY AS SIN continues at a distance with that disguise still in active operation - as if the previous case had never concluded, Fantomas continues to wear this highly public disguise after two years, in plain sight! Furthermore, we learn that, while Fantomas himself has taken a two year vacation from active criminal duty, he has also taken up a third identity as a doctor and dentist who has tempted the ire of Fantomas' vindictive mistress Lady Beltham (who has her own alternate identities) by taking another lover. In a funny way, SLIPPERY AS SIN conjures less the image of a Genius of Crime or Lord of Terror than a man who really thrives on overcomplicating his life!

Alas, for a reader familiar with Souvestre/Allain's dense, paid by-the-word prose style, it is all too easily seen that this English translation is less a faithful translation than another paraphrasing of the original text. There are a great many paragraphs here consisting of single, declarative sentences - and these men never wrote a single sentence paragraph unless it was to exclaim "Standing before them was none other than... Fantomas!" I checked the book against a copy of the original French edition and found the translation ran 133 pages shorter and the text was also much airier on the page, so it might well represent a shortage of 150 pages or more. While not as insultingly severe a condensation as A ROYAL PRISONER, the translated prose feels less than genuine, and sometimes glosses over incidents that have happened in the interim; one can't help imagining that these asides were originally colorfully described and presented with characterization and dialogue.

Ultimately, SLIPPERY AS SIN is a moderate disappointment, more focused on private deceptions and intimate betrayals than public crimes, but there are enough gaps in the tale it recreates that one cannot help but wonder how much of its disappointment is due to the original or a too hasty transliteration. It's a peculiar criticism to address to a translation of a book that was, itself, generated inside a single month. 

I will continue with my notes on the two Black Coat Press volumes when the time comes.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.