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The Voyage of Julius Pingouin and Other…
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The Voyage of Julius Pingouin and Other Strange Stories

by Frédéric Boutet

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This Gustave Courbet self-portrait reminds me of the artist in Frédéric Boutet's tale.

The Voyage of Julius Pingouin by French author Frédéric Boutet (1874-1941) and translated by Brian Stableford is the second of three books of the writer’s short fiction published by Borgo Press. If you are up for the very strange and peculiar, you will not be disappointed with this collection of fifteen weird, wacky short-stories and a novella in eighty pages featuring a madcap voyage reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The language of these uncanny tales has a touch of the baroque but the storytelling is straightforward and makes for easy, enjoyable reading.

Again, the stories are as weird as weird can be. For example, we encounter a trip to the Paris aquarium made by hypocritical, lustful aristocrats but ultimately a tale told through the eyes of a family of fish; a guitar-playing lover serenades his beloved beneath her ivy covered balcony but ultimately an wayward angel transforms him into the balcony’s ivy; a ventriloquist suckers a wealthy businessman into paying a fortune for his talking dog; a forlorn nephew relates how his fifty-two-year-old aunt ran a race against a locomotive and gained honor for her family but dropped dead after crossing the finish line; a skeleton from the city’s graveyard forces its way into the narrator’s house to partake of the warmth of his fire, the pleasure of a cigar and a lively conversation; a forsaken lover returns from the land of the dead to impose her presence on a young man who forsook romanticism for a moneymaking career.

To provide a sampling of the author’s voice and convey something of the tone of these stories, here are quotes along with my observations on one tale I found particularly striking -- The Young Man with the Vipers. The narrator begins thus: “It happened in the studio of the painter Reginal Givre, who was the victim of it. It wasn’t him who told me about it – the poor fellow can no longer tell anyone about anything, as you’ll understand shortly. I heard the whole story all the same, and I’m revealing it in order that Reginal Givre’s friends will know the reason for the sudden and disadvantageous change that has been recently manifest in his personality and in order that they can intervene if necessary.”

The narrator continues by telling us a few days before the deadline for submission to the Salon young aspiring artists were in a delirium, rapidly putting the finishing brushstrokes on the painting they planned to submit. Reginal Givre was no exception. In his gloomy studio with its sinister and bizarre shadows, its oval faced mirror and huge ebony clock, Reginal Givre sits before his splendid (splendid in his own mind, that is) self-portrait, having downed three glasses of whiskey. Reginal Givre studies his self-portrait: there he is with a golden viper around his temples, another around his neck, and still another around his right arm. He is holding a flower with its stem painted as a serpent and there is also a forked red tongue at its tip. Reginal Givre reflects with satisfaction how his self-portrait is symbolic as he downs yet again another glass of whiskey. Quite fuzzy-brained and with a self-satisfied air he starts talking out loud to himself when he suddenly hears a voice and immediately realizes his oil portrait is addressing him, making pointed comments about his self-satisfied pretensions.

Here is a bit of dialogue betwixt the portrait and Reginal:
-“First of all,” observed the portrait, “it’s not me they’re admiring – it’s you, as a painter and a model. Secondly, your amiable people are just a load of boors that you call your friends, and profligate whores that you make into your mistresses as soon as you can, without any regard for my modesty. If you think I’m made of wood, you’re mistaken . . . “
-“I know that!“ Reginal sniggered. “You’re made of oil pigments.”
-“And you’re made of whatever composes an imbecile!” cried the portrait, angrily. “And I’ve finally had enough. It’s disgusting living here. It’s even more disgusting to think that I’ll soon be going to exhibit myself to the examination of entire populations with the grotesque appearance that you’ve chosen to give me .“
-“What? No art criticism!” Reginal interjected. “Anyway, if I exhibit you, it’s for our glory.”
-“It’s for your glory, you mean – and it’s truly shameful that no one kicks you out of exhibitions, because you paint like a pig. Oh, no! Enough! Don’t drink anymore! I’ve a lot to say this evening, and you’re already drunk . . . .”

And the heated argument continues until it reaches a point where the portrait threatens to keep talking and moving, thus preventing Reginal from applying the needed varnish. Reginal, in turn, threatens his portrait with a trip to the loft to be gnawed by rats. Aghast, the portrait proposes a wager, a role of the dice: if he loses, he will agree to be varnished; if he wins, then Reginal will switch places with him – Reginal becomes the portrait and he becomes the painter. A very drunk Reginal thinks he has nothing to lose and wobbles over to pick up the dice.

I’ll stop here although I suspect a reader can guess the outcome. I am thoroughly captivated by such tales of obsession, glory-seeking and occult transformation triggered by a life immersed in the arts. And Frédéric Boutet has penned this and his other strange stories in the tradition of high literary fiction.
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1 vote GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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