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My Fantoms by Théophile Gautier

My Fantoms

by Théophile Gautier

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Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), one of the giants of 19th century French literature, author of novels, short stories, essays, plays and poetry was also a journalist who wrote reviews on literature, theater, dance and art, especially art since in his younger years was himself a painter, a background that served him well as his writing is visually stunning. This fine collection of seven Gautier tales includes Omphale (The Adolescent), Clairmonde (The Priest) and Gérard de Nerval (The Poet); however, for the purpose of this review and in order to share a taste of Gautier, I will focus on my favorite: The Opium Smoker.

The story begins with the narrator paying a call to the home of his friend, one Alphonse Karr, who happens to be smoking a pipe of opium. Thinking nothing of the practice, the narrator accepts the pipe from Karr and, in turn, tales several puffs, inhaling the smoke into his lungs. After his brief relaxed visit with Karr, he goes home for dinner, then to the theater so he can write his obligatory newspaper review and finally returns for a well-deserved sleep.

He has some sleep but the fantastic happens and our narrator relates the details of his vivid dream: He’s back at Karr’s apartment. Karr is on his bed smoking his opium pipe and all is similar to his afternoon visit but for one exception – a decided lack of sunlight. Repeating the sequence of events as if a mirror, the narrator smokes his opium and lies down to feel the effects. We read, “I was half-immersed in a heap of cushions, and lazily stretched back my head to watch the blue smoke-rings rise swirling through the air and dissolve after a moment or two into a diffused haze of cotton-wool. By degrees my gaze shifted upwards to the ebony-black ceiling with its design of golden arabesques. As I stared up at it with that ecstatic intensity that precedes visionary experience, I had the impression that the ceiling was now blue, a deep inky blue, like a strip torn out of the night sky.” This graphic passage exemplifies Gautier’s painterly background.

He notes the ceiling’s change of color to his friend. Karr remarks such is the very nature of a ceiling, so very much like a woman, sheer caprice, wanting to change all the time. The narrator remains only half convinced by this line of reasoning and, with a tincture of unease, continues to closely observe the ceiling. As if in response to his scrutiny, the ceiling turns a deeper blue and stars began to appear, stars having delicate golden threads stretching down, filling the room with light, while, in the meantime, the entire house had become as clear and as transparent as glass.

Slightly unsettled by such mystical transformations, the narrator wonders what his childhood friend, Esquiros the Magician, would have to say about this instant shapeshifting. No sooner does he have this reflection then to his stupefaction Esquiros is standing before him. Wow, now that's magic! He asks Karr how Esquiros entered the room since the door is closed, to which Karr explains magicians always walk through closed doors. The narrator takes such a well formulated statement to be an obvious example of sound logic.

At this point, Esquiros’ eye become enormous, round and glowing and his body dissolves and turns into swirls of sparkling light, winding around the narrator’s body with a progressively tighter grip. In this restricted state, the narrator sees whiffs of rising white smoke taking humanlike form and hears a voice whisper in his ear that they are spirits. He also sees for the first time a beautiful young barefoot girl sitting up in the corner of the ceiling who tells those rising white smoke spirits that she does not want to join them but would rather live for another six months.

The young beauty explains to the narrator that if he goes into town and gives her a kiss on the lips of her dead body she will live for six more months and live for him alone. Upon hearing her promise, without the slightest hesitation, the narrator sets off in a carriage pulled by two magical black horses. During his travels, he relates, “We sped across a dark and dismal plain. There was a low leaded sky and an endless procession of small, spindly trees flying away on both sides of the road in the opposite direction to the coach, for all the world like a routed army of broomsticks. Nothing could have been more sinister than the huge, brooding greyness of that sky, scored by the black silhouettes of those skeletal flying trees.” Sidebar: this entire coach sequence has much in common with a similar opium induced coach ride in Sdegh Hedyat’s The Blind Owl.

The opium dream continues, related in vintage Théophile Gautier vibrant language. And this tale is but one of seven. There is also an informative introduction by Richard Holmes, who did an excellent job translating from the French. Lastly, this New York Review Book edition has a striking detail of Théodore Chassériau’s Two Sisters on the cover. If you are a romantic at heart, this book is for you. ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
This book is a compilation of seven short stories written by Gautier throughout his life- I think that for most of them this is the first English translation from the original French. The common thread running through them is that they deal with the afterlife. The stories have a feeling of being gothic, although not fully so. Also, a soft eroticism runs through them. But most are phantasmagoric and demonic, with the devil playing a key role in many of them.
Curiously, at least to me, was the last story's subject. It is a biography of Gautier's best friend, the French writer Gerard de Nerval. The latter's suicide makes this biography also seem other-natural. ( )
  xieouyang | Feb 25, 2015 |
I’m always interested in reading Gothic/horror/sensational novels of the 18th and 19th c, but oftentimes they disappoint. Too much anti-Catholicism (The Monk, Melmoth the Wanderer), cardboard-thin characters (The Monk, Dracula), paper-thin characters (Otranto), misogyny (Monk) – plenty of reasons to leave one feeling dissatisfied. However, I thoroughly enjoyed NYRB’s new translation of Gautier’s My Fantoms, a collection of supernatural stories.

The stories themselves are entertaining, wildly creative, and – a pleasant surprise – funny. Gautier’s prose is quite vivid – I enjoyed just reading his descriptions of the characters – and when it gets occasionally overheated and over the top, it just matches the events of the plot. A number of the stories feature women coming back from the dead in some way, which helps unite the collection. There’s a very informative intro and postscript which gives a good amount of background – clearly a labor of love for the translator. He changed the titles of the stories to make the collection more cohesive (referring to each of the main characters by occupation) – a bit odd – but the stories, for the most part, are well-chosen.

“The Adolescent” and “The Actor” are gem-like short tales – neatly written, perfectly wrapped up at the end and containing a good dose of comedy. The first is about a young man who finds that the tapestry on his wall comes to life and is, in fact, quite attractive while the second is about an actor who, while playing the devil, unwittingly insults the original.

“The Painter” and “The Opium Smoker” are less structured and considerably more disturbing. In the former, a superstitious artist has a streak of bad luck and begins to see horrific visions – is he crazy or plagued by demons? A lot of creative imagery in this story – the artist’s dream of his death, where his friend takes over his former life, his decapitation by his reflection, which also causes all his ideas to escape, and a disastrous poetry reading, where his nemesis replaces his beautiful phrases with “a pink, frothy substance not unlike cream meringue-filling…he could do nothing but helplessly spit out the vile concoction of mythological fripperies and flowery extract of compliment.” Still, there was some humor to be found – mostly in Gautier’s description of the painter’s anti-social behavior and his idea of himself as A Serious Artist. The latter story is a drug trip with more hallucinogenic imagery.

In “The Priest”, Gautier is at his most melodramatic. A formerly pious young priest, Romuald, is seduced by a beautiful woman – his love brings her back from the dead, but as a vampire. However, although Clarimonde is described by the old abbot as an evil harlot, she is actually loving and faithful – she won’t even go off with other men just for a meal. The abbot, by contrast, is a menacing and obsessive figure. He gets a little too enthusiastic after convincing Romuald that they need to dig up her grave. Even after Romauld destroys her body, Clarimonde is not angry – her final response is one of sadness and regret, which turns out to be true for Romauld as well. He narrates the story as an old man and still admits his unhappiness over her loss. As he notes – “the love of God has not been over much to replace hers.” The story is a sharp contrast to something like The Monk which also has a pious priest seduced by a woman. In that one though, the woman is actually an agent of the devil and leads the priest to start practicing magic and commit rape, incest and murder.

“The Tourist” was, I felt, the weakest of the bunch. A young man of Romantic disposition becomes infatuated with an unknown woman who died in Pompeii and his love brings the city briefly back to life. Some good descriptions and a nicely humorous ending, but it felt a little like the author had gone to Pompeii, thought it was great, and was like “I should write a story about this - Pompeii tourist + supernatural dead-women-coming-to-life”

“The Poet” is Gautier’s memories of his friend Gerard de Nerval, who committed suicide. A well-written portrait of an unconventional artist – might have to come back to that after reading some Nerval. ( )
  DieFledermaus | May 30, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Apparitions and reality, dreams and consciousness, the sacred and the profane, love and longing -- are facets of seven stories by Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) gathered and translated from the French by English scholar Richard Holmes. My Fantoms was first published in 1976 in England and only recently reissued (July 2008) in the United States. The stories in this recent edition are bracketed by an introduction and postscript which locate Gautier in nineteenth-century European literature’s interest in the grotesque, the fantastic, and the artificial.

Readers of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley particularly ‘Mauberley (1920)’ will recall the following lines:

Turned from the “eau-forte
Par Jaquemart”
To the strait head
Of Messalina:

“His true Penelope
Was Flaubert,”
And his tool
The engraver's

[* * *]

Pound, an admirer of Gautier, was familiar with the latter’s Émaux et Camées (1866) and the following quatrains from ‘L’Art’ one of its poems, about the same precision and terseness in poetry found in the work of the engraver and the sculptor:

Tout passe. -- L’art robuste
Seul a l’éternité:
Le buste
Survit la cité

[* * *]

Sculpte, lime, cisèle;
Que ton rêve flottant
Se scelle
Dans le bloc résistant !

The emphasis on precise description is an attribute of both scientific writing and the aesthetic philosophy known as art for art’s sake. Gustave Flaubert and Charles Baudelaire both followed Gautier’s lead in France; Water Peter and John Ruskin in England in the latter half of the 19th and Pound and William Carlos Williams at the beginning of the 20th century.

These stories ironically may be read and interpreted as explorations in precision as well as of the fantastic. What follows is a summary of the first four stories from My Fantoms:

Story 1 (pp. 3—13 -- 12 p.)

In the ‘The Adolescent’ (Omphale – 1834) a young man (the narrator resembles Gautier) stays at his uncle’s Parisian townhouse with its faded gardens surrounding a dilapidated summer cottage. The bed room includes ‘four seasons’ paintings, one of which is of his uncle’s former mistress rendered as Diana the Huntress and her faithful hound, another of Hercules at the foot of the goddess Omphale. While getting into bed, this strapping young man notices the shifting eyes of Omphale looking directly at him, and pondering whether or not he is dreaming within a dream, witnesses ‘Omphale’ emerge from a wall-mounted tapestry mounted to ask the youth, now hidden beneath bed coverings, if he is frightened and explains that her husband had the tapestry made with the Marquise disguised as Omphale. The two converse and cavort in bed the following evening, and the youth’s lethargy during the daytime rouses his uncle’s suspicions and one morning the latter bursts open the summer-house’s door, discovers this escapade, has the tapestry removed and stored, and sends his nephew back to his parents. Years later, following the death of his uncle and the sale of his uncle’s property, he discovers the tapestry in an antique shop and attempts to purchase it only to lose out to another buyer. All for the better our narrator feels, since one should never revisit scenes of one’s first love affair or “return like Ronsard to see the rose you admired the evening before.”

Story 2 (pp. 15 -- 52 -- 38 p.)

‘The Priest’ (La Morte Amoureuse -- 1836) – Romuald serves the Lord during the day, but at night in his dreams is a connoisseur of wine and women, hunting and gambling, to the point that “when I awoke at dawn, it seemed paradoxically that I was going back to sleep, and that I only dreamt that I was a priest.” Having studied during his youth only to pursue the vocation of the priesthood, Romuald had forsworn worldly pleasures, his eyes focused on prayer and service, until by chance he saw a woman whose beauty exceeded portraits of the Madonna by the greatest painters. It is Clarimonde who offers to make Romuald “happier that God himself in Paradise”. The priest’s struggle between sacred and profane continues unabated, creating the sense “of being the same self existing simultaneously in two men who were so different.” Finally, the priest’s abbot, Serapion, unearths Clarimonde’s grave, opens her coffin, and sprinkles holy water on her corpse which action turned her pale body into dust, and in the end, ‘connoisseur’ Romuald, Clarimonde’s lover, parted forever from the person of a poor country priest.

Story 3 (pp. 53 – 90 – 38 p.)

‘The Painter’ (Onuphrius Wphly – 1832) -- Jacintha, who sits for the painter, Onuphrius, cannot understand why the latter is not present at his studio at the agreed to time, on her way home finds Onuphrius strolling “on the sunny side” care free. The painter, looking at the clock in the public square, exclaims, “Some damn imp must be playing games pushing around those clock hands . . . .” And upon returning to his studio finds graffiti-like moustaches painted on his portrait of Jacintha and his tubes of paint hard as lumps of lead. The twenty-something artist with hair parted in the middle “in the gothic style to be found in the angels of Giotto and Cimabue” made austere and brooding works which drew on “the gloomy coloring of Caravaggio or Ribera.” He was also a poet obsessed with reading chivalric romances, the Kabbalah, and tales of Hoffman and Jean-Paul, to the point that some sinister “devil’s tail or claw always forced its way into some part of each composition.” (59) Onuphrius then called to mind all the stories of diabolic possession “from the demented man in the Bible to the nuns of Loudun” pondering why the devil would persecute him and concluded it must be retribution for his recent painting of St. Dunstan pinching the devil’s nose with red-hot tongs. Bizarre accidents continue to haunt Onuphrius: his portrait of Jacintha is irreparably altered by a speck of dust, his horseback ride along a familiar path is thwarted by close calls with hay carts and thorny hedges, clocks chime simultaneously with different times, the full moon appears oval and takes on the “pallid features of his old friend Jean-Gaspard Debureau, the great Pierrot actor of the Parisian Pantomime.” One incoherent dream places him in a casket in which he is buried alive, exhumed later by grave diggers who remind him of the graveyard scene in Hamlet, then tossed on a slab for dissection, his spirit then rising from his corpse to fly as if in a balloon above Paris to an exhibit at the Louvre where among paintings by Delacroix, Ingres and Descamps, Onuphrius sees one of his own, which upon closer examination has be signed by one of his friends. Distraught he leaves for the theater to see the final scenes of a play, his play, with actress Marie Dorval (lover of George Sand and Alfred de Musset) only to hear thunderous applause and the announcement of the playwright’s name which again was not his!

Story 4 ( pp. 91 – 100 – 10 p. )

‘The Opium Smoker’ (La Pipe d’Opium – 1838) provides us with a lucid and colorful description of an opium induced dream. The narrator inhales “several lungfuls” from the smoking apparatus of his friend Alphonse Karr, who had just filled it grain by grain with a yellow-brown paste-like substance. Afterward, the two gentlemen went into the garden to admire flowers and to play with Karr’s dog “whose entire purpose in life is to provide a black foreground of fur against a green background of lawn.” The narrator had expected the opium to induce somnolence but felt instead the jitters that accompany strong black coffee. But soon blue smoke rings rose to an ebony-black ceiling that seemed to change to a deep inky blue “like a strip torn out of the night sky.” Karr, in his own blissful opium dream, thought that his friend had repainted the interior of his own furnishings a bright red Bordeaux Chateau-Laffitte. Next, lamb’s wool like white tufts floated upward and across the blue ceiling which already exhibited stars with “long eyelashes of gold” and our narrator gradually perceives a veiled ‘fantom’ form that assumes the figure of a young girl with feet of alabaster white.

The remaining stories in My Fantoms, ‘The Actor’ (Deux Acteurs pour Un Rale – 1841), ‘The Tourist’ (Arria Marcella: Souvenir de Pompei -- 1852), and ‘The Poet’ (1867), are as unique in tone and form as the others. The last ‘story’ is an account of the life of Gautier’s friend Gerard de Nerval, in whose writing we have a glimpse of the imagination of the poet interweaving fantom with spirit, religion with myth, and ultimately resulting in the unbending finality summarized in Gautier’s quotation of a Lebanese proverb: “The Gate is Shut, the Transaction is Sealed, the Pen is Broken.” ( )
5 vote chuck_ralston | Oct 19, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I would literally read *anything* from the New York Review of Books imprint. I am never disappointed--I consistently find undiscovered gems...and this book is no exception. I agree with the other reviewers that these stories remind me most of Poe, or maybe of Henry James, but with a distinctly French sensibility. These stories have a fragility and a refined, even "feminine" perspective that is refreshing, and makes these stories uniquely enjoyable.
1 vote debweiss | Jul 9, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 159017271X, Paperback)

Romantic provocateur, flamboyant bohemian, precocious novelist, perfect poet—not to mention an inexhaustible journalist, critic, and man-about-town—Théophile Gautier is one of the major figures, and great characters, of French literature.

In My Fantoms Richard Holmes, the celebrated biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, has found a brilliantly effective new way to bring this great bu too-little-known writer into English. My Fantoms assembles seven stories spanning the whole of Gautier’s career into a unified work that captures the essence of his adventurous life and subtle art. From the erotic awakening of “The Adolescent” through “The Poet,” a piercing recollection of the mad genius Gérard de Nerval, the great friend of Gautier’s youth, My Fantoms celebrates the senses and illuminates the strange disguises of the spirit, while taking readers on a tour of modernity at its most mysterious. ”What ever would the Devil find to do in Paris?” Gautier wonders. “He would meet people just as diabolical as he, and find himself taken for some naïve provincial…”

Tapestries, statues, and corpses come to life; young men dream their way into ruin; and Gautier keeps his faith in the power of imagination: “No one is truly dead, until they are no longer loved.”

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:12 -0400)

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