Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that if you saw Hell through a small window, it would be far more horrific than if you were able to see the place in its entirety.
—Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Diaboliques (translated by Raymond N. MacKenzie)
Boundaries are meaningful when exceptions plant flags on faraway summits.
Conventions love to hate those who break them.
The don’t do that, begs for the what if I do do?
Such questioning of authoritative admonishment leads to the fall of Satan in Milton’s Paradise, to the Faustian deal with the devil, to murder mysteries, to class-breakers like Gatsby, principled men like Atticus Finch, alienated teenagers like Caulfield, contrarian patients like McMurphy, and in general any tension that falls under the I won’t take out the trash because you insist that I do so.
Space sagas defy scientific barriers; the absurdity of Kafka defies reason.
Even walls that protect from valid harm—no matter how noble their cause—inevitably invite curiosity: some want to peek over, some want to vault over. Imagination allows us to do so multiple times, in multiple ways, and still wake up in our own beds, warm. Imagination leads to written fiction, and fiction thrives on probing the transgression: either how it was done or why.
This is why there exist whole literary movements built on investigations of taboos. The merits of reading such fantasies are myriad, from gaining historical and cultural context, to understanding existential issues, to merely expanding your perception of the human condition. For those of us who care about the storytelling technique, such texts exhibit a number of methods for addressing tender topics, eliciting either disgust or empathy, and skirting the sensitivities associated with the “fallen”.
Also fiction can be read because: fun, exposure, and yes, curiosity.
In the next few weeks I’ll be looking at the fantastic grotesque, especially in the tradition of francophone writers (who like their decadent ways) and in the shorter works of Kafka (who likes his psychopathological explorations).
Let’s start all the way back with Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly and his Diaboliques—a collection of six “diabolical” tales from 1874. Thematically, they all contain a she-devil, a he-dandy, and a strong moral message delivered amidst shockingly gruesome circumstances. Barbey saw such stories as being in keeping with his Catholic faith. Indeed, according to him, Catholicism was unshockable and ultimately accepting of audacious art from which it could draw lessons. (Towards the end of his life, he passed this opinion to his protégé Léon Bloy, whose collection of short stories, Trantula’s Parlour, I discussed in the context of quirk words.)
But I won’t divulged plot points, what interests me most are Barbey’s frames.
If I’m recalling a childhood memory, in the midst of which I recount a fairytale my dad used to tell me, I’m telling you a story within a story. My childhood memory is framing the fairytale. The framed narrative can play different roles in relation to the main narrative: it can provide background and mood (was it a dark Grimm’s original, or a light happily-ever-after?), it can strengthen the narrative message by duplication (my childhood ended the same way as the fairytale), it can contain the overall message (my childhood ended well because the fairytale taught me the moral), and so on.
Framed stories often come as extended quotes of someone’s speech. Unlike pace-quickening dialogue, quotes can be a drag—at least until the action gets going within them. Essentially, this requires writing excellent storytelling hooks multiple times (I have to interest you in my memory and in the fairytale).
Framed stories can be disappointing if their relevance isn’t immediate. For example, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the first person narrator introduces himself, then introduces Marlow, who goes on to tell us his tale about the Heart of Darkness. I kept expecting to hear how Marlow’s story was relevant to the narrator’s frame. The distraction ruined the tale for me (one reason why cracking open a classical tale without appropriate context can be ruinous).
Framed stories can also be nested. Matryoshka dolls, telescoping, quotes of quotes of quotes. How far will the reader sensibly follow you? And why would you need such monstrous constructions anyway? Ovid’s Metamorphosis likes telling you myth within myth; I found I often forgot who had been talking but that it didn’t affect my enjoyment. More prosaically, immersive flashback scenes in any book are framed mini-stories which can contain micro-stories of their own, and they’re an essential tool.
But what about framed stories as an actual storytelling strategy?
That’s Barbey’s province, and he’ll go five deep if necessary. In the second Diabolique, the narrator tells us a story recounted by a Don Juan who is telling the narrator his mistress’s story who is telling the Don Juan her Confessor’s story who is telling the mistress a story the mistress’s child had told him.
No need to read that sentence again. It’s what you think it is.
From an analytical viewpoint concentric story-circles make for curious reading: the beginning of each paragraph has a number of alternating single and double quotes, the characters are sometimes forced to quote themselves within a framed frame, and any interjections have to be padded so the reader understands which (higher-level) frame is interjecting.
No matter how much Barbey maintains the open-mindedness of Catholicism, he allows himself no cheap thrill, but rather constructs a sophisticated, white-gloved presentation of hell’s disciples. He insulates the readers from each abhorrent moral crime, so that they may mull over the disgusting consequences at their leisure. (If you sense a dandy approach here, you’re not mistaken.)
Insulation is achieved by distancing.
First, the plots of the stories are pushed into the past. Barbey relies heavily on historical facts and accurate depictions of society, dress, culture, and conventions to set the scene. Across this backdrop, he then draws frame within narratorial frame—each bringing with it the niggling question of veracity—until the ultimately nested narrator reveals the punchline. The story doesn’t end there, but instead goes on massaging the point by displaying the dismay of those present in the top frame or by deducing the moral. Only then is the insulation complete.
If you accept the frames as an artificial tactic, the situation is almost whimsical, a paper theatre on the stage of a paper theatre on the stage of another.
If you accept the frames as immersion then they’re iconic of Barbey’s message: we’re led through the grand portcullis of the castle, through the great inner gate, through the large hall door, through the side door leading down, through the narrow dungeon entrance, where we’re allowed to peer through a slit—at Sin itself.
A sinister journey for a glimpse of the forbidden.
With good reason: any less sinister the journey, any larger the slit, and we might not be as affected by what we see. We might even be tempted.
(Seen from afar, all at once, Dante’s Hell is an ice cream cone.)
This post is part of a series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings