One of the most glaring omissions from Breton’s Anthologie de l’ humour noir is of the symbolist writer Leon Bloy. Bloy’s scathing, vitriolic assaults on the bourgeoisie are certainly fine examples of black humour. His highly idiosyncratic, reactionary Catholicism is diametrically opposed to the Surrealist militant left-wing atheism, however the similarly politically inclined decadent writers J.K Huysmans and Villers de L’isle-Adam are both included. Maybe the absence of Bloy has more to do with his personality, he had an enormous talent for making enemies. By the end of his impoverished life he had managed to fall out with everyone in the Parisian literary world, former friends especially, and had earned the nickname The Ungrateful Beggar for his constant written requests for money.
The following story by Leon Bloy was much admired by Borges who positions it as one of the few precedents of Kafka. Translation is my own.
The Captives of Longjumeau
The Longjumeau Post yesterday announced the deplorable end of Mr and Mrs Fourmi. This newspaper, rightly renowned for the quality and abundance of its coverage was lost in conjecture as to the causes of the mysterious despair that precipitated the suicide of a couple previously thought supremely happy.
They had married very young and had not left the city for even a day since their wedding almost twenty years ago.
It is true that they were amply provided for with all that is necessary to enhance a union and they were spared the usual money worries that can poison married life by the foresight of their parents. Yet even with this protection from the vicissitudes of love unknown to ordinary working people, they still were, in the eyes of the world, a miracle of perpetual tenderness.
On a beautiful evening in May, the day after the fall of Mr. Theirs, they arrived by train with their parents to the delightful house which was to accommodate their wedded bliss.
The Longjumellians could see their pure hearts and tenderness; the veterinarian without hesitation compared them to Romeo and Juliette.
That day they radiated health and resembled the pale children of a great Lord.
Mr. Piecu, the town’s notary, had acquired for them a plot of land at the entrance to the city that would have been the envy of the dead. Indeed everyone agreed that the garden was reminiscent of an abandoned cemetery. The effect didn’t displease so nothing was changed and the plants were left to grow at liberty.
To quote Mr. Piecu, they lived in the clouds; seeing almost no one, not though any malice or contempt, but simply because their thoughts were never directed towards others.
Their ecstasy at being together was such that they couldn’t bear to be parted for an hour, even a few minutes were too much. Upon my word though! When reminded of the shortness of life, this extraordinary couple seemed to lose all courage.
One of the greatest men of the Middle Ages, Master John Tauler tells the story of an anchorite who has an unwelcome visitor ask for an object in his cell. The monk dutifully returns to his room to find the object, but upon entering the cell he forgets what it was, because the image of external objects cannot remain in his mind. So he went out and asked the visitor to tell him what he wanted. The visitor repeated his request. The monk returned, but before finding the object he loses his memory. After several such attempts he is forced to tell the unwelcome visitor-Enter and find for yourself what you need, because I cannot keep the image of what you request in my memory long enough to do what you ask of me.
Mr. and Mrs. Fourmi often reminded me of this. They would have willingly given anything we would have asked of them if only they could have remembered it for a single minute.
They were famous for being distracted, said Corbeil. However this caused them no suffering and the ‘disastrous’ resolution which ended their enviable existence remains inexplicable.
A letter in my possession from the unfortunate Fourmi whom I knew before his marriage, has allowed me to reconstitute, by way of deduction, the whole of the lamentable history.
So here is the letter. Perhaps we will see that my friend was neither a doormat, nor a fool.
“…For the tenth or twentieth time, dear friend, we have nothing to say in this matter. Outrageous I know. Regardless of your patience, I suppose that you will be loath to invite us again. The truth is that this last time, as well as all the previous times, my wife and I are without apology. We wrote to you saying that you could count on us and we had absolutely nothing else to do. However, we have missed the train, as always.
“For fifteen years we have completely failed with all trains and public transportation, whatever we do. It is infinitely idiotic, ridiculously awful, but now I am beginning to believe it is an incurable evil. We are the victims of a sort of inevitable irony. There is nothing we can do. For example we spent a sleepless night so as to not miss the eight o’clock train only to find that the train left at three in the morning. Eh! At other times, my dear, the chimney has caught fire at the last moment; I was about to board a departing train when Juliette’s robe got tangled in some bushes; we fell asleep in the waiting room and neither the shouts of the porters or the actual arrival of the train could rouse us in time, etc, etc. The last time, I forgot my wallet.
“For fifteen years we have missed all trains. I’ll repeat it again, this has lasted for fifteen years and I feel that it will be the cause of our death. Because of this, you’re the only person who hasn’t given up on us and yet I have failed to see you; the rest of the world completely ignores us. I am condemned as a monster of selfishness and naturally my poor Juliette is shown the same disapproval. Since our arrival in this accursed place I have missed twelve burials, thirty baptisms, seventy-four burials and a thousand other indispensable appointments. I left my lovely mother starve to death without even one visit during the year she was sick, angrily causing her on the eve of her death to write in a codicil depriving us of three-quarters of our inheritance.
“I will not tell you of every single misadventure occasioned by the incredible circumstance that we have never been able to leave Longjumeau. To sum up, we are prisoners and we now see the time when this state of captivity will cease to bearable to us as we are now deprived of all hope…”
I have emitted the rest where my friend tells of sad events which are too intimate to publish. But I can give my word of honour that he was not a vulgar man, that he deserved the esteem of his wife and that they both deserved better than their stupidly inappropriate ending suggests.
Some details I beg to keep to myself, however these details suggest that the hapless couple were really the victims of a plot by the dark Enemy of man who led them by infernal design to a malevolent corner of Longjumeau, from where nothing could pull them away.
I really believe that they could not possibly escape, as there was and still remains a cordon of carefully selected invisible guards against which no power has been able to prevail.
The definite sign of diabolical influence to me is that the Fourmis were consumed with a passion for travel. These prisoners were by nature essentially migratory.
Before marrying they had an unquenchable thirst to travel the world. When they were engaged they could be seen at Enghien, at Choisy le Roi, at Meudon, at Clamert, at Montretout. That day that had traveled on to Saint Germain.
In Longjumeau they planned to visit the islands of Oceania, such was their mania for bold explorations and adventures upon land and sea.
Their house was crowded with maps, atlases and globes. They even had a map of the Moon specially made by the curator Justus Perthes and published by Gotha.
When they were not indulging their love, they would read all the stories of famous Mariners which exclusively stocked their library and there was not a travel magazine, tour guide or geographic society bulletin to which they did not subscribe. There home was perpetually flooded with train timetables and shipping agents schedules.
They could not believe that they were captives. They were always ready to go, always on the point of leaving, willing to undertake an interminable journey to the most distant, most dangerous and unexplored countries.
I received forty dispatches announcing their imminent departure to Borneo, Tierra Del Fuego, New Zealand or Greenland.
Several times they were hardly a hair’s breath away from effectively escaping. But always they ended up not leaving, they never departed; they were absolutely unable to leave. The very atoms and molecules formed a coalition to hold them back.
One day, however, they thought that they had definitely escaped. Against all expectations they had succeeded in boarding a first class carriage destined for Versailles. All they’re wishes seemed to have been granted. Finally the magic circle was to be broken.
The train started to pull away, but they did not move. Of course they were stuck in the carriage designated to remain at the station. Everything started all over again.
They are now undertaking the one trip which even they couldn’t miss. Alas, intimate knowledge of their character leads me to believe that they trembled fearfully as they prepared for their journey.