Hecate And Her Dogs
by Paul Morand
When I reviewed my last title from Pushkin Press I hinted that I had asked them as publishers what they would recommend I read. One of their recent books from another author unknown to me was the reply and it is a truly interesting book indeed. I described Julien Gracq as a man who seemed to have integrity running through him like a stick of rock. Paul Morand in contrast saw his reputation tarnished by his anti-semitic views and collaboration with the Vichy regime during the second world war. So great was the effect of this that De Gaulle vetoed his election to the Académie française, Morand finally joining 10 years later. This friend of Proust, socialite, diplomat and writer of everything from plays to travel books made something of a return to the French literary scene with this novella which is surely as shocking today as it was in 1954.
A business trip sends our narrator, Spitzgartner, back to Tangier, the city he swore he would never return to when he left it 30 years previously. Then a banker he pounced on the opportunity to work there with 'missionary zeal'.
I was by birth, temperament and education a Hugenot. Propriety, Decorum, Decency, these three Protestant spirits had attended me since I was in my cradle...everything about me was square shaped.Wth methodical precision he is soon set up with the appropriate house, servants, office and staff. All that is wanting is a mistress. This he soon aquires when he meets Clotilde at a reception. Her assertion that "The important thing...is to take life as it comes" acts like the right password to entice Spitzgartner and they begin their sexual relationship. Whilst the book contains sex it would be difficult to describe it as erotica. It isn't that the descriptions are business-like, although there is a cool, detached quality that comes from character and remembrance but in the same way that Spitzgartner has accrued the elements of his lifestyle like someone might furnish a house from a catalogue his affair with Clotilde follows a schedule. At its most consuming when the couple inter themselves indoors to pursue a marathon love-making session it is the effect of it that is reported rather than the sex itself.
In the bitter hour which follows the expenditure of sexual energy I ached all over, in my back, oviously, in the nape of my neck, in my muscles. Every part of me, irritated with so much chafing, swollen, tumescent, became the seat of new pain. Our bed sheets were smudged with the black of our cigarette ash, carmined with lipstick, stained with the yellow of our breakfast eggs, sticky with marmalade.
Spitzgartner begins to sense that something darker is driving Clotilde, some depravity that is only hinted at for several chapters. At first he thinks that it is another man, Ibrahim, whose name she had spoken aloud, a 'devil' who 'melt[s] in the mouth'. But he then discovers that Ibrahim is just a child and Clotilde's depravity is laid bare.
Three personed Hecate, queen of the night ate dogs for her sustenance; like the dread goddess, Clotilde ate puppies, I mean the children she made her fodder.
The intensity of this relationship sends this man of Decency spinning off down a dark alley, desperate to understand his mistress' motivations and convinced that the only way to achieve that is to follow the same path himself. A classic descent into the hell of sexual desire and jealousy. The book is made up of 67 short chapters, some just a few lines, and the title of this post is chapter 37 in its entirety. Morand makes good use of this brevity to deliver information when it's needed but without saying more than he needs to, without making explicit what can be hinted at or left for the reader to decide and discern. It is surprising to read Umberto Pasti describing it as a 'masterpiece of camp' in his afterword but he does so because of the contrast of the 'dusty' language and the disturbing world it describes, what Morand chooses to leave out of his story and the masterful way in which he decides what to put in. I'm not sure I'd describe that as camp but I would certainly describe it as a book whose small size belies its ability to shock and unnerve over 50 years after its initial publication.