Big, ambitious works tend to get all the ink and attention, but smaller books, sometimes consisting of little more than charm and idiosyncrasy, are often the ones we come to love. I opened “The Conductor and Other Tales,” by Jean Ferry, and found myself, to use one of those no-no words among serious reviewers, enchanted. In tone and subject matter, these two dozen very short stories may remind you of Italo Calvino or Steven Millhauser at their most beguiling. Here, for instance, is the beginning of “Kafka, or ‘The Secret Society’ ”:
“Joseph K —, around his twentieth year, learned of the existence of a secret, very secret society. Truth be told, it is unlike any other association of its kind. Some have a very hard time gaining admission. Many who wish ardently to do so will never succeed. Others, however, are members without even knowing it. One is, by the way, never entirely sure whether he is a member; many people believe themselves a part of this secret society when they aren’t at all. Although they have been initiated, they are even less a part of it than many men unaware of its existence. In fact, they were subjected to the trials of a fake initiation, meant to distract those unworthy of actually being initiated. But it is never revealed — not to the most genuine members, not even to those who have reached the highest ranks in the society’s hierarchy — whether their successive initiations are valid or not.”
But what, you may wonder, is the raison d’etre of this mysterious organization? Despite the ever-present danger of traitors, who are everywhere, this secret society’s great purpose is . . . but I’d better not say. The consequences of revealing this information are just too terrible to contemplate. After all, as Edward Gauvin writes in his excellent introduction to Ferry’s work, bureaucracy may be “the basic structure of the cosmos.”
Jean Ferry (1906-1974) was yet another of those wide-ranging men of letters whom France seems to produce so effortlessly. He was an early member of the Surrealists and eventually married André Breton’s ex-girlfriend (who always maintained that she was the catalyst for Breton’s hallucinatory “Mad Love”). Ferry worked in film for many years, script-doctoring Marcel Carné’s “Children of Paradise” and co-authoring, with director Henri-Georges Clouzot, the evocative noir classic “Quai des Orfèvres.” In later years, he became a leading authority on Raymond Roussel, whose multilayered, pun-filled texts (such as “Impressions of Africa”) inspired, in Gauvin’s words, “every major French literary and artistic movement of the twentieth century,” including “Dada, ’Pataphysics, Surrealism, Oulipo, the Nouveau Roman,” as well as such New York School poets as John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch.
Some of Ferry’s little stories are at least faintly Rousselian. “Raymond Roussel in Heaven” closes as its protagonist’s thoughts “proceeded quite naturally from notions (ideas) of nonpareils (peerless things) to notions (knickknacks) of nonpareils (flat, round, bite-sized pieces of chocolate covered with pellets of colored sugar).” Here, Ferry actually spells out the dual implications of “notions” and “nonpareils” — Roussel himself would have simply made sure, without any explanation, that every major word in his texts could be read in multiple ways.
Ferry eventually became a satrap of the College of ’Pataphysics — a group solemnly devoted to silliness in all its forms — and ends his story with a wonderfully pataphysical touch:
“Later, Raymond Roussel really hit it off with God, whom he did a very good impression of for his closest friends, which won him even greater acclaim with the angels.”
Not surprisingly, Ferry’s diction constantly pushes toward the surreal: “He started talking really fast, like an exhausted man unshouldering his bags of cement.” One prose poem opens with the hero “nurturing thoughts of suicide,” which he keeps in an ebony box and feeds on “sorrows, pulled teeth, wounds (to pride, and other things), worries, sexual shortcomings, heartaches, regrets, unshed tears, lack of sleep — they down all these in a single gulp and ask for more.” In another mini-fantasy, Ferry determines that “a man who dreams is not asleep. You can’t do everything at once.” In still another, a heap of trash gains consciousness and turns into a raggedy beggar. Claude Ballaré depicts this creature in one of the many striking collages with which he enhances this handsome paperback.
In my favorite longer piece, “Failure of a Fine Career in Letters,” Ferry lists sentences he loves and for which, if he had the time, he would write entire novels just so he could find a place for them. Several of these bits of dialogue and description are distinctly melodramatic, redolent of pulp fiction from a hundred years ago: One can easily imagine this line in an E. Phillips Oppenheim thriller: “Driver, a thousand francs if we make it to the Gare de Lyon in time for the Marseille express!” Certainly, Gaston Leroux, author of “The Phantom of the Opera” could have scribbled, “The Beast of Gévaudan laughed in the shadows.”
The Wakefield Press specializes, as its Web site says, in “overlooked gems and literary oddities.” “The Conductor and Other Tales” fits both categories.
I’m not sure, however, about Pierre Mac Orlan’s “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer.” Mac Orlan (1882-1970) was a prolific author, noted for his adventure stories, erotica and songs (many of them sung by Juliette Gréco). First published in France in 1920, this freewheeling monograph responded to the era’s fascination with the adventure novel, a fascination due to weariness with analytical fiction and, in Mac Orlan’s formulation, “love stories in the national manner — which is to say, complicated with adultery.”
Mac Orlan’s essay distinguishes between “active adventurers,” who are, in fact, unsocialized ruffians, boldly going where no one has gone before, but generally without much self-awareness, and “passive adventurers,” who are sedentary and understand that real adventure, like sex, happens inside your head. “The great driving force of the passive adventurer is his imagination.” By contrast, the “active adventurer” is too busy doing things to realize that he is having an adventure.
In this regard, translator Napoleon Jeffries quotes an illuminating passage from “Nausea,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s early existentialist novel: “For the most banal event to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.
“But you have to choose: live or tell.”
Sartre then underscores the obvious yet paradoxical corollary: “Nothing happens when you live.”
Let me end by pointing out that Wakefield publishes, along with much else, several other tantalizing “handbooks,” including Balzac’s “Treatise on Elegant Living” and Pierre Louÿs’s exuberantly naughty “Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments.”
Dirda reviews books in The Washington Post every Thursday.
The Conductor and Other Tales
By Jean Ferry
Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin
Wakefield. 141 pp. Paperback, $13.95
A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer
By Pierre Mac Orlan
Translated from the French by Napoleon Jeffries
Wakefield. 73 pp. Paperback, $12.95