Paris after the First World War, with its colony of soon-to-be-famous expatriates, has not lacked literary attention. William Wiser's "Disappearances," however, gives the evocation of the period a special twist, tying what would otherwise be but a very pretty bouquet with gaudy ribbon: the trial of mass murderer Henri Desire Landru.
The information about Landru, known to Parisians then and to crime buffs since as "The Bluebeard of Gambais," is accurate. But that is beside the point; a crime-documentary novel this is not.
Nonetheless, Landru is the most important figure in the book. Indeed, as one of the characters observes, "We would not be who we are without him." But Landru is not what "Disappearances" is about. Rather, Landru ingeniously serves to connect the many disparate elements in Wiser's tale of Clarence, now in his 70s, remembering his coming of age some 50 years before.
This is deftly done. In 1921, for instance, Landru was the most talked-about man in Paris. He is talked about here "in the rot and flower of the marketplace," as well as at the soirees of Gertrude Stein, the principle settings through which young Clarence moves. Landru is talked about -- or at least mentioned -- whenever a vignette which might otherwise seem out of place is included in the book.
Clarence's education as a journalist (he learns more about writing from the practical maneuverings of phrase and tense by hiss boss, O'Grady, than he does from the cryptic utterances of Gertrude Stein) takes place as he covers the lengthy Landru trial. Many cameo appearances by the late great (Colette, Cocteau and others) occur here.
Landru, too, provides somber counterpoint for the lighthearted womanizing of clarence's father, as well as for the zesty but innocent lust of the narrator himself. Clarence's sorrow at the disappearance of his lover, Fleur, is deepened by the testimony he hears. "In several oblique ways," the aged Clarence recalls of Landru, "the monster's life touched mine." The way in which the monster touched, or perhaps cursed, Clarence's love affair with Fleur was far more direct.
Still, "Disappearances" is not a novel in which plot takes precedence. Those who read the book for plot alone will, in fact, charge disarray. And rightly so -- right in that disarray exists and right because Wiser's septuagenarian Clarence leads us to expect it:
"I have told my story in reverse order, but where is the beginning?" the narrator asks, but "Never mind." Old Clarence admits that "recollections come to me out of sequence (in disorder is what I mean), so I will put them down as they occur." And if this is not sufficient excuse, he reminds us that he was present when Gertrude Stein pronounced that "chronology is meaningless." The strength of "Disappearances" is not in its plot, then, but in its characters.
Those who are famous are convincingly portrayed; indeed, Wiser manages to convince us that Clarence was with Stein when they saw a young boy shooing away pigeons in the park. "Miss Stein repeated what he said in English: 'Pigeons on the grass, alas.' Later she wrote it (without the comma) and it became a phrase almost as famous as 'A rose is a rose.'"
And though Picasso has but a walk-on part, his one word of dialogue -- an obscenity he shouts good-naturedly at his wife -- is just what we would have him say. However brief his appearance,we believe in it.
The least famous, however, are the best drawn, even when they play stock roles (the father as a lovable cad; Fleur, the gypsy waif; O'Grady, a seedy, hard-drinking journalist). They all surpass our expectations.
But most exquisite, perhaps because we encounter them with no preconceptions at all, are the minor characters. Wiser delineates them with great care and even if the plot strains to include them, we are glad they are there. In particular, there is the pope of the underworld, who meets Clarence amid carcasses in a slaughterhouse, and Madame X, an aging brothel keeper whose chapter-long appearance haunts us, touches us and makes us smile. Nowhere is Wiser's genius more in evidence than in the latter, a muted, wistful episode.
But that he can also write starkly, chillingly, is shown in his portrayal of Deibler, Monsieur de Paris, who beheads Landru in full view of the reader.
And that he can deliver a punchline is clear in the joke which brackets the book, for Clarence's reminiscences are nursed to bloom by the scholarship of a Professor Flowers, who seeks to prove that Alice, rather than Gertrude Stein, wrote "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas." When Clarence's memories stray to Landru, the professor directs them back to Stein. But Clarence, like Landru, invokes le mur de la vie privee , a wall of privacy around this corner of his garden.
Pulled at petal by petal, "Diappearances" may sound cluttered, but it is not. It is rich and rewarding, comic and sad, illusive and illuminating. When read a second time, it yields a fragrant potpourri. "Disappearances" will last.