As 2016, this year of upheavals, draws to a close, “Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth,/ Obsessing our private lives” (W.H. Auden). For many people, even this season of Christmas and New Year’s lacks some of its usual joy and sparkle. What better time, then, for a collection titled “Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned”?
First published during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these “Enchanted Stories From the French Decadent Tradition” — note that word “decadent” — aren’t intended for children. As editors Gretchen Schultz and Lewis Seifert point out in this new volume, fairy tales have always reveled in irony, “denouements that strayed from traditional morality,” and ambiguous messages. After all, many of our most beloved nursery favorites — “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” — were initially written by 18th-century French sophisticates for other 18th-century French sophisticates.
A century later, Parisian aesthetes and decadents began to repurpose these same contes de fées to comment on society, politics and sexual conventions. In Catulle Mendès’s ‘Isolina/Isolin” the bad-tempered fairy Urganda, who had not been invited to the christening of Princess Isolina, pronounces this terrible curse: “As soon as she marries, on her wedding night, she will cease to be a girl and turn into a boy.” While Urganda’s curse cannot be undone, her sister Urgèle shrewdly undercuts it: On the wedding night, the princess does become a boy, but her handsome new husband is simultaneously transformed into a blushing bride. Renée Vivien’s “Prince Charming” takes this sexual inversion one step further: Two mutually infatuated young people wed, and the prince turns out to be a woman in disguise. Nonetheless, the couple live happily ever after. Even more daringly, Claude Cahun’s “Cinderella, the Humble and Haughty Child” ventures into S&M, as we learn of the prince’s shoe fetish and Cinderella’s masochistic desire for humiliation.
It’s clear, then, that the postmodernist fairy tale as practiced by Donald Barthleme, Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee or A.S. Byatt has actually been around since before modernism itself. In these fin-de-siècle pages, Sleeping Beauty much prefers dreaming to real life; little Liette, retelling the gospel account of the Nativity, includes Bluebeard’s wife and Puss-in-Boots’s Marquis of Carabas among the adoring angels, Wise Men and shepherds; and in the collection’s title story, “Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned,” Willy — the great writer Colette’s first husband — reveals that Red Riding Hood actually incited the starving wolf to gobble up her grandmother and then turned the poor fellow into the police.
A similar topsy-turviness characterizes Pierre Veber’s “The Last Fairy,” in which the protagonist and a genie visit Paris, planning to awe its citizens with their magical powers, only to discover a city of wonders much greater than their own. “Lights go on by themselves, people fly in clouds, and carts operate without horses.” As the genie says: “The people of this country live in a state of enchantment. We wouldn’t be able to surprise them.” The two friends return, brokenhearted, to the dark, impenetrable forests of Thuringia.
Several of these stories are even more deeply elegiac, stressing that industrial civilization has killed off the fairies or at least humankind’s belief in them. In Alphonse Daudet’s “The Fairies of France,” the aged Melusina testifies that she and her sisters were forced to take jobs in factories or sell apples on the street until, one by one, they all died in the poorhouse. Still, aren’t laments over the disenchantment of the world implicit pleas for re-enchantment, if only through the magic of poetry and art? When — in Mendès’s “The Lucky Find” — Love and Beauty visit a lost-and-found office in search of “the respect and adoration that the human race once vowed to us,” the pair finally settle instead for illusions, which at least “make us believe all the lies, make us see stars when the sky is dark and roses in the middle of winter.”
In these deliberately tarnished tales, such wondrousness mainly shines through in their often beautiful imagery. One princess’s father “ordered that she be put in the highest room of a very tall tower, a tower so tall it rose beyond the clouds, so tall the swifts did not nest in it because their wings tired before they could reach the top.” In another story, we learn about “strange mountain plants whose names were known only to shepherds.” And in still another, a king’s daughter is said to be “as blond as lily pollen and the slightly gilded silver of ancient altar vases.”
My two favorite stories in “Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned” are both by the urbane and skeptical Anatole France. In “The Seven Wives of Bluebeard,” France wittily exonerates that infamous serial killer, explaining that recently discovered documents go far to proving that a truly kindhearted man was regularly betrayed by faithless women and eventually murdered by one of them. Even better is “The Story of the Duchess of Cicogne and of Monsieur de Boulingrin,” which retells “Sleeping Beauty” from a rationalist perspective. Fearing for their newborn daughter, the royal parents summon the kingdom’s most learned advisers. First, the queen asks her doctor, “Monsieur Gerberoy, can one really sleep for a hundred years?” Then the king probes the science behind the curse, “Monsieur Gastinel, can the point of a spindle cause a wound that will send one to sleep for a hundred years?” Monsieur Gastinel waffles in his reply: “Sire, it is not probable, but in the domain of pathology, we can never say with certainty, ‘This will or will not happen.’ ”
In the domain of decadent French fairy tales, however, we can safely say that just about anything can happen — and usually does.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday in Style.
Edited and translated by Gretchen Schultz and Lewis Seifert
Princeton. 255 pp. $22.95