Who Is Fantômas?

"Crime After Crime", by Geoffrey O'Brien. From the Village Voice, August 18, 1986: review of Fantômas, by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, New York: William Morrow, 1986

Here is a book as phantasmal as its unseen hero: a legendary crime novel (first of a 32-volume series) unavailable in English for many decades, source of an equally legendary and equally inaccessible silent movie serial by Louis Feuillade. If the name Fantômas has lingered on in the English-speaking world, it's due largely to the praise lavished by the likes of Apollinaire ("from the imaginative of the richest works that exist"), Cendrars ("the modern Aeneid"), and Cocteau ("absurd and magnificent lyricism"), who elevated a crudely written, wildly plotted, and interminable roman feuilleton into a harbinger of Surrealism. Allain and Souvestre's creation has imposed itself through sheer aura. Just as their malevolent hero—a genius of crime, waging war on bourgeois society—terrifies most surely by his invisibility, the Fantômas novels are more powerful imagined than read. The text, banal in itself, suggests a thousand potential scenarios of infinite fascination. Once you grasp the concept you can conjure up unlimited Fantômas adventures. All you need is a stock company of puppetlike characters (the Baroness, The Heiress, The Diplomat, The Rubber Merchant), a box of props (masks, daggers, cryptograms, gems, maps) and a set of early-modern backdrops (a railroad station, a suburban street, a proletarian tavern, the foredeck of a luxury liner). Slot them together and you can extract an unmistakable poetry of mechanization.

quoteNo better example could be found of genre fiction's tendency to make the individual work virtually irrelevant. Fantômas stays dead on the page unless animated by a particular set of expectations; the reader may have the illusion of submitting to an experience, but really he imparts imaginative energy to an otherwise inert set of signals. Banality is essential, a banality underscored by the wooden rhythms of of the anonymous 1915 translation. Instead of witnessing real actions, we seem to glide through an eerily silent gallery of melodramatic waxworks: "He clenched his fists and an evil smile curled his lips as he repeated, like a threat, the name of that terrible and most mysterious criminal, of whose hellish influence he seemed to be made conscious yet once again." As John Ashbery points out in his affectionate and gently demystifying introduction, Allain and Souvestre were far from the only—and far from the ablest—practicioners in this French mode of sharply etched unreality. They form part of a spectrum embracing Eugene Sue's immense fantasias of crime and retribution (The Mysteries Of Paris, The Wandering Jew), the pioneering detective novels of Emile Gaboriau (File No. 113) and Gaston Leroux (The Mystery Of The Yellow Room), and above all Maurice Leblanc's multi-volumed chronicles of the gentlemanly master-thief Arsene Lupin.

If these books had a common trait, it was the supremacy of the episode over the whole. Where British crime writers like Freeman and Crofts sought a purposely dull surface in order to achieve credibility, their French counterparts valued a flow of lurid tableaux united by the flimsiest logic. A typical Crofts novel like The Cask consists of one violent incident and several hundred pages of laborious deduction therefrom; Fantômas offers a steady supply of disturbing images. An old woman is hacked to death in a sedate manor house, a corpse tumbles from a suitcase, a sleeping passenger is hurled from an express train. Immediate gratification supplants the delayed pleasures of scientific detection. We approach as nearly as possible a utopia of uninterrupted sensationalism. The book is not a puzzle but an intoxicant.

This formal difference is also a moral difference. While the classic British whodunit affirms rational order through the intervention of saintly detectives like Inspector French and Miss Marple, Fantômas tends to undermine any notion of stability or ultimate purpose. To sustain the series' open-ended structure, crime must always triumph, and Fantômas is no Robin Hood. With his blend of technical elegance and cruelty—in a later episode, Ashbery informs us, he infects a whole ocean liner with plague—he foreshadows a peculiarly modern type of gratuitous killer. The novels which chart his mythos are themselves amoral: there is no pretense of edification, but rather a frankly perverse fascination with terror and death-dealing. Any possible ethical concerns are further distorted by ambiguity. Both Fantômas and his nemesis, Inspector Juve, spend most of their time in disguise, so that it's hard to tell who anyone is. The only certainty is that fairly soon another body will fall.

The murderous predictability of the proceedings induces not suspense but an evenly diffused dread. The characters walk like automatons among places and objects that emanate a negative vitality. This alienated vision found its perfect form not in the Allain-Souvestre texts but in the somber and hyperrealistic images which Louis Feuillade derived from them. Feuillade's films are, as Ashbery says, "more like the novels than the novels themselves." Along with the original Fantômas serial, he made Les Vampires, Judex, Tih Mihn—movies which, while they did not feature the Allain-Souvestre characters, mined the novel's dream vein more deeply. Unfortunately, they remain as hard to come by as the novel has been until now. We can only hope that they will one day be marketed in the video format which so admirably suits their inordinate length.

Return home