At the Cusp: Marcel Brion


One of the tasks of modernism was to parody the Romantic hangover, making the Everyday into a subject more exotic than faraway castles and mystic fate. Great epics were created with ticket stubs and comic strips, set in pawn shops and alleys, told by alcoholic porters, demobbed mental patients, clerks and voyeurs—in lies, in the world’s ‘untruth’. If hermetic symbols were allowed, it was only in the paranoid monologues conjured up by time and asphalt. Dreams were also permitted, yet these new dreams had a disquieting familiarity about them: broken columns and muddy pits, informers and robots, the eeriness of city geography.

The trash of strange journeys washes up in Marcel Brion’s collection Waystations of the Deep Night, first published in 1942 and finally translated into English this year. Neither a household name in France nor abroad, Brion was admired and befriended by Walter Benjamin, a contributor to the first book of essays on Finnegans Wake in 1929, and the author of a hundred books in various forms (biography, art criticism, novels and stories). He is probably best-known in the Anglophone world via several books on art history and his biography of de las Casas. He died in 1984.

As in Raymond Chandler, the scene is more important than the plot for these weird tales. Tableaux vivants jerk to life, freeing the image of allegory from its moral and historic meaning to wander and chatter through the land. And like many books of its era, the essence of a long childhood haunts it. Consider how children look at paintings: they invent little stories for the chevaliers, gorgons and Christs that populate the canvasses of the Old Masters, intersecting play-scenes where very little is impossible. Yet children never totally abandon themselves to the fantastic (a total dreamworld is the later invention of sentimental adults, alas). There is always an uncanny sense, an ‘uneducated’ element of the Real in every childhood reverie, as if the future were sending a half-understood signal that becomes a darkly humorous piece in our youthful games. It is also the key to the ‘Romantic’ trappings of Waystations—all the promises of an absurd world fulfill themselves in a familiarity of the unfamiliar, down in the murky transformations of inner life. For example, in ‘The Lost Street’, a visitor to Paris stumbles upon a time-travelling ghetto of lepers while wandering around the old area where he stays. When he is told of the street’s appalling punishment in the past by his elderly host, he just shrugs and then goes on his way. The next round of new city construction may erase whatever ghostly remains Louis Bonaparte could not or perhaps the leprous repressed will pour out and take back the city. The supernatural revelation is city planning turned inside out.

For Brion, being lost is the new natural state. Living dead brass and an obedient soldier, equally immortal, makes for ‘The Field Marshall of Fear’ and a forbidden piece of music both ruins and sustains the itinerant career of the violinist of ‘The Fire Sonata’. ‘La Capitana’ concerns a boy’s obsession with a maritime tapestry. Finally, he enters into the painting itself, leaving his parents behind—an old and beautiful idea cribbed from one of the Strange Tales from A Chinese Studio (Brion was an orientalist of the more admiring, anticolonialist first generation). This most fable-like story in the collection contains the primitive concerns of the whole: travel, graven images, distance and nearness, parallel worlds.

Brion’s favorite device is the solitary arriving in a foreign town, by train or boat or carriage, who then wanders the landscape looking for clues as to where he is. Characters seem to step out of family portraits and legendary books; people tell devious stories; things shift, as in the ancient spooky comedies of Lucian and Apuleius. The trappings of the past are arranged like decaying storefronts rising up into the present, only to evaporate into the dust and mortar flakes of a great theatrical set. “I arrived in the city…”


Certainty is a property of the worst men and a certifiable world is their most atrocious pledge. Safety, surety, and if not—then decisive action. This status quo consoles an ever-dwindling bourgeoisie, one that relies on silence and the terrors of the law until yet another final cataclysm. Or if you like, until history itself intrudes into the Historical. The unnerving quality of Brion’s stories lies here: it is not so much that the mundane world is turned on its the head by walking dead, incarnate devils and ghostly quadrants, but that these situations, shorn of their fantastic disguise, are the way most people live. His wanderers are looking for something in a nowhere which is everywhere. But the occult world they are shown does not transform them. There are no quests to be fulfilled. There is only the allure of getting lost. And there can be no question of being saved, either. For whom? For what? The question of who is saved is the operating procedure of magical ruthlessness. What could be less fantastic?

If you talk to someone and they say that they have walked from Afghanistan, through Turkey, all the way to Hungary, then they have simply told you their life—life as now, in this passage of figures following the routes of fiber optic cables, in the obscenity of a martial status quo. And such a story is utterly fantastic but only because everyone isn’t forced to live the same—which is the real injustice. On the scales of agony rests a class whose unspeakable peace is dying at the speed of a flame. These are the anxious, cold creatures who tell Brion’s tales. The disasters of their anxieties make the world. What new adventures they will find—and will make—in a world they perceive as supernatural remains to be seen.

Which begs one final question of Brion’s stories of mystified transplants and travellers without a compass: What kind of fool does not know where he is, at one specific time, at one specific place? And does not know that he does not know where he is? And often mistakes a familiar landscape with one that is vaguely familiar (German and French cities are not so different, after all), adding the hallucinatory certainty of where one is to the fatal certainty of what one is. Between collapse and the status quo, danger is an object in the mirror which looks closer than it appears to be.

Waystations is published by the venerable Wakefield Press in a superb translation by George MacLennan, who also contributes a penetrating Afterward, and Edward Gauvin. In English, Brion glistens like a slug on bruised apples.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.