Franz Hellens (1881-1972) was a significant Belgian literary figure in his day, admired by Nabokov among others; his early writings, dating back to the years of the Great War, anticipated Surrealism. Outside Belgium one of the better known facts about him is that his portrait was painted by Modigliani. He disliked the portrait and sold it after having had it photographed. But there was an uncanny aftermath. I quote Howard Curtis:
‘Many years later, when his eldest son – not yet born at the time the picture was executed – was already an adolescent, Hellens and his wife found the photograph and were astonished to discover how much the figure in the portrait resembled their son. As Hellens writes: “The portrait I had just found was that of our child. It was also mine, the portrait of the eternal child that every man carries within him.”‘
He is the author of two particularly noteworthy novels, Memoirs from Elsinore and Moreldieu; the former has been translated by Howard Curtis, and a story, ‘The Great Man of Bronze’, is included in Kim Connell’s Belgian School of the Bizarre. Edward Gauvin has a fine essay on Hellens on his Weird Fiction Review site, and Howard Curtis, in his introduction to Elsinore, provides an informative overview. Curtis says of the middle and later period fiction: ‘Starting almost always from a basis in everyday reality, Hellens allows fantastic or dreamlike elements to infiltrate the mundane.’ I would add that in the two aforementioned novels he demonstrates a strong and subversive imagination (though Moreldieu lacks any overtly fantastic elements).
‘Fog’ (‘Le brouillard’) is a minor but satisfying piece from a late collection of stories, Herbes méchantes (The Wicked Grass). The accompanying blurb states that these stories ‘don’t resort to either ghosts or monsters…’ This isn’t quite accurate; ‘Fog’, the one ghost story in the collection, is an effective exercise in the uncanny. It’s true that Hellens, like Brion, rarely explored the darker end of the fantastic; ‘Fog’ makes me wish he had done so more often.
The most extraordinary episode in my life? It’s a good question. For anyone capable of feeling, of observation, the most matter-of-fact existence offers really extraordinary circumstances where meanings are as it were turned inside-out, where one’s awareness goes off down a queer path and loses itself in labyrinthine hallucinations. I’ve experienced several weeks of such strangeness.
Taking everything into account, my nerves are pretty strong and I tend not to get over-excited. By nature I’m a creature of the outdoors, steeped in pure air, and my métier of landscape painter lodges me every day more and more in the sanest of realities.
At the time when this story took place it was, without a doubt, the persistent fogs of the country where I was living that affected me with the particular condition to which I’ve alluded. I can’t explain it in any other way.
I’d gone to Munich to visit the Pinakothek and to research there a study of landscape artists, for which I’d been commissioned.
On my arrival I managed to find a big, very convenient and well-located room that I immediately took because of its south-facing aspect. It overlooked a huge road that led to the Nymphenburg.
I’d decided to put painting on hold for a while and dedicate myself exclusively to the work that preoccupied me.
On the first day, feeling myself full of energy, and in the best of moods, I went to the Pinakothek to cast an eye over the range of galleries. At midday, with an excellent appetite, I lunched at a Löwenbrauhaus, a restaurant located near my lodgings. For a moment I contemplated going to see an exhibition of contemporary German art, but abandoned the idea, remembering what I knew about this artificial and ugly art, and not wanting to spoil the favorable impressions of that first day.
Back in my room I took the liberty of making myself at home, as was my habit each time I happened to fix myself for a while in new surroundings. And, to start with, I asked the landlady to remove a quantity of trinkets and those Handarbeiten that fill the bourgeois dwellings of the region, also of a certain number of tasteless vases and repugnant pictures. The old woman’s stupefaction at this unforeseen spring-clean amused me for a while. I only wanted to keep a single object, an extremely fine French clock in the Empire style, a trophy of the 1870 war, as I was informed with a certain amount of proud satisfaction.
This disagreeable but necessary task accomplished, I went out for supper and went to bed immediately afterward.
I awoke to a rather distressing uncertainty.
It wasn’t yet light. The night had definitely ended and I had the impression that it could no longer be early. I looked at my watch, it indicated nine am. We were in April; at nine in the morning the sun should already have been high.
My thoughts were interrupted by some timid knocks on the door. It was the landlady who had come to wish me good morning while bringing breakfast on a tray; I had in fact asked the woman to serve me a breakfast of eggs, bread, butter and a glass of milk. I told her to put the food on the table, and I thought she was going to leave right away, but she remained a moment as though distracted, then started a conversation, all the while looking at me, thoroughly at ease. Her first words of course dwelt on the weather, on the terrible weather that had persisted in Munich for several days, the fog, the rain. On the previous day I’d scarcely noticed that the sky was clouded over; but today the news of the fog irritated me a little. Thinking that the conversation was over, I waited for the woman to leave me alone; but she continued to look tranquilly at me while I ate my egg.
‘It’s a pity,” she said with a sigh ‘that the House of Wittelsbach is gradually dying out.’
I looked at her, astonished. The old woman saw my surprise and carried on, suddenly elated:
‘I say that because all my memories of when I was young are connected with the Wittelsbachs. I was their official masseuse. For as long as I live I’ll never be able to feel sorry enough for my poor Louis II, assassinated by that dreadful man Bismark…’
The direction taken by the conversation started to interest me.
The appearance of the old woman and her mode of dress now became clear to me. She wore an assortment of very dirty clothes, dreadfully rumpled and antiquated, after the fashion of the time of Louis II; her head was made bigger by a high white wig as greasy as her dress, but like it belonging to the court of that period. With a duster held in her hands the strange creature chased away a grey cat, also very dirty, that had jumped onto my bed. Then, to my extreme dismay, she skimmed the skin off the milk in my glass with black fingers that she certainly never washed and threw it to the cat. Having accomplished this task with a disarming easiness of manner, she continued:
‘Yes, poor Louis, he was a very brave man, a great king. And, you know, an excellent painter too! It’s odd, you remind me a little of him, your face, and especially your hair. Your hair is absolutely identical to his…’
‘And you served him directly?’ I asked
‘Oh no! Me, I was everywhere, I travelled with the princesses, sometimes to the Russian court, sometimes to those of Berlin or England. It was there that I stayed longest, close to Queen Victoria. With my princesses of course. That was a magnificent court, the queen was magnificent too, and good to everyone. Once I had the honour of massaging the royal hand, which suffered from rheumatism.’
The woman’s memories interested me a lot, but I realised that their recital threatened to take a long time. I finally succeeded in getting rid of the old lady, in the most tactful manner but at the cost of her confidences. I hurried to put on my clothes and left in order to get to the Pinakothek.
That same evening, back in my room, I sat down to organize my notes by the light of an oil lamp.
While I was working, there was a knock on the door. I already recognized those timid little taps. My landlady came in, followed by the grey cat.
This interruption, as you can imagine, gave me no pleasure at all. I paid no attention to the visitor hoping she would soon go away after having carried out some job that needed doing. No doubt she perceived the awkward circumstance and to give herself an excuse she started to give the furniture a light wipe with her duster, giving the impression of wiping away dust. After carrying out this task for a few moments the old lady once more started a conversation on the same topic as before, apropos the different royal courts, the monarchs, and above all Queen Victoria and her adored Louis II.
When she ended up repeating her comment about the similarity between my hair and that of the king, I got the distinct impression that the woman dreamed of nothing so much as passing her hand through my hair. Simultaneously my imagination painted such a realistic picture of that dirty hand that I was afraid. However my sustained attitude of disregard continued to show her that this conversation was unwelcome. She took the hint and, finding no further pretext for lingering, she bowed to me and exited on tiptoes.
I came back the next day feeling very irritated.
Yesterday’s scene recurred once more. This time the landlady confided to me certain aspects of her family life, among others that her husband was obliged to go to his work early every morning and that he only came back in the evening, at nightfall. She spent her days all alone in the house with only her cat for company.
I easily deduced from this conversation that the poor old lady wanted to take advantage of my presence by talking to me about her fondest memories. However the real pity I felt for her didn’t overcome my appetite for work. I cut the conversation short and went out.
The sky was blanketed over, an annoying fog filled the streets. In the state of irritation in which I found myself this want of sun was beginning to become unbearable.
In the evening, before lighting the lamp in my room, I observed the glow of a big arc-light in the street that was located just under my windows; instead of brightly illuminating every corner of my room, the electric light globe, smothered by the fog, merely spread an icy glimmer. This sight plunged me into an appalling state of dejection.
The next day the same mists trailed their shreds through the streets and the following days were hardly brighter.
Each evening on my return the same tableau of that lamp hideously veiled by crêpe showed itself as soon as I lowered the window blinds. The only thing that marked a change in all that was the daily aggravation of my state of nerves.
Fog, fog, always the same fog…
I started to think that my entire existence would pass like this, in a hopeless and mist-shrouded monotony.
All I could see of life after working and eating was fog, this appalling fog that spread out over the city like oblivion, where, in a thoroughly paradoxical manner, I alone continued to exist in the universal annihilation.
From time to time, as in a dream, the imposing shadow of the Propylaea or the Glyptothek passed close to me, the outline of a tramcar, a man or a streetlight. I understood perfectly well the difference between these silhouettes; that of the streetlight didn’t move, that of a man could and did move; as for the tramcar, it shifted too, but, more than that, it made a noise and announced itself with a vaguely luminous bull’s-eye.
At lunch and at supper I came across fat, disagreeable people, speaking languages different from mine, and with whom I never exchanged a word, satisfying myself with the obligatory tilt of the hat addressed more to the table than to fellow-men. Maybe the reply to these greetings came back from the table where pitchers of beer held sway. I paid no attention.
There were still other enclaves of this abominable existence; for example smells. I couldn’t approach or leave my restaurant without inhaling the smell of hops; further on the smells of industrial smoke and soot were dominant. Sometimes an automobile, a faster and noisier outline, left in its wake a horrible odour of benzine that mingled with the fog.
These smells were so stubborn, dispersing so slowly, that I was obliged to count them too as objects. However as I couldn’t decide the question of whether they should be added to the moving outlines or to the others, I decided to put them in a separate group.
One of those evenings, I no longer know which, that seemed nothing other than the day growing old, I returned home more downhearted than usual.
My legs trebled feverishly. I wanted to light the cast-iron stove that stood in a corner of my room. Instead of flames I only managed a thick brown-red smoke that drifted in spirals under my nose and soon filled the room, right up to the ceiling.
Alarmed, I opened the top of a casement window; but I drew back in great fear. Not only was the smoke from the stove not clearing from the room but the fog slid through the opening like an interminable white serpent. I banged the window shut and crouched down in front of the stove, determined to start the fire whatever the cost.
After an hour of unrelenting struggle the fire was lit. I buried shovelful after shovelful of fuel in the stove, to such an extent that all the coal that I’d intended to last several days was quickly swallowed up. I heard a cracking noise. The lid had split, the cast-iron cylinder glowed red; a nearby sofa started to give off a smell of scorching. I hastened to drag the piece of furniture out of reach of the fire. Only then did I feel that an infernal heat reigned supreme around me. Once more I lunged toward the casement windows and contemplated with diabolical pleasure the vain attempts of the fog to invade the room.
Every evening without fail I was visited by the old lady and her everlasting gray cat. But more and more I openly displayed my indifference to her unvarying chatter.
The oddest impression of that period was the one I felt in the restaurant, observing my neighbours at their tables. I looked at them as objects, my eyes calm and callous, but instead of seeing nothing but their outer envelopes, I saw in them something altogether unexpected.
For example, I happened to think mechanically: ‘There’s an all-too-satisfied bourgeois type who’ll get a big upset tomorrow.’
The following day I noticed that indeed the man’s face was utterly changed and I heard him tell his bad luck story.
I saw on other men too the signs of things that were bound to happen. So it was that I observed the mark of sudden death on the face of one of them. The next day I didn’t see him appear and heard his friends, full of emotion, announcing his death, the result of a terrible accident.
The strange disorder, or overstretched order of my nerves ended up becoming intolerable.
Now I was upset almost to the point of fury by the visits from my old landlady, listening to her inevitable confidences and the certainty that her one and only desire was to run her dirty fingers through my hair.
Finally the crisis point arrived.
I’d returned in the evening, as usual, to try to get down to work. All of a sudden I understood that I couldn’t focus the attention that was needed. I’d never before experienced such a degree of nervous prostration.
In order to distract myself I wanted to play some Etudes by my favorite composer, Chopin. I opened the piano; but immediately I felt, almost physically, that something was preventing my fingers from touching the keyboard. I lowered the lid, suddenly realizing that my condition was very serious. At that moment someone knocked on the door. I didn’t notice straight away that these weren’t the same knocks as usual.
That’s my old landlady and her cat come to make their usual daily visit, I thought.
Instead of the old woman I saw in the opened door the unknown figure of an old Bavarian who greeted me with a dull movement of his head, his eyes wet with tears.
I understood that this man must be the landlady’s husband, that he’d come to inform me that his wife was dead, and that this death was the reason for the bizarre feeling of blockage and, as it were, of set-back that I’d felt a short while ago sitting down at the piano.
The old man’s words confirmed my premonition. After I’d offered him some words of condolence, whose banality annoyed me, he told me that in spite of the misfortune that had overtaken him, he was obliged him to go out for the night on account of his duties, in order to make up for time lost during the day when he stayed with his unwell wife.
After the old man had gone I settled down to work again. I felt a great satisfaction at not having played the piano. The work didn’t go at all badly and little by little I managed to fully absorb myself in my notes.
An insignificant noise coming from the door suddenly made me jump. I lifted my head; it was a kind of regular and insistent scratching. I went to open it and saw the old landlady’s grey cat come in. It had an unwell air about it, its fur was wet and dishevelled. I watched it circle the room for several moments, sniffing everywhere as though searching for something. Finally it looked at me and mewed.
I understood the drama unfolding in that poor beast’s soul and invited it onto the sofa, myself helping it to stretch out as comfortably as possible. Then I sat back down at my table to work.
Some moments later I heard behind me, beside the door, the slight sound that I knew well of the cloth dusting the furniture. The hairs of my head stood in horror. I lacked the strength to turn round. The flapping of the cloth continued and I heard it moving in the usual direction, beside of the wardrobe, then the bed, the length of the bookshelves, finally closer and still closer to me; my forehead broke out in cold sweat: someone placed their hand on my head, ran their fingers slowly through my hair…
I got up. There was no-one, except for the cat, standing erect on the sofa and staring with mad, terrified eyes, back arched, at the opposite corner of the room.
Feverishly, I grabbed my overcoat and my hat, rushed toward the street and ran for a long time in the fog, between the grey silhouettes, the lights that didn’t move and those that rushed by, between muffled noises, monumental shadows and unmoving smells.
After a hellish night I returned to my room early in the morning to collect my luggage and settle up with the old proprietor. The last sight I carried away from the room was that of the grey cat, which I found dead on the sofa.