The Fall of the Boarding House of Usher
by Pierre Mac Orlan
(from his “Père Barbançon,” Book II of Mademoiselle Bambù)
Translated from the French by Chris Clarke
“At the outset of the last war, as I have told you, Père Barbançon purchased a sort of rooming house, modest in appearance. I know nothing of the Mr. C. Usher who sold it to him. From what I understand, this Usher was in no way descended from that melancholy manor whose tragic end you already know. The end of the war was accompanied by disorienting signs. In the meantime, since that night you now know all about, I had given up my hotel. I had only recently returned to it, and this you know as well as I do, seeing as you have always been so loyal to that lodging. During the few years I was employed by Père Barbançon, as if in memory of something that remained indefinable and yet was most certainly idiotic, I had lived outside of time, outside of everything that makes up the regulatory framework of man’s condition. AD 1000, 1914, 1946, 2722, or 1830, take as many numbers as you want and add them up, go ahead, that is how you will find out how old I am, give or take a few centuries. I have ingested time capsules to my saturation point. Among the most funereal, the cosmic administration and its moldy civil servants seem to irritate me the most. I will make sure to bring you more specific details when we finally have a Ministry of Lost Time, a laboratory-engineered infantry, and a navy fashioned of deluxe filigreed vellum. The three years I lived alongside Père Barbançon in the lyrical humidity of the Boarding House of Usher lies at the heart of the true youthfulness of my centuries. My vision of the world has been renewed. It has misted over my eyes. The second blind man in the Parable of the Blind, that classic Dutch landscape, well, that was me before I earned my certificate in advanced player piano. And so here we are at the crux of our subject. If Père Barbançon was the skipper of that strange commercial vessel washed up on the edge of a moor among the vestiges of atomic wreckage, I was the first mate. Père Barbançon, it must be said, was no longer the man about whom you have heard so much. He limped along among his lodgers, always looking over his shoulder like a fearful wrongdoer. But allow me to tell you a little about the guests, who provided a semblance of life to that fairly extravagant inn. We had three lodgers, all elderly men: Encolpius, Grimaut, and Klinius the Sailor. In short, three vanquished men. Encolpius was born in the discard room of the National Library; Grimaut came from the film industry, where he had practiced the profession of director. His shadow uncoiled behind him like a worn-out film reel, a film dotted with little holes left by extremely luminous worms. Of Klinius the Sailor, we knew very little, other than the fact that in his ripe old age, he was regarded as violent.
“The windows of the Boarding House of Usher’s communal room opened onto a landscape without order, without reminiscences. It was like being in the presence of a triumph of nature which had remained undiscovered until that very day. An unforgettable crane with a steel arm twisted like a corkscrew implored or perhaps threatened the sky. God only knew. That antique vestige of historical calamities rose up at the edge of a landscape constructed of crumbling cement and unusable iron, red with rust; vigorous couch grass grew in tufts between the cracks of a quay built of a deathly pale cement which had been strewn about like the pieces of a puzzle. The barren sea belonged to the first days of fog and water. But at any rate, such as it was, it was the sea. Grimaut found that landscape to be photogenic: he felt that the hand of man had passed through there. As was the case with many individuals of his era, his cultural intellect took its inspiration from radio and the cinema. When he spoke the words cinema, studio, and camera, he suddenly became eloquent and prophetic.
“To tell you the truth, Père Barbançon was no longer a quality audience for a man of wit. All he could do was take aim at his shadow, and our own, with the first object he could lay a hand on. With his thin lips like those of an old sheep, he would imitate the sound of a Tommy gun in action. He made me feel sorry for him.
“Life in that retirement home was primed with a coat of infernal silence. A kind of original fear, mephitic and noxious, blended with the silence, the humidity, the marine putrefaction, the invisible seaweed that entwined itself around our legs. Our band resembled a walking club for the old and infirm. We were all weak in the legs and when we would trip over our own shadows, we were not the least bit surprised. With a limp kick, we would ward off our shadows’ puckish independence. But at teatime, we were already talking about it. The guestbook of the Boarding House of Usher was a funeral register bound in calfskin. Encolpius kept it up to date. Next to the signature of Petronius, you could read a quatrain by Descartes or a rondeau by Tacitus. If we are to believe Encolpius, Plato had spent a season in that hotel. This game clearly amused Encolpius, whose nervous shadow danced under the moon to the sound of an unearthly music, which seemed to spring forth from the broken cement.
“It took me a long time to determine that the independence of our shadows could not be attributed to the presence of malady-induced fantasies. It was Père Barbançon who first drew my attention to this phenomenon. He was in the kitchen; he was doing some mending in front of the oven. He told me, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ ‘And what is that?’ I asked him. ‘It’s my shadow...’ He turned his head and for a long while he looked at the ground behind his back. At that moment, he was definitely immobile. Suddenly, he let out a tiny little cry: ‘Put your foot on it, it’s moving!’ I thought he was going to faint. He stood there, stiff and frozen. The shadow, on the other hand, wriggled a bit. It stretched out toward the sink. Then, telescoping itself, it returned to its master.
“Père Barbançon promptly plunked himself down onto a stepstool and passed his left hand across his jaw several times. ‘That’s all we needed,’ he said. He finally seemed to reawaken and got back to his feet. ‘No matter what, you mustn’t tell Encolpius what you have seen here today.’
[. . .]
“To come back to the point, I was unpleasantly obsessed by what I had witnessed in the kitchen. The behavior of Père Barbançon’s shadow defied reason, and was in my opinion more absurd than tragic.
“The tales of fantasy I had read were of no assistance in providing a touch of verisimilitude to that troublesome and puerile occurrence. Which fell, all the same, within the tastes of our civilization, created as it was by the invention of atomic energy and other messages from the first millennium. For me, all forms of magic are just attractions from a fairground free-for-all. This I know too well. I’ve run a booth like so many others. Even so, I have never seen human shadows hung from a display like old tires or second-hand dresses. I had never been able to buy a shadow at the flea market. Well, it turns out I just didn’t know. Nowadays, I know I can purchase a shadow at the former site of the fortifications of Paris. It is of little consolation.
“The story of Père Barbançon’s shadow does not end with that initial emotion. I had grown mistrustful, like the cuckoo who always sings within five hundred yards of the place where she has laid her eggs. I had become a kind of detective-inspector in the shadow police. Those of us in Père Barbançon’s entourage were all somewhat inclined to play that role. For a few weeks, I meticulously examined the shadows that belonged to the guests of the Boarding House of Usher. At first they all appeared to be of good quality. There were five of them: my own, Père Barbançon’s, which was highly suspect, and the others belonging to Encolpius, Grimaut, and Klinius. The last wasn’t long in eliciting my worry: it too showed signs of independence. It seemed fatter, if I may say so, and fleshier; it seemed to offer the sun a slightly convex surface. I remember a day when I stubbed my toe on Klinius’ shadow, which gave me the impression of a poorly laid carpet. It was an unpleasant sensation. It couldn’t be classified as hot, or cold, or viscous. Nothing was less manifest than that uncustomary collision.
[. . .]
“You will be wanting to ask me one question: ‘But what was your role in the organization of this Boarding House of Usher?’ I have an answer for you. My role was that of a jack-of-all-trades, a confidant who was given room and board. Père Barbançon could not live without a confidant, and it was necessary that this confidant be distinctly situated below his own social status. In the color spectrum of sloppiness, his confidant needed to attire himself in the palest shade, the most ambiguous, the most demoralizing. His choosing me was in no way flattering. Perhaps he was right to consider my presence behind his shadow as a comfort or a kind of protection. Everything qualified me to play the role of victim in that association of aged bandits wearied by works that were violent and nearly always dishonest. The Boarding House of Usher sheltered adventurers from outside of time, men already vanquished, from a world chock-full of delayed-action mines. They were like toothless infants, animated by anxious cries and irrevocable physical decay. All of their strength was directed toward the security of their daily pabulum. Encolpius, whom Père Barbançon often called ‘the Arrogant Troubadour’ or ‘Cybele’s nursling,’ was always the greediest. He ate for no reason. He was also the lightest, but with less color than a soap bubble at the tip of a drinking straw.
“Thanks to idle gossip, of course, although more or less bona fide, Père Barbançon knew plenty about the pasts of Encolpius, Grimaut, and Klinius, those three exsanguinated lowlifes. They had all lived through the sort of banditry found in the narrow and consistent world of a detective novel. Even from a purely novelistic point of view, their withered skins were not worth a great deal. They had lived the lives of crafty small-time tradesmen, halfway between the knife and the machine gun. Encolpius had a collection of scars the color of lilacs. Grimaut, who had used his profession as a filmmaker to traffic in arms, was not much better, and as for Klinius, his soul had more heft to it than a loaded gun.
[. . .]
“Yes,” Mr. Uhle concluded with bitterness, “these puerile memories weigh less heavily when considered next to the events of the Boarding House of Usher. Encolpius would tell us, ‘I was born in a small-town museum, I lived in a museum of criminals, and I will die in a museum of Occult History.’ He was right in his own way. He had become a kind of arteriosclerotic puppet made of rubber.
“If, to show some benevolence, I insist on the invertebrate attribute, the ‘felt’ side of the Boarding House of Usher’s residents, it is in order to explain their end, the edict of which was handed down during the great brawl which played a part in freeing me of their presence.
“Père Barbançon’s three customers, and Barbançon the hotel boss himself, they disgusted me a little more each day. The scenery of the dead city, the touching anonymity of its few inhabitants, these contributed to lulling me to sleep within that impenetrable enchantment. All I could hope for was a perfect slip-up that would assist me in pushing those four characterless testimonies of my own disgrace toward the void.
[. . .]
“Some days, the sun shone upon our frozen solitude. It slowly aided with the construction of a new scenery: sheds surged forth from the ground with a fragile burst of vanity. A crane, capable of lifting up the dead city, extended its long demon’s arm over the stagnant sea. The guests of the Boarding House of Usher took advantage of beautiful days like those to take their shadows for a stroll out in the heath. Their mutinous presence brushed against the new growth of shrubs and flickered across the nascent water of the wastelands. Ever since the arrival of spring, the shadows had thawed, taking on strength, authority. They behaved like puppies, but puppies who were born to bite artfully, well learned in the many professional secrets that can be acquired when biting is treated like sport.
“When Père Barbançon, Klinius, Grimaut, and Encolpius would go walking together, their four shadows would follow them, frolicking like children at the end of the school day. Sometimes they would amuse themselves by switching masters. On more than one occasion, Père Barbançon returned to the Boarding House of Usher followed by Encolpius’s shadow. That was the most vicious of the five shadows, my own included. It would be the instigator of a devious yet unrelenting struggle, one which would eventually lead to the deaths of Père Barbançon and his three companions. I was most likely the first to perceive all of these parasitic schemes.
“Night having fallen, Encolpius would speak to his shadow in the same way the Emperor Hadrian would converse with the woman who occupied the fourth bed. This disorder bent our daily lives out of shape, twisting the simplest events of our very existence. Throwing a bone to a shadow is like attaching misfortune to the heels of its master.
“I ruined my health once and for all during the course of that year. I slept little. Hands under my neck, my eyes wide open, I relived the day’s most insignificant happenings in minute detail, peeling away the images and words as one would peel an onion. You might say, ‘Why not abandon the Boarding House of Usher to its dangerous mediocrity? Why not leave?’ It was as if the place was covered in birdlime, Monsieur Nicolas; I was immersed in the glue like an ant in jam. And anyway, the end was approaching, ‘like a thunderclap all the way from China, from across the bay.’ Dawn crept in … a dawn of the classic sort, but more exactly one that brought with it a bitter and sinister day.”
[. . .]
“I have never fully understood the reasons and surprising phenomena that brought on the revolt of the shadows. It must be explained by estimating the lyrical value of the hours in a day and a night, then inhumanly multiplying them by the exceptional gravity of the events. The supernatural sprang forth from the deepest, swampiest strata of memory. Ten-ton iguanodons replete with their sparrows’ brains climbed stupefied and vindictive to the surface of unexplored waters. They lay in wait for the signal announcing the imminent disintegration of their difficult substance. At the very least, Monsieur Nicolas, that is my opinion. It isn’t a dazzlingly clear assessment, but I have nothing else better when it comes to explaining the death of Père Barbançon, as well as those of Klinius and Grimaut. On that matter, I have to inform you that Grimaut was not truly a cinematographer. He was actually a long-haul captain and his name was Diablois. ‘You lied, Uhle,’ you will say. Heavens yes, I have lied: it is the mist that drives me to lie. I cannot see the things that live and quack away inside the fog. And so I lie in order to simplify my connections.”
Mr. Uhle pulled open the curtains, which were hiding the light of the dawn. He extinguished the electric bulb, and the pale light penetrated the room, wiping away the ludicrous images of the night’s dreams, a bit at a time. Mr. Uhle sat down, as if overwhelmed. He continued speaking for a long time, his monotonous voice flowing like a small but inexhaustible water leak.
“Père Barbançon and I, the trifecta, and the shadows that followed us, we were nothing but tatters of fog, dubious rags torn from the drab linen that enshrouds the crack of dawn. Yes, Monsieur Nicolas, it is daybreak, the dawn of a memorable day that did in your friend Barbançon and the others, with the exception of your humble servant.
“But I am digressing from my subject, from the novelistic part of my subject, let me emphasize, for the entire secret of this detective story lies in the fog of a dawn I first heard tell of in Ulalume.
“To conclude, that day I awoke around five o’clock in the morning. I opened my window and I saw the sky in its forbidding immensity above the landscape, a scenery which I have previously described for you, and the character of which is not close to fading from my memory. My mind was jolted awake by a muffled clamor, as if from a radio program, which seemed to be coming from the dining room. Faint noises, marked but indiscernible, stood out distinctly over a background of grumbled cursing and distressed moans. I stood as still as stone, my ear grasping for information. Little by little, it began to seem as if I were hearing the sound of a brawl, of a fracas, yet a fracas between wool-stuffed sailors, or perhaps a struggle between fierce old men, a struggle without weapons or mercy. For me, it took shape in my mind as a battle between sponges drunk on water, a collision of flaccid sponges swollen with heinous humidity and intelligent cruelty.
“I made my way down the stairs in my bare feet. The door to the dining room was open. By leaning my head over the banister, I saw the spectacle whose tumult I had surmised. Père Barbançon, Klinius, and Diablois (we will allow him his true name) were rolling on the floor, their eyes bulging from their sockets. Lianas of a bluish gray were wound around their necks, their legs, and their arms in a melee which made the whole look like a spilled dish of spoiled macaroni. It also resembled a furious assault by rebellious shadows. And that was exactly what it was: the rebellious shadows were attacking their masters, inexorably Windsor-knotting themselves around their master’s necks, constricting about their hearts and stomachs, tying and untying themselves for new grips, secret knots of an evident efficacy. And yet, the struggle was a long one. I did not wait for the end, for all of a sudden, it dawned on me that my own shadow had accompanied me and that all of this was a dangerous example to set for him. I returned to my room and stretched out on my bed, awaiting the end of that fantastic activity. It was all quite unexplainable. Even Peter Schlemihl didn’t have such an adventure when he sold his shadow to the old man at that rather Weimarian garden party. I lit a cigarette and looked at my watch: it was seven o’clock. The weather looked promising. A nurturing warmth brought me back toward optimism a breath at a time. As for the dining room, it now appeared to be free of its many monstrous noises. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I had packed my suitcase and descended to the ground floor. I saw what I had already imagined: Père Barbançon, Encolpius, Captain Diablois, and Mr. Klinius stretched out side by side, as white as soft French cheese, their mauve tongues hanging far out of their mouths.
“They were quite dead, the four of them. That hastened my decision. My presence in the Boarding House of Usher could do nothing but cause me the full gamut of legal difficulties. It would have been onerous for me to explain that fairly outrageous tale of shadows.
“Flight was of the essence. A literary reminiscence immediately came to me to bolster that sensible decision. ‘You must set fire to the Boarding House of Usher,’ counseled my good guardian angel. No sooner said than done. I had gathered into the dining room all of the flammable materials I was able to find. And very artistically, from cellar to attic, I built a tinderbox capable of discouraging the most powerful fire engines. After all this, having emptied the contents of fifty jerry cans, proof of Père Barbançon’s innate proclivity for theft, I waited for night to fall so I could toss the emancipating match, which would wipe out any trace of the tragedy.
“At the stroke of midnight, I went through with my plan, and without bothering to take my suitcase with me, I reached the moor, from where I was able to admire the grand finale I had sought.
“Thus blazed the Boarding House of Usher. At dawn, nothing was left but a heap of anonymous ashes. So rest assured that there exists no magic that will be able to bring back the man that was Père Barbançon. That deplorable rogue can only rejoin his old dance-partner Captain Hartmann in oblivion. You and I both, we are rid of two compromising scoundrels. It is with pleasure that I am able to confirm this, and to me, the future seems awash with clemency. Père Barbançon and Captain Hartmann have become one with those curious personal stories which often require us to liquidate the very obsessions that make them up. Other subjects will have to suffice when it comes to nourishing the reveries of the nighttime, when each one of us, astraddle a good chair, allows the generous warmth of a summer’s night to blend with his most personal thoughts.”
Pierre Mac Orlan (1882-1970) was a prolific writer of absurdist tales, adventure novels, flagellation erotica, and essays, as well as the composer of a trove of songs made famous by the likes of Juliette Gréco. A member of both the Académie Goncourt and the Collège de ’Pataphysique, Mac Orlan was admired by everyone from Raymond Queneau and Boris Vian to André Malraux and Guy Debord. His novel Le Quai des brumes (1927) was filmed by Marcel Carné (“Port of Shadows,” 1938), starring Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, and Michèle Morgan.
Chris Clarke is originally from British Columbia and currently lives in Philadelphia. His translations include work by Ryad Girod (forthcoming, Transit Books), Pierre Mac Orlan (Wakefield Press), and François Caradec (MIT Press). His translation of Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives was awarded the French-American Foundation Translation Prize for fiction in 2019, and his translation of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth was a finalist for the same award in 2017. Chris is a doctoral candidate in French at the Graduate Center, CUNY, where his dissertation examines the role of translation in the career of French novelist and poet Raymond Queneau. He is currently retranslating a novel by Queneau to be published by NYRB Classics in 2022.
“The Fall of the Boarding House of Usher” is composed of excerpts from Mademoiselle Bambù by Pierre Mac Orlan, translated by Chris Clarke. Originally published in English by Wakefield Press, Cambridge, Mass., December 2017. ISBN 978-1-939663-25-2. Translated from the French edition published by Éditions Gallimard, Collection Folio n. 1361, 1982. Reprinted with the kind permission of Wakefield Press. More information can be found here.