Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, April 2, 2021


 The Colonel's Photograph and Other Stories by Eugene Ionesco (published in France as La Photo du Colonel (1962); first English translation published, 1967; first American printing, 1969; translated by Jean Stewart, with one section translated by John Russell)

Ionesco (1909-1994), a Nobel Laureate in Literature, was one of the literary lights in the French Avante Garde theater, producing such plays as The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros.  Many of his plays began as short stories, which is the case of five the stories in this collection.  Ionesco's absurdist approach to these tales is powerful and left me with a new appreciation for his work.

The contents:

  • "Oriflamme"  (First published in Nouvelle Revue Francaise, February 1954)  Ten years before, a man came visiting and, while the narrator was away for five minutes, seduced his wife.  The narrator killed him in a fit of jealous rage, placing the body on a divan in another room.  As the years went by the body did not decay; instead it began to grow larger, with his nails needing to be trimmed regularly and his beard growing down to his knees.  Now the body is growing at a much faster rate and something needs to be done.  It was decided to cart the body at night to the river and dump it.  It took quite a bit of effort and the body destroyed some walls in the process.  Near the river they attracted the attention of two policemen and some American soldiers.  Just as the narrator was about to be captured, the body's beard spread out and caught the breeze like a parachute, lifting it and the narrator further and further, faster and faster, into the air, presumably going on forever.  Ionesco turned this story into a play, Amedee ou Comment s'en debarrasser in 1954.
  • "The Colonel's Photograph" (First published in Nouvelle Revue Francaise, November 1955; English translation printed in Argosy (UK), November 1967)   The narrator is walking with the city architect through a new district, an area that mysteriously provides a warm oasis from the cold grey of the rest of the city.  Despite its idyllic nature, police have stopped any further building and the residents are trying to leave but cannot sell their homes.  The reason?  Two or three bodies have been found each day, drowned.  The murderer offers to show his victims "the Colonel's photograph" -- something they cannot resist -- then he kills them.  Police know who the murderer is, but have never been able to catch him in the act.  The photograph is an interesting and meaningless McGuffin.  Ionesco turned this in to his play Tueur sans gages in  1959.
  • "The Stroller in the Air"  (1962, as "Le Pieton de l'Aire"; translated by John Russell, and appeared in The London Magazine, June 1963)  When Herbert is happy he finds himself walking on air -- literally, but once he reaches a certain height he has a vision of Hell.   Ionesco turned this into the play Le Pieton de l'Aire in 1962 (in English, Stroll in the Air)..
  • "A Victim of Duty"  (1953, as "Une victime du devoir")  A policeman comes to the door and asks the narrator about a previous tenant, of whom the narrator knows nothing.  The Policeman gives the narrator a large chunk of bread and tells him to eat it because it will restore his memory.  Things go downhill from there.  This is the basis of the 1953 play Victimes du devoir.
  • "Rhinoceros"  (From Lettres Nouvelles; September 1957)  The residents of the town are turning into stampeding rhinoceroses.  This dig at fascism became Ionesco's most popular play, Rhinoceros, in 1959.
  • "The Slough" (published in French as "Le Vase"; also known as "The Mud")  A man discovers that he can get old -- something he has never considered before.  As his body begins to age, so does his mind, driving him slowly to destruction.  The one story in this book that was not revised as a play.
  • "Spring 1939"  (published in French as "Printemps 1939)  This may or may not be a fictional story.   The narrator has many things in common and this may be an attempt for a journal -- the subtitle is "Fragmentary recollections:  pages from a diary."  The narrator (Ionesco?) is nearing 30 and decides to take a trip back to the village farm where he had spent a couple of years when he was eight and nine.  The piece unfolds with recollections -- some vague, some pristine, some false -- of his life in 1919.  There is no order to his memories, merely what comes to his mind, usually in short paragraphs.  We jump from 1919 to 1939 without warning at times and it is sometimes difficult to determine if the writer is talking about the past or the present.  At 51 pages, this is the longest story in the book and, for some readers, it is the most disappointing.  I thought it was an amazing piece of writing, thoroughly readable, and nudging on immense philosophical concepts.  Your mileage may vary.
Wittily sly, deliberately surreal, and sometimes dark, Ionesco's stories are laced with absurdity and the inevitability of death and decay, yet behind it all there is an element of hope.

Well worth reading.

1 comment:

  1. I have been a fan of Ionesco's plays for decades, but to my regret haven't gone any farther into his I need this book...thanks!