Several years ago I wrote a bit about 17th and early 18th century French fiction, a subject about which I am two books – now three – short of complete ignorance. My point was that there exists a large mass of French fiction from this period, often multi-volume series, almost none of which is read by any non-specialist, the bulk of it read by no one at all. The books that have survived have done so because they retrospectively look like what we call novels.
I am thinking of Madame de La Fayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678) and the Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut (1731). I have not read it, but I suspect Alain-René Lesage’s Spanish-style picaresque Gil Blas (1715-35), which must still have some readers, is similar. It is not just that these books are good but that I do not have to be a specialist in the period or form to recognize that they are good.
I bring this up because I recently read a book from the period that defies my judgment. It does not look like the later books I know. Maybe it is not like the books of its time, either. I have little idea if it is good. I am sure that it is wonderfully strange. The book is The Zombie of Great Peru or The Countess of Cocagne (1697) by Pierre-Corneille Blessebois, himself a strange figure who should be the subject of a novel, just translated by Doug Skinner along with the preface by Guillaume Apollinaire that caught his attention.
Great Peru is in Guadeloupe, and the Zombie is part of a complex hoax:
… the Countess of Cocagne entered through the back door, which I had carefully left open, and came up to our room disguised as a snow white Zombie, believing herself invisible. The Foreign Prince, as I said, had been told, but she knew nothing of this, and it was upon him that we had decided that she would enact her masterpiece. At first, she strode about the room; she furiously rattled the windows; she struck us one after the other, and did so many different and surprising things that old La Forêt below was stricken with terror, and asked me several times what was wrong. We replied, the Foreign Prince and I, that we were being beaten but could see nobody. (58-9)
The “Countess,” seeking revenge, has asked the narrator to turn her invisible. In exchange for sex, he agrees, but since he obviously cannot make people invisible, he just lies to her. In the above passage, we see the narrator and Prince pretending that they cannot see the Countess as she beats on them. If I am not sure of the point of the hoax, I can see that everyone gets what they want – revenge, laughs, sex – at least for a while.
We sat at the table, and feasted on the Countess’s tadpoles… (86)
My favorite detail, included for no other reason. The little hints of life in colonial Guadeloupe, corrupt and indolent for the French, brutal for the slaves, make the book for significant than it might seem. Scholars of early colonial literature like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) ought to read The Zombie of Great Peru.
Makes we wonder what else is out there, forgotten, buried in those twelve-volume French romances. Thanks, Doug, for the work on this book, whatever it is.