Fantomas, evil genius of crime, made his original debut in this novel, first published in 1911. A huge publicity campaign helped orchestrate a craze that swept nearly every sector of the French reading public, from aristocrats to artisans, from bartenders to the budding avant-garde of the arts. Fantomas' progenitors, a pair of hack journalists, rose to the challenge of instant success by providing 20 sequels before Pierre Souvestre's death in 1914 from the Spanish influenza. Marcel Allain went on to produce 11 more sequels on his own, marry Souvestre's widow and over the span of a career that ended in the late 1960s write more than 600 novels, not to mention miscellaneous articles.
His latest publishers credit the return (yet again) of "Fantomas" to the distinguished American poet John Ashbery, who provides a short but incisive introduction to this updated version of an early translation. Ashbery holds no brief for the literary merits of the book. He considers most other purveyors of the "novel of terror," from Gustave LeRouge to Gaston Leroux, "superior to Messrs. Allain and Souvestre," even in the realm of popular fiction.
The character of Fantomas is devoid of fascination: Not only does his portrait lack psychological depth, but even his surface features are rather blank. So too the characters of Inspector Juve, his tireless pursuer; Lady Beltham, his aristocratic lover; and Fandor, the young reporter who is Juve's foil.
Nor are the storylines particularly remarkable. As Ashbery wryly observes: "With Fantomas, terror becomes almost monotonous." The master criminal goes to incredible lengths of ingenuity to commit despicable deeds without being caught, although Juve is always on the brink of nabbing him. And judging from this first Fantomas novel, one would also have to conclude that the twists and turns by which the crimes are perpetrated do not even offer mystery lovers the satisfaction of trying to unravel a difficult puzzle. We get to see the ruses before Inspector Juve does, making many of the scenes involving his detective work simply redundant.
The true mystery of "Fantomas" lies (as Ashbery seems to agree) in attempting to fathom why so many prominent figures on the French cultural scene hailed the work as "the modern 'Aeneid' " (Blaise Cendrars), "one of the richest works that exist" (Guillaume Apollinaire), "absurd and magnificent lyricism" (Jean Cocteau). Ashbery rather wishfully proposes that the appeal has something to do with the authors' success at conveying a sense of place, thus enabling readers to experience the thrill of passing a familiar Paris street and imagining it as the scene of a gruesome crime.
But the solution to this mystery lies not in the book but in the eyes of its avant-garde admirers. The same self-conscious modernism that led artists of this period to incorporate ideas and images of the machine age into their work also heightened their awareness of popular culture. And something else was also afoot: the spirit of subversiveness. We cannot overestimate the perverse pleasure they took in overturning expectation by elevating the trashiest, most banal cultural artifacts to the status of "classics," not to speak of the relief to be experienced in embracing the most regressive forms of entertainment as the ne plus ultra. (A parallel to this may be found in the spectacle of contemporary restaurant critics who, following years of dining in the best places, confess that their favorite meal is a pastrami sandwich.)
There is no need to puzzle over what mysterious, elusive merits the avant-garde perceived in "Fantomas." The more intriguing task is understanding their professed regard for the book as a clue to the style and sensibility of a particular period of cultural history whose influence is still alive today.
To find out how it struck a contemporary, we can turn to a passage in "Cousin Rosamund," Rebecca West's last novel. The heroine is remembering the years after World War I, yet the atmosphere of deliberately cultivated frivolity, with its strong undercurrent of destructiveness, was evident even before then.
". . . My French contemporaries alarmed me . . . (I)t had become fashionable in Paris to be silly, and an appalling measure of French intelligence and spirit, and even some of its classical spirit, was devoted to establishing silliness as a way of life" ("Cousin Rosamund" by Rebecca West).
Whether or not, in the long run, so dismissive a view can completely explain the spirit of an era, we would do well to remember the subversive spirit in which the avant-garde embraced the abysmal, and adjust our expectations of "Fantomas" accordingly.