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On Halloween, when many people abandon themselves to the linked joys of sugar and horror, we more literary types decide to dine from transgressive fiction. I have at hand two books by the French writer Gabrielle Wittkop (1920–2002): Murder Most Serene (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie) and The Necrophiliac (translated by Don Bapst). The former, set in Venice between 1766 and 1797, is a murder mystery in which the wives of a nobleman named Alvise Lanzi keep dying from poison. Perhaps the killer is his mother, Ottavia, whose basement cellar for Nebbiolo wine also hides “flasks and phials”; or it could be her cicisbeo, who is also a spy; or the maid, Rosetta Lupi, in her “apron edged with lace”; or Alvise’s jilted lover Marcia Zolpan, a “fine-looking girl” with “a very short neck.” It could even be Alvise himself. The setting is one of grotesque, end-of-empire decadence. Elaborate feasts are the norm. The other book, The Necrophiliac, is the diary of a man in Paris who, as the title suggests, has sex with the dead. It might be the most disgusting and challenging book in the alternative canon. We cannot understand Wittkop without it, but fortunately, in the parts I could bring myself to read, there wasn’t any food.
Wittkop is an elusive and legendary figure in European letters, but her work has been slow to appear in English. Biographical information about her in this language is scarce. She was born in Nantes, France, in 1920; she married a Nazi deserter named Justus in Paris during the occupation and later moved with him to Germany. In her afterword to Wittkop’s Exemplary Departures, the translator Annette David describes Justus as a “German essayist” and reveals that he was gay. Both Justus and Gabrielle died by suicide—separately, seventeen years apart—when faced with terminal illnesses. Gabrielle Wittkop wrote travelogues, arts coverage for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and novels that were popular in France and Germany. She was influenced by E. T. A. Hoffman, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Proust, Miguel de Cervantes, and Joris-Karl Huysmans, though her first and foremost love was the Marquis de Sade. She must have seen horrors in occupied and postwar Paris, but we can only speculate on how they influenced her worldview. Her preoccupation with death began, she said, in childhood. The narrator of Murder Most Serene offers this justification: “Why this obstinate dwelling over a corpse’s pluck?… Simply because it is there inside us all, day and night.” Read More