Fantomas
Pulp Surrealism Robin Walz
Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000
Cloth, $57.95

This book can be ordered online directly from the University of California Press.


Interview with Robin Walz conducted by Sebastià Roig, a journalist with El Periódico de Catalunya of Barcelona, Spain:


Sebastià Roig: What is "Pulp Surrealism"?

Robin Walz: Pulp Surrealism is about the secret life of mass culture, specifically its surrealistic undercurrents. It establishes a low-brow, anti-establishment genealogy of the Parisian dada and surrealist movements in the popular realms of crime fiction and sensationalist journalism. Mass culture was not generally inspirational to the surrealists; the vast amount of it was rejected by them as commercialized and mind-numbing. As Aragon stated in Traité du style, "not any old smut is the equivalent of surrealist poetry." However, the surrealists were connoisseurs of mass culture and they found great sympathies between subterranean impulses in mass culture and their own intellectual and political projects. Unearthing such insolent and popular origins of surrealism is, I think, particularly important today, as the dada and surrealist movements have been elevated to the status of "official culture" in state-sponsored museums and educational systems.

Here are some comments from others on the book's jacket cover:

"A 'wonder cabinet' of a book that brings to vivid life again the ephemeral pleasures of flânerie in Paris. Walz is a marvelous guide to the pulp fiction, newspaper sensationalism, and 'disreputable,' fast-disappearing neighborhoods of Paris that the surrealists not only loved but drew on for inspiration in their revolutionary effort to reconfigure human consciousness in early twentieth-century France."

—Richard Abel (Drake University), author of The Ciné Goes To Town:
French Cinema, 1896-1914.

"Robin Walz's Pulp Surrealism represents an original and creative approach to the cultural history of the French interwar avant-garde. He shifts our focus away from surrealist texts themselves to the conditions of their production and in the process illuminates in fascinating ways the relationship between surrealism and popular culture."

—Carolyn Dean (Brown University), author of The Frail Social Body: Pornography, Homosexuality,
and Other Fantasies in Interwar France.

"Pulp Surrealism is the vibrant story of the interplay between avant-garde intellectual and emerging mass culture in the early years of the twentieth century. In this stimulating history Robin Walz lays bare the many contradictory connections between high and popular culture, and in the process restores to life the brilliant effrontery and joy of the surrealist movement."

—Tyler Stovall (University of California at Santa Cruz), author of Paris Noir:
African Americans in the City of Light.


In addition to Fantômas, what are the other subjects of your book?

The book explores four topics:

  1. The ways the Opera Passageway (Passages de l'Opéra), a nineteenth-century commercial arcade, inspired Aragon to write Le Paysan de Paris as an imaginary guide to surrealism.

  2. How the Fantômas series by Souvestre and Allain constituted a surreal modern mythology of displaced identities, ephemeral realities, objective chance, and unmotivated criminality.

  3. The creation and circulation of the dark humor (l'humour noir) of mass-murderer Landru, the "Bluebeard of Gambais," in the sensationalist Parisian press.

  4. The unconscious resonance between short newspaper accounts of suicide in daily newspapers (faits divers en trois lignes) and the surrealist inquiry (enquête) "Is Suicide a Solution?"

I do not theorize about surrealism and popular culture generally, but draw out the various and intimate relationships in each instance.


How did your liking of Fantômas begin ? Where did you discover it?

I discovered Fantômas in 1991, as I began to formulate my plans for a dissertation (thèse) in cultural history. To that point, I had been reading about surrealism and culture on a very high and theoretical level: works by Walter Benjamin, Georges Batailles, Aragon's Paysan de Paris, Breton's Nadja, and numerous articles in critical theory and cultural studies related to these figures. But the more I read, the more I found myself wanting to explore the realms of popular culture that inspired the surrealists, rather than spinning yet more theories about surrealism and culture. As I talked about this to my colleagues, one suggested, "Well, of course you have read Fantômas?" I had not. But then I did, and I was thoroughly delighted. And I still am.


Was it very difficult to find works of Allain and Souvestre in the United States?

Coincidental with my newly found interest in Fantômas, the William Morrow publishing company in New York had recently reissued the first two novels in the series: Fantômas (1986; with an informative introduction by American poet John Ashbery) and The Silent Executioner (1987; with a thoroughly delightful introduction by illustrator Edward Gorey). Each was reprinted by Ballentine Books (a paperback/pocketbook company). But today, all editions are out of print. [Fortunately, this is no longer true.]

The original English translations of the first 7 Fantômas novels by Souvestre and Allain, and 4 "New Adventures" of Fantômas by Allain alone, can sometimes be found in used and antiquarian bookstores. The internet has made finding these books a lot easier, but they are fairly rare.


Are the readers of the USA interested in Fantômas at all?

Fantômas has a small but devoted following in the USA. But it would be a real stretch to say that Fantômas is "popular." It primarily appeals to readers of early 20th-century popular fiction, aficionados of surrealism and the avant-garde, and followers of contemporary experimental music (there is an innovative rock band in California called Fantômas).


Could Fantômas have influenced some North American writers? Which?

To my knowledge, no North American writer has admitted to being directly inspired by or indebted to Fantômas. However, Argentine author Julio Cortázar wrote Fantomas contra los vampiros multinacionales (1975), a situationist diatribe against the collusion between American multinational corporations, the CIA, and the military dictatorships of South America in the late 1970s. Cortázar's Fantomas, however, is based on the Mexican Fantomas comic book character (a super hero), rather than Souvestre and Allain's archvillain.


In your opinion which are the best novels of the cycle? Why?

Roughly, the 32-novel cycle can be split in half (or perhaps two-thirds and one-third). My preference is for the first half, for a couple of reasons. One, I was completely amazed by Souvestre and Allain's ability to produce entirely new adventures of the "Lord of Terror," "Genius of Evil," and "Emperor of Crime," every month. The impression of the first dozen novels is that the latest installment is even more outrageous in plot, violence, and over-the-top implausibility (invraisemblances, rocombolesque) than the previous one. I was expecting the series to become quickly formulaic, and was delighted when that was not the case. Some of my favorites among these novels from the first half of the cycle are Fantômas, Le Mort qui tue, Le Policier apache, Le Pendu de Londres, La Fille de Fantômas, Le Fiacre de nuit, La Main Coupée, L'Arrestation de Fantômas, La Livrée du crime, La Mort de Juve, and La disparition de Fandor (which takes place in Spain). The swerves, shock-value, and implausibility of these titles runs particularly high.

The final dozen novels of the series comes close to being written by a genre formula revolving around the Fantômas "family circle"—the crime v. law rivalry between Fantômas and Inspector Juve, family conflicts between Fantômas and Hélène (the daughter of Fantômas), and the unrequited love between Hélène and Fandor (journalist buddy with Juve). Les Amours d'un prince and Le série rouge (which ends up in Mexico) are among my favorites in this later cycle, containing some delightfully outrageous antics.


What work method did Allain and Souvestre follow to produce so many novels in a very short time?

By contract with Fayard, Souvestre and Allain had to produce novels over 380 pages in length every month for 24 months (and they ended up doing so for 32 months!). To accomplish this, they followed the following strategy: Week One, they outlined the novel, chose chapter titles, and sketched out the basic plot line. Also, Allain would describe some scene from the story to illustrator Gino Starace, who then designed that episode's cover (the original cover art is fantastic; see The Fantômas Novels for examples). Weeks Two and Three, Souvestre and Allain alternated dictating the stories to secretaries, or sometimes onto wax rolls, which were subsequently transcribed and edited. For plot ideas, they borrowed heavily from earlier stories about gentleman-burglar Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc, the adventures of reporter-detective Rouletabille by Gaston Leroux, and the exploits of master-criminal Zigomar by Léon Sazie. Week Four, Souvestre and Allain exchanged copies, wrote transitional paragraphs to get in and out of each other's sections, and submitted the manuscript to Fayard. Voilà!


Why did Fantômas fascinate poets and painters of the Parisian Avant-Garde?

Avant-garde Parisian poets and painters simply loved the series. Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob founded a "Société des Amis de Fantômas" in 1912, and the avant-garde continued to devour the series through the 1920s. I have identified four formal characteristics of the series which the avant-garde found particularly inspiring: 1) Indeterminate identities—Fantômas is nearly always disguised as someone else, often several people in the same novel episode. 2) Fantômas as L'Insaisissable—the "Unseizable," the "Ever-evasive," the "Swerve," the "Dodge." 3) Truquage, or "gadgetry"—the "objective chance" of a world rigged in favor of Fantômas. 4) Unmotivated violence, simply for the fun of it. Georges Sadoul, Jacques Prévert, Raymond Queneau, and Yves Tanguy used to play a game in which one of them would call out a Fantômas title, and the other would try to guess the number of murders committed in that episode. The surrealists and Parisian avant-garde enjoyed Fantômas for these reasons, and sometimes it led them to produce their own Fantômas-inspired poems and paintings.


In your opinion, what painting or poetry dedicated to Fantômas captures the spirit of the literary work?

La complainte de Fantômas by Robert Desnos best captures the flavor of Fantômas in poetry. The cubist collage by Juan Gris, Fantômas (Pipe and Newspaper), is the painting which best captures the sense of the fantastic in everyday life. René Magritte is the most consistent surrealist champion of Fantômas; L'homme du large, L'assassin menacé, Le barbare, and Le retour de flamme are all Fantômas-inspired paintings by Magritte. Recently, Belgian surrealist Earnest Moerman has been receiving renewed attention for his Fantômas-inspired work, but I am not familiar with it.


Can we talk about avant-garde characteristics in the literary work of Allain and Souvestre?

Not self-consciously. Souvestre and Allain were very bourgeois journalists, at odds with the avant-garde currents of the day (they lampoon a fictitious literary journal, "Littéraria," in Les Amours d'un prince. Souvestre was a political Bonapartist. Publisher Arthème Fayard II was a member of the proto-fascist Action Française. Fantômas film director for Gaumont, Louis Feuillade, was an ultra-Catholic and monarchist. These are not the kinds of people who sign surrealist manifestoes.

Instead, the avant-garde characteristics of Souvestre and Allain's series were entirely unconscious. In the fourth issue of La révolution Surréaliste, Philippe Soupault wrote, "Celui de Pierre Souvestre et de Marcel Allain, les auteurs de Fantômas... Je mets au défi n'importe quel écrivain d'écrire et à plus forte raison de dicter quatorze heures successivement et pendant plusiers jours sans obéir à un automatisme absolu." ["Concerning the example of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, the authors of Fantômas... I challenge any author anywhere in the world to write, or even more to dictate, fourteen hours a day, day after day, without finding himself under the total control of an absolute automatism."] Souvestre and Allain were avant-garde despite themselves. (Later in life, Allain enjoyed being something of a celebrity among the French literati; this is very much in evidence in the "Fantômas?... c'est Marcel Allain" special number of La tour de feu, 1965.)


Which are the main differences between Fantômas and other pulp heroes?

Fantômas is the supreme anti-hero: "Lord of Terror," "Emperor of Crime," "Genius of Evil." He commits burglary, theft, scams, murder, large-scale disaster, he gets away with it all. Every time. The idea that the criminal always gets away and the good guys never win is fairly atypical.


Where does the charm of Fantômas lie?

As Geoffrey O'Brien wrote in his Village Voice review of the Morrow reissue, "Fantômas is not a puzzle, but an intoxicant." Fantômas is a never-ending pulp-fiction carnival, an endless string of murders, thefts, disguises, pursuits, traps, confrontations, arrests, escapes, and not a bit of it plausible. It is the pleasure of shocking frissons, on a purely imaginary level. It is a perverse fantasy to be enjoyed at home.


Has the 20th century pulp novel been influenced by Fantômas?

Not in terms of the mystery novel. In the early twentieth century, when Fantômas was written, what we recognize today as the detective or crime novel (roman policier) had not yet fully taken shape. Fantômas stands somewhat outside the tradition which strings together Edgar Allen Poe, Emile Gaboriau, Arthur Conan Doyle, Maurice Leblanc, Agatha Christie, and Georges Simenon. Some people have suggested to me that Fantômas has more in common with James Bond, The Saint, and Doc Savage than the classical detective mystery; they may be right.

At the same time, I think there is one contemporary detective and crime series approximates Fantômas; Chester Himes's "Harlem Cycle," featuring detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. The combinations of action, violence, and fantastic imagery in Himes rivals that of Fantômas. Generally, Fantômas has sympathies with the "hardboiled" (roman noir, polar) detective novel in its combination of banality, disquiet, sensationalism, and violence.


What are the distinctive features of Fantômas, the first novel of the cycle?

The first novel is riddled with uncertainty about Fantômas; who or what is "Fantômas"? Over the course of the episode, a number of crimes are committed—the murder of the Marquise de Langrune at her chateau, the corpse of Lord Beltham is discovered in a trunk in the apartment of Gurn (an English soldier from South Africa), Russian Princess Sonia Danidoff is robbed of her jewels, the steamship Lancaster is blown up and sunk to the bottom of the sea, the Marquise's servant Dollon is thrown to his death from a speeding train. But it is entirely uncertain why these crimes are happening, or who is committing them. Towards the end of the novel, when Gurn is on trial for the murder of Lord Beltham, Inspector Juve claims that "Fantômas" has committed all these crimes, yet both judge and jury find the scenario completely fantastic and unbelievable. On the morning of Gurn's execution, an actor named Valgrand (who had been playing Gurn in a theatrical dramatization of Lord Beltham's murder) is executed instead. In a shock of realization, Inspector Juve rushes forward and retrieves the severed head from its basket, covered with actor's make-up and blood, and shouts, "Curses! Fantômas has escaped! Fantômas is free! He had an innocent man executed in his place! Fantômas! I tell you, Fantômas is alive!"


In that one, are the characteristics of the antihero defined?

One of the most delightful aspects of the first Fantômas novel is that it is unclear whether Fantômas is one criminal with multiple identities, or multiple criminals who use the same "Fantômas" name (as is the case with the "Grand Vampire" in Louis Feuillade's Fantômas-inspired film serial, Les Vampires, 1915-16). By the third novel, Le Mort qui tue, it is clear that he is one master criminal with a thousand faces. But even in the first novel, the fundamental characteristics of Fantômas are introduced: 1) He possesses multiple identities; 2) he always escapes from the clutches of Inspector Juve and journalist Fandor to return for another episode; 3) he commands a vast array of modern technologies; 4) he commits murder and crime without cause. He is, simply, the "Lord of Terror."


Does he evolve during the different novels? If so, which are the main changes that the personage experiences?

Fantômas does not evolve; he has multiple avatars. In the first twelve novels alone, Fantômas is businessman Etienne Rambert, English soldier Gurn, surgeon Dr. Chaleck, gang-leader Loupart, banker Nanteuil, German ambassador Baron de Naarbovek, the Marquis de Sérac, concierge Madame Cerion, tramp Ouaouaoua, con-man Père Moche, American detective Tom Bob, dentist Dr. Garrick, department store owner Monsieur Chapelard, Russian naval officer Ivan Ivanovitch, Tsar Nicholas II, Judge Pradier. When Fantômas is not impersonating someone, he simply appears en cagoule, in black tights, cape, and cowl, losing physically distinctive features altogether. The "man of a thousand faces" and the "man without a face" are one and the same. But whatever his aspect, he is always Fantômas.


Why did Fantômas disappear? Were Souvestre and Allain exhausted? Had the times changed?

Exhaustion is a good guess. In the final novel in the original series, La Fin de Fantômas, Fantômas announces to Inspector Juve that they are twin brothers as the criminal and policeman slide together into a watery grave as the steamship "Gigantic" sinks to the bottom of the ocean....

Souvestre died of influenza in April 1914, but Allain (after marrying Souvestre's widow) continued to write popular adventure fiction throughout his life, among which his most famous series, after Fantômas, were Tigris (26 volumes) and Fatalas (22 volumes). In 1926, Allain wrote the "Nouvelles aventures de Fantômas" in 34 weekly magazine installments (which were later combined into 5 novels). Allain occasionally continued to write Fantômas stories in newspaper installments and in comics until 1963 (he died in 1969).

—End of interview—


Review of Pulp Surrealism by Linda White from the Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 55.2 (Fall 2001).


Robin Walz is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alaska Southeast (Juneau), author of Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris, and co-creator of The Fantômas Website.


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