My Fantoms

The French critic and man of letters Théophile Gautier is best known, at least on these shores, as a kind of father figure to the Bohemian romantics of 19th-century Paris, famous for his coinage of that enduring mantra “Art for Art’s Sake.” In the hands of his sure-footed translator, the biographer Richard Holmes, however, he is a master in his own right, the author of the seven gothic phantasmagoria collected in My Fantoms. The “Fantoms” of the title are, variously, apparitions and seductresses emerging from death and worlds beyond in pursuit of an earthly love (“fantom” is itself a “decorous, slightly arch” term of Holmes’s own invention). Gautier’s heroes are men treading the line between dream-states and madness, prone to romantic reverie at the hands of the women who enchant them. With the exception of “The Poet” — less a story than a eulogy to Gautier’s dearest friend, the writer Gérard de Nerval — they share an otherworldliness, a sense that the line between reality and the imagination is more porous than we tend to believe. In “The Tourist,” for instance, a young traveler, obsessed by the perfect cast of one of Pompeii’s ash-encrusted women on display at a museum in Naples, is transported across the centuries to meet his ideal love, alive in the streets of that ill-fated city. “The Priest,” one of Gautier’s more outré creations, marries the French erotic tradition with a gothic sensibility: the result is a boldly transgressive tale, replete with a vampiress, a splintered self, and a glancing exploration of necrophilia. Like Onuphrius, his alter ego in “The Painter,” Gautier is an artist who “almost invariably?injected everyday events with some grotesque element on his own fantasy.” We are luckier for it.