Friday, March 19, 2010

Kerfol

Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937

World War I left Edith Wharton “haunted by the dead” and “Paris became for her a spectral and melancholy city,” remarks Hermione Lee in her recent biography. The decimation of Wharton’s beloved France affected and infected her writing, but the “strangest piece of fiction to come out of her war years was a story called ‘Kerfol’” (1916). A wealthy bachelor, urged by friends to purchase a home in Brittany, finds the estate of Kerfol devoid of human presence and populated instead by a pack of eerily silent dogs. Directed to a regional chronicle by a local resident, the narrator reads the 200-year-old account of a woman terrorized by her jealous husband, a mysterious and gruesome murder, and the sensational trial of the survivor—a mix that R.W.B. Lewis calls “one of Edith Wharton’s finest exercises in the imagination of violence, terror, and the erotic.”

You ought to buy it,” said my host; “it’s just the place for a solitary-minded devil like you. And it would be rather worth while to own the most romantic house in Brittany. The present people are dead broke, and it’s going for a song—you ought to buy it.”

It was not with the least idea of living up to the character my friend Lanrivain ascribed to me (as a matter of fact, under my unsociable exterior I have always had secret yearnings for domesticity) that I took his hint one autumn afternoon and went to Kerfol. My friend was motoring over to Quimper on business: he dropped me on the way, at a cross-road on a heath, and said: “First turn to the right and second to the left. Then straight ahead till you see an avenue. If you meet any peasants, don’t ask your way. They don’t understand French, and they would pretend they did and mix you up. I’ll be back for you here by sunset—and don’t forget the tombs in the chapel.”

I followed Lanrivain’s directions with the hesitation occasioned by the usual difficulty of remembering whether he had said the first turn to the right and second to the left, or the contrary. If I had met a peasant I should certainly have asked, and probably been sent astray; but I had the desert landscape to myself, and so stumbled on the right turn and walked across the heath till I came to an avenue. It was so unlike any other avenue I have ever seen that I instantly knew it must be the avenue. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!


8 comments:

Amanda said...

"he must have talked with Pascal. . . ."
I don't understand this reference. Will someone please explain?

Roberta SchulbergGoro said...

I guess this story is alright for a whodunnit. So-so reading.

Anonymous said...

@Amanda: Famous as a proponent of the “scientific method,” Blaise Pascal, like Hervé de Lanrivain, converted to Jansenism. Later in life Pascal underwent a “mystical” experience. Wharton here is making a little joke about reason and faith, science and ghosts: see the Wikipedia entry on “Pascal’s Wager.”

Amanda said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

A little anti-climactic when seen in the light of later gothic fiction but a fine piece of its period. I enjoyed the tight construction and the irony at the end.

Pam said...

Amanda,

Blaise Pascal, the famous mathematician, became a Jansenist. The narrator presumes he must have met Herve at some point.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the setting of the narrarot reading this from a dusty old volume of family history and describing the red-crayon drawing. It added to eerie-mystery feeling. The last line was pretty good too.

Sirbano said...

too many thanks I enjoyed it.