December 9, 2008

The Infusion by Leon Bloy, translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

The Infusion
An "Unsavory Tale" by Léon Bloy
Translated from the French by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert
(first English translation)

Jacques felt downright slimy. It was odious to stay there, in the dark, like some sacrilegious spy, while this woman, a perfect stranger to him, made her confession.

But then, he had failed to leave right away, as soon as the priest in his surplice had come in with her, or, at least, to make some noise which would have announced the presence of an intruder. Now it was too late and, no matter what he did, the wretched indiscretion could only worsen.

Idle, searching, like a louse, for a fresh lodging-site, at the end of a long, dog day, he had had a whimsical notion, not unlike so many other whimsical notions, of entering the old church and of sitting in the cool, dark corner behind the confessional, so as to doze, while watching the great rose window as it gradually dimmed.

After a few minutes, without knowing how or why, he found himself playing witness to a stark and startling confession.

It's true that the words were indistinct; they were, in fact, spoken in a whisper; but the colloquy, towards the end, grew markedly excited.

A few syllables, here and there, detached themselves and emerged ungarbled from the opaque flood of penitential chatter, though the young man who, through some miraculous irony, was the very contrary of an unscrupulous cad, dreaded, in all earnestness, to eavesdrop on some profession of guilt he would never have dreamed himself destined to overhear. Suddenly his worst apprehensions were realized. A violent maelstrom surged all around him. Towering waves roared and rumbled as they washed over him, as if rolling off the back of some submarine monster which had suddenly risen from the depths and broken the surface of a placid sea, and the listener, consumed with terror, heard these words proffered breathlessly:

"I tell you, Father, that I put some poison in his tea!"

Then, nothing. The woman, whose face wasn't visible, rose from the prayer stool, and silently slipped into the thicket of shadows. As for the man, he who'd been unwillingly cast in the role of priest, he kept as still as a corpse and several slow minutes elapsed before he opened the door and left, in his turn, taking the heavy steps of a man who has been thoroughly stunned.

It wasn't until he heard the persistent clinking of the beadle's keys, and the injunction to adjourn resounding through the chapel, that Jacques finally bestirred himself, so dumbfounded was he by those earlier whispered words still echoing inside him like Pandemonians in chorus.


He had recognized, unequivocally, the voice of his mother!

Oh, it was impossible to be mistaken! He had likewise recognized her silhouette, when she rose to her full height a few feet away.

Now what? The world was exploding in front of his eyes. Life had become some sort of twisted trick!

He lived alone with this mother, who had almost no visitors, and who never went out unless it was to do her errands. He venerated her with all his heart, as a peerless example of propriety and goodness.

As far back as he could remember, there had never been anything devious about her conduct or demeanor; not a bump on life's road, not a single misstep. It had been a beautiful shining path, winding out of sight, beneath a cloudless sky. And this, in spite of the fact that the poor woman's earthly existence had been full of forlornity and freighted with woe.

Since the death of her husband who was killed at Champigny and whom the young man barely remembered, she had never stopped mourning, and devoted herself exclusively to the education of her son, who never left her side for so much as a day. She shrank from the idea of sending him to school and, in dread of who knows what sorts of dubious persons he might come in contact, she took the burden of his instruction entirely upon herself, until his soul had been built with bits of hers. He drew from this regimen a restless disposition and uniquely vibrant nerves, which engendered in him a sensitivity to the most ridiculous aches and pains -- but also, perhaps, to very real dangers.

When he reached adolescence, the expected escapades and predictable pranks from which he was no more immune than anyone else his age, made her still sadder, but without altering her inherent tenderness. There were no reproaches or muted scenes. She accepted, like so many others before her, what was inevitable.

In the end, everyone spoke of her with respect, and it had been he, alone, of all the world, her cherished son, who had been forced today to find fault with her and to hold her in contempt -- and he did so on bended knee, with tears in his eyes, the way the angels would fault God if He didn't keep his promises!

Truly, he must be going mad! He wanted to hurl himself in the street. His mother! A poisoner! It made no sense, it was absurd a thousand times over, it was absolutely impossible, and yet, there could be no doubt. Hadn't she come forward to declare herself? It was tearing him apart.

But a poisoner of whom? Good God! No one of his acquaintance had been poisoned to death. It couldn't have been his father, who had been sprayed in the stomach by a machine gun. Neither could it have been himself whom she had tried to kill. He had never been sick, had never needed any medicinal infusions, and knew he was adored. The first time he came home late one evening, and the reason wasn't certain, she had been sick herself with worry.

Could she have been referring to an event that took place before he was born? His father had married her for her beauty, when she was barely twenty years old. Could this marriage have been preceded by some sort of gambit implicated in a crime?

Not likely. He knew the family's history and it was an open book; it had been told to him a hundred times and the testimony was definite. Whence, then, this terrible avowal? And why, oh why, did he, of all people, have to have been the one to hear it?

Surfeited with horror and despair, he straggled home.


No sooner had he come through the door, than his mother ran to embrace him:

"How late you're getting in, dear boy! And how pale you are! Are you coming down with something?"

"No," he replied, "I'm not ill, but this hot weather wears me out, and I don't feel much like eating. And you, Mother, are you feeling out of sorts? You stepped out, no doubt, for a little fresh air? I thought I saw you in the distance, along the embankment."

"I did go out, in fact, but you didn't see me on the embankment. I went to make confession -- something, I believe, you haven't done for a long time, sad to say."

Jacques was astonished not to be keeling over, stricken with apoplexy, as always happened at such moments in the novels he read.

It was true, then: she had been to make her confession! He hadn't been sleeping in the church, and this abominable catastrophe wasn't a nightmare as, a minute ago, he had begun to think.

He didn't keel over, but he grew very pale, and his mother looked alarmed.

"What's the matter with you, dear?" she wondered. "You're suffering, you're hiding something from your mother. You must have more confidence in the person who loves no one but you and has no one but you . . . How you're staring at me! My precious boy . . . What's the matter with you? . . . You're frightening me!"

She clasped him lovingly in her arms.

"Listen to me, my son. I am not a snoopy woman, as you know, and I don't want to judge you. You don't have to tell me anything, if you don't want to, but you must take care of yourself. You should get in bed right away. In a while, I'll fix you a fine repast, something very light, which I will bring to you myself, alright? And if you have a fever tonight, I'll make you a nice INFUSION...

Jacques, at this point, was rolling on the floor.

"At last," she sighed, somewhat wearily, while extending her hand towards a bell.

Jacques had had an aneurism and his mother had had a lover who didn't want to be a stepfather.

This simple drama was enacted three years ago, in the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The house where it was staged is scheduled for demolition.


A-G. explains: The Histoires désobligeantes are usually translated as Disagreeable Tales, meaning they leave a bad taste in the mouth; in a blurb on the back jacket of the Borges edition, Borges says:
Léon Bloy, collector of detestable characters, hospitably reserves, in his vast museum, a special place of honor for the French bourgeoisie. He inks his dark portraits with lugubrious tints which call to mind the nightmares of Quevedo and of Goya. But he was not only a terrorist of the pen; he was also capable, as the present book bears out, of crafting, in one of the most curious of these tales, one that prefigures Kafka; the argument could even be made that it was written by the latter, except that the ferocious manner of its execution couldn't belong to anyone but Bloy. Our times have given birth to the expression "black humor," the implicit attitude of which no one, up to the present day, has put into practice with greater efficacy and verbal richness than Léon Bloy." (trans. A-G)

Titles of the Unsavory Tales in Borges' edition, which includes 12 of the original stories (titles trans. A-G):
  1. The Infusion
  2. Geezer
  3. Mr. Weeply's Religion
  4. The Captives of Longjumeau
  5. A Mediocre Idea
  6. A Dentist's Terrible Punishment
  7. Whatever you like!
  8. The Final Blow
  9. A Martyr
  10. The Taint of Lucre
  11. Nobody's Perfect
  12. Cain's Luckiest Strike
A-G. explains: "The title and key phrase of our story 'The Infusion' could have been much more accessibly translated as 'a cup of broth' or 'an herbal infusion' (tea), but I went with the verbatim version because, in my mind, it carries weird and mysterious overtones. In any event, these are the sorts of challenges constantly confronting any translator of Bloy." (A-G. considers Bloy to be the most difficult-to-translate writer he has come across. For reference, recall that Asturias's Mirror of Lida Sal was considered untranslatable.)

Original Contents:

Covers for various editions of Histoires Désobligeantes
Unsavory Tales; never published in English)


The French artist Philippe Lamarre has illustrated a number of the Unsavory Tales on Le Croquis de Cote. These are copyright Philippe Lamarre.

I particularly love this Bloy-like character stomping face:

To settle the matter once and for all, I called on the American Mustache Institute to identify Bloy's mustache style. It is a "walrus" (as you might have expected), however, "it's girth almost propels it into a hybrid walrus-horseshoe."

Also see:

-- Gilbert Alter-Gilbert interview 1
-- "Lions of Literature: Léon Bloy" by Alter-Gilbert
--"Musings and Thunderings" of L
éon Bloy
-- "The Pilgrim of the Absolute" by Alter-Gilbert


  1. Thank you both very much for your posts on this fascinating fin-de-siecle character and his flashes of genius.

  2. A wonderful post, as always. And great (and, I'm almost certain, essential) research on the mustache front.

  3. This Bloy stuff has all been fascinating. I must track him down. The story you posted here reminded me of an extended version of one of Feneon's 'Novels in Three Lines'. And that face-stomping could be the murder scene from Jekyll and Hyde.

    Best name for facial hair: "buggers' grips" = enormous muttonchop whiskers

  4. This is really good stuff. I haven't come across much Bloy in English. I haven't really tried hunting him down much either, previously, though now I'm certainly curious about his stylistic turns in French.

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    Amanda, I included a slapdash bibliography of English translations at the end of one of the Bloy posts. (I had the anthologies with Bloy's stories in my collection long before Alter-Gilbert put Bloy front-and-center in my consciousness -- I feel salty for not catching on earlier.)

  6. I really enjoyed the Alter-Gilbert interview, and he is obviously very expert, but I wanted to read this story in the French. After finding it in the original I was a bit bemused to find that several of the most over-the-top passages are not by Bloy at all, but are apparently actually by Alter-Gilbert! Bloy's style is slightly more reined in that GAG would have us believe, I reckon :-) So, it's intriguing to find out that he says he found it very difficult to translate.

  7. Emma, keep those comments coming!

    By email, I'm sending you a response from Gilbert.


  8. Imagine going most of your life not knowing this would-be curmudgeon's work and is your great grand father
    Andrew Bloy, Los Angeles

  9. Andrew, would you be interested in doing a mini-interview about your newly-discovered ancestor? I think it would be interesting to hear your thoughts and comments.

    You can email me: ajourneyroundmyskull at gmail dot com.

    (Alter-Gilbert actually lives in the LA area.)

  10. There is two version -2 state- of Bloy La Tisane. The translator Gilbert didn't made an addition of is own. All the words he translate came from Bloy.
    Except when he add the word "ironic" in the expression "an ironic miracle". Bloy never write that.
    My big surprise is the way he translate the first occurrence in the text of the word "infusion" by "tea".So strange! when you think that all the power of this story is in the way Bloy play with this "killer word". Jacques died only because he heard his mother repeating the word "infusion".One of the great law of translation is always to translate the same word by the same word. Especially when all the power of the story lay on this word. Stunning.

    Ps I didn't heard a word on Gilbert during the 2007 colloquium on Le désespéré where i made my speech on "La question du père dans Le Désespéré". Did he came hiding under another name?! It was an international colloquium and I'm sure that the plane and everything would have be free to him.
    (sorry for my english).