Malpertuis

Glancing through the New York Times Books Update a few moments ago, I found a review of a novel. I quote: Marie Phillips’s first novel, “Gods Behaving Badly,” in which the 12 major deities of ancient Greece uneasily cohabit in a dilapidated town house in 21st-century London, dwelling just above the city’s “greasy tide” of human flesh.

This sounded as though it might be fun, but it also reminded me of something. It took me a moment (and Google) to remember exactly what. I had an image of Orson Welles, and a sailor in a back street of a European port, frantically knocking a closed door. It didn’t take long to track the memory down. A Dutch film, made in 1972, called Malpertuis, based on a curious Belgian book of the same name by Jean Ray (aka John Flanders). I saw it in the Electric in Portobello Road, with another film by the same director, Harry Kumel, in a double bill with Daughters of Darkness, of which I recall nothing. Malpertuis, on the other hand, I remember in the way one remembers certain dreams: an atmosphere, a bedroom, the details of the house, an argument about money, an overall disquiet. Colours and moods, and Orson Welles a brooding and presiding spirit.

What brought the film (and book) to mind, though, was an odd coincidence. Like Marie Phillips’ novel, Malpertuis describes the travails of the Greek gods imprisoned, far from their time and world, in a dilapidated northern European house. I wonder if Phillips has seen the film, or read the book. Clearly, none of her reviewers has. Maybe it’s the kind of good idea that more than one person can come up with. But it would be nice if people were led back by the novel to Jean Ray’s weird and forgotten work, and to Harry Kumel’s film.

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