[Dalkey Archive Press; 2022]
Tr. from the French by Caitlin O’Neil
Corinne Hoex’s Gentlemen Callers is a whimsical and sensual collection of shorts, each one a recounting of a dream in which the narrator is enticed by a different man. Originally published in French under the title in Valets de nuit in 2015, Gentlemen Callers is one of nine works of prose from Belgian writer and poet Corinne Hoex and one of the few books of hers that has been translated into English. The chapters are each titled after a profession, ranging from gas station attendant to baker to executioner. No longer than three pages, every chapter sees the narrator not just lusting after different men but sometimes changing forms entirely so that each fantasy is a different sensual adventure. She becomes a fly trying to siphon away the icing off of the baker’s delicacies, a Persian cat in the hands of a groomer, a wave breaking over the naked body of a young pirate.
Every section is prefaced with a quote from literature (primarily French classics) that have something to say about the man’s profession though the book would be served better by sticking to a more minimalist approach. Without the quotes, the sections could be read as entries in a dream journal, written with humor for anyone who might sneak a peek at the writer’s bedside journal. The language flows and the reader gets the sense that the narrator has just woken up and is frantically trying to capture the details and chase the feeling that each dream encounter gave her before it drifts away in the light of day. Take this passage, for example, from “The Hunter”:
I’m a shaded forest. I have tall trees with dark roots, dense copses and murky old growth, ravines, undergrowth, nettles, and brambles. I have immense beech trees and proud oaks. I have clearings, too, gaps in the brush where the moon penetrates and caresses my moss. I have fairies, witches, ogresses, elves. I have divinities, nymphs, undines, and charming dryads lounging placidly within my canopy. And I have does, of course, and vixens, and ladybugs, damselflies, every sort of insect that crawls and that flies and that you can’t even see. I am a forest inhabited by mystery, filled with the fluttering of wings, with silent flight, with whispered movements, with quivering, with animal cries. A forest alive with its humming, its uneasy hooting, its crazed calls.
The level of detail given to the reader in this passage comes on quick, as if the narrator were in a hurry to describe the lushness of this dream before it leaves her. She writes down each detail as it comes to mind, rebuilding her dream world on the page. In this case, a forest from a magical land with “fairies, witches, elves, nymphs, undines,” and more, but also a forest alive with lust and sensuality as evoked by the use of descriptors like “fluttering,” “quivering,” and “crazed.”
In a recent essay (also translated by O’Neill), Hoex discusses her process while writing Gentleman Callers. She wrote it in the summer, spending her mornings swimming in the Mediterranean, letting the movement guide her thoughts. In the afternoons she sat down to capture what her mind had dreamed up during her morning swim. Of dreams, Hoex says, “…dreams are never vague. They contain details that are precise, even.” It’s the precision of the details that allow each dream to read as a dream. After all, how many of us bother to write down a dream if the details are not bright in our minds upon waking?
Hoex harnesses the female gaze, turning it upon men in every corner of the world, sometimes deceiving them by changing her form and having her way with them, not unlike the god Zeus. She puts women’s desire front and center, subverting the common trope of men sexualizing women as they go about their day, as they do their jobs. The tone is playful, sometimes outright funny, and yet, Hoex’s narrator is totally in control. She teases these men, makes them want her or tricks them entirely. She rejects them, plays with them, does as she pleases. Sometimes she even endangers them in the service of female desire, as can be seen in “The Aviator,” where she turns herself into a cloud allowing the aviator’s plane to “penetrate” her. Though as he does so, “his fuselage rattles”’ and “his entire hull trembles.” In service of the narrator’s pleasure, the aviator’s plane is falling apart, meaning that after the narrator’s petite morte, there’s a sure death awaiting him. Hoex’s narrator keeps it light though. We don’t see his death on the page. The narrator as a cloud tells us only how her desire is satisfied: “I gather myself, soft, pillowy, I curl my loving tendrils around him. I expand, thicken, condense. A cloud cover with a sweet, damp scent. A writhing mist, vapor suspended ––whose raindrops ––oh God! ––are ready to fall!”. We can infer that in addition to the raindrops, the plane has also fallen, but the narrator gives little thought to this. She has no guilt. And why should she? After all, these are her dreams, are they not? These men are anonymous outside of their professions and even their professions serve only to creatively appease female desire.
Though I haven’t had a chance to read the original French, Caitlin O’Neil’s translation is playful, full of clever double entendres. My favorite encounter is the museum guard, a man whose sexiest quality is his moustache and whose seduction techniques change depending on which art he’s been guarding most recently:
Before a Hieronymus Bosche, the moustache will bristle, sharp and glinting. The teeth beneath will venture quick nips . . . Near a Botticelli, the lips will surrender themselves to my hand, full of reverie . . . In the Rubens hall, in front of the overflowing flesh, the bared throats, the kiss will be enthusiastic, the moustache impassioned . . . Alas for a while now, my guard has been stationed in the abstracts hall. His kiss is suffering the effects: distant and cerebral.
Luckily for us, Hoex’s prose as rendered by O’Neil isn’t distant at all.
Kaycie Hall is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn, NY by way of Jackson, MS. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Bennington College. Her work has appeared in Autofocus, Neutral Spaces and Triangle House Review among other places.
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