Shaggy Dog Fable

Bluebeard: A Tale

by Max Frisch, translated by Geoffrey Skelton
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 134 pp., $10.95

The story of Bluebeard; who married seven wives and killed six of them, until the seventh went exploring behind a forbidden door, seems to have its roots in the folklore of Celtic Brittany. Perhaps the original Bluebeard was a sixth-century tribal chieftain named, delightfully, Comorre the Cursed; perhaps before that he was a priest, an order of priests, or a deity with a penchant for human sacrifice. (His blue beard, otherwise irrelevant, may recall the ancient practice of staining oneself blue with dyer’s woad.) The story has dozens of analogies from dozens of different countries and cultures; it is evidently a deep female fantasy of which ripples are still felt in nineteenth-century novels like Jane Eyre and in the thousands of cheap romances which to this day rewrite with little or less literary skill this fable of female innocence and male villainy.

In the course of history, the story of Bluebeard got attached (rather adventitiously, for a fact) to the name of Gilles de Rais (or de Retz), fifteenth-century marshal of France, who had fought in the English wars alongside Joan of Arc. After squandering his enormous inheritance, Gilles took up alchemy as a quick way to wealth, and meanwhile, as an independent diversion, began kidnapping from the Breton peasantry children, mostly boys, whom he tortured and murdered. His final count has been estimated as high as 140; but Gilles had only one wife, and he did not murder her. She left him, and after due inquiry his misdeeds were uncovered. He was hanged in 1440.

Thus Bluebeard’s story, apart from being quite different, long antedated him. Gilles was grafted onto it, or it onto him, two scions of the same evil stock. In the late seventeenth century, Charles Perrault, already known for his verbal duels with Boileau over the ancients-vs.-moderns question, included “Bluebeard” in a set of prose fables which we know today as the Mother Goose Tales.

Max Frisch, who has revived (and revised) the story of Bluebeard in a short, quasi-parabolic book, is a versatile Swiss man of letters with a practiced talent for deliberately fragmented and enigmatic writings. I’m Not Stiller, his first, best-known, and still best book, studied a divided personality, one element of which was intent on repudiating the other; its theme of guilt disintegrating a nonpersonality only vaguely aware of what was being done to it would provide a constant pattern for Frisch’s work. Homo Faber was a fable of technological man brought to destruction by the ancient Fates—as well as by an inopportune itch for slender easy young things. Man in the Holocene, though ostensibly about a single senile citizen overwhelmed by his past and fading out in the Ticino, was full of portentous echoes about the deteriorating human condition. Thus one can hardly help reading Bluebeard for its overtones, especially since its texture as a narration is diaphanous and full of holes. Dr. Felix Theodor Schaad, a Zurich specialist in internal medicine, has married seven …

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