Translated from Italian by Anne Milano Appel
(New York/London/Amsterdam: World Editions, 2019)
In his recent essay, “The Contemporary American Novella and its (Dis)Contents,” John Keene makes an interesting point about publishing fiction: despite evidence that social media has contributed to a permanent shortening of our attention spans and has increased readers’ difficulties with linguistic and lexical complexity, the novella has long been treated as a pariah among publishers. “In fact,” Keene writes, “many American publishers, agents, and journal editors respond to novellas as if handling nuggets of uranium; they neither like them nor know what to do with them.”
Having just finished Paulo Maurensig’s A Devil Comes to Town, it’s a sentiment I relate to and that, too bad for me, seems to be worsening as I’ve continued to think about, and re-read passages from, this oddly frightening little book. The plot, on the surface, is straightforward enough: Father Cornelius has been relocated to a remote Swiss community called Dichtersruhe (translates to “poet’s repose”) to assist a septuagenarian parish priest as he prepares to retire after fifty years of service. Father Cornelius soon notices, though, that the townspeople are a touch bizarre. They’re welcoming to tourists in the summertime when money can be made, then clamp down severely and cruelly in the winter months, rejecting all outsiders outright — including Father Cornelius.
But what’s more peculiar is Dichtersruhe’s obsession with Goethe, whose bronze statue takes the place of honor in the center of the square. Apparently, Goethe had passed a night in town while a local blacksmith repaired the wheel hub of the carriage he was riding, and the townspeople have been exploiting this non-event ever since. Three families, in fact, claim to have housed Goethe in their inns that night and, absurdly, a nail that may have served as Goethe’s coat hook has been spun into an artifact of tremendous (and totally fictional) literary importance.
Dichtersruhe is insular and, sure, their obsession with Goethe is overblown — but something about Father Cornelius’ description of the town feels disingenuous. As a narrator, he’s incredibly oblique and, when he discovers that most of the townspeople are writers (though none successful, and hardly any with more than modest literary ambitions) his shock and horror settles uneasily in the stomach. Father Cornelius, our narrator and guide, may be a nut:
My brain now operated on a one-way track: at the cafe Oetker, where I went to look at the newspapers, I would strain my ears to try to hear what was being said at the nearby tables. Though they were perhaps talking about sports or politics, I had the impression that the subject of the conversations, filtered through my mind’s obsessed fixation, was always the same single one: great literature.
It’s a huge amount of fun to be taken on a journey by an unreliable narrator. I’d argue, too, that it may be even more fun when that journey is constricted to the novella genre. In his essay, Keene explains that the novella falls in a nebulous zone between two extremes. On one end of the spectrum is the short story with its restrictive narrative scope. On the other is the novel, which accesses nearly limitless avenues to explore consciousness, experience, and plot. The novella, Keene writes, is special: it “offers a glimpse of life, richy and deeply dramatized, but not the whole.”
A Devil Comes to Town capitalizes on the brief, dramatized glimpse of life; time and plot are compressed so that it’s difficult to draw conclusions about Father Cornelius, and the result is wonderfully disorienting. When Father Cornelius abruptly announces that the devil has arrived in Dichtersruhe — a fresh outbreak of rabies among the village foxes serve as divine warning — it’s hard to dismiss his premonition as the ravings of a lunatic. After all, he is a religious man. His belief in the devil is not unexpected, nor is his association between the plagues of Egypt and the sudden rabies epidemic too far of a stretch. But, after all animals suspected of infection have been thrown into a pit and covered in quicklime, ending the threat, Father Cornelius takes a strange mental leap:
If the phenomenon had ceased, it was because the devil had already set foot in the area. But only I knew about his arrival. Now it was a matter of identifying him, a job that could prove to be no small task. Then too, one had to wonder how he would act, what strategy he would apply to a peaceful community of valley-dwellers characterized by such a cautious, suspicious nature.
The devil’s strategy, as it turns out, is to take on the form of a publisher from Lucerne, complete with raucous laugh, greasy black hair, and incisors shaped like scalpels. He’s come, purportedly, to shine light on the literary talent in Dichtersruhe, a city that Goethe could simply not have passed through fruitlessly! Again, it’s difficult to choose sides; Father Cornelius’ accusation feels just as much out of the bounds of reality as the publisher’s baseless arrival.
The initial interaction between Father Cornelius and the publisher elevates A Devil Comes to Town from fable to psychological thriller. The narrative remains oblique but Father Cornelius’ description of the publisher provides some evidence of his psychic unraveling. “And the voice,” he rambles, “that voice, which seems to hold the secret of his charm, is sonorous, trained, with no irregularities or peaks – though if the frequency were slowed down using a magnetic tape, it would reveal a background of sighs and moans.”
But Father Cornelius doesn’t act on his suspicions or voice his concerns as the publisher makes his pitch to the retiring parish priest. Though he asserts he could out the devil with a quick splash of holy water, Father Cornelius stands silently in place as if paralyzed. And, when he does finally speak, it is only to suggest (apropos of nothing!) that the village establish a literary award, thereby ensuring the publisher (devil or not) will stay in town. Is he under the devil’s influence? Or is he motivated by his own Faust-inspired wickedness?
The beauty of A Devil Comes to Town is that the narrative moves forward so quickly we can’t linger too long on these unanswered questions. Father Cornelius finds his time increasingly committed to reading the manuscripts the townspeople have submitted for review by the publisher, much to his displeasure. And, because he rejects everything he reads, the townspeople become agitated, physically attacking each other in the street. Then something in Father Cornelius snaps:
Already during those long hours devoted to the close scrutiny of those manuscripts, I would sometimes lose my concentration: while the words continued to flow, meaningless, before my eyes, my mind wandered elsewhere, on a parallel path, where unspeakable things flared up. They were thoughts that I had tried in every way to bury, thoughts that should never cross the mind of a God-fearing man, let alone a priest. […] I had to put an end to all this. But what weapons did I have to confront him with?
What weapons! Exorcism? A bundle of sticks? A gun? The options are truly endless (and likely ineffectual) when the enemy is not fully mortal. As Father Cornelius weighs his options, details about his life before Dichtersruhe begin to slip out and, in a blink, he’s here before us, fully exposed.
But, before we can evaluate this new information, Maurensig deftly snatches him back: the narrative switches to an unnamed writer reading an anonymous account of Father Cornelius’ encounter with the devil as he clears out his workroom. As my head swims with questions about Father Cornelius, the devil, and the damn foxes, the writer flips through the manuscript, leisurely debating its fate. Should it be sent to a publisher or tossed in the trash?
The loose plot threads bring me back to Keene’s essay, which suggests that a key element of the novella is the point of closure, the ending that suggests more could happen if only the author would let it. As the writer equivocates, posing some generic questions about the ethics of publishing, we’re given a brief moment to consider a deeper, implicit, question: Is the manuscript a work of fiction? Or is it a confession? A Devil Comes to Town is a brilliant form of torture, a perfect nugget of uranium: Maurensig leads us to the question, dangling it like bait, then reels in, packs his belongings, and just goes.
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Lisa Grgas is the Associate Poetry Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Tin House Magazine, Adroit Journal, Luna Luna, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
You can purchase A Devil Comes to Town here.