I’m pretty sure the fault is in me rather than in Delia Sherman’s story, but as I read the first few pages of “La Fee Verte” I kept thinking of the pilot episode of Angel. As Our Heroine, Victorine, is approached for no apparent reason by the title character (“exquisitely thin … dark eyes huge and bruised in her narrow face”; her name is never translated in the story, although the frequent references to (a) absinthe and (b) green silk should be enough to jog most peoples’ memory), and recoils in astonishment as the enigmatic woman relates events from her past, I kept thinking of the half-demon Doyle appearing out of nowhere and doing the same for Angel. So I was all ready for Victorine to turn around and say, “Okay, you’ve told me the story of my life which, since I was there, I already knew … why aren’t I kicking you out?” (Or, given the setting, some 19th-century Parisian equivalent). Instead:
When the tale was done, La Fee Verte allowed her tears to overflow and trickle, crystalline, down her narrow cheeks. Enchanted, Victorine wiped them away and licked their bitter salt from her fingers. She was inebriated, she was enchanted. She was in love.
I very nearly gave up on the story then and there, because the moment felt unjustified and overwritten, and because it seemed highly unlikely that a character who fell in love on such dubious grounds was someone I was going to enjoy spending the best part of fifty pages with. (“La Fee Verte” is, I think, the longest story in Salon Fantastique.) But I didn’t give up, because many other people have spoken highly of the story, and in the end I’m glad to have read it: I think it’s quite far from being one of the best stories in the book, but it’s enjoyable, with a few moments that raise it above the ordinary.
The first promising moment, in fact, occurs only a few paragraphs later, when it transpires that the stories La Fee Verte tells of Victorine’s past aren’t quite true. “Little by little,” we are told, “Victorine came to depend on [these revisions], as a drunkard depends on his spirits, to mediate between her and her life.” The explicit parallel with drunkenness is probably unnecessary, but the conceit of an addiction to a seer’s visions — not to mention a seer who enables such addiction — is an interesting one. Things between the two women quite quickly sour, though, as La Fee Verte becomes entangled with a (male) client, a writer “of novels in the vein of M. Jules Verne”, to whom she divulges clearly absurd visions of the future, such as a man on the moon who “plants a flag in the dust, scarlet and blue and white, marching in rows of stripes and little stars.” Since this was the US flag at the time the story is set, it’s perhaps a little surprising that La Fee Verte doesn’t recognise it, but the moment serves its purpose, such that when the seer tells Victorine that she is destined to be loved, we know that she is telling the truth.
Gradually Paris as a place asserts itself, and some of the best parts of the rest of the story contribute to a portrait of a city in flux. The story takes place between winter of 1868, when Victorine and La Fee Verte first meet, and autumn of 1870, when Paris is besieged by the Prussian army. Victorine has a succession of lovers, and through her eyes we see the effects that the change in government and fortune is having on the city and its people. At one point, during a relationship with a colonel, Victorine finds herself at an extravagant dinner that “belonged more properly to last month, last year, two years ago”, and feels herself “lost in one of La Fee Verte’s visions, where past, present, and future exist as one.” Such feelings of instability, brought about by the rigid class divisions in the city, are almost eerie, as is the lingering sense — reinforced by La Fee Verte’s periodic appearances — that though Paris too is destined to be loved, the course will not be a smooth one. Which (indulge me) I suppose you could say parallels how I feel about Salon Fantastique. I haven’t been writing about the stories in order; and this is my last post, although “La Fee Verte” is, in fact, the first story in the book. So I know that for anyone who reads the book through, there will be ups and downs, but I think it is probably destined to be loved. There are stories here worth loving.