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the Complete Review
the complete review - non/fiction

     

The Cathedral of Mist

by
Paul Willems


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Cathedral of Mist



Title: The Cathedral of Mist
Author: Paul Willems
Genre: various
Written: 1983 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 111 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Cathedral of Mist - US
The Cathedral of Mist - UK
The Cathedral of Mist - Canada
La cathédrale de brume - Canada
La cathédrale de brume - France
  • French title: La cathédrale de brume
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Edward Gauvin
  • With illustrations by Bette Burgoyne

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Our Assessment:

B+ : small collection, but very nice pieces

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       The Cathedral of Mist collects six short pieces of fiction, as well as two pieces reflecting on 'Reading' and 'Writing'.
       Belgian author Paul Willems traveled widely in his day job, scouting entertainment productions across the world, and several of the pieces take the narrator (and/or author) to unusual spots: Bulgaria in 1954, Beijing shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Locales figure prominently regardless of how close: in the first story, the haunting Requiem for Bread, it is just Ostend, yet in many ways this destination takes him as far as anywhere he travels.
       Willem is extremely effective in just a short space: the first story begins impressively enough, in a scene closing with the narrator's cousin explaining to the young boy: "When a knife touches bread, the bread screams" -- and then immediately takes an even darker turn. There is no indulgent explanation here: Willems presents a variety of short scenes, from both child- and adult-hood, forming connections in a lovely but dark piece.
       Willems is an evocative writer -- nowhere more obviously than in the title piece, in which he spins a story of what is literally a cathedral of mist, built by an architect after he: "renounced the use of stone". Yes, "construction was difficult" -- but Willems sketches just enough, and that very vividly, to make it all somehow plausible.
       'An Archbishop's Flight' takes the narrator to Finland, where the purchase of a fur hat -- a 'kloopki' -- sets in motion a series of encounters and events that also allows him to fulfil his ambition of traveling: "To see the forests of the north, and spend a winter's night in the woods". Even as it feels like a light sort of story -- almost fairy-tale-like --, without all that much to it beyond the exoticness and oddity of how events proceed (which nevertheless feels entirely natural), there's a pleasing solidity to it, and the almost magical feel to it lingers agreeably.
       The two pieces on 'Reading' and 'Writing' are more straightforward -- but also help suggest more about the man behind these writings, including his passion for reading:

Reading demands an almost religious attitude from us, since with each reading we celebrate a work, which is to say a creation, and since together, all the books in a library enact the creation of the world. The inner world. This is why it matters so much where we read, just as it matter where we enact a ritual.
       There are powerful images in both the stories and the non-fiction pieces, including that of the tightrope walker about whom Willems writes:
He knew himself condemned to perfection. Death was the penalty for the slightest misstep.
       Willems' precisely written pieces suggest he too felt 'condemned to perfection' -- even if he did not face death in failure. But he suggests it wouldn't be the worst thing if the stakes were higher, or considered higher:
     A fearful and marvelous thing it would be, if poets fell from steel tightropes when they failed at their books. We'd know what to make of things. But that wouldn't last long. Mediocre poets would work with a net and land languidly, taking their bows.
       The pieces in The Cathedral of Mist are beautifully crafted, and very evocative, taking unusual turns with a natural ease that separates Willem from writers who much more willfully embrace the strange.
       A nice little discovery (and, in the pocket-sized Wakefield Press edition, a lovely little physical volume, too -- making it easier to take along to read in just the perfect surroundings and circumstances, as Willem would have wanted).

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 October 2016

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Links:

The Cathedral of Mist: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Paul Willems lived 1912 to 1997.

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© 2016 the complete review

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