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Marcel Schwob: a Man of the Future

By Stephen Sparks.

Historian and biographer Pierre Champion once characterized French writer Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) as “a man of the future.” It seems an odd assessment of a man who insistently looked to the past. Born into a family of rabbis and doctors, Schwob’s life was strongly marked by an obsessive fascination with bygone historical epochs: he studied Sanskrit; translated Catullus, Defoe, and Shakespeare; he spent his brief adult years studying, with the intention of publishing the definitive study of, fifteenth century outlaw poet Francois Villon. His stories, when not set in antiquity or the Middle Ages, are ripe with allusions to legends, lost customs, nearly forgotten mythologies and characters from the fringes of empire and art. Under the aegis of his uncle, Leon Cahun (great-uncle of the artist Claude Cahun), the curator and librarian of the famous Bibliothèque Mazarine, Marcel spent his formative years surrounded by a rich collection of books and manuscripts, including the Mazarine Bible, printed by Gutenberg himself. When he was sixteen, he wrote and abandoned a novel set in ancient Rome. It could be said that Schwob grew up at the end of the 19th century, but came of age in antiquity.

Champion’s insight may have been less a characterization of Schwob’s gaze than his destiny. In the century following his premature death, Schwob appears to have been all but forgotten. This despite numbering among his admirers Jules Renard, Mallarmé, Paul Valéry and Alfred Jarry (who both dedicated books to Schwob), Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Borges, and Roberto Bolaño. Despite periodic dustings off—Solar Books published a translation, by “Lady Jane Orgasmo,” of his secretly influential Imaginary Lives a few years ago that is already out-of-print and difficult to find—there seems to be little reason to revise Roger Shattuck’s claim, made in 1955, that Schwob is a “singularly neglected figure.”

The history of literature is, of course, strewn with the neglected, the misunderstood, the forgotten, the never fully realized, and minor figures more influential than renowned. If one were to draw a Venn diagram comprised of each of these categories, Marcel Schwob, along with a handful of others, would be at the heart of their intersections. But how, one despairs, can a man praised so highly during his own life fall completely by the wayside posthumously, as if it was his vitality alone that kept him from obscurity? Unlike many forgotten writers, especially those aligned with movements, Schwob’s preoccupations were not too narrow in scope. He has not aged poorly or grown musty with time. Why, then, has it been his fate to suffer near total effacement?

Certainly, he died too young to cement his legacy. The last years of his brief life were marked by excruciating pain—the effects of debilitating stomach cancer—that made it difficult for him to work at any sustained level, and so he left behind a tantalizing list of incomplete or dreamt-of projects: the aforementioned biography of Francois Villon; a life of Saint Francis; a study of Angelique de Longueval; along with plays, translations, and tales. (Fleur Jaeggy, in a beautiful meditation on Schwob, lists a few evocative titles of his unwritten works: Océanide, Vaililoa, Captain Crabbe.) Like his friend and correspondent Robert Louis Stevenson, about whom he wrote a perceptive essay, Schwob was forced to seek a better climate due to poor health. Unlike Stevenson, he was unable to work under the conditions imposed upon him by 19th century sea travel. After a disastrous trip to Samoa, he returned to France and eventually settled down no further from Paris than an island on the Seine, the Ile Saint-Louis, where during the last two years of his life he regaled visitors, as health permitted, with informal salons, where by all accounts his prodigious learning was fully on display.

The most tempting and recurrent argument about Schwob’s obsolescence has been put forward by several of his admirers: namely, that Schwob’s learning was too great or specialized and his interests too esoteric for the mythical common reader. Scholar John Green stated as much explicitly in an essay on Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, characterizing Schwob as “a man of versatile talents and extraordinary erudition… which almost immediately carried him beyond the reach of the general reading public.” William Brown Meloney V, an early and imperfect translator of The Book of Monelle, makes a similar assessment of one of the writer’s satires, characterizing it as a masterpiece, but “too rare a feast.”

Although I think this argument does disservice to Schwob and serious readers, it would be would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand; Schwob was by any standard a bookish man. In John Erskine’s phrasing, he was given to “think much about experience before he had it, and to approach it with heavy prepossessions built up from his reading,” and while his work is ripe with obscure allusions, the course of literature in the twentieth century has prepared modern readers for just this type of literature. Borges, whose indebtedness to Schwob may not be obvious but is profound, is a writer against whom similar charges could be leveled.

By condemning Schwob to the category of the myopic scholar tracing obscure references through a series of increasingly arcane books and manuscripts, we risk overshadowing his emotional sensitivity, which is as keen as his erudition and is the mark of an artist who deserves a better fate. This sensitivity manifests itself in his curiosity about the individual, which is apparent in the preface to Imaginary Lives, a book once described, in a quaint (and, to modern ears, damning) romantic manner, as the “lives of some poets, gods, assassins and pirates, and several princesses and gallant ladies.” In a passage lamenting the inadequacies of ancient biographers—“Misers all,” he sighs, “valuing only politics or grammar”—Schwob emphasizes his belief in the necessity of an art that unclassifies rather than classifies, one that cares less for the sweeping generalization than it does in uncovering each individual’s anomalies:

Contrary to history, art describes individuals, desires only the unique… consider a leaf with its intricate nerve system, its color variegated by shade and sun; the imprint of a raindrop; the tiny mark left by an insect; the silver trace of a snail; or the first mortal touch of autumn gold. Search all the forests of the earth for another leaf exactly like it. I defy you to find one.

The particulars fix Schwob’s attention and demand in turn to be fixed in art, as they have come likewise to fascinate us in this egalitarian age of memoir. His belief in the necessity of art to convey what is “bizarre” in each human being—which perhaps is partly responsible for his affinity with the macabre, where the telling detail is of utmost importance—seems to me to be of lasting value. When he writes that “To the eye of a painter a portrait of an unknown man, by Cranach, is as valuable as a portrait of the great Erasmus,” he speaks as our contemporary. History records the deeds of Great Men, but each of us, Schwob argues, is by virtue of being alive worthy of attention; our actions may be forgettable, they may be consigned even before their actualization to the abyss, but alight with our obsessions, we love, we despair, we mourn. How could any of these emotions be so trivial as to be undeserving of recognition?

Schwob’s sensitivity is also manifest in his ability to locate the universal in the individual. This is especially apparent in the strange and luminous Book of Monelle, which was recently published in a new translation by poet Kit Schluter (Wakefield Press, 2012).

The Book of Monelle is a book of the dead. On a rainy evening in early 1893, Marcel Schwob, the passive scholar whose childhood was spent in dimly lit rooms amidst dust and daydreams and, according to Meloney, who had until this fortuitous night “lived solely in the realm of ideas and abstractions” met Louise, a tubercular working class girl and prostitute living in the Parisian slums. Little beyond the oblique evidence in The Book of Monelle exists of Marcel and Louise’s life together: a handful of letters to friends in which Schwob pours out his grief after her death and a single letter in Louise’s childlike hand (she wrote using colored pencils) that Schwob pulled back from the flames in which he otherwise immolated his love. From these remains, however, one can piece together a picture of a relationship that has been characterized as a flight into “a fanciful realm of unreality where they reduced all the events of their world into the simplicity of a child’s understanding”.

Captivated by Louise, Schwob entered a second childhood—though it might be more appropriate to call it his first proper childhood. The two colored the world in broad, simple strokes. They played games with neighborhood children, spun stories out everyday objects: a mirror and candle, a broken doll and toy sailboats. They attempted to live, as we convince ourselves children do, in what Schwob would later call the “untruthful moment.” Given the grim state of Louise’s health, it’s not difficult to imagine the feverish intensity of their fantasies. By the end of 1893, she was dead and Schwob was lost in the depths of a grief unimaginable to those who knew him, especially since most of his friends were unaware of the existence of Louise or the fervor of Schwob’s attachment.

The dead become things. We associate those we’ve lost with objects they treasured or places that evoke them. For a time, Schwob clung to the outward remains of his life with Louise: it was said that he visited his publisher’s office with a gang of children in tow. It comes as no surprise that as he came to terms with his grief, Schwob, a creature of the library, conflated Louise with books. They were nearly all he knew. As he mourned, Schwob searched for her in their pages, finding pieces, but never enough to do more than tantalize. “And tonight I went looking for her in books; but I look for her in vain,” he writes. This cruel realization—that no matter how much we cherish or cling to literature, it is always given to us from afar and speaks to and of us imperfectly—led to the creation of Monelle and her sisters. Unable to locate his beloved in print, he undertook to place her there himself.

The Book of Monelle is the result. Its existence is a testament of the artist’s ability to salvage from the wreckage of life something worthy of the love that preceded it. “Throw no debris behind you; may each put his ruins to use,” Monelle instructs, and Schwob does just that, assembling from his ill-starred, mysterious love affair a mosaic of fairy story, parable, and manual on grief. It is an unsettling work, a triptych in which the singular is transformed into the universal.

In the first and last sections, Schwob gives voice to Monelle—the appellation, notes Schluter, designates something like My-her, an amalgam wisely retained in the original French. Her “sayings,” which constitute the first third, drip with fin-de-siècle nihilism, and seem, in their refinement and haunted detachment, unlikely to have been uttered by a barely literate prostitute. However refracted through the prism of Schwob’s learning and grief they may be, the sayings ring with hard-earned, Biblical acceptance of the sorrows of life. “All construction comes from destruction,” she says, which could serve as the writer’s credo, the slow-beating heart of mourning. Destroy, forget, burn, scatter:

Behold the word: Destroy, destroy, destroy. Destroy within yourself; destroy what surrounds you. Make space for your soul and all other souls.

Destroy all good and all evil. Their ruins are the same.

Destroy the old dwellings of man and the old dwellings of the soul; what is dead is a distorting mirror.

Destroy, for all creation comes from destruction.

And for higher benevolence you must annihilate lower benevolence. And thus new art seems a sort of iconoclasm.

For all construction is made of debris, and nothing is new in this world but forms.

But you must destroy the forms.

When a whole is lost, we find it scattered. The middle section of The Book of Monelle bears evidence of this. It concerns Monelle’s sisters, “who are myself,” she says. These girls, whose origins lie in stories Schwob dreamt up for Louise (which grew darker as her illness worsened), are representative of archetypes familiar to anyone who grew up with Cinderella and Bluebeard—the perverse, the innocent, the selfish, &c.—and stand in for Monelle in a series of beguiling fairytales. Schwob’s use of this form is not coincidental: fairytales, repositories of the universal, exist in a parallel realm, beyond the conditions of time. Yet with roots extending into a shared past, they connect us with our common humanity. In placing Monelle and her sisters there, Schwob establishes a haven from the merciless clutches of mortality. Monelle is here and not, in time—in the pages of a book—and not. The stories are effective precisely to the degree by which these paradoxes are retained. We can sense the living memory of Louise in its pages, even if she is obscured by veils of learning and sheltered by layers of mythology. It is Schwob’s struggle to find her through and in his own language that so haunts the modern reader.

This is not to say that Monelle and her sisters exist in an idyllic realm. It is a timeless place, but not a perfect one: one part fantasy, one part truth. The girls suffer and they cause suffering. Their world, like ours, is cruel and contingent, but importantly, placed within the confines of a book, they are beyond death’s reach. In what must have seemed a superhuman effort, Schwob marshaled everything he had—his erudition, his literary prowess, and his grief—to create a space where he could henceforth find his lost love. No more would he search in vain. The Book of Monelle exists.

And though it may be forgotten, though dust and mold will settle on its pages, Schwob was acutely aware of the fact that no book, once it exists, can be entirely lost. There always remains the possibility that someone will stumble upon it, or the memory of it, in that future alluded to by Pierre Champion.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Sparks (@rsparks) lives in San Francisco. He blogs at Invisible Stories and contributes to Tin House and Writers No One Reads.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 24th, 2013.