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A Constellation of Isolated Flashes

Stephen Sparks interviews Kit Schluter, translator of Marcel Schwob.

[photo: Kit Schluter by Nik Jaeger]

Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) is one of the great secret influences on 20th century literature. He was admired by contemporaries and a handful of prominent literary descendants, including Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño. To those who know of him, Schwob has come to represent a symbol of the vagaries of literary fortune: touted during his lifetime, his star has diminished in the century following his premature death, though here and there his influence can be felt. With Wakefield Press’s publication of his haunting Book of Monelle, translated by poet Kit Schluter, perhaps we are witnessing the beginning of a long-overdue revival.

3:AM: A question any reader of Marcel Schwob asks another is “How did you discover him?” It seems best to start there.

KS: It’s funny you say that, because it’s absolutely true—that really is the big question with Schwob. It seems to be the question that binds any community around a figure or work with cult-status: the obscurantist’s ice-breaker, the love of hearing how and why someone else has also made the choice to devote some part of him or herself, large or small, to something overlooked, under-appreciated.

I discovered Schwob a couple years ago, thanks to a friend of mine, Sylvain Burgaud. We were working together outside Tours, the city in France, and after work every day we would head over to this bar called Le Serpent Volant to translate each other’s poems into each other’s language—his into English, mine into French. One night—this was out in a little town called La Roche Bernard, where Sylvain was living at the time—we came to a passage in a little poem of mine that reminded him of a passage in “The Words of Monelle.” (In English, this passage goes “Be sincere with the moment. All sincerity that lasts is hatred.”) After he showed me the book, which struck me right away, it didn’t take long to figure out that it was no longer available in English, and probably hadn’t been since around the time of its first and only English translation in 1929, the one by William Maloney. So something of a promise or dare to translate the book took place, and the idea just stuck.

What was so funny about it was that he couldn’t bring himself to lend it to me. No bad blood, of course—he’s really such a generous person, one of the most generous I know. It was just that he had already lost too many copies of Monelle by lending them out to friends before. No one ever returned them to him, he said, because it seemed that by the time he would ask for them back they had already lent them out to some other friend—and so the lent copies were always getting lost in that sort of constant exchange, that kind of sharing. The French might jokingly call that exchange of Monelle an “échange sous le manteau,” “under the coat,” a sort of secret exchange, the passing on of something illicit or, in this case, just something really special.

It has seemed to me from that time on that Schwob’s books invites that sort of exchange: the initial excitement of the first reading leads to lending, and lending leads to further lending, and further lending leads to the book getting lost—though the eventual loss is accompanied by the satisfaction of knowing you’ve passed on something unknown and beautiful and, in doing so, kept its torch alive.

3:AM: There have been several (or maybe only a few) attempts to account for Schwob’s virtual obsolescence. Some argue that Schwob died too young and left incomplete too many projects, or that his interests were too esoteric, that he was too closely aligned—or not aligned enough—with the Symbolist movement. Do you have a theory of your own, or feel that one previously put forth sufficiently explains the vagaries of literary renown?

KS: I have never quite been able to put my finger on a definite reason for Schwob’s obscurity. All I can say for sure, however, is that literary renown is very fickle—something very fortunate for minor literature, which always has the potential of taking off.

I have always seen Schwob’s work as an interesting, though overlooked, forebear of the Modernist and Postmodernist practice of citation and repurposing, which Schwob used as primary means of composition. In fact, Schwob’s claim, reported by his biographer Pierre Champion, “I never composed a single one of my books,” could be viewed as a prescient credo of appropriative strains of Modern and Postmodern literature exemplified by, say—to take it to an extreme—Kenneth Goldsmith, even if the results are profoundly different. And Champion’s analysis, seems to confirm this: “Marcel Schwob did not believe in the gift of imagination, and to say it plainly, in originality. He knew that all had been said and forgotten. His art was crafted with the gift of choice and amalgamation. He discovered the origin of all his books. He was not unaware that his were works made out of the debris of many others.” This description brings to mind a whole spectrum of work, from Borges’ fictions, which are kindred with Schwob’s work, Pound’s Cantos, collage works by Ernst, whose Saison de bonté actually uses a passage from Schwob’s L’Anarchie as an epigraph, and of course, Duchamp’s readymades.

In any event, however, it was exactly this quality of his works—the one that embodies practices most interesting to us today—that polarized his own contemporaries. It was hard for this public to understand that Schwob’s creative act depended on appropriation and recyclage of his erudite research. On the one hand, certain authors praised this process. Take Léon Daudet, for example:

History, linguistics, poetry, prose, astrology, chemistry, criticism, English, German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew – Schwob animates, sets in motion, orders, reconstitutes, associates all these branches of knowledge in his immense and precise imagination. He evokes adventuring sea-captains with the exactitude of Quicherat and the verve of Cervantes. He describes the customs and manners of prostitutes and pimps in the city rookeries as eloquently as he does those of sixteenth-century scholars or Spanish conquistadores. With all that goes a perfect taste; never a false move, never is anything over-stressed. His whole attitude is summed up in pity, pity which he applies without distinction to criminals and saints, to traitors and heroes.1

On the other, it had its detractors, such as Paul Léautaud:

My opinion, as of a long time ago, on Schwob’s literature. At its core, at its very core, I have no interest. It is fabrication,  marquetry, and I can tell how and with what it is made. Vast readings in every genre—phrases and ideas jotted down on scrap paper—then: arrangement, combination of these phrases and ideas arranged by category, into a characterless ensemble. There is a marvelous art, an inimitable dexterity,  a great delicacy in the art of choosing, a considerable knowledge, but, at its core, it all stinks of old books. It’s rigged as much as possible…2

What I find so interesting about these remarks is the fact that they are discussing the very same aspect of Schwob’s work with perspectives that couldn’t be further polarized. Anyhow, Schwob really is one of the first literary exemplars of this practice of collage, and it may be time to give his work a closer look, to undo the reputation laid upon it by his contemporaries.

As you mentioned, Schwob’s relationship with the Symbolists was complex. To name a few instances, Apollinaire wrote a eulogy on the occasion of Schwob’s death, Alfred Jarry dedicated his seminal Ubu Roi to the author, as Paul Valéry did with his first book, Introduction to the Method of Da Vinci, and Oscar Wilde with his story, “The Sphynx”. Each of the stories of Schwob’s second book, The King in the Golden Mask, is dedicated to a contemporary author with whom Schwob was friends: Anatole France, Edmond de Goncourt, Octave Mirbeau—the list goes on and on. These are authors who have been treated more kindly by literary history. Unlike these figures, Schwob died in 1905, before World War I and the formal explosion of Modernism in literature, the effect of which on traditional poetic and narrative structures of course can’t be stressed enough: for the first time, the literary forms were being radically altered, the material of language was being played with by those writers whose work we continue to inherit as the foundations of experimental poetry. Schwob, who died before the war, never had to come to terms with such a clear symbol of the decline of that “Old Order” to which his imagination was devoted and by whose terms he lived. So, it could be argued that his work does not feature certain elements of Modernism, especially those more experimental, which have helped keep the work of his contemporaries vital to our contemporary moment, the narrative of the literatures we have inherited and inhabit. But really, this is just a conjecture, and a dangerous and reductive one, especially concerning the work of those now united under the title of the “Symbolists,” so please do take it with a grain of salt.

But, what’s certain is that, as you mentioned, his tastes were very esoteric—even for his own times, even among the Symbolists. In his work, Schwob created diverse worlds whose truths were culled from Middle-Eastern and Eastern folklore, the fairy tales of the Grimms and Perrault, classical histories and occult texts, studies of Europe’s lost languages, primary-source accounts of medieval thugs and their slang, the picaresque, the unabashedly fantastical. To access his work—to really get into it, I mean—you have to be willing to go to a mental space that is quite unique to his imagination, which was totally saturated with this vast reading. So far as I can tell, that world I’m talking about, which is built around myth and folklore and ancient and medieval history has fallen out of favor in our literature to make way for structures more grounded in our moment and its rapidly changing capitalized and globalized infrastructures, its trends. Though, I should say, I think there are still plenty of people who are willing to meet Schwob’s imagination halfway, and these are the people who won’t let his memory be forgotten. As these structures that fundamentally influenced Schwob become more and more obscure, I think his status as a person of truly singular creativity could become increasingly clear to us, if by dint of its contrast to much of what is being written today.

Lastly, Schwob died relatively young and, on top of that, was one of those unfortunate Proust-types who, after his mid-twenties, spent the majority of his time in a sickbed. Although his Complete Works is well over 1,000 pages, we have to remember that he died at the age of 38, and spent the last decade of his life tending to, in the words of Robert Ziegler, “the mysterious and variously diagnosed ailment” that would eventually cut his life short. The wonderful Italian novelist Fleur Jaeggy, in her great essay, “Marcel Schwob: The Passive Adventurer” (translated here by Herbert Pfostl for the blog of his wonderful press, Blind Pony Books), describes this final decade of Schwob’s life as a series of “moments of magnificent solitude. When the friends have left, he bolts the doors and windows, no sound gets through. They are the everlasting hours, eternity piled in layers in his room.” This sickness, which led to a series of stomach surgeries, as well as his later dependence on morphine, struck him just after the publication of The Book of Monelle, when he was only twenty-seven. Although he surely still wrote during this last decade of his life, we can imagine that he wasn’t able to devote quite as much of his energy to his work. As a result, Schwob is one of those unfortunate cases where we are left wondering: had he been healthy, had he lived longer, where would he have been able to take us? Would his legacy be more coherent or, maybe more importantly for literary histories, more assimilable?

In the end, with literature it’s “here today, gone tomorrow,” but it’s always possible to come back again. Time and time again we see it’s never too late for that.

3:AM: Schwob’s anonymity is particularly baffling given his profound, if secret, influence. In fact, when he is spoken of at all, it’s almost always regarding this influence, rather than on the basis of his artistic merits. Perhaps this is because the list of those indebted to him includes overshadowing figures like Paul Valery, Jorge Luis Borges, and Roberto Bolaño (who urged would-be writers of short stories to “above all, read Schwob”). Can you speak about Schwob’s influence?

KS: Understanding Schwob’s influence is a very important part of understanding his person. It allows us to know who has been reading him, whose work was influenced by him, what imaginations he made spark. Though, like every aspect of Schwob’s person, it is very difficult to pin down.

My understanding of his influence is that it is vast, though inconsistent. For instance, there is the letter of Rilke that mentions his having read and loved The Children’s Crusade, his amazement that he had never heard of Schwob before reading this work. There is Borges’ Universal History of Iniquity, which borrowed the structure and philosophy of Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, though there was no published material proof of this influence until later in Borges’ career, when he wrote an introduction for the Spanish translation of Schwob’s work, and even later when he included Schwob’s book in his “personal library” catalogue. (Borges did, however, translate “ Burke and Hare” from this collection of Schwob.) There is the Pablo Neruda’s translation of Schwob’s story, “The Death of Odjigh,” which resembles the structure of his own later book “La Espada Encendida, though he credits instead a Chilean author’s book of oral myth as the source. There is André Breton’s claim that Schwob’s “Words of Monelle” was one of the earliest instances of the surrealist principle of “l’anarchisme noir,” black anarchy, which can also be found in other more recognized works, such as Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat,” Baudelaire’s prose poems, or Lautréamont’s “Songs of Maldoror”. There is the fact that Schwob and André Gide’s relationship was broken by the fact that the latter’s book, The Fruits of the Earth—such a good book, by the way—so closely resembles The Book of Monelle, all the way down to a whole number of almost exact sentences, though Gide never gave Schwob any credit. There is Michel Leiris’ statement late in his career that The Book of Monelle was a book that was very important to him as a young writer developing a voice and philosophical approach in literature. There is Bolaño’s claim, which you mentioned, that a young writer studying the art of the short story should “above all, read Schwob.” And then there’s Fleur Jaeggy, who translated Schwob’s Imaginary Lives into Italian. Again, the list goes on.

As you can see, his work has influenced some great minds. These points of influence, however, don’t cohere into a clear narrative. Instead of forming a linear structure—being passed from individual to individual or school to school—the structure of Schwob’s influence seems defined by a constellation of isolated flashes, and that’s what makes it so interesting, yet difficult to grasp.

3:AM: And, since you are a poet, I’d like to know if Schwob has influenced your writing as well.

KS: I think, more than anything else, Schwob’s work has influenced my own writing by getting me to read a lot I otherwise may have neglected. Without translating Schwob and being led on so many wild goose chases for the sources of his references, I may never have read De Quincey, Stevenson, the Arabian Nights, Charles Perrault and French folktales, certain Biblical books or plays by Shakespeare, studies of François Villon and the slang of his coquillards, his fellow thieves. Again, the list goes on and on. These books were just for The Book of Monelle.

For the past several years, no matter how many wonderful Jean Day poetry collections my friends lend me (thank you, Andy), or how many unpublished works by brilliant contemporary poets I have had the privilege of reading while editing CLOCK magazine, there’s always Schwob urging me to keep looking backward in time as well, and that’s been very important to me.

3:AM: The Book of Monelle is a strange creation, being something of an exorcism and elegy disguised as a collection of fairy tales. It is also oddly confessional, even with the distance Schwob places between himself and the text. What were the circumstances leading to the book’s creation?

KS: In 1892 or 1891, while spending a night in the slums of Paris—which were his preferred neighborhoods—the twenty-five year old Schwob met a young girl named Louise, who suffered from tuberculosis. Scholarship has found it extremely important to emphasize her way of making money, which was likely sex-work, because of the theme’s central role in Monelle. The two came to be inseparable, and she lived in such a way that made the otherwise anxious young Schwob feel free and alive.

Over the course of the next year or so, Schwob wrote Louise a series of short stories, the protagonists of which were young girls. In the beginning, they were discrete lighthearted tales, but as Louise fell deeper into the tuberculosis, the plotlines and characters darkened and wove tightly together. By the time Louise was lying on her dying bed, Schwob had transformed her into the character of Monelle, who seems something of a cross between Thomas De Quincey’s Ann, Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

When Louise passed away, he spent the next several months in an incurable state mourning of mourning, and after burning his entire correspondence with Louise—this is particularly striking because Schwob was known for the meticulous preservation of his correspondence—Schwob completed his stories to Louise by writing a few more shorts centered on the character of Monelle, and rearranged the series into a coherent three-part collection structured around this character, giving it the title Le Livre de Monelle. And that’s what we’re left with: this secret tribute to Louise, something like a journal that Schwob kept as he gathered the fruits of the Earth and watched them slowly rot.

The afterword I wrote for the Wakefield publication tells this story in detail, for anyone who might be curious to know more.

3:AM: Schwob was a great imitator: his variations on Herodas’ Mimes—discovered and published near the end of the 19th century—were, for some, a little too convincing. His collection of Imaginary Lives draws heavily on classical sources and demonstrates Schwob’s ability to re-purpose (as we would characterize it today) material. On its surface, Monelle seems a more personal book, but Schwob’s writing is inextricable from his scholarship. What, if any, were Schwob’s references for Monelle?

KS: The Book of Monelle is unique among Schwob’s works, as it required him to put aside his dependence on recycling in order to conduct a sincere investigation of his personal experience. To be sure, while Schwob was composing those stories for Louise (now gathered under the section title, “The Sisters of Monelle”), he composed through recycling symbols and characters from folklore. It was with this material that he created Cice, who believed she was Cinderella; the little boy and girl who believed they were Bluebeard and his wife; Marjolaine, who believes that characters from the Arabian Nights are living in the seven jugs on her mantelpiece; the wandering poet who comes to the farmhouse and declaims folktales from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. And it should be said, too, that it even allowed him to conceive of Monelle, for as hinted to above, without Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, the Biblical Gospels, Andersen’s little match girl, and the speeches of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, her character could not have existed.

What is important to see, though, is that as Louise slowly passed away, Schwob began to explored and develop a personal mythology of this time they had spent growing up together, which provided The Book of Monelle a constellation of symbols and imagery that refer to his life, and not his library. All that said, I have to admit that I still lose sleep some nights, thinking of the references I may have missed.

3:AM: How would you convince someone unfamiliar with him to read Schwob?

KS: I would send them to Herbert Pfostl’s translation of Fleur Jaeggy’s essay “The Passive Adventurer.” It is the most concise and intriguing introduction to Schwob’s work that I know in English.

3:AM: Can we hope for more translations of his work?

KS: Absolutely. I’m excited to say that Wakefield Press and I are continuing our work on Schwob, and you can expect the first ever complete translation of Schwob’s 1892 short-story collection The King in the Golden Mask later on next year. Of the collection’s twenty-three stories, I believe only ten have been translated into English. The book’s just about as different in tone from Monelle as you could imagine, but I have to say, it’s just as much of a treat. As a teaser, I’ll leave you with this quote of Paul Léautaud, which perfectly reflects its spirit:

Schwob had a love of the strange, the satanic, the ambiguous, the unhealthy and the supernatural, and this love can be found on every page of his work, in his choice of characters, in the figures he has created. No spiritual company was more pleasing to him than that of the writers and ‘low people’ of the fifteen century, emaciated poets, sewage workers in the ditches, wandering clerics and beggars, extortionists and thugs, madams and window-washers, this whole world of dives, of crime and vagabondage, colorful to the extreme, of which he knew every names, every vocabulary, and every attitude. But this love, this preference was, for him, not merely an entertainment, an artiste‘s educative inclination. It was, for him, something greater—more troubling, as well—: the effect of a strangely complicated and clairvoyant consciousness that sought out and confronted itself without end, that examined every possibility it could possibly take on, in the past as in the present, in order to elevate itself or degrade itself just as much.3

1 Daudet in Schwob, Marcel. The King in the Golden Mask and Other Writings. Trans. Iain White. Manchester: Carcanet New, 1982. xi.Print.
2 Trembley, George. Marcel Schwob, Faussaire De La Nature. Geneva: Droz, 1969. 18. Print. Translation by KS.
3 Léautaud, Paul. “Marcel Schwob par Paul Léautaud”. Marcel Schwob, D’hier Et D’aujourd’hui. Ed. Christian Berg and Yves Vadé. Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2002. 29-33. Print. Translation by KS.

Kit Schluter is a poet and translator currently occupying the space under a table in Queens, New York. Mark your calendars for his translations of Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz’ 1967 long poem, “The Cold” (Circumference, summer 2013), and Marcel Schwob’s 1892 short-story collection, The King in the Golden Mask (Wakefield Press, 2014). Help yourself to free .pdfs of CLOCK magazine, which he edits with Philadelphia poet Andrew Dieck.

Stephen Sparks (@rs_sparks) 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.