Books Born of Books

The 19th-century French author Marcel Schwob was a writer’s writer in the literal sense, seeking his material in literature and history.

Books Born of Books
Photo: Bridgeman Images
If the 19th-century French writer Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) has not been well known outside of France, that may be because his ideas about literature were a little unorthodox, and so too his books. He believed everything had already been written, and that originality, in the modern age, consisted mostly of reconfiguring what had come before. He believed the texture of a life mattered more than its historical relevance, and that the past was best understood through acts of imagination. He was a writer’s writer in the literal sense, seeking his material in literature and history, but also in the conventional sense of being beloved by fellow writers: Colette, Oscar Wilde and Jorge Luis Borges, to name a few. He was not, however, a writer’s writer in the negative sense of being too rarefied for the common reader; on the contrary, his books are extraordinarily accessible, by turns delightful and haunting, which is why we are fortunate they are now being reissued in superb new translations, courtesy of Kit Schluter, Chris Clarke and the adventurous Wakefield Press of Cambridge, Mass.


Schwob grew up outside of Paris in a cultured Jewish family. His father had gone to school with Flaubert and collaborated on a play with Jules Verne, while his maternal uncle, Léon Cahun, was a famous librarian, writer and scholar. Young Marcel read Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, developing a fascination with adventure and with humanity’s dark underbelly that stayed with him all his life. As a student, he learned multiple languages, and spent years in the library reading Mark Twain, Schopenhauer, Greek plays, ancient Sanskrit and, by all accounts, just about everything else. He emerged from school a fountain of textual references, a linguist, a translator and a writer of a distinctly bookish sort.

His early story collections show the gothic influence of Poe but also of Robert Louis Stevenson, who was Schwob’s friend and role model. Set in a wide array of times and places, Schwob’s stories have the mythic quality of parables, but rendered in sensuous, often grotesque detail. Some have science fiction or fantasy elements, others are more like elaborated dreams. In the title story to his second book, “The King in the Golden Mask” (186 pages, $14.95), a king who has lived all his life behind a golden mask, in a court where everyone has worn masks without question for generations, discovers the horrible truth that he descends from a line of lepers, and that behind their masks, everyone around him is hideous. In “The Plague,” a pair of criminals disguise themselves as plague victims to escape capture, yet beneath their disguises, the plague finds them. The theme of masks runs through these stories: the personas we create versus the truth that always discovers us. Many are also based directly on historical or folkloric sources, anticipating the appropriative techniques of Schwob’s later work.
Books Born of Books
Photo: Bridgeman Images

By 1892, the year of “The King in the Golden Mask,” he had gained a reputation as a literary savant when, unexpectedly, life invaded his writing. One night on the streets of Paris he met a young working-class woman, Louise, whose childlike demeanor entranced him. Schwob had always been drawn to downtrodden figures in literature; with Louise he discovered a combination of a pitiable fate—she was tubercular—and a profound innocence. As he cared for her in her illness, he composed stories of young women surviving an indifferent world. When Louise died, these stories became the centerpieces of “The Book of Monelle” (115 pages, $12.95), Schwob’s most poetic and personal work.

In its structural looseness, lyricism and themes of creation and destruction, “The Book of Monelle” (1894) anticipates modernist writers of the following decades—William Carlos Williams, for example. It begins with a liturgical outpouring in which a young woman, Monelle, speaks in Nietzschean pronouncements on truth and reality: “Behold the word: Destroy, destroy, destroy. Destroy within yourself; destroy what surrounds you. . . . Destroy all good and all evil. Their ruins are the same.” Next come Schwob’s prose portraits of various young women, eerily titled as attributes—“The Dreamer,” “The Savage,” “The Faithful”—as if Schwob’s individual subjects have all morphed into aspects of the eternal feminine. The final section returns to the story of Monelle, a dreamlike account of death and resurrection resolving in an image of innocence: “And she came beside me in her white dress, and the two of us stole away together through the countryside.” It is a work of poetic force and intuitive form, and the book Schwob was best known for during his lifetime.

The confrontation of innocence and death remained Schwob’s focus for “The Children’s Crusade” (50 pages, $11.95), a brief work about the ill-fated 13th-century attempt by children to retake Jerusalem. Here Schwob proved himself a master of the dramatic monologue, slowly unveiling the deeply disquieting heart of this historical episode through separate accounts from clerics, a leper, a Muslim mystic, two popes and individual children who were sold into slavery or otherwise lost along the way. It is a hauntingly intimate book that somehow combines moralism, mystery and the concreteness of a lived account, and it represents a natural step toward Schwob’s masterpiece of historical fiction, “Imaginary Lives” (185 pages, $14.95).

By 1896, the year of “The Children’s Crusade” and “Imaginary Lives,” Schwob’s ideas about creativity and history had become a fully realized philosophy. “The art of the biographer consists specifically in choice,” he writes in a preface to “Imaginary Lives.” “He is not meant to worry about speaking truth; he must create human characteristics amidst the chaos.” The book presents 22 short biographical tales written with impeccable narrative concision. Some feature an unknown figure from the margins of history (an African witch, a soldier for Charles VII ), others add fictional aspects to a famous life (Lucretius, Uccello, Pocahontas) and at least one imagines a historical life for a fictional character (Suffrah, the wizard from “Aladdin”). There is no grand thesis, unless it is to emphasize “the unique existences of men, whether they were divine, mediocre, or criminal.”

Schwob cited Boswell’s 1791 “Life of Johnson” as a model for “Imaginary Lives,” but his own modern style—balancing between irony and mystery, fiction and fact—is better understood in relation to a later work it influenced, Jorge Luis Borges’s first collection of stories, “A Universal History of Infamy” (1935). Borges had several substantive encounters with Schwob’s work, including writing the foreword to a 1949 edition of “The Children’s Crusade.” As co-editor of a Buenos Aires literary supplement in 1933-34, he also published five translated stories from “Imaginary Lives,” most notably “Messrs. Burke and Hare,” about two Scottish murderers who sold corpses to science. In Schwob’s version—which reads like a perfect anticipation of a Borges story—the emphasis is on Burke’s admirable scientific approach, including the invention of a “stiff cloth mask filled with pitch” by which Burke suffocated his victims. Schwob probably came to the historical subject by way of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” Stevenson being an influence on both Borges and Schwob, and . . . and the pattern continues: history, influence, one text remaking another, one imagination picking up from another, in the great creative literary stew that Marcel Schwob made the special province of his art.

—Martin Riker’s first novel,  Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, will be published in October.

Appeared in the June 23, 2018, print edition.  Read more



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