Thursday, November 10, 2011
Mayer André Marcel Schwob was born into a family of rabbis and doctors. The mother, Mathilde, was a Cahun, descendant of Caym de Sainte-Menehould, who had followed Joinville across the sea and — it is said — had, in the presence of the holy Jean de Acri, nursed and healed him from cholera. Through his mother's grandfather Anselm, Rabbi of the Jewish community Hochfelden, Schwob had inherited the wide brow, sensual mouth, and a half-sad smile in his eyes. Marcel had the pride of his clan and frequently preferred not to consort with some people of his race. Names, words, and legends were rushing through his brain. At three years of age he spoke German and English. There was a great silence in the house at Rue de I Eglise in Chaville. The mother tiptoed up the stairs, and even the Prussians, as they were stealing wine from the cellar, behaved very tenderly towards the all too precocious child, who was suffering from brain fever. During his sickness, while he was lying in bed with closed shutters, Marcel continued to set out on long journeys. He was somewhat rachitic and dreamed of swimming across the English Channel. Upon his arrival, there was Jules Verne, who embraced him. Another friend, with whom he had conversations as soon as he had scared off the German tutor, was Edgar Allan Poe. He put his little table in order, prepared his room for the encounter. He immersed himself in conversations with Edgar and Jules and, consequently, he despised his peers and their childlike stammering. His concentration was so great, that during these soliloquies he did not notice the hours that passed, nor the years. All of a sudden he was fifteen years old and devoured the Grammaire Comparee of Auguste Brachet. His uncle, Léon Cahun, author of the Vie Juive, became his protector and teacher. Who, incidentally, could be Schwob's teacher if not a Cahun. Conservator at the Bibliothèque Mazarine, he knew the histories of adventurers, of sailors and soldiers, he had traveled through Asia Minor, along the Euphrates. He knew very much, even in Uygur.
At the Lycée, Marcel met Georges Guieysse, a strange and melancholic classmate. They quickly became inseparable and worked together. Each of Marcel’s pages goes through Georges’ hands, and like a renaissance humanist Marcel writes him letters in Greek, with greetings in Arabic, or just a simple shake hands. Marcel confides in him that he is often incredibly tired, thoughts slip away, memory is gone. Why not go as kitchen boys to Australia or Canada? Regrettably, George had seemed absent for some time. When they saw each other, he left it to Marcel to invent itineraries, which they would have embarked upon eventually. He sat huddled in a corner and watched the scholar, prey to the spleen. On 7 May 1889 Georges Guieysse shot a bullet into his heart. He was twenty years old.
From then on Marcel resided in the sober and often empty halls and archives of the Bibliothèque Mazarine, where he unearthed documents about Villon and the Coquillards. He became a writer. One evening in autumn, when the rain is already cold, he encounters a little working girl of childlike intellect, Louise, and falls in love. She is thin, haggard from consumption, a poor little girl with chestnut colored hair and vague, mocking eyes, who writes letters to him in colored pencils. Marcel is delighted by the little silly things that Louise always tells him. For example: My Loulou, my hair has fallen out, cover your nails, which grow, and the little flakes of your skin, which are falling. I have a tummy ache. I have sown back the nose of my doll, now it is shorter and also thicker, and I forgot to leave holes for the nostrils. I will continue my silhouettes later, but I must have lost my scissors. Don’t forget to bring me another pair when you come, that you may help me perhaps. Pichciquinki.
The scholar had become addicted to playing. His pockets were filled with cotton, nails, and colorfully hemmed fabric. He spoke in falsetto with the publishers of magazines, whom he despised, and he smiled a lot. Meanwhile Marcel worriedly took care of the girl, for her condition was serious. The doctors were dismayed by Louise's surroundings, the little room without a breath of air, and only one small window that was always closed. Louise smoked one cigarette after another, cigars, Marcel’s pipe, and always drank coffee. Soon Louise was dead. After the burial the unhappy writer returns to the room, bedding all the dolls into a trunk, he takes them home. His friends watch over him, for as soon as Marcel is alone he becomes afraid of the dead one dying again. He sees her ghost laugh in the corners of the house. His tearful eyes keep suggesting new appearances. Marcel locks the scissors and the pocket knife into a little box and throws the nails and cotton scraps away. He becomes superstitious and longs for sleep. But sleep brings the echo of arrant laughter to him. Did the girl grow up in death, have the tomfooleries gone? The next morning, in the mirror, he finds that his hair has fallen out overnight, that his forehead has become wider still.
He becomes accustomed to morphine. These are 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. Afterwards he became the great sheik of knowledge and of the grimoires, as Doctor J.C. Madrus called him, dedicating the fifteenth volume of his translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night to him. Madrus has a honey-sweet voice and his laughter makes Schwob lose his patience now and then. He was dressed in long coats with patched seams and dangling buttons, but the inside pockets were filled with gold. In the remarkable stories that Madrus was telling, tales of money kept recurring. Schwob soon preferred to restrain this friendship. He thought of writing Vies Imaginaires, of men that lived like dogs and holy women fooled by cunning monks, and those who curse themselves, yearning to fall lower still. This was the society that Schwob now mingled with. He noticed that he smiled when he read his lines: “Don’t embrace the dead, for they suffocate the living…the dead bring pestilence.” Schwob was already sick and knew that he would never get well again.
In a pavilion at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Marcel saw a Chinaman named Ting, and he employed him. He resolved to set out for the places of Robert Louis Stevenson, “55 percent artist, 45 percent adventurer,” with whom he had corresponded. Schwob and Ting set sail on board the Ville de la Ciotat on course for the Australian sea. When he heard of Schwob's departure, Jules Renard, one of his acquaintances, noted: “He will live his stories before he dies.’ Greasy functionaries strolled upon the ship, colonial civil servants who kept entering into conversations, and a not very tidy family with four thickset daughters with heavy red braids and an albino son, who looked like a plump farm-girl, dressed like a man. The journey soon seemed much too long. In Colombo he beheld, fatigued, the Babel of religions. He watched caravans of men praying in a cave and saw the feast of the Tamils. Increasingly more tired, he was breathing laboriously, the warm wind covering him with dust, gnats tacked to his skin. The landscape often appeared ominous to him, Australia’s long beaches white as death, with shrubs that swayed like scalped hair. They call him tulapala, talk-man in Samoa, coercing him to tell them tales deep into the night. He shakes the hand of king Mataafa, who resembles Bismarck. Schwob did not see Stevenson’s grave, on top of Mount Vaea, between the flowers. He found not what he was seeking. A certain captain Crawshaw showed him postcards from Stevenson. In one of them he advises secrecy and digression, asking him to catch Wurmbrandt in Toga, and to bring him. Wurmbrandt was an Australian adventurer who appealed to Stevenson. This pilgrimage to the shadows of enchantment had come to nothing. What remained was a catalog of aimless wanderings. He had met whiny swindlers, who dragged themselves about, suggesting business, wrecks of charlatans, and wormy duplicates of the rogues and criminals who he had always been so familiar with. Thus offended by the crowd, he yearned for his room in Paris.
He locked himself up in the house to breathe in his return. Océanide, Vaililoa, Captain Crabbe were the titles of the books he would never write. And never did he want to leave again. He felt like a “vivisected dog.” Why don’t the dead return, to converse for half an hour with the invalids? His face changed color a little, became a golden mask. The eyes remained imperiously open. Nobody succeeded in closing them. The room reeked of mourning.
Translated by Herbert Pföstl from Isabel Matthes’ German version of Fleur Jaeggy’s essay - published in DER PFAHL I, Matthes & Seitz Verlag, 1987
Dedicated to my Kirston.
Please see Minna Zallman Proctor's wonderful new translation of Jaeggy's Schwob essay in These Possible Lives, published by New Directions.
hp, April 2018