Book Of Monelle
by Marcel Schwob
Wakefield Press | October 2012
The melancholy bibelots that comprise The Book of Monelle owe their existence to a nineteenth century Parisian child-prostitute named Louise. Or rather, to her death, considering Marcel Schwob met Louise a short time before the child succumbed to Tuberculosis. He composed short, whimsical fables for her amusement; these turned ominous, prophetic, and tragic with her death. And this became The Book of Monelle.
The Book of Monelle is broken up into three parts. The first is comprised of aphoristic decrees by Monelle to an unnamed narrator, all of them hallucinatory and haunting—less macabre as much as involving a cycle of death. “You shall find me again, and you shall lose me,” (3). This is the story, at least for English speakers, of the collection. Originally published in French in 1894 and translated for a single edition in 1929 by Bobbs-Merrill, it has been out of print for eighty-five years. That is not to say that its influence hasn’t been felt by readers of English. Writers from Mallarme to Jarry, Borgias to Bolano have acknowledged Schwob’s style and philosophy. “Above all, read Schwob,” writes Bolano in his essay Advise on the Art of Writing Short Stories. “And you shall forget me, and you shall recognize me, and you shall forget me,” (3).
In medieval times, a group know as Goliards wandered England and Western Europe writing poetry, drinking, and composing ballads—both of the libationary and politically antagonistic variety. They were mostly a group of liturgical students who advocated intemperate living. The characters in the final sections of The Book of Monelle are Goliards from another era, children, almost entirely, that have rejected work and adult behavior in favor of the more hedonistic—and human—element of play. And play they do, with little regard to the future or their basic levels of existence.
Schwob’s lines are short, laden with sadness, and incredibly emotive—as if the lines themselves are the fated children of Monelle—a sort of Peter Pan inhabiting a Neverland that refuses to slow down and all of it penned by William Blake. Translator Kit Schluter finishes the volume with an excellent biographical afterward that helps compose a picture of an author unfairly forgotten. Yet in some way it seems fitting: “Forget all things, and all things shall be given back unto you. Forget Monelle, and she shall be given back unto you. This is the new word,” (91).
review by Craig Chisholm