Perhaps the worst afflicted were the victims of disfiguring facial wounds, some of whom were so awful to behold that secluded rural settlements were established, where they could holiday together. (John Keegan, The First World War, 1998, p. 7)
Keegan is describing France after World War I, while Marcel Schwob, in “The Sans-Gueule” (1891), is perhaps writing about the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. The translator of French Decadent Tales says that he retained the French title, rather than calling the story “The Faceless Ones,” because of later connections made between the story and the results of the later war.
Two men have lost their faces in battle, along with any ability to speak, and along, inconveniently, with their identification tags. “They were like two pieces of human clay” (194). They heal, up to a point, but only regain their humanity to the point where they enjoy smoking pipes.
Schwob is quite vivid about all this. Or graphic, perhaps that is the word.
A “little woman with a mass of hair” claims that one is her husband, but does not know which one. So she takes them both home, first to try to determine which is her husband, and eventually because she likes them both. “They were her ‘two monkeys,’ her red mannikins, her two little husbands, her burned men, her meaty rascals, her bloodied faces, her holey heads, her brainless bonces” (197). The story is really about the woman. It is a perplexing love story. The end is worthy of Chekhov, except I do not know of any piece of his so deliberately repulsive.
I had never read Marcel Schwob, although he is not especially obscure – I assume a number of people who glance at this post will have read something of his. I plan to read more, although I worry about the proper dosage.
French Decadent Tales includes two of Schwob’s little Imaginary Lives (1896), fantasies about Lucretius and Paolo Uccello, “Paul of the Birds, because of the numberless painted birds and beasts that filled his house, for he was too poor to feed animals or procure those he did not know” (205). Schwob transforms Giorgio Vasari’s biography of Uccello into a portrait of what we would now call an outsider artist. Uccello’s obsession with the new technique of linear perspective is turned into artistic madness:
The truth was that Uccello cared nothing for the reality of things, but only for their multiplicity and the infinite lines and angles that form them; so he painted blue fields, red cities, knights in black armour on ebony horses with mouth aflame, and spears bristling skywards in every direction like rays of light… The sculptor Donatello would say to him: ‘Ah, Paolo, you are neglecting substance for shadow!’ (205-6)
Uccello is an Impressionist, or Cezanne; he prefigure Matisse or perhaps Kandinsky. Schwob ends the life by directly ripping off Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece:
And so Uccello knew he had accomplished a miracle. But all Donatello had seen was a chaos of lines. (208)
Uccello dies with his eyes “fixed upon the mystery revealed.” Balzac thought his obsessive artist a madman and a failure. Schwob saw an artist, maybe even an exemplary case. He also saw the future of visual art. Maybe he just got lucky there.