Monday, December 5, 2016

Marcel Schwob preaches the Book of Monelle - the green girl led her by the hand to an unknown liberty

A week of writing about short books chosen as if at random, but no, all following some long-running Wuthering Expectations theme, I believe that is what I have in front of me this week.

First up is The Book of Monelle (1894) by French oddball Marcel Schwob, in the Kit Schluter* translation from Wakefield Press, a book beloved by Symbolists, Dadaists, Surrealists, in general by artists with sympathy for conceptual art.

Monelle is Schwob’s Beatrice, a muse and a saint, apparently the patron saint of conceptual art:

And to imagine new art you must break its forebears.  And thus new art seems a sort of iconoclasm.

For all construction is made of debris, and nothing is new in this world but forms.

But you must destroy the forms. (7)

Monelle is the apostle of Modernism.  The above is from the first part of the book, “The Words of Monelle,” which per the novel’s title is a Biblical parody:

Monelle found me in the plain where I was wandering and took me by the hand.

“Do not be surprised,” she said.  “It is I, and it is not I”…

And Monelle said again: I shall speak to you of young prostitutes, and you shall know the beginning.  (3)

Then she reveals the prophecy of Modernist conceptual art to her true believers.

The last part of the book returns to the religious aspect of Monelle.  It is something like Dante’s New Life merging into Paradiso.  Monelle dies but is resurrected etc.  I am skeptical about this section.

The middle of the book, though, is amazing.  “The Sisters of Monelle.”  It is a series of fairy tales and parodies of fairy tales, mostly with characters whose lives are ruined, or perhaps saved, by believing in fairy tales.   Poor Ilsée, in “The Fated,” spends her life waiting for what she sees in her mirror.  It comes, eventually.  Poor Bargette, in “The Disappointed,” hitches a ride to the south of France on a barge, where she thinks she’ll find the South Seas – turtles, coconuts – even though the practical couple who operate the barge keep insisting that “’there’s going to be a bit of sun, but really, that’s all’” (35).

One girl wants to be Cinderella, another wants to be Bluebeard’s wife (“’This is going to hurt!’”).  Another, Morgane, has read about the mirror in Snow White, and also the mirror in Ilsée’s story.  She goes on a quest for her own magic mirror:

And further on is an underground city of black men who go unvisited by their gods, except in sleep.  They eat hemp fibers, and cover their faces with chalk.  And those who intoxicate themselves at night with hemp slit the necks of those who sleep, that they be sent to the nocturnal divinities.  Morgane was terrified of them.  (61)

Me, too!  Schwob’s fairy tales are on the scary side.

She opened the door and held her arm out into the night.  Just as Bûchette had once led her to the homes of man, the green girl led her by the hand to an unknown liberty.  (41)

The sublime, as readers of Wuthering Expectations well know, is the mixture of beauty and fear.

*  A good interview with the translator at 3:AM Magazine; another at The Paris Review.

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