Wakefield Press, 2012
originally published 1894
translated by Kit Schluter
With only a couple of minor exceptions, it's been an outstanding reading year so far, and it just got better with The Book of Monelle, by Marcel Schwob. It's such a great feeling when I lose myself in something this good not just once, but twice.
The story behind The Book of Monelle is a sad one, yet it's vital to the contents of this little book. In the translator's afterword, Kit Schluter writes about Schwob meeting Louise, a "young, working-class girl" who may have been a prostitute, who was quite ill with tuberculosis. The two of them grew very close, and according to Schwob himself, "without her affection, he would have lost his taste for life,"
"She taught him to see again the levity of existence, to find joy in fairy tales and little toys made for children. Perhaps without ever saying it, she taught him that the falsehoods we believe as children are not detrimental or misleading, but joyous and fruitful, that the certainty of adulthood is a sorrowful and wasteful thing."They were together for a couple of years, during which time he wrote stories for her, and as her condition deteriorated, a "fictional girl named Monelle began to appear everywhere" in his little tales, and he began to use the voice of an "adult narrator" who related them "with desperation." Schluter notes that the name conveys the meaning of something along the lines of "My-her" (mon elle), which is, if you think about it, just beautiful. On her death, Schwob was so grief stricken that he couldn't write for a full six months, and then came The Book of Monelle, as Schluter notes in an interview with Paris Review,
"an assemblage of fairy tales, nihilist philosophy, and aphorisms tightly woven into a tapestry of deep emotional suffering."That suffering is writ large here and I felt every second of it.
While I won't go into detail -- it's another book that is genuinely felt by the reader -- the book is structured as a sort of triptych. The first part is called "The Words of Monelle," which begins poignantly with Monelle finding the narrator "in the plain where I was wandering." Here it's easy to imagine the narrator (think Schwob himself) as being lost and unsettled, wandering in grief. She goes on to speak about prostitutes, who "leave the crowds of the night for an act of kindness," who
"heave a cry of compassion to all of you and stroke your hands with their bony hands. They only understand you if you are extremely unfortunate; they cry with you and console you."More importantly, for the next section, Monelle says
"And I shall lead you among my sisters who are myself and similar to witless prostitutes.
And you shall see them tormented by selfishness and desire and pride and patience and pity, not yet having found themselves at all. And you shall see them set out in search of themselves in the distance..."However, before arriving at the next section, "The Sisters of Monelle," there is a burst of things that Monelle "shall speak to you of," including destruction, formation, the gods, etc which reminded me of manifesto-like sutras, or as the translator puts it, "commands."
Once we're in "The Sisters of Monelle" though, the tone changes. There are a number of short stories in fairy tale/parable form here, parts of which have been mined from already-existing tales, but which are clearly original and incredibly sad. Personally, for me, "The Fated" is the best story of them all, because it really highlights what Schwob is saying here, as does "The Dreamer," but read carefully, it's easy to see that they all reflect what Schwob had written in "The Words of Monelle."
Part three is entitled "Monelle," which for me was the most gutwrenching part of this entire book, but strangely enough (and most gratefully, I have to say), it does end on a very brief note of hope. "Of Her Emergence" nearly had me in tears, and I was even worse off by the time I got to "Of Her Patience," where the narrator finds Monelle after having lost her only to be told that he cannot stay with her. "Of Her Emergence" begins with the narrator once again lost, in the dark, not knowing how he came to be where he is. It is there where he finds the "dim weak lights of the little lamp girl," who cannot sell her lamps to anyone except children. As she says,
"...the little lamps I sell don't last forever. Their flames wane, as if burdened by the dark rain. And when my little lamps go out, the children no longer see the glow in the mirror, and they despair. For they fear they won't be able to foresee the moment when they will start to grow up."That's sad enough, but when the little lamp girl and the narrator look into a mirror by the light of her lamp, he sees "well-known stories play out:"
"But the little lamp lied, lied, lied. I saw the feather rise up from Cordelia's lips; and she was smiling and convalescing; and she was living in an enormous cage like a bird with her old father, and she kissed his white beard. I saw Ophelia playing on the glassy surface of the pond, and wrapping her wet arms, garlanded with violets, around Hamlet's neck. I saw Desdemona, awoken, wandering beneath the willow trees. I saw the princess Maleine take her two hands off the eyes the eyes of the old king, and laugh, and dance. I saw Mélisande, freed, admiring herself in the fountain.
And I cried: 'Lying little lamp...' "I almost lost it right there, trying to fathom just how much pain this man must have been in while writing this book. The translator notes that as Louise was dying, he
"spoke to none of his friends of her, but retreated instead into a world of symbol and metaphor, at the center of which was Monelle."And really, I've never read such a personal, grief-filled book, but it makes sense that he wrote it. I've read tons of books about people trying to come to terms with loss, but there's something unique about this one. He also, I think, succeeded in keeping Louise alive here, making her immortal through Monelle, and she continues to live with every person who now reads this book. Jeez -- just read it.