Friday, July 20, 2018

The King in the Golden Mask and Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob

With The King in the Golden Mask, Wakefield Press continues its endeavor to publish the works of Marcel Schwob with a volume of fantastic and macabre tales. The author spins stories of violence and mild sexual transgression that are divided between those derived from actual historical places or events and others that are pure fantasy.  There’s enough leprosy and mutilation to keep things interesting and, on the whole, the book is skewed more towards the lurid than The Book of Monelle.  The stories have that quaint poeticism that one finds in certain fin de si├Ęcle authors – they are nicely translated by Kit Schluter with an appropriate dreamlike quality, and are quite enjoyable, if not particularly memorable.  

Also published by Wakefield, just this year, Imaginary Lives resembles – and was an inspiration for – Borges’ wonderful Universal History of Infamy.  Not all of the 24 personages* in Schwob’s fictionalized biographies are degenerates and reprobates (Pocahontas, of all people, appears in the mix), but it’s not giving anything away to say that sad, unfortunate ends are the norm here.   In a few pages each, Schwob tells the story of a number of famous, infamous, and obscure characters from antiquity through the Renaissance and up into the 18th Century (he has a particular thing for pirates, it appears). This is a worthy addition to Wakefield’s Schwob project.

Very much in the vein of the aforementioned cruel tales is Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace in Rome, which I read some months ago but neglected to mention here.  It is the unfortunate tale of a 17th Century Italian engraver, who bears hideous facial scars as a result of an ill-fated romantic encounter, excellently told by a modern master and published by Wakefield in 2016.

Note: I’ve decided to revive my practice of providing Amazon product links, as decent bookstores can be hard to find, and the few loose cents dropped into my Amazon account every year or so is a good reminder to not give up my day job.  If you are fortunate enough to live in a place with a local bookstore brave enough to stock these titles in the vain hope that some ne’er-do-well will wander in looking for an intelligent, yet lurid, read (as Malvern Books in Austin does), then by all means patronize them.

* Just for the hell of it, here is the list:
Empedocles (Supposed God)
Herostratus (Incendiary)
Crates (Cynic)
Septima (Enchantress)
Lucretius (Poet)
Clodia (Licentious Matron)
Petronius (Novelist)
Suffrah (Geomancer)
Fra Dolcino (Heretic)
Cecco Angiolieri (Hateful Poet)
Paolo Uccello (Painter)
Nicolas Loyseleur (Judge)
Katherine the Lacemaker (Lady of the Night)
Alain the Kind (Soldier )
Gabriel Spenser (Actor)
Pocahontas (Princess)
Cyril Tourneur  (Tragic Poet)
William Phips (Treasure Hunter)
Captain Kidd (Pirate)
Walter Kennedy (Illiterate Pirate)
Major Stede Bonner (Pirate by Temperament)
Messrs. Burke and Hare (Murderers)