Poetry News

Mon Elle! Rediscovering the Unofficial Bible of the French Symbolists, Newly Translated by Kit Schluter

By Harriet Staff


It's not often you are confronted with Claude Cahun's uncle, Marcel Schwob, in his best-understood form (or many of them...a genre elusiveness...a blend of poetry, fiction, and philosophical writing, a cult liveliness), that of The Book of Monelle, newly translated by a young poet, Kit Schluter, and just published by Cambridge, Mass's Wakefield Press...but we have confronted this and are glad for it! This narrator, originally written in 1894, translated in 1929, already lost in print, resurrected by Schluter for the English-speaking, a prostitute recalling/foretelling Marguerite Duras's Destroy, she said. Recalling a lot of things, actually. We hear that if you're keen on Gerard de Nerval, Colette, Jorge Luis Borges, Cahun, the Brothers Grimm, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marguerite Moreno, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas De Quincey, Robert Louis Stevenson, François Villon, Walt Whitman, the 1001 Nights, or or...you might be keen on the underappreciated Schwob too. More about it all:

When Marcel Schwob published The Book of Monelle in French in 1894, it immediately became the unofficial bible of the French symbolist movement, admired by such contemporaries as Stephane Mallarmé, Alfred Jarry, and André Gide. A carefully woven assemblage of legends, aphorisms, fairy tales, and nihilistic philosophy, it remains a deeply enigmatic and haunting work over a century later, a gathering of literary and personal ruins written in a style that evokes both the Brothers Grimm and Friedrich Nietzsche. The Book of Monelle was the fruit of Schwob’s intense emotional suffering over the loss of his love, a “girl of the streets” named Louise, whom he had befriended in 1891 and who succumbed to tuberculosis two years later. Transforming her into Monelle, the innocent prophet of destruction, Schwob tells the stories of her various sisters: girls succumbing to disillusion, caught between the misleading world of childlike fantasy and the bitter world of reality. This new translation reintroduces a true fin-de-siècle masterpiece into English.

Marcel Schwob (1867–1905) was a scholar of startling breadth and an incomparable storyteller. A secret influence on generations of writers, from Guillaume Apollinaire and Jorge Luis Borges to Roberto Bolaño, Schwob was as versed in the street slang of medieval thieves as he was in the poetry of Walt Whitman. His allegiances were to Rabelais and François Villon, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. Paul Valéry and Alfred Jarry both dedicated their first books to him, and in doing so paid tribute to the author who could evoke both the intellect of Leonardo da Vinci and the anarchy of Ubu Roi. He was also the uncle of Lucy Schwob, better remembered today as the Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun.

Get it.

Originally Published: October 23rd, 2012