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Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob

Published in Issue 53

Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob (tr. Chris Clarke). Wakefield Press. $14.95, 192 pp.


Five years ago, under my own steam, I undertook to translate Marcel Schwob’s Vies imaginaires into English. It’s a book that I love (and that was beloved by Borges, who led me to it). None of the three previously published translations were in print, and the two I’d been able to find at the library had a toneless stiffness, with no trace of the original’s swiftness or charm. So I plunged ahead, until, three years later, patiently waiting to hear back from a publisher, I learned of the existence of another new translation, by Chris Clarke, forthcoming from Wakefield Press.
In retrospect my only regret is not having followed Simon Leys’s sage advice: “Whenever you have a good idea, do not put it into practice…sooner or later, someone else will hit upon the same concept, and will do a better job of it.” All the same, as a fellow translator of the Vies imaginaires, I don’t think it would be right for me to scrutinize Clarke’s work too closely. What I have read of it strikes me as excellent. This new edition of Imaginary Lives (part of Wakefield’s ongoing revival of Schwob in English, which began with Kit Schluter’s rendition of The Book of Monelle in 2012) should provide a chance for readers to discover a book whose richness merits countless translations. Which is surely one plausible definition of a “classic.”
Imaginary Lives (1896) was Schwob’s last book of fiction. He composed its twenty-two chapters—each one the story of a life, recounted in fewer than a dozen pages, with all of these lives arranged in chronological order—between 1893 and 1896. Early in its composition, at the age of twenty-six, Schwob suffered the first attack of a mysterious intestinal ailment whose painful effects and questionable treatments (ether, opium, morphine) would lead to his death at thirty-seven. Schwob’s physical condition to some extent shaped his fiction, and though all the chapters of Imaginary Lives culminate, naturally enough, in their subjects’ deaths, these deaths are often unnaturally violent. Lucretius the Poet is poisoned by his lover. Clodia the Licentious Matron is strangled, robbed, and dumped in the river Tiber. Gabriel Spenser the Actor is stabbed in the lung by Ben Jonson the playwright. And the three pirates of the book (Captain Kidd, Walter Kennedy, Stede Bonnet) are hanged and left to rot upon the rope. Imaginary Lives is, among other things, a study of human violence, proceeding from the sun-stroked era of ancient Greek gods and demigods to the soot-blackened nineteenth-century Edinburgh of the serial murderers Burke and Hare.
It is hard to avoid making lists when talking about Schwob. His contemporaries (it’s unclear, in light of the anti-Semitic feelings most of them harbored toward him, whether to call them his “friends”) were above all impressed by, if sometimes suspicious of (see the previous parenthesis), his broad erudition. Edmond de Goncourt, for one, noted in his journal:
It really is extraordinary, this universal knowledge [Schwob] has, which runs from Tacitus to Whitman, from the most ancient author to the most modern and exotic.
The poet Henri Régnier, for another, observed that Schwob “felt as much at home with the oriental inventions of the Thousand and One Nights as with the mathematical imaginative productions of Edgar Poe.” And in a memorial essay, Paul Léautaud bragged on Schwob’s behalf: “He was familiar with every literature; he knew the exact word for every thing.”
Looking over Schwob’s sources for Imaginary Lives, one gets the sense that these appraisals were hardly exaggerated. In order to craft these stories of seven or eight pages each, Schwob drew on material as varied as Saint Jerome’s Chronicon and Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, two fifteenth-century letters of remission housed at the National Archives in Paris, and a binding spell unearthed in 1889 from a tomb in Sousse, Tunisia. But then Imaginary Lives is much more than the sum of its sources. It’s not a mere curio. Schwob’s familiarity with every literature is the background of the book; the substance of it—the experience of reading it—is something else entirely, and has much more to do with his knowledge of “the exact word for every thing.”
In his life of the cynical philosopher Crates, for example, Schwob sticks fairly close to his source, Diogenes Laërtius’s Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. But even his small divagations are significant. To take just one example: according to Laërtius (in R. D. Hicks’s translation), Crates had a brother-in-law named Metrocles who was
so far corrupted by weakness that, when he made a breach of good manners in the course of rehearsing a speech, it drove him to despair, and he shut himself up at home, intending to starve himself to death. On learning this Crates came to visit him as he had been asked to do, and after advisedly making a meal of lupins, he tried to persuade him by argument as well that he had committed no crime, for a prodigy would have happened if he had not taken the natural means of relieving himself. At last by reproducing the action he succeeded in lifting him from his dejection, using for his consolation the likeness of the occurrences. From that time forward Metrocles was his pupil, and became proficient in philosophy.
Passing through Schwob’s imagination, this anecdote transforms, so that Metrocles is troubled by not one untimely fart but by
constant flatulence that he could not hold in. He despaired and made up his mind that he should die. Crates learned of his unhappiness, and wanted to console him. He ate a large vessel of lupin beans and went to see Metrocles. He asked him if it was shame over his infirmity that had upset him so greatly. Metrocles admitted that he could no longer bear such disgrace. And so Crates, all swollen from the lupins, let go great bursts of wind in front of his disciple, and assured him that nature subjected all men to the same evil. He then rebuked him for feeling shame because of others, and offered himself as an example. Then he broke wind a few more times, took Metrocles by the hand, and led him off.
Schwob’s variations on Laërtius are for comic effect, obviously, but they also make the anecdote about Metrocles more vivid, and more moving. Schwob’s explicitness about Crates’s “great bursts of wind” and the detail of him taking Metrocles “by the hand” lift the story up out of its context in an ancient book about eminent philosophers and set it down again as a tale of one human being helping another muddle through the humiliation of existence.
This sense that the past is continuous with the present—that we are not, in an insurmountable way, different from people who lived two or three thousand years ago—is the great premise of Imaginary Lives, and one of its greatest gifts to the receptive reader. I believe it’s also one of the reasons why the book has had such appeal for a long line of receptive readers who are also writers.[1] Borges, who was one of them, wrote in his preface to Vidas imaginarias:
All over the world there are devotees of Marcel Schwob that constitute small secret societies. He did not seek fame; he wrote deliberately for the “happy few.”
There is pleasure in belonging to a secret society, I don’t deny. But it wouldn’t be a tragedy if this new translation introduced Schwob’s unparalleled book of lives to just a happy few more.
Alex Andriesse is a writer and translator living in the Netherlands. His edition of François-René de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, 1768–1800 is published by NYRB Classics.
[1] The influence of Imaginary Lives can be clearly seen in Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy (1935), J. Rodolfo Wilcock’s The Temple of Iconoclasts (1981), Antonio Tabucchi’s Dreams of Dreams (1992), Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), and most recently Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives (2009), which includes a chapter on Schwob himself. According to Bolaño, Borges may in fact have been led to Schwob via the Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes’s Retratos reales e imaginarios (1920)—a book that has unfortunately not yet been translated into English
Published in Issue 53

"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please."
Mark Twain

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It has been said that a monkey, randomly typing away on a typewriter (in the days when typewriters replaced the pen or plume as the preferred instrument of writing) could re-create Shakespeare-- but only if it lived long enough (this is known as the infinite monkey theorem).