Marcel Schwob: a Man of the Future


Stephen Sparks in 3AM Magazine:

Historian and biographer Pierre Champion once characterized French writer Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) as “a man of the future.” It seems an odd assessment of a man who insistently looked to the past. Born into a family of rabbis and doctors, Schwob’s life was strongly marked by an obsessive fascination with bygone historical epochs: he studied Sanskrit; translated Catullus, Defoe, and Shakespeare; he spent his brief adult years studying, with the intention of publishing the definitive study of, fifteenth century outlaw poet Francois Villon. His stories, when not set in antiquity or the Middle Ages, are ripe with allusions to legends, lost customs, nearly forgotten mythologies and characters from the fringes of empire and art. Under the aegis of his uncle, Leon Cahun (great-uncle of the artistClaude Cahun), the curator and librarian of the famous Bibliothèque Mazarine, Marcel spent his formative years surrounded by a rich collection of books and manuscripts, including the Mazarine Bible, printed by Gutenberg himself. When he was sixteen, he wrote and abandoned a novel set in ancient Rome. It could be said that Schwob grew up at the end of the 19th century, but came of age in antiquity.

Champion’s insight may have been less a characterization of Schwob’s gaze than his destiny. In the century following his premature death, Schwob appears to have been all but forgotten. This despite numbering among his admirers Jules Renard, Mallarmé, Paul Valéry and Alfred Jarry (who both dedicated books to Schwob), Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Borges, and Roberto Bolaño. Despite periodic dustings off—Solar Books published a translation, by “Lady Jane Orgasmo,” of his secretly influential Imaginary Lives a few years ago that is already out-of-print and difficult to find—there seems to be little reason to revise Roger Shattuck’s claim, made in 1955, that Schwob is a “singularly neglected figure.”

The history of literature is, of course, strewn with the neglected, the misunderstood, the forgotten, the never fully realized, and minor figures more influential than renowned. If one were to draw a Venn diagram comprised of each of these categories, Marcel Schwob, along with a handful of others, would be at the heart of their intersections. But how, one despairs, can a man praised so highly during his own life fall completely by the wayside posthumously, as if it was his vitality alone that kept him from obscurity?