Wednesday, July 11, 2018

“Won’t the dead come to talk for just half an hour with this sick man?” – Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives Remixed


Chris Clarke’s recent translation of Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives (Vies Imaginaires, 1896), the first English version in more than a quarter century, brings this remarkable book to a new generation of Anglophone readers. Though the influence of Schwob’s work extends widely, from Max Jacob to Rainer Maria Rilke to William Faulkner, Imaginary Lives in particular took hold in South America, where Jorge Luis Borges used it as a model for his A Universal History of Infamy, which in turn inspired J. Rudolfo Wilcock’s comic masterpiece The Temple of Iconoclasts and Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas

The ostensibly simple concept of Imaginary Lives seems so irresistibly attractive as almost to dare one to try one’s own hand at it. The idea of the work stems from Schwob’s meditations over the nature of biography. “The historical sciences,” he writes in his introduction to Imaginary Lives, “reveal to us only those points by which people are connected to public actions.” Instead, invoking “art in opposition to general ideas,” Schwob proposes a new approach, “a book that describes a man in all his irregularities” that would “relate the unique existences of men, whether they were divine, mediocre, or criminal.” Using for his models Plutarch, Vasari, Samuel Johnson and John Aubrey, and having an affinity with Walter Pater’s Imaginary Portraits, which appeared only a few years before Imaginary Lives, Schwob creates a series of 22 vignettes of about five pages each, written using a concentrated, gothic-baroque language reminiscent of that employed by Isak Dinesen in her “gothic tales.” These factual-fictional biosketches of persons real and imagined begin in the 5thcentury B.C.E. with the pre-Socratic philosopher Empodocles and end in the 1820’s with William Burke and William Hare of Edinburgh, who murdered 16 people in order to procure corpses for dissection. In between, Schwob portrays the lives of Lucretius, Petronius, Paolo Uccello, Pocahontas, Captain Kidd and Major Stede Bonnet among others, as well as several figures he manufactures from the margins of history, including an African slave, Septima; the impoverished, wandering 15thcentury “Katherine the Lacemaker”; and Gabriel Spenser, a moony young English boy recruited by a traveling theatre troupe to play female parts. Two other portraits In addition to those of Kidd and Bonnet give pirates a disproportionate representation in Schwob’s book, reflecting the author’s debt to Daniel Defoe, whom Schwob translated and whose A General History of the Pyrates served as yet another template.[1]


Italians are also represented significantly in Schwob’s book, a reflection of Schwob’s consumption a good deal of Italian literature, so I was thrilled to discover that Italian literature has recently repaid him in a brief but ingenious way with a new take on Imaginary Lives.[2] Swiss-Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy, who writes in Italian and has herself previously translated Imaginary Livesinto that language, has created a fascinating homage/dialogue with Schwob’s book entitled These Possible Lives (Vite congetturali, 2015). Her gentle tweak of title from imagination to possibility (or conjecture, as the Italian original precises) nudges Schwob a bit towards earth, and in fact puts him right in it, since of the three lives Jaeggy chooses to recreate, the last one, following Thomas De Quincey and John Keats, is Schwob’s own, from cradle to grave. 

By restricting her focus to three writers (more specifically three writers of a particularly Romantic bent), Jaeggy also leapfrogs simple homage and goes to the heart of Imaginary Lives as an act and style of writing, linking her portraits thematically by exploring the “irregularities,” “unique existences” and pathologies that led these figures to write. Modeling her language on that of Schwob, Jaeggy gives her three figures the Schwob treatment, building her portraits using an impasto of biographical peculiarities impossible to encapsulate more succinctly than Jaeggy has already done in her minimalist pieces, so I’ll just provide a flavor.

The “enigmatic sphinx” De Quincey drew from the West, taking inspiration from Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt and other in their peculiarities. De Quincey drew from the East, towards which he was, in Jaeggy’s splendid prose: “…driven forward by opium-fueled caprices. A pack of gods clutched him. The pyramids, hospice of the dead. He dreamed up the abominable crocodile head and the turbaned Malay, delighting in the sickness and horror of original matter, deposits of which could be traced back to the stars.” Jaeggy’s choice of De Quincey is something of an intellectual inside joke, given that Schwob translated De Quincey’s own fictionalized biographical work on Immanuel Kant, which Jaeggy herself translated into Italian. 

The section on John Keats begins in a quintessentially Schwobian mode by pondering the possible effects on a life’s trajectory of the kind of minutiae biographers sometimes overlook: 

In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy. Children also had toy cannons that used real gunpowder, and puzzles depicting the great battles of England. They went around chanting, “Victory or death!” Do childhood games influence character? 

But the author injects a new, skeptical tone in answering her question above: “We have to assume that they do, but let’s set aside such heartbreaking speculations for a moment.” She then goes on to furnish a catalogue of factoid-al, potential influences and guiding lights for Keats, among them his natural love of fighting, fascination with the cadavers procured from resurrection men during his medical studies (a nicely worked-in allusion to the Burke/Hare chapter from Schwob), a passion for a stranger he’d seen for a mere half an hour, and a transformation “in a single afternoon in 1813” when he attended a lecture about Edmund Spenser. 

Reaching Schwob, Jaeggy builds her skeletal sketch out of Schwob’s love of play; his discovery of Poe at an early age and then of François Villon and Robert Louis Stevenson; his intestinal illnesses and operations; his deep attachments, first to another melancholy school boy who committed suicide then to Louise, a probable prostitute to whom he was devoted for some two years before her death from tuberculosis (and to whom Schwob’s hallucinatory short fiction, Monelle, is dedicated); and Schwob’s subsequent and gradual withdrawal from friends. Drawing attention to her own project, Jaeggy also writes of Schwob’s conceiving of Vies Imaginaires

Those men who live like dogs, those sainted women credulous in the face of any clever monk, those who damn themselves, indulging in a longing for everything beneath them – this was the company that Schwob kept now. He realizes that he’s smiling when he reads his own words aloud to himself: ‘Don’t embrace the dead because they suffocate the living…’ 

Knowing he had but a short time to live, Schwob set off on a long voyage to Samoa to visit the grave of his long-time correspondent Stevenson, prompting Jules Renard to quip, “He lives his stories before dying.”

These Possible Lives is such a pleasure to read that I almost wished Jaeggy had followed the standard model and provided a longer volume with more lives (this one weighs in at scarcely 50 pages). But thin as it is, her own book is deeply satisfying, striking just the right tone and proportion and displaying impressive restraint that implies more of an interest in querying such an enterprise than in updating it. I am puzzled by the translator’s injection of the word “These” into the title, although it does seem to underscore the deliberateness behind Jaeggy’s limited selection. As if to further emphasize her selectivity, Jaeggy cleverly hints, in the De Quincey section, at her capacity to have created more by including a brief catalogue of a number of writers and others - including Wordsworth, Coleridge and Charles Lamb - whom she each tags with a particular particularity.   

It may seem odd that Jaeggy fails to devote any of her three portraits to female writers, as did others who spun off variations on Imaginary Lives. However, women stare out from the pattern contrived for the stories of these three men and leave the reader wondering at their own “possible lives.” In the catalogue referenced above, Jaeggy also mentions Anne Radcliffe, Mrs. Leigh Hunt and Lamb’s sister Mary, who “stabbed her own mother through the heart.” Women also feature prominently in their more intimate connections to Jaeggy’s three male figures. There is Wordsworth’s young daughter, dead at an early age, over whose grave De Quincey “knelt every night.” Fanny Brawne, “a matter of sorcery” for Keats and whose name Keats “didn’t want anyone to utter,” gets a full two pages. Compiling descriptions of Brawne, Jaeggy notes, “The history of female beauty is almost always told in the negative,” an observation almost inconceivable in Schwob. Of Schwob’s obsession with Louise, Jaeggy writes that “whenever he was left alone, [he became] frightened that the dead girl would die again. He sees her ghost laughing in the corners of the room, its watery eyes seem to suggest new games…but he can no longer hear the chirping and nonsense in her – the child aged in death.” A specifically romantic relation to the feminine is implied in each of these portraits. As fascinating and engrossing as these portraits may be, Jaeggy also seems to cock a knowing eyebrow at the palpable, decadent entwining of love and death among these Romantics. 

The cover of the New Directions paperback edition of These Possible Lives labels it “Nonfiction,” while the description and blurbs on the back refer to Jaeggy as “a master of the essay form” and speak of her “sensuous mini-biographies in light and shade.” There’s no reference to Schwob’s premonitory influence or recognition that these are fictions, making me almost wonder if Jaeggy and her publisher might have deliberately conspired to further the fact/fiction blurring in which Jaeggy revels. But whether such an intention is at play here or not, Jaeggy, having turned Schwob’s backwards telescope on himself, has certainly upped his game in a contribution that easily belongs atop the pile of its many predecessors – not merely an exercise in form, but a shrewd questioning of its appeal, one especially provocative coming from a writer whose other books apparently evince a deep interest in portraiture and self-representations. A next step might have been for Jaeggy to create her own “possible life,” an autobiographical sketch, a missing fourth chapter one can almost already discern as a question hovering phantom-like beyond the end of These Possible Lives. But that kind of exercise some other author can try. In the meantime, I look forward to reading more of Fleur Jaeggy’s remarkable work. 

[1]At a Schwob-themed event mounted by the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco, translator Chris Clarke selected the Bonnet chapter to read aloud, a bravura performance he should seriously consider taking on the road.
[2]Wilcock, an Argentine, wrote his Imaginary Lives-inspired work in Italian, so this is at least the second time Schwob has been so honored.