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Lessons Paid in Full

Mayer André Marcel Schwob, much admired by Jarry, Wilde, Valéry, and Borges, among many others, usually gets skipped over in the mourning roll call of fin de siècle decadents. An untragic life, command of linguistics (he was an early analyst of argot, Sanskrit scholar and polyglot, as well as a student of de Saussure), and a sedate career in letters doesn’t exactly fit the emaciated maudit mold. He wasn’t a junky like de Quincy or a repentant Satanist like Huysmans; he wasn’t publically naughty like Verlaine and he didn’t walk his pet lobster around like poor old Gerard de Nerval. He was popular and highly respected during his life, well-travelled, made money from his writing, and counted the major French authors of the day as personal friends. He probably survives today through his extraordinary niece Claud Cahun, in the footnotes of others’ biographies, or by the courtesy of trendy fans like the late Roberto Bolano.

Decadence was the invention a past worthy of return in a present deemed unfit for those born too late. Knee-deep in contemporary decay, the classic decadent distrusted purpose and took his senility early, despising old age in favor of eloquent collapse. Endless arabesques, a monumental misty heaviness, unhealthy waters, skinny girls and Magian cults haunt the books and paintings of the Symbolists and flâneurs. So does childlike cruelty. Schwob’s 1892 The King in the Golden Mask is a prime example, consisting of short poetic sketches with morals trimmed in favor of remorselessness and landscapes which reveal only the vicious monotony of homecoming.

It has been said that the Decadents owed much to the great Encyclopedists, but I think that it was their own school pedagogy that really made them. Liberal ideology fused with Prussian severity formed the very definition of middle class schooling at the time – ‘buildung supra buildung’, as James Joyce puns it. The great classroom with its oaken master’s desk and gleaming chemical apparatus, corporal punishment, endless memorization along with modish theories of arts education and physical fitness. Race theory and imperial burden, the natural course of empire along with Chinese geography, phrenology and political economy – powerful disciplines built to reflect the great mortar structures. All these ideas were impressed into the quiet rows of a young bourgeoisie. Later, they parodied them in horror and ennui when they dreamed of the old world in ruins.

For all the horripilating squalls and geysers of limbsplitting in his stories, Schwob is really a relaxed cosmopolitan leafing through the library annals. The Schwobby city is a solid country gentleman’s nightmare; its environs are overrun with supernatural hicks and evil-smelling inns. The bleeding courtiers and filthy seasalts of his stories were common on perfume boxes or in department store windows by the time he starred them in contes cruels; Sunday stroll tat, along with the colonial Algerian postcards and opioid cure-alls also on display. He swiped much of his material from obscure historical records and then abandoned his scrupulous research for blotched bloody rags and fantastic machines. Like the others in his century-end school, he killed time by entertaining himself.

Or so it seems. But something unnerving comes to mind when reading his stories today. These small 3-4 page portraits appear now like short loops or videos where we are thrown immediately into a rarefied world, then shifted quickly to the next dark episode (‘related’ content). Various destroyed people and their claustrophobic surroundings rise up before the browser, offering a faux distance which disappears if you recall that agonized maxim of Warhol’s: Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. It’s 15 seconds at best, now. Compressed yet expansive digital remains make up the earthly image of billions of lives. The most appalling are the unguarded or final moments captured by onlookers, conspirators. These ultimate reports carry most by least and curry the widest audience: cheerless pornography, execution, humiliation, universities of violence. Perhaps this is the final form of a ‘general education’, a true worldliness whose cruelty is no longer confined to the Lycée and those 19th century monsters who became Jarry’s Pa Ubu and Schwob’s leper monarch.

Schwob’s extraordinary niece, the Surrealist Claude Cahun, took anti-erotic photos that looked like Atget’s dummies come to life (Atget was another friend of her uncle’s), or factory automata trying to escape after hours. She also carried on a rather debonair but highly effective campaign against the Nazis on Occupied Jersey, where she lived along with her companion, Suzanne Malherbe. They dropped leaflets and mailed incriminating letters, driving the already suspicious Nazis into paroxysms of paranoia. The SS devoted endless manpower and time to uncover what they thought was a vast and ruthless resistance network, but which consisted only of the two women artists. You get the idea her uncle would have approved of this wily use of documents and evidence to fashion true lies; for all his love of Villon’s potty-mouth, Schwob was not the type to raise his voice. He burrowed with intent his whole life, untroubled by censor or scandal, with that air of modesty which marks a mind unable to shake the scholastic gloom it grew to despise.

The head-splitting morons of Schwob’s gaudy tales resembled the oafs Claude so effectively riled many years after his death. Perhaps the perverse bedtime stories of The King in the Golden Mask were intended to prepare her for what she must do by sketching out the characters she must confront with the precision of a distant yet devoted teacher.

Kit Schluter’s translation from the French is superb and he provides a thoughtful afterward. Wakefield Press’ striking pocket edition is the first English translation of the complete text.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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