Celebrating Marcel Schwob: Chris Clarke and Kit Schluter in Conversation with Stephen Sparks
The Laundry | 3359 26th Street | San Francisco, California
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Join translators Chris Clarke and Kit Schluter for an overdue celebration of French writer Marcel Schwob, the cult phenomenon who secretly influenced generations of writers from Guillaume Apollinaire and Jorge Luis Borges to Roberto Bolaño. Point Reyes Books owner and reader extraordinaire Stephen Sparks moderates.
Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, translated by Chris Clarke, remains, over 120 years since its original publication in French, one of the secret keys to modern literature: under-recognized, yet a decisive influence on such writers as Guillaume Apollinaire, Jorge Luis Borges, Alfred Jarry, and Antonin Artaud, and more contemporary authors such as Roberto Bolaño and Jean Echenoz. Drawing from historical influences such as Plutarch and Diogenes Laërtius, and authors more contemporary to him such as Thomas de Quincy and Walter Pater, Schwob established the genre of fictional biography with this collection: a form of narrative that championed the specificity of the individual over the generality of history, and the memorable detail of a vice over the forgettable banality of a virtue.
These twenty-two portraits present figures drawn from the margins of history, from Empedocles the “Supposed God” and Clodia the “Licentious Matron” to the pirate Captain Kidd and the Scottish murderers Messrs. Burke and Hare. In his quest for unique existences, Schwob also formulated an early conception of the anti-hero, and discarded historical figures in favor of their shadows, be they divine, mediocre, or criminal. These “imaginary lives” thus acquaint us with the “Hateful Poet” Cecco Angiolieri instead of his lifelong rival, Dante Alighieri; the would-be romantic pirate Major Stede Bonnet instead of the infamous Blackbeard who would lead him to the gallows; the false confessor Nicolas Loyseleur rather than Joan of Arc, whom he cruelly deceived; or the actor Gabriel Spenser in place of the better-remembered Ben Jonson who ran a sword through his lung.
Marcel Schwob’s 1896 novella The Children’s Crusade, translated by Kit Schluter, retells the medieval legend of the exodus of some 30,000 children from all countries to the Holy Land, who traveled to the shores of the sea, which instead of parting to allow them to march on to Jerusalem, instead delivered them to merchants who sold them into slavery in Tunisia or to a watery death. It is a cruel and sorrowful story mingling history and legend, which Schwob recounts through the voices of eight different protagonists: a goliard, a leper, Pope Innocent III, a cleric, a qalandar, and Pope Gregory IX, as well as two of the marching children, whose naïve faith eventually turns into growing fear and anguish.
Though it is a tale drawn from the early thirteenth century, Schwob presents it through a modern framework of shifting subjectivity and fragmented coherency, and its subject matter and its succession of different narrative perspectives has been seen as an influence on and precursor to such diverse works as Alfred Jarry’s The Other Alcestis, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove,” William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Jerzy Andrzejewski’s The Gates of Paradise. It is a tale told by many yet understood by few, a mosaic surrounding a void, describing a world in which innocence must perish.
This event is supported in part by grants from the San Francisco Arts Commission and from San Francisco Grants for the Arts.