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25 Points: The Book of Monelle

The Book of Monelle
by Marcel Schwob
translated by Kit Schluter
Wakefield Press, 2012
136 pages / $12.95 buy from Wakefield Press or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Let’s just start with the fact that this book made me cry. It’s an utterly heartbreaking book, beautiful in the torment and suffering that is manifested through its words. Though Monelle instructs, “Words are words while they are spoken. / Unspoken words are dead and beget the plague. / Listen to my spoken words, and act not according to the words I write,” these written words are the only spectral trace we have left of her.

2. I first heard about the new translation of this significant work at Harriet.

3. The synopsis of the book reads: When Marcel Schwob published The Book of Monelle in French in 1894, it immediately became the unofficial bible of the French symbolist movement, admired by such contemporaries as Stephane Mallarmé, Alfred Jarry, and André Gide. A carefully woven assemblage of legends, aphorisms, fairy tales, and nihilistic philosophy, it remains a deeply enigmatic and haunting work over a century later, a gathering of literary and personal ruins written in a style that evokes both the Brothers Grimm and Friedrich Nietzsche. The Book of Monelle was the fruit of Schwob’s intense emotional suffering over the loss of his love, a “girl of the streets” named Louise, whom he had befriended in 1891 and who succumbed to tuberculosis two years later. Transforming her into Monelle, the innocent prophet of destruction, Schwob tells the stories of her various sisters: girls succumbing to disillusion, caught between the misleading world of childlike fantasy and the bitter world of reality. This new translation reintroduces a true fin-de-siècle masterpiece into English.

4. The Book of Monelle is a book of words, like the Bible, these words may transcend its physical pages. In its biblical and prophetic tone, Monelle, perhaps herself a prophet, speaks of the beginning: “And Monelle said again: I shall speak to you of young prostitutes, and you shall know the beginning.”

5. If Monelle is a prophet, she is utterly of the present, of the moment, and of silence, because in life and suffering everything becomes a mirror to one’s suffering, and because in death there is only silence, but there is also the hope of forgetting.

6. Monelle instructs: “Do not remember, and do not predict.”

7. The translator gives two possible ways to interpret the name Monelle. First, the French translation that roughly translates into “My-her,” which implicates a strange hope for possession. Indeed, the narrator (whom we take to be Marcel’s tortured self) says, “And as I looked over the plain, I saw the sisters of Monelle rising.” Because every “her” is Monelle. And Monelle is every her. And yet, Monelle is of the past and infinitely elusive.

8. Monelle, its prefix derived from monos, then also implies a numeric singularity. Monelle is now and always alone. Schluter, in a footnote to his afterword, describes, “The infinite solitude that draws the narrator toward her is the very force that must ultimately repel him. In the end, no matter how we attempt to grasp her character, her name should be the first clue that Monelle will fade into abstraction in the fashion of a mirage or a dream recalled upon waking.”

9. Monelle speaks: “…for it is necessary that you lose me before you find me again. And if you find me again, I shall elude you once more. / For I am she who is alone.”

10. And then: “Because I am alone, you shall give me the name Monelle. But you shall imagine that I have every other name.” (Louise, Louvette, Lilly, Bargette…)

11. This book is elusive. Monelle is elusive. So is memory. There is no key to any white kingdom. There is no again. (“Can miracles not happen twice?”)

12. This book is also naïve. Love is naïve. And so, again, is memory. There is something sad and traumatic about the very act of dreaming, about the very act of desire.

13. Monelle’s sisters are beautiful in their naivete. And in contrast, it seems that Monelle is infinitely wise. But in this context, what exactly is wisdom?

14. From the afterword: “Schwob began to understand life as painfully transient, death as painfully permanent, and love, painfully brief; but Monelle was teaching him to unlearn these habitual understandings. All things are fleeting, but Monelle is the most fleeting, she said.”

15. And: “Perhaps without every saying it, she taught him that the falsehoods we believe as children are not detrimental or misleading, but joyous and fruitful, that the certainty of adulthood is a sorrowful and wasteful thing.”

16. Because memory is not certain, Louise becomes Monelle and Monelle becomes Louise.

17. We feel Marcel Schwob’s trauma utterly in the text, yet he is very distant, very far away. He too is a ghost that haunts the reader the way Monelle haunts Marcel.

18. I continue to quote the translator’s afterword because the afterword too, is heartbreaking. The context for this book is as heartbreaking and beautiful as the text itself. The afterword describes: “This book is a mirror: a distorting mirror of what is dead, a mirror of running water, a mirror with a body crawling out of it, a mirror of water and smoke, the true mirror, a mirror of blood, a mirror lit by a dying flame, a mirror that lies. And it is a mirror unlike anything else its maker ever crafted, for the event that inspired it was singular: the sort of event that teaches us to change, for fear of learning again the trauma of the unforeseen lesson.”

19. There is very little I can say about this book without quoting from the book itself. This book had a profound effect on me. Probably I haven’t read a book that had this sort of emotional effect on me in quite awhile. Really, I want to say so much about the book but somehow it renders me inarticulate. Perhaps the book’s effect is inarticulatable and can only exist as itself.

20. Lately too, I have been seeking out books that make me feel.

21. Is it significant that after being instructed to forget over and over again, that in the last line of the book, she remembers? “Then Louvette remembered, and she chose to love and suffer, and she came beside me in her white dress, and the two of us stole away together through the countryside.”

22. In the Symbolist Manifesto, Moréas states, “In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.”

23. Why is it that imagination often arises from trauma?

24. When Monelle speaks about moments (“Think in the moment. All thought that lasts is contradiction.”), is this related to Pasolini’s thoughts on the long take?

25. How is forgetting possible when the memory is so vivid? Is a changed memory the same as forgetting? Does rereading constitute a sort of changed memory? Which words will I remember? And which will I forget?

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