Decadent Prose: An Interview with Translator Kit Schluter
April 10, 2013 | by Sarah Gerard
It is 1891. Marcel Schwob, a well-know author, meets a “girl of the streets” in the rain, in a slum of Paris. Her name is Louise, and she is sick with tuberculosis. He takes her home and cares for her. He writes her stories—fairy tales—which she loves. They grow close. Louise shows Marcel the beauty of innocence. Two years later, she dies. He is crippled by his grief. For six months, he doesn’t write.
Then, he publishes The Book of Monelle, a groundbreaking work of decadence. An assemblage of fairy tales, nihilist philosophy, and aphorisms tightly woven into a tapestry of deep emotional suffering, it becomes the unofficial bible of the French Symbolist movement. Schwob influences writers and thinkers from Alfred Jarry to André Gide to Stéphane Mallarmé to Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño. Translated obscurely into English in 1927, The Book of Monelle all but falls into obscurity shortly thereafter.
Now, thanks to a new translation by Kit Schluter, Monelle is once again available in the States, with a biographical afterword. In addition to his translation work, otherwise focused on Pierre Alferi, Amandine André, and Danielle Collobert, Schluter is a poet and an editor at CLOCK Magazine and O’Clock Press, and will begin his graduate studies at Brown in the fall. We met to talk at a café in New York’s West Village.
Why don’t you start by telling me how you found Schwob’s work and what drew you to it?
I studied in Paris for a little bit in early 2010, and went to work in Tours, a city southwest of Paris, for about a month in the summer. I lived with my friend Sylvain Burgaud, who the translation is dedicated to, and a dear friend Bruno Chartier. Sylvain and I worked in these vineyards outside of town, trimming grapevines for about ten hours a day. Then we’d go to this bar at night called Le Serpant Volant, or the Flying Snake. The bartender, a wonderful person named Omar, when he found out that we were translating each other’s poems, offered us the second floor of the bar as a translating space in the evenings. Sylvain and I were translating almost every night, my first experience with the frenzy of translation and its conversations, obsessing over single words.
One weekend, we went out to his house in La Roche Bernard, and we were translating a poem of mine, which is called “Journals.” We got to a passage and he asked, Have you ever heard of Marcel Schwob? I said, No, definitely not. And he said, Well, you need to read him, because you write a lot like him. I said, Okay, fine. Show me the book. I was really excited, and a little flattered.
So, he went and got the book. I read one sentence, or two sentences, from “The Words of Monelle.” It was, “And Monelle said again, ‘I shall speak to you of moments,’” but in French, and something like, “Love the moment. All love that lasts is hatred.” It’s a little adolescent, isn’t it? But it really spoke to me, so I said, “Sylvain, will you loan me this book? I want to translate it into English.” But he wouldn’t lend me the book because he’d lent it out so many times before to people who didn’t return it. When he asked for it back, they had already lent it to someone else! That’s my favorite part of the whole story—that Sylvain couldn’t lend me the book because he had lost it so many times by way of lending. So I went to a place in Tours when we were back, and picked it up. It’s called Le Livre. It’s a great bookstore.
Did Schwob write that section later, “The Words of Monelle”? Because I know that he wrote the stories of the sisters of Monelle while Louise was dying, right?
He began writing stories for Louise at the very end of his writing of Mimes, while she was relatively healthy. Over the course of about two years, he continued to write her stories that declined in joy, increased in darkness. By the time he wrote “The Words of Monelle,” Louise was, I think, less than a month away from death. The sections afterward were written just before Louise’s death, and then after about a six-month period of silence, he began writing those stories again.
The story surrounding the book is a very tragic one, and I think you need to have that story in order to understand the book. But it’s not a mourning diary or a mourning novel, exactly. How would you characterize it?
Well, I think it was composed as a book of mourning, or a book that began as a work of joy that, because of the circumstances, declined into a space of mourning. And I think that’s an interesting way to read the book—following the chronology of the composition of the stories, which tells a completely different story than the way that it was published. It’s just like a chute, a decline, a total cascade.
How were the stories organized for the book?
After Schwob had completed all the stories, he went back and changed their titles to divide them into homogeneously titled sections, like “Of Her Emergence,” “Of Her Flight,” all that, which gives the book a very tempered feeling—like a book based very much in reason and logic, and aesthetic decisions. But the book didn’t have that to begin with. It was just a set of short stories that he happened to have written for this certain person. They were randomly composed. So at the very end he went back and he divided them into sections. He created a character, Monelle, who would unite all the stories by way of their rearrangement. In other words, if you were to read all the stories in the order of their original composition, you would not have the sense that the book is united at all. There’s no union, there’s no through-line. And so by creating these titles and rearranging the book, he made Monelle the center, whereas before she was just another sister.
The stories of her sisters, he changed those titles, as well?
Well, for example, before Schwob reworked the book, “The Disappointed,” which appeared originally in The King in the Golden Mask, is called “Bargette,” “The Selfish” is called “The Crabs,” “The Voluptuous” is called “Bluebeard’s Little Wife,” “The Dreamer” is called “The Seven Jugs,” “The Fated” is called “The Lady in the Mirror,” “The Perverse” is called “The Girl of the Windmill.” All these stories were first published without relation in the Écho de Paris.
So, you see, if you had a book with stories called “Bargette,” “The Crabs,” “Bluebeard’s Little Wife,” “The Seven Jugs,” “The Lady in the Mirror,” “The Girl of the Windmill,” and “The Green She-Devil,” you wouldn’t have as clear a sense that these characters are being used to access a commentary on human nature, which is exactly what Schwob ended up doing with them. If he hadn’t changed the titles, the book would be much more like his other books, which are simple collections of disparate short stories linked by themes.
And there’s a sort of inevitability in the way these stories are titled now, which turns out to be incredibly appropriate, because the characters’ attributes are intrinsic to their natures. “The Faithful,” “The Dreamer,” for example. And their fates seem to follow inevitably from this characteristic.
Definitely. Schwob was always doing that. He was always reducing people—I don’t mean that pejoratively, of course—to these essential qualities. His first collection is called Double Heart, and the book is a study of dualism—cruelty and pity, good and evil, black and white. I mean, the same themes that run through this book. He wasn’t much older when he wrote this book. He was only twenty-seven when it was published. The King in the Golden Mask, his second book, is all about the way that identity is a mask over our “true” selves. Everything is very deliberate in his work. Nothing is there without a reason for being there. The imagery is very carefully chosen.
He wrote these stories for a person who, if she wasn’t a child, was very childlike. At times, they read like very dark pieces of children’s literature. Taken together, do you think that The Book of Monelle has a moral of some kind?
Yes, absolutely. It goes back to the idea that The Book of Monelle is an aesthetically anesthetized rearrangement of a lived experience. If you read the stories as they’re written, what you’re essentially told to do is struggle against the inevitable, to struggle against the fact that loss is permanent. The final words that Schwob ever wrote toward this story are, “‘Monelle!’ I cried, ‘Monelle! In the white kingdom is Monelle!’ And the white kingdom appeared barricaded by whiteness. Then I asked, ‘Where is the key to this kingdom?’ But she who was speaking to me remained silent.” And then, in this silence, he stopped writing the book, and he rearranged it. And that, now, is the second-to-last story, which comes before the story “Of Her Resurrection,” in which the narrator is led away by a character named Louvette, essentially a replica of Monelle, toward a place of hope.
I was going to mention that! The book is so nihilistic, and then it ends on this strangely positive note. I mean, there’s destruction everywhere, but they’re reunited, at least partially. The other day, you told me that a particular passage in “The Dreamer” was the hardest to translate. What was that passage and why was it the hardest?
I think the second paragraph of “The Dreamer” was the most difficult for me because its language is very typically Schwob, which is to say that it’s based on borrowing and recycling complex material from other, sometimes very remote, places. This passage seemed so strange to me. At first I had a hard time believing the sense of what I was reading, and later that I was translating the right thing, because the language felt so certain of itself, but so bizarre in its content. For example:
The green pitcher must have been closed by a great brass seal marked by King Solomon. Age had laid upon it a coat of verdigris; for, long ago, this pitcher had dwelt in the ocean, and for several thousand years it contained a genie, who was a prince. A very young and wise girl would break the spell beneath a full moon with the permission of King Solomon, who gave the mandrakes their voices.
And so, you translate a passage like that and you think, “He couldn’t possibly be saying that. It’s too strange.” It comes out of nowhere. But what I realized was that all of those strange stories were coming from 1,001 Nights, from the Bible, from the 1,001 Nights story “Aladdin,” for instance, where you get the images of “ruby fruits, amethyst plums, garnet cherries, topaz quinces, opal grapes, and diamond berries”—very difficult language clusters to translate, for me, personally. I realized that in order to translate this book, and in order to translate Schwob in general, I would have to rely heavily on reading in other places, and look for the moments in those texts that he had been reading in French and bringing into this book by way of borrowing. Sometimes he would even plagiarize almost whole passages.
In this book?
Not in this book, although he does quote de Quincey by using a French translation of an English sentence. I didn’t get the reference until after the book came out. I can’t tell you which. It’s my big regret!
But in Imaginary Lives, for example—his book of the biography of the particular, which was later picked up by Borges in A Universal History of Iniquity—he’ll plagiarize almost whole texts. It’s something like a collage that he makes, of biographies that he encounters. He finds the moments when the biographer is achieving an attention to the particular that he sympathizes with, and he’ll just basically take the passage.
You compared translation to photography in one of your poems.
Translation and photography have mechanics that, to me, are analogous, in that you have a source—an image, a totality—and the difficulty is bringing that totality into another medium, as well as you can possibly do it. And the printed image of the text, for me, becomes especially important during translation. In order to translate a poem or a story, that is, you need to have all of the material “visible”—in other words, to keep it all in mind—in order to ensure that there aren’t inconsistencies in vocabulary, and that the tone remains consistent throughout. An original text is to translation as physical reality is to a photograph of that reality, in that the translation will never be equal to the original. It will invoke the original, in a sense.
But then again, that’s sort of a tragic way to think of translation, and a simplification. It would drive a translator crazy to believe that a translation will never achieve independence, or autonomy from the original work. In translating, then, what you hope to do—aside from help spread a work into another language’s reading culture—is make a text that will evoke an equivalent emotional resonance, an equivalent visual resonance, within the social spaces of the target language. It’s sort of an art of equivalences, but the equivalent is never exact. It’s the art of fudging equivalences, to make it seem right.
You have a very different process when you’re writing poetry, of course. Can you talk about that?
Translation and writing original material are like evil twins. They’re very related, they exist within the same space, but to me, poetry is a space within which to unlearn habits, to reengage a present that is vital and new. Translation is an art by which you engage with those practices through another person’s work, another person’s perspective. And you learn about them secondhand—you’re not the one going through the creative process as a means of pure discovery. The material has been discovered. The choices have been made. To me, the responsibility of the translator, or the task of the translator, is to bring those discoveries into another language, and share them. I like to think of translation as a selfless practice.
Schwob published The Children’s Crusade four years after The Book of Monelle. In a way, it’s similar in its concern, but Monelle is a much more personal work. Do you think Monelle is his most personal work?
Absolutely. Schwob was famously upset whenever he was introduced as the author of The Book of Monelle. Maybe it’s because he had written so much else, and he wanted credit for that, but it seems to me that it’s because The Book of Monelle is an exceptionally personal book written by someone who wanted no place in his books. He wanted to compose books by means of quotation and citation and recycling. He was constantly masking himself. His subject position is one of loan, collage, theft. He was a scholar. He wrote about François Villon, he wrote about Robert Louis Stevenson, he wrote about Paul Verlaine. But the other books still reek of Marcel Schwob. You can tell that he’s the one writing them—he has a very distinct voice. But as for his personal life, there’s no leakage. There’s no space for it in the work. In a sense, it’s like Schwob believed the personal life and the studious life were one in practice, but were meant to remain separate on the page. And this is the only book in which that prudence lapses. It’s the only book in which he seems to address his own experiences beyond his studies, as far as I can tell.
He was a very important figure during his lifetime. He was friends with and influenced many other writers. But he’s virtually unknown in the Americas. Why do you think he’s remained so obscure?
There are so many answers to that question, none of which are “right.” But the source of that obscurity may be related to what I was just talking about, which is that no one, to my understanding, had really pursued composition as recycling, as collage, in the same way that he did. Which is, now, a principle method of composition, in the postmodern age.
Do you think now is the right time for him, then?
Could be. However, the material he was borrowing and working with, reassembling, is not exactly the perfect material to grab the minds of our generation at large, because it’s the very slow, obscure, and esoteric material that is to a large extent being replaced, erased, and marginalized by the speed culture of globalized media, the Internet.
Which is exactly where everybody is going to be reading this.
Right! Can I take that back? Right now could well be the right time because of our digital access to all of the things he’s citing, as books are growing dusty at the bottom of these massive libraries where no one knows where to find them. Right now, if you encounter a passage in Schwob that seems particularly enigmatic, you can go online and search around for its source. I admit to it. Come to think of it, I think Marcel Schwob would really like the Internet.
Because he could cannibalize from it?
Yeah, because all of the fairy tales are there now. All the history books are scanned as PDFs. I think he would regret to like it as much as he would, but he’d be wild about it. He was a person who thrived on information. He lived in the archives of Paris. He spent all his time reading history books. He just absorbed information. That was an important part of his character.
Why do you think he never wrote a novel?
I can’t answer for him, but it seems to me that all of his writing exists within the space of the “study.” He was a journalist. He wrote very short—so many very short—pieces of journalism. He kept wonderful diaries. His travels to Samoa in the last two years of his life, just before he died, when he went to go finally meet Robert Louis Stevenson, but failed because he was too sick … those journals are incredible studies. I think that he was most excited by creating tightly bound clusters of images that, perhaps, would have been exhausted over long-scale work. But I really don’t know. I have no idea.
He wrote very long, novel-length studies on François Villon. Very long studies. The first book he ever published was actually a study on French slang, dating back to François Villon and the Coquillards. So, we know he had the attention span to write long works, but the long works he wrote were always scholarly, which I think is interesting. His attention was most excited by the scholarly. He lived in the library. He was, to borrow a French phrase, a library rat.
Are you translating more of his works now?
Yes, I’m working on The King in the Golden Mask, which is his second collection of short stories. There’s actually a great quotation from Edmond de Goncourt, written in reaction to The King in the Golden Mask. He can say it better that I ever would be able to—“You are the most marvelous, the most hallucinatory resurrector of the past: you are the magical evoker of antiquity, of that Heliogabalesque antiquity to which fly the imaginations of thinkers and the brushes of painters, of mysteriously perverse and macabre decadences and of the ends of old worlds.”