No one has quite done desire better than the French - certainly
compared to the literature of the British in this period. To them,
unrequitable love must be seen, by tale's end, to be punished - by
smothering consignment - from the State, as represented by the
Church. 'It is, after all, a rather weak-bladdered and embarrassing
subject to expose one's readers' too, is it not, old chap? Let the
bugger see the error of his ways - do him and the reader good.'
Not so to our European cousins, who spent generations shamelessly
exposing their hearts upon their sleeves. It is only in recent years the
British discovered the pained, unreturned passion of the influential
Regency critic William Hazlitt, or (some of) the harboured peccadilloes
of Charles Dodgson.
Real-life cases both, but as is that which inspired 'Monelle' on its first
publication, during its author's lifetime, in 1894.
Described on the smart, gray back cover of Wakefield Press's new
edition as having 'immediately (become) the unofficial bible of the
French symbolist movement,' it is, quite openly, Schwob's own paean
to a young Parisian prostitute who'd all too soon succumbed to TB the
end of the previous year.
This subplot bookends ten short, scenic fables, ('The Sisters of
Monelle') each as starkly pictorial as a Renoir or Bunel film
generations hence; until, at last, we reach the autobiographical final
third. The sense of yearning, of clinging to what can only be lost, is
moving, if not borderline obsessive were it not for the simple, heart-
catching beauty of the prose. The mythic, ornate style intimated in
otherwise tightly shorn sentences is a precised, subjective version of
that which sparkles through Schwob's previous short story collection,
'The King In The Golden Mask.' (Still available from Tartarus Press).
Still there is hope, but one dependent upon narrator-Schwob's utilising
free will; "Forget all things," he is advised, "and all things shall be given
back unto you. Forget Monelle, and she shall be given back unto you.
This is the new word. Imitate the newborn dog, whose eyes are not yet
open, and who blindly feels out a niche for its cold muzzle."
Such abandonment to instinct virtually sums up the fin-de-siecle creed.
Ultimately, the European take on desire is vindicated. The irony being
such emotional exposures of the self have not diminished these writers'
reputations in the eyes of their readers; altered them, perhaps, shifting
our perspectives, but also enriched them.
A useful afterword by Kit Schluter fleshes out Schwob's biographical
parallel after this lovely, picaresque journey of less than one-hundred