Marcel Schwob - Vies Imaginaires (fictitious biographies)

2024-01-31 @Literature

I would never have heard of Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) if not for Jorge Luis Borges, to whom my reading canon is ever indebted. And like Borges, Schwob predominantly gained fame for his vast catalogue of short stories, although practiced diverse forms of writing. In the case of Vies Imaginaires (1896), he assembles a slew of pseudo biographies of, per my take, figures that mostly existed in at least some incarnation.

In any case, the semi biographical, semi fictitious niche is precisely what defines this author. In the prologue, Schwob, after juxtaposing a series of past biographers, expresses clearly his admiration for the schools of James Boswell and John Aubrey, devising his own methodology:

Artistic finesse and interesting narrative over accuracy and historical prominence. That is, the latter components acquire a secondary role, though by no means butchered or neglected; not strictly.

Quoted from the very prologue:

Les biographes ont malheureusement cru d'ordinaire qu'ils étaient historiens. Et ils nous ont privés ainsi de portraits admirables. Ils ont supposé que seule la vie des grands hommes pouvait nous intéresser. L'art est étranger à ces considérations.

Schwob supplements the historical sagesse, however fuzzy, however mythological, with own flair. He augments a mundane biographical delivery with added dimensionality consisting of the vulgar, the quotidien, the parenthetical, the decorum, rendering the accounts simultaneously educational and extravagant.

Consider Vies Imaginaires a work of fiction of a predominant biographical base: in contrast to a work of pure historical fiction of a heavily prevalent fiction element (ie, War and Peace).

Decadent, vulgar fiction meets high biography.

The language, likewise, challenges the traditional, biographical rhetoric. Similar to Isaac Babel across the cavalry tales, Schwob often depicts the profiles with considerable flourish, refrain, leitmotif.

Vies Imaginaires follows a chronological approach: commencing fifth century BC with Empedocles and the ancient Greeks, following with the Romans, then (after a brief detour) on to the streets of medieval (and slightly pre-medieval) Italy, then onto the Franco-British arena and finally onto the 18th century piratical, sea landscape.

L'art du biographe serait de donner autant de prix à la vie d'un pauvre acteur qu'à la vie de Shakespeare.

And in spirit with treating all subjects with the same illustrious rigour, however seemingly insignificant, however heinous, however plain despicable, Schwob chronicles demi-gods, charlatans, prostitutes, plunderers, assassins, paupers, prostitutes, poets and actors.

Schwob treats all with equal elegance and an inviolable sense of neutrality. Beyond the prologue, I don’t recall a single meta commentary until the culminating paragraph of the last biography.

Meanwhile, poetry pervades with an ever increasing sense of humour: this, again, in similar spirit to Babel, the latter to write a couple of decades after.

Many biographies, on the other hand, Schwob paints in bleak contours, particularly those taking place on the bohemian streets of poverty and degradation.

Across the personages treated, I can’t claim familiarity with most. But some prolific figures transpire nonetheless: some directly, some in passing, some latent; the poet Lucretius, Dante (a contemporary of the primary subject Checco Angiolieri, a Black Guelph), Ben Jonson, Pocahontas, Capitaine Kid, Barbe-Noire/Blackbeard.

Rarely is there an uplifting finale. On the contrary, most profiles meet a vulgar end, which well aligns with the author’s paradigm: biographies, whatever the degree of nobility or depravity, beyond the highlights, abound in the vulgar, the meander, the pitiable and the contemptuous. Such elements Schwob strived to emancipate.

Select biographies among the favourites:

Si l'on tentait l'art où excellèrent Boswell et Aubrey, il ne faudrait sans doute point décrire minutieusement le plus grand homme de son temps, ou noter la caractéristique des plus célèbres dans le passé, mais raconter avec le même souci les existences uniques des hommes, qu'ils aient été divins, médiocres, ou criminels.

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