Samalio Pardulus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Samalio Pardulus by Otto Julius Bierbaum, illustrated by Alfred Kubin, translated by W C Bamberger.

Bierbaum Samalio Pardulus

Samalio Pardulus is named after its principal character, a creature of transcendent decadence and misanthropy in the mode of the earlier Des Essientes of Huysmans or the later Fantazius Mallare of Ben Hecht. Like Huysmans, author Bierbaum was involved in the Symbolist culture that detached itself from Romanticism and contributed to Expressionism, although in this little book the Gothic elements are quite palpable.

Samalio Pardulus was a painter in medieval Albania. Rather than documenting him from an omniscient third-person narrator as in À rebours or through the medium of his own written journals as in Fantazius Mallare, Bierbaum places two narrative frames between the reader and the character. First, there is a “staid philistine” Italian painter Messer Giacomo, imported to instruct Samalio, whose journals form the purported documentary basis of the story in the form of extensive quotations. Then there is the anonymous archivist who introduces and comments on Giacomo’s account. Through the course of the book, this archivist outside of the quotes retreats to invisibility, having left behind only a suitable readerly suspicion regarding Giacomo’s perceptiveness.

Samalio himself is ugly, talented, and blasphemous. He is concerned with making objects out of his imaginings, and to the extent that this work tends to horrify his pious teacher, his explanations of it become theological, deprecating a cosmic demiurge and exalting his own “godly pleasure in the grotesque” (14). Beyond his inchoate gnosticism and solipsism, Samalio defines himself with incestuous ambitions for his beautiful sister. These eventuate in a numinous domestic apocalypse. The interrelation of the principal characters–Samalio, his sister Maria Bianca, their father the Count, an unnamed watchman, and Messer Giacomo–eventually becomes so outre that it awoke in me suspicions of allegory.

This first English edition is illustrated with many full-page charcoal drawings by Alfred Kubin that appeared in the original 1911 German edition. Some of these depict Samalio’s paintings, but most are scenes from the novel.