Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Book of Monelle [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Marcel Schwob, trans Kit Schulter.
This short but impressive and important work makes Marcel Schwob a sort of fin de siecle decadent successor to Dante and Colonna, constructing a significant mystical text in memory of the lost Beatrice-Polia-Monelle. Wakefield Press, the publisher of the 2012 English translation says that it was adopted as the “unofficial bible of the French symbolist movement.” The book is divided into three sections, each in a different style.
“The Voice of Monelle” is the first part, consisting of spiritual imperatives. It reads almost like Kahlil Gibran on an absinthe bender. It is excellent stuff for anyone who wants another installment of Aleister Crowley’s “Liber Cheth,” although Schwob was of course writing seventeen years before Crowley’s reception of that “secret of the Holy Graal.”
“The Sisters of Monelle” are a collection of narrative vignettes, closer in form to Schwob’s previously-published work in The King in the Golden Mask. But these all feature lost or wayward girls for protagonists. Each story is named for a moral or psychological quality, such as “The Perverse,” “The Disappointed,” “The Faithful,” and “The Numb,” suggesting that they are allegories in which each story’s girl represents a different plight of the unenlightened soul.
“Monelle” per se is the third part, consisting of six short chapters in the voice of an unnamed narrator, and this section is presumably the one that draws most directly on Schwob’s personal memory of the girl Louise whom he had lost to tuberculosis in 1893. Even so, it is surreal and repeatedly floats across an ambiguous threshold of mortality.
Translator Kit Schluter’s afterword contains both a general biography of Schwob and a more particular study of his relationship with Louise, including a facsimile of the sole surviving correspondence from her to the writer, and an account of the composition of Monelle and her book.