Nate D's Reviews > The Book of Monelle

The Book of Monelle by Marcel Schwob
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's review
Apr 23, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: fin-de-siecle, symbolist, read-in-2012, favorites, france
Recommended to Nate D by: a seller of tiny lamps in the rain
Recommended for: the forgetting and forgotton, who know not where their next step may fall

Monelle found me in the plain where I was wandering and took me by the hand.

A paean to impermanence and flux, a dark embrace to an unstable universe jeweled with such splendors as can only lead astray, an instruction in the necessity of allowing oneself to forget oneself and follow these deceptions nonetheless.
Build your house alone, and alone, burn it to the ground.
Throw no debris behind you; may each put his ruins to use.

Written first to cheer and then to eulogize a consumptive young prostitute that Schwob met when he was 25, this is a work completely imbued with black passions and mysterious urgency. The back blurb says that this became "the bible of the Symbolist movement" upon its publishing in 1894, and it often reads like a fantastic religious text. It's also a collection of tarnished fairy tales and unspooling myths, a desperately sorrowful recounting of a real decline, and, taken as a meticulously sequenced whole, a strange proto-modern novel, formal and surreal, ambiguous and precise. As the translator notes, it contains many mirrors; together they are a mirror of their times and all of those extending from them.
May your course not run from one end to the other; for such a course does not exist; but may every step you take mark a redressed projection.
With your left foot you shall wipe out the footprint of your right foot.

I've brushed my eyes and fingers over many works of the decadent/symbolist epoch, and have yet found none so perfect, so precisely written, mysterious, and deeply felt, as this. In some ways, Schwob's girl-protagonists, savage or perverse, disappointed or dreaming, seem the unlikely ancestors of Leonora Carrington's.
Be sincere with the moment; all sincerity that lasts is falsehood.
Be just with the moment; all justice that lasts is injustice.

Just reissued by Wakefield Press, in a concise edition of fittingly exceptional design, in an elegant new translation and with an excellent contextual afterword by translator Kit Schluter (afterwords, far better than forwards, which allow a work its full mystery before adding their own notes). It's highly fortunate that this is back in print in such apt form.
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Quotes Nate D Liked

Marcel Schwob
“May your course not run from one end to the other; for such a course does not exist; but may every step you take mark a redressed projection.
With your left foot you shall wipe out the footprint of your right foot.”
Marcel Schwob, El libro de Monelle

Reading Progress

April 23, 2012 – Shelved
April 23, 2012 – Shelved as: fin-de-siecle
October 15, 2012 – Shelved as: symbolist
December 26, 2012 – Started Reading
December 27, 2012 – Finished Reading
December 31, 2012 – Shelved as: favorites
December 31, 2012 – Shelved as: france
March 31, 2016 – Shelved as: read-in-2012

Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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Chuck LoPresti Did you just mark this to read three days ago? I just found a US edition and ordered it...three days ago. I have one of the Japanese vellum editions of Children's Crusade from 1923. I love that book so darn much. I hope someone reissues more Schwob soon.

Nate D I marked it because I just heard it's getting reissued!

Chuck LoPresti Small small word. Glad I paid only $20 for it.

Chuck LoPresti And thanks for that link - nice list of offerings. Don't give up on Queneau - consider his less-absurd We Treat Women Too Well, that helped me appreciate his less linear writing a bit more.

Nate D Oh, I won't. I like non-linearity fine, I just need to find the right Queneau, it seems.

message 6: by Tosh (new)

Tosh We Treat Women Too Well is a great little novel.

message 7: by Jimmy (new) - added it

Jimmy Great review. And I love Wakefield!

Nate D Thanks! I have the Benjamin Peret and Paul Scheerbart from them as well, and this was a highly auspicious start.

knig Interesting: why is this on your Belgian shelf?

I agree this book has merits: how can it not, being credited with being the bible of symbolists when it came out. My problem with it is that it is too subtle for its own good, and as well as showing signs of literary wear and tear. As to the latter: the opening chapter put a frown on me. This didactic sermonising can only enthral once, and I’d had my fill of it with Barbusse’s ‘Hell’ recently. It must have been the style de rigeur back in the day but it does nothing for me now. I think I went off it after ploughing through Santideva The Bodhicaryavatara. As to the former: it probably comes down to personal preference, but I found it bland. Its not that I ‘didn’t get’ the ephemeral nuances, but its more like, as well as being barely there, well, you ever been to a French restaurant, and you’re starving so bad you could eat a whole cow, and the main course arrives and it looks like this


This is how it felt to me: a presence with a small P. I like symbolism and surrealism, and quirkiness, but I happen to like it ‘in your face’. Barbusse above comes close, also, no one has called ‘Monsieur’ and ‘the Crab Nebula’ and ‘Ice’ symbolist exactly, but they are on the spectrum and bold and makes a statement beautifully.

Having said that, I just finished Eowyn Ivey’s ‘The Snow Child’ which like Monelle is a take on fairytales, but unlike Monelle pulls the heartstrings harder and faster, which I recommend.

I am looking into Peret and Scheerbart whom I didn't know.

Nate D 1. I have no idea why I believed Schwob to be Belgian. Corrected.

2. I think he and Barbusse, who I've not read, though I've heard good things of Hell, were friends or at least contemporaries, so perhaps the stylistic similarities make sense.

3. Ice as Symbolist: I like it. And I need to check out those other two you mention.

message 11: by Matthieu (new)

Matthieu L'enfer has some of the most lyrical French prose I've ever encountered. Holy shit is that book good/intense.

message 12: by Brian (new) - added it

Brian Just finished reading Monelle and your review, perfect..


Nate D Glad you've enjoyed both! It's still one of my favorites.

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