with Kit Schluter
What is the working title of the book?
The book is called The Book of Monelle. It was originally written in French by Marcel Schwob, and published in 1894. Where did the idea come from for the book?
In 1892, Marcel Schwob, at the age of twenty-five, had gained a reputation as something of a specialist of French slang (medieval and contemporary), and as a writer of that erudite sort of short story that would later take on the description of “Borgesian.” He was new on the scene in Paris and kept the company of the likes of Colette, Alfred Jarry, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Oscar Wilde. His early tastes led him to base his short stories on folkloric tales—from Jewish lore and Buddhist scripture to the Brothers Grimm and the Arabian Nights—, on the ancient and medieval histories he discovered during long days of research in the National Archives of Paris. In his own days his tastes were already fairly obscure; that fantastic side of literature that he loved seems now to have grown ever more obscure, which amplifies his particularity in our eyes.
Anyhow, one night in 1892, while passing a night in what one has called the “bas quartiers” of Paris—its poorer quarters, to borrow a phrase from Paul Simon—Schwob met a young girl named Louise, who suffered from tuberculosis. The two grew extremely close and she seemed to exemplify for the anxious young author a sort of freedom of being that made him feel, for once, carefree.
Schwob, over the course of the next year or so, wrote her short stories. They began as unconnected and lighthearted little things, but as Louise grew sicker, the stories grew darker. Eventually, by the time Louise was soon to pass on, Schwob’s stories had transformed her into a character named Monelle, whom Marc Lowenthal has termed an “innocent prophet of destruction.” (Think Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.) After burning his entire correspondence with Louise and spending several months floating from friend’s couch to friend’s couch in deep mourning, Schwob wrote a few more stories focused on Monelle, and rearranged the entire series into a three-part collection. What we’re left with is Schwob’s Book of Monelle, a tribute to Louise, a way of forgetting her, of moving onward by way of this forgetting.
The idea of the original work, then, is one of celebration and farewell to a dear friend who has taught one very much. As for the translation, the whole thing was sort of a dare from (or promise to) a dear friend of mine, Sylvain Burgaud.
What genre does your book fall under?
A mixture of fiction, autobiography, prose poetry, folktale.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
A young man in the habit of mistaking literature for reality, and vice-versa, meets an young woman during one of his nights living out the Parisian version of his favorite passages of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, mistakes her for this book’s character Little Ann, and spends the following several years lost in his friendship with her, writing short stories in her image up to and beyond the point of her death.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The translation began in the Summer of 2010, and a first draft was complete by the Spring of 2011, no small thanks to my old friend and professor, Eric Trudel. I should also say that, without Marc Lowenthal’s brilliant help on later drafts, this translation would be good for nothing but starting a fire. From first notes to publication, we’re talking about two and a half years.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The extremely exciting realization that this beautiful work of French was no longer available in English, and probably hadn’t been since around the time of its first and only translation in 1929. I felt like I was digging up a long-lost box that contained the lost writings of someone whose heart was in tune and whose voice was on par with Rilke, Whitman, or Nietzsche. It was the sort of thing I wanted to be able to share with friends, people I imagined getting a lot out of reading this book. Most of all, though, I was motivated by the opinion and encouragement of Sylvain Burgaud, whose outlook I trust very much.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The Book of Monelle had the privilege of coming out in October 2012 with the Boston-based Wakefield Press. The translations they are publishing are all so exciting—check them out, please, please, please.
My tagged writers for next Wednesday (or whenever they get around to it) are:
And although they couldn’t take part in the series here, you should also drop everything to check out Lynn Xu’s new collection,Debts and Lessons, and Nathanaël’s translation of Danielle Collobert’s Murder. They’re both out in early April.