Marcel Schwob, the French Scheherazade

Marcel Schwob lived in the early 1900s and wrote mostly short fictions.

A silhouette is seen standing as a shadow before a declining sun over a gerying sky.
Courtesy of dramitkarkare

You know those One Thousand and One Nights you’ve been reading are fake, right? I mean, if the version of these book you own contains either Ali baba or Aladdin or Sinbad, then you have to know those aren’t the original text. This book had a weird history, mainly because it was first bRought to the Occident thanks to a Mr Galland who decided to translate them as a hobby and when he realized there weren’t one thousand and one nights, he began to add a few. Some Turkish epics such as Sinbad for instance, which predates the original manuscript of the Arabian Nights by at least four hundred years. But Galland wasn’t scrupulous, he also added tales he heard from his pals who went to Africa, tales he heard from Middle-East diplomats. Whatever in order to obtain those one thousand and one nights.

I own a version of the One Thousand and One Nights, the most faithful they tried to make it, taking only the 13th century manuscript as a resource. The older books. In their preface they say we cannot judge Galland, that is Eurocentrism was on par with the system he lived in, that it is our modern prism which makes us see him as a bad guy who tried to hide the sex and the folklore and the poetry. They say, if it wasn’t for him, maybe we wouldn’t even be aware such a classic existed. That he is the introduction people have to the Nights even to this day. For you have to know about them in order to search for the original text.

This a fair point, but then what can be said of everyone who came after? And tried to hide the sex? What are we to think of Islamic institution trying to bury those same old books because they think it doesn’t glorify past muslim societies enough? Maybe it was the author’s aim all along.. Maybe the One Thousand and One Nights was less about sharing folk tales as the Brothers Grimm had done and more about describing a crumbling society.

To this day we do not know who the author was, yet we know how he wrote it, we know of all the other men and women who transcribed what he created sometime around the 13th century. Whether you read Galland’s version, or Malrus’ — which seems a tad more racist although it contains more sex — or any version that currently exist, the most common being a copy made in Cairo in the 18th century, you will enjoy it. Most books won’t contain the number of nights you were promised, some go as less than 300 hundred but you’ll have a good time. You’ll discover how it was to live at the time, and yet you’ll be walking amongst djinns and ifrits.

And this tale of Scheherazade? It only happens in the beginning, let the flow drag you.

The cover is blank, with only the picture of an owl upon it. The title and the author’s name.
Cover for Coeur Double

In France, the most complete version of the One Thousand and One Nights was done by a publisher named Phebus. Interestingly enough, when they debunked Aladdin and Sinbad as not being part of the book, they also published the two original manuscripts so as to preserve them. I own those books because of my uncle.

Didier died peacefully in his sleep. all his life he was this way, too fat, an intellectual who knew about everything. It’s really no wonder such a copy — in FOUR volumes nonetheless! — was nested on his shelves. He didn’t love throughout his life, hence he consumed books and movies and music. I remember being a kid and finding his flat sad and quite dirty but so full of books it mesmerized me.

When he died, both his brothers, none of them being avid readers, became quite annoyed with the vast quantity of books. I took them patiently sold some, gathered others. That’s how I ended with the One Thousand and One Nights, it’s also how I ended up with a Marcel Schwob omnibus from the exact same publisher.

Schwob was a French author who lived from 1867 to 1905. And get this, his very first book was named Coeur Double — Double Heart — as one of the tales taken from the One Thousand and One Nights. He was born in a family who loved literature and used to travel a lot, so it’s really no matter why he loved Robert Louis Stevenson so much. Soon, the young man after brilliant studies would turn to journalism and from there to the job of fiction writer. Yet as his 38 years old death seems to point out, he was accustomed to getting sick, knowing he would die young he travelled through his last year mainly on the path that Stevenson walked before him.

What’s interesting about him is that he was highly considered during his short life, yet he only wrote short fictions. Hence why some named him the French Scheherazade. Opening a book written by Schwob and you’ll find tales of Ancient Rome or of the Arabian Nights. He also wrote micro-biographies for illustrious figures he thought were fading from the collective memory. With each of his tales he tried new genres, new proses and when I opened my omnibus for the very first time, I became enthralled by a tale in which a widow in Rome is retelling during a banquet how some witch came and ate his deceased wife’s inward during the vigil of her corpse. Next story was about the devil touching a little girl only to make her live through her life once and then offering her a better one.

Mesmerizing stuff.

It is said Borges loved Schwob’s work. Most of the critics at the time found him brilliant. But there exists a common thread through all the recent pieces I have written. Maybe this is just me venting but… People don’t know of the original version of the One Thousand and One Nights, they unknowingly own a French version which was then translated, people don’t know about Marcel Schwob neither.

I live in a place where fantasy is such a dirty word, we sometimes bury sheer genius.

Old photograph of Marcel Schwob sitting in a chair in a living room.
Marcel Schwob

Next week we’ll talk about Serge Leroy’s La Traque, the French equivalent of Peckimpah’s Straw Dogs.

Releasing a paper every Friday.

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