Sunday, August 16, 2015

The King in the Golden Mask - Part Two




THE KING in the GOLDEN MASK and other stories
By Marcel Schwob (1867 – 1905)

Carcanet (1982)

Translated by Iain White


17 responses to “*

  1. EMPEDOCLES, reputed god
    “…he had already lived four existences in our world, and that he had been plant, fish, bird and young girl.”
    A mesmerising portrait with a straight face of this healer and diviner, whose apparent last act, before engulfment by Etna, was bringing back to life from death by plague the beautifully-breasted Panthea. I guess both the beauty of her breasts and that this was indeed Empedocles ensuring his own further reincarnation as hinted by the quote I gave above!
    Interestingly ironic, I wonder, in the light of this further quote: “For the world we know is the work of hate, and its dissolution will be the work of love.”
  2. HEROSTRATOS, incendiary
    “His lamp illuminated the terrible, erect-breasted cone.”
    In sumptous prose, this work can be seen as a mirror image of the previous one – here a pyromaniac iconoclasm through a woman’s breasts again, or, rather, a goddess’s … toward a new reincarnation, this time of a king.
  3. CRATES, cynic
    “…she would without repugnance lick the bloody wounds of the afflicted.”
    Crates has the personal journey of the maharaja in ‘The Dom’ and also the soul of the concept ODJIGH. The flensing of himself to the bottom bone as mendicant or near animal existence, and encouraging others, too, including his friend’s sister, she who lay with animals, naked, and I wonder if she suckled them, in tune with the reincarnative emblem of breasts in these ‘imaginary lives’ so far? I am certainly glad so far that I was persuaded to pursue this section of the book!
    Seems also significant that Crates has that name in English, when he carries his home like snail or like Diogenes’s barrel!
    When just re-exploring ‘The Death of ODJIGH’ for the purposes of comparison with this Crates work, I came across this telling quote that I had not noticed before: “The world’s bones were stripped of their flesh, which is made up of the earth, and the plains lay extended like skeletons.”
  4. SEPTIMA, enchantress
    “Phoinissa’s tomb was narrow as her body. The stone constrained her breasts, that were supported by bandages.”
    Can you believe it? This story is rich with breasts reincarnative as well as vulnerable; “She offered her breasts to the biting of the salt sea-wind.” And more! For example, the perverse or inverse conflict of Eros and Anteros over the existence of love itself. Even an intervention by Hathor, an Egyptian Goddess indirectly significant in my own life…
    This is a highly condensed work that needs reading several times (and, so far, I have only read it once as I always do before real-time reviewing any text) and – dependant on the efficacy of its translation into English, which I have no reason doubt – a most important work altogether.
  5. CLODIA, shameless matron
    “…to cover his head with a little bonnet of golden threads and bind him under the breasts with a supple girdle;”
    Scene: Rome of Caesar and Catullus. Clodia as catalyst.
    I have never before encountered such wall-to-wall permutations of incest or multi-sex, or sapphic or cross-dressing concupiscence or otherwise, grinding on and on and on in such a short space of text. All for its own sake. I can even imagine them grinding on after they receive death’s come-uppance. My inference, not necessarily the text’s.
    This page’s header almost now seems prophetic!
  6. PETRONIUS, novelist
    “He had the hands of an artisan and a cultivated mind. Thus it was that he took pleasure in shaping words…”
    And this is a scintillating, eventually explosive shape of words, performing a rich language about Petronius as Petronius would perform it about others, I guess. The dichotomies here of artisan and artist, of slave and freeman, of lust and restraint, supplement the accrued dichotomy – expressed by much of the rest of this book – of body as mask and the skeleton within.
  7. SUFRAH, geomancer
    …and performer of “suffumigations”.
    “The idea then came to him to trace in the sand a figure of geomancy and demand of it whether he was destined to perish in the desert.”
    Just escaping, by the skin of his teeth, his dreadful fate sealed by the already told story of Aladdin, Sufrah provides, by his actions, an entrancing and telling proof that by trying to foretell one’s future changes that future but seals the truth of that foretelling itself. Involving a ‘dried corpse’, the seal of King Solomon and a ‘porphyry corridor’. And a Prison more imprisoning than one’s own body. A prison within?
  8. FRATE DOLCINO, heretic
    A stunning portrait of a Christian heretic which I read immediately after reading the story ‘Preacher’s Legend’ by Truman Capote (my review of it (HERE) written just before reading this Schwob story), with each work tantalisingly complementing the other, if sometimes obliquely so.
    It was as if the dual reading was simply meant to be. I feel like a literary heretic, sometimes.
  9. CECCO ANGIOLIERI, malevolent poet
    This story’s eponymous poet hated his father. But when he said “if I were death, I would seek out my father”, did he realise that he was expressing this wish in the same book as a story about ‘Sufrah, geomancer’ whose own wish turned out later to be retrocausal with all manner of logical tangles!
    I am afraid that is all I could garner from this otherwise dry text. Other than the fact, perhaps, that I always wanted to read a story featuring the Guelphs and Ghibelines, with my now learning of the Guelphs fighting between themselves as Blacks and Whites. Even a frustratingly tangled tale has a silver lining of unexpected knowledge. A pattern towards becoming wiser?
  10. image
    PAOLO UCCELLO, painter
    “…he laid bare a whole world of combinations.”
    From dryness, to the most fascinating work in the whole book – probably.
    I used to work near the National Gallery in London and every lunchtime I would gaze on this painter’s painting of St George and the Dragon. I am now surprised that the dragon doesn’t look like a camel!
    Seriously, I fear my own reviews, although making sense to me, are becoming lines and squirls between circumference and centre, and vice versa. But I can sense the intrinsic soul of this painter. It is ironic, though, that they called him the bird man, and allowing a girl, say, to die of hunger merely through his or her naivety, makes it seem appropriate that this book’s first keynote story contained the ‘strigae’…
    “For the bird man did not know the delight of limiting himself to the individual; he did not remain at one place; he wished to soar, in his flight, above all places.”
    This one didn’t make much sense to me, until I realised that Jeanne in this ‘imaginary life’ must be Joan of Arc. But it still doesn’t mean much to me, I’m afraid.
    I did discover though, as a result of my research, that bones believed to be the holy remains of Joan of Arc in fact belonged to an Egyptian mummy and a cat.
  12. Katherine La Dentellière, whore
    “One night a bully who feigned to be a soldier cut Museau’s throat for her girdle. But he found no purse in it.”
    To find out who Museau is and whether the bully only looked into her throat for her purse, you need to read this poignantly regretful life story of a lacemaker become whore, one who ends up loitering around and brushing up against tombs. Why do all Schwob’s characters end up dead or nearly dead or near the dead? Each an eschatologically or skeletally coarse lace of bones waiting to find their resting place, if not a renewed regretful life story?
  13. imageMajor Stede Bonnet, pirate by vagary
    A retired military gentleman develops a passion or obsession about pirates of the open sea, and all their accoutrements. But he knows nothing about the sea or ships. It is a hilarious account of press ganging his workers, forcing them to drink pints of rum, and run the gauntlet of the waves with him in his ship. He eventually meets Blackbeard …and God’s justice.
  14. BURKE AND HARE, murderers
    After the cannibals in West Papua elsewhere (and the plane gone missing there today), this is a timely tale not only of black slaves and their salting of the remains they cut off from victims but also of Burke and Hare themselves, that famous double act where I live, explaining the differences between them as well as the art for art’s sake of their murders when cutting off their victims’ stories, and FOR THE BENEFIT OF THIS WHOLE BOOK’s GESTALT also using a mask as the murder implement plus later supplying the bodies for professional anatomisation and dissection – enabling, I guess, their souls to be discovered in the form of skeletons…. A bigger profit of scientific and spiritual knowledge than mere money? Although the money no doubt came in handy for the couple.
    A story that appropriately ends, as the last story in this section, before its dying fall had set in. A story cut off, too,
    “There are wicked people who put out children’s eyes. And who saw off their legs and tie their arms, so as to expose them and implore pity.”
    “I often dream of blood: I could bite with my teeth: they are uncorrupted. […] That is why I lay in wait for those children…”
    About 15 pages of eight short narrations or monologues triangulating the possibly historical gestalt of – or ‘oratorio’ about – what appears to be a crusade by children, across the sea from Europe towards Jerusalem and the Islamic State of yore. Involving entrails, viscera and religious angsts germane to the Cannibals of West Papua, together with the so-called migrants who TODAY are travelling in the opposite direction and drowning in their thousands. It also seems a bit ironic that the Church had this baleful effect on children for centuries, not just recently.
    “The constituent parts of the world are as guilty, one as the other, when they do not follow the lines of goodness; for they proceed from Him.”
    “Consecrated sea, what have you done with our children?”
    Leprosy as a white. White as purity.
    “”…and drew out the heart, from which he expressed the black blood. […] …and drew out the viscera, which he purified.”
    “…and I opened my teeth under my hood, and I leant over towards his cool young throat…”
    “And the Lord will let all my little children come to his tomb. And the white voices will be joyful in the night.”
    “Lord, all these innocents will be delivered over tio shipwreck, or to the adorers of Mahomet. I see that the Sultan of Baghdad lies in wait for them…”
    So, yes, a premonitory work by Schwob, combining absurdity and truth, a combination representative of what life always is – and this crusade is coda to this book’s heat-seeking soul in the meaty and bony bits that are us.
    “…we saw many poor birds stretched on the frozen earth.” — Full circle from the=is book’s outset with ‘strigae’?
    “What shall we do here on earth? There will be an expiatory monument, a monument to unknowing faith.”
    A dead monument to once ancient hope.

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