Heartwood 10:1 – Lives & Deaths

Two brief reviews of small books that are well-worth your time.

Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives contains twenty-two short biography-like accounts of lives that, in life-like fashion, are all rounded out in death. Schwob focuses on a variety of historical figures, such as Empedocles, Herostratus, Lucretius, Petronius, Pocahontas, Paolo Uccello, and Captain Kidd. He also includes stories of the associates of famous people: Cecco Angiolieri (wannabe poet rival of Dante), Nicolas Loyseleur (deceiver of Joan of Arc), Major Stede Bonnet (romanticizer of piracy, who crosses paths with Blackbeard), and actor Gabriel Spenser (falling under the sword of Ben Jonson), to name a few.

I relished these tales (each about a half-dozen pages) reading one or two at a time, savoring their richness, and marveling at Schwob’s way of capturing character in resonant details. Though I’m incapable of reading the original French, it appears that Chris Clarke has done an excellent translation – the attention to word choice is notable and his awareness of Schwob’s sources (usually unattributed) speaks to his deep knowledge of the author’s personal interests and reading history.  The Wikipedia page for this book provides links to the (real) characters that have Wikipedia entries.

The main narrative thread of Valérie Mréjen’s very brief book, Black Forest, involves a daughter’s lifelong reflections and speculations about her mother and the day she died of an overdose while she, the daughter, was at the hairdressers. But this unfolding account is frequently interrupted by extremely compressed descriptions of the various deaths of other individuals – a woman who chokes to death while laughing at a joke while dining; an overweight man whose body blocks the bathroom door and prevents his girlfriend from assisting him when he has a heart attack; a man who is thrown from his motorcycle and lands alive and intact in a wheat field only to be mowed down by a truck as he returns to the road; a woman whose baby drowns in the bathtub when she steps away to answer the telephone. It is not always easy to tell when these transitions are occurring, and this is partly due to the main storyline being told variously in first- and third-person voices, but also by the distance achieved by the careful diction – a finely rendered tone and immediacy that is open and honest, personable but free of sentimentality. The language is so fine, in fact, that the reader would never guess that this is a translation. A gem.

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