The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob
First published in French in 1892 and never before translated fully into English, The King in the Golden Mask gathers together twenty-one of Marcel Schwob’s cruelest and most erudite tales. Melding the fantastic with historical fiction, these stories swarm around moments of unexplained violence both historical and imaginary, often blending the two through Schwob’s collaging of primary source documents into fiction. Brimming with murder, suicide, royal leprosy, and medieval witchcraft, this collection describes for us historically attested clergymen furtively attending medieval sabbaths, Protestant galley slaves laboring under the persecution of Louis XIV, a ten-year-old French viscountess seeking vengeance for her unwilled espousal to a money-grubbing French lord, and dice-tumbling sons of Florentine noblemen wandering Europe at the height of the 1374 plague. These writings are of such hallucinatory detail and linguistic specificity that the reader is left wondering whether they aren’t newly unearthed historical documents. To read Schwob is to encounter human history in its most scintillating and ebullient form as it comes into contact with his unparalleled imagination.
Marcel Schwob (1867–1905) was a scholar of startling breadth and an incomparable storyteller. A secret influence on generations of writers, from Guillaume Apollinaire and Jorge Luis Borges to Roberto Bolaño, Schwob was as versed in the street slang of medieval thieves as he was in the poetry of Walt Whitman. His allegiances were to Rabelais and François Villon, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. Paul Valéry and Alfred Jarry both dedicated their first books to him, and in doing so paid tribute to the author who could evoke both the intellect of Leonardo da Vinci and the anarchy of Ubu Roi. He was also the uncle of Lucy Schwob, better remembered today as the Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun.