Marcel Schwob, antiquarian seer; The King in the Golden Mask and Other Stories, by Marcel Schwob, translated by Iain White. New York: Carcanet New Press Ltd. 186 pp. $14.95.
Thanks to this compact volume, American readers can now enjoy a wierd and wonderful turn-of-the-century French writer by the name of Marcel Schwob. ''Marcel who ?,'' you may well ask. Although Schwob was a close friend of some of the most famous writers of his day (Alfred Jarry, Paul Valery, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Colette) and though his works were popular and won the heartfelt praise of critics, he has since been largely forgotten, even among the French. Why did he so mysteriously disappear? Why has he come back now?
Schwob was born near Paris in 1867 into a Jewish family so venerable it had taken part in the Crusades under Saint Louis. True to his heritage, Marcel was an avid scholar, mainly of antiquity and ancient languages. His father had earlier spent 10 years in Egypt and must have fascinated his son with his exotic tales. At age 11 he read Baudelaire's translations of Poe, whose florid style and macabre stories were to be a major influence on his own work. Wading tirelessly through musty municipal archives dating back to the Middle Ages, he collected strange, sinister sketches which delighted him as much for the evocation of living history as for their gruesome, suspenseful tales. While his zany and iconoclastic contemporaries already belonged to the future, Schwob's gaze was riveted on what to him was most exotic: ancient peoples, far-away lands , the past.
''The King in the Golden Mask'' is a collection of very short stories originally published as four separate books under the following titles: ''Coeur Double'' (1891); ''Le Roi au Masque d'Or (1892); 'Vies Imaginaires,'' and ''La Croisade des Enfants,'' both 1896. We have Carcanet Press, a small, erudite British-based publishing house, which has recently opened offices in New York, to thank for this new edition.
Although Schwob clearly relished the horrifying or brutish glimpses of history his researches unearthed, he was not entirely fiendish in his intentions. According to his affectionate biographer, historian Pierre Champion (''Marcel Schwob et son Temps,'' Paris, Grasset, 1927), ''He leads us through all the terrors man has experienced down the ages . . . and suffering and fear at length awaken in us a feeling of compassion.''
The sad fate of the King in the golden mask himself, who found it so painful to face the truth, evokes such compassion, as does the story of the Dom, an Indian prince who reduced himself to the cruelest poverty and eventual death in his quest for purity.
Like Poe, however, Schwob just plain loved to tell scary stories, to make his readers squirm. And while we're squirming, he takes us on some fascinating journeys down the snake hole of time, from a pre-historic Alpine valley to the palaces of ancient Crete, Greece, Rome, and Egypt, through Medieval Europe to the South Seas and the eerie wastelands of a frozen world where all life is extinct. And the translator, Iain White, who has also provided an informative biographical introduction, is every bit the master of dense and hypnotic prose that Schwob was.
Schwob's value for us today lies in his ability to dredge up horrific tales from the past that may seduce us in their exoticism, but that can also present sharp and heightened images of evil which will alert us to deal with the horrific aspects of the present and the future.