Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Prologue, Mime I

Post one of Asymptote Blog's serial translation of a hallucinatory, undiscovered French work by a revered fin-de-siècle author

Read all the posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here

“We rarely live our own life with pleasure. We almost always try to die of a death other than our own.” – Marcel Schwob, Spicilège

“Nous vivons rarement avec plaisir de notre vraie vie. Nous essayons presque toujours de mourir d’une autre mort que la nôtre.”

Marcel Schwob, a Jewish French writer beloved by Alfred Jarry, Jorge Luis Borges, and Michel Leiris, was born in 1867 and died at an early age in 1905. Scholar of ancient Greek and Latin literature, translator of Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas De Quincey into French, specialist in fifteenth-century French literature (especially the poetry of outlaw poet François Villon)—Schwob steeped himself in the literature of the past while defying countless literary and philosophical boundaries in his own works. From Le Livre de Monelle, recently translated into English by Kit Schluter, which so influenced Michel Leiris that Leiris called reading it a “capital event” and based an episode of Aurora around it (Oeuvres, 17), to Schwob’s inquiry into the nature of argot, Schwob’s works mark an unprecedented, important turn in the history of French literature.

“But where does the strangely penetrating, warm effect of this small book come from? And its unity through the changing images it depicts? It’s the conviction of one who dreams, and doesn’t want to wake.” – Paul Claudel, 1893

“Mais d’où vient l’effet étrangement pénétrant et chaleureux de ce petit livre et son unité dans le changement des images qui s’y peignent? C’est la conviction de celui qui rêve, et qui ne veut pas se réveiller.”

Schwob’s “Mimes,” inspired by Herodas’s then-newly discovered “Mimes,” appeared in L’Écho de Paris from July 19, 1891, to June 7, 1892, before being published as autographed facsimiles (find the Internet’s open-domain version here). Translated into English in 1901 by A. Lenalie, Asymptote Blog now presents Schwob’s “Mimes” in English… published in serial form once more. But we’re doing it a little differently: crowdsourcing our translation, inviting all styles, approaches, media, and interpretations—it’s open domain, after all, so save your vitriol for the comments section.

Read more about the author: Stephen Sparks on Marcel Schwob at 3:AM Magazine & Fleur Jaeggy on Marcel Schwob at Blind Pony Books.

Schwob, Marcel. Oeuvres. Ed. Sylvain Goudemare. Paris: Éditions Phébus, 2002.


These Mimes are dedicated to Alphonse Daudet. 


The poet Herodas, who lived on the island of Cos under the good king Ptolemy, sent me a slender, infernal shadow that had loved on earth. And my room was full of myrrh; and a light breath cooled my chest. And my heart became like the heart of the dead; for I forgot my present life.

The loving shadow shook out of the fold of her tunic a Sicilian cheese, a fragile basket of figs, a small amphora of black wine, and a gold cicada. Immediately I had the desire to write mimes, and my nostrils were tickled by the odor of new wool suint and the greasy smoke of Agrigento cuisine and the acrid scent of Syracuse’s fish stalls. Through the town’s white streets passed chefs hiking up their garments; and pipe players, their necks delicious; and matchmakers, their cheekbones wrinkled; and slave merchants, their cheeks swollen with money. By the blue shadowy pastures glided whistling shepherds carrying glistening wax reeds, and dairy maids crowned with red flowers.

But the loving shadow did not listen to my verses. She turned her head in the night and shook out of the fold of her tunic a gold mirror, ripe poppies, a wreath of daffodils, and offered me one of the rushes that grow on the banks of the Lethe. Suddenly I had the desire to know and understand earthly things. Now I saw in the mirror the trembling, transparent image of panpipes and goblets and high-pointed hats and faces, cool with sinuous lips, and the obscure meaning of objects appeared to me. Then I bent toward the poppies, and bit the daffodils, and forgetful oblivion washed my heart, and my soul seized the shadow by the hand to descend into the cave of Tenaro.

The slow, slender shadow led me through the black grasses of hell, where our feet were stained the color of saffron flowers. And there I missed the islands in the purple sea, Sicilian beaches streaked with sea grass, and the sun’s white light. And the loving shadow understood my desire. She touched my eyes with her murky hand and I saw Daphnis and Chloe climbing back toward the fields of Lesbos. And I felt their sorrow at tasting in the earthly night the bitterness of their second life. And the good Goddess gave Daphnis the form of a laurel, and Chloe the grace of green osier. At once I knew the calm of plants and the joy of motionless stems.

Thus I sent new mimes to the poet Herodas, perfumed with the perfume of the women of Cos and the perfume of hell’s pale flowers and the perfume of earth’s supple and savage weeds. So desired this slender infernal shadow.

Mime I. The Cook

Holding a silvery eel like so—my wide kitchen knife in the other hand—I returned home from the port. The former had been hanging by the gills at the stall of a merchant with glistening hair perfumed with sea oil. I bought out the fish market with ten drams this morning: save my conger eel, there had only been a few small flounder, some starved eels, and sardines I couldn’t offer the soldiers on the ramparts. Still, I’ll cut him open: he squirms like the thong of a leather whip; I’ll then submerge him in the brine and promise a fork to the children who light the fire.

Bring the charcoal! Blow on the embers. They’re poplar wood, those sparks aren’t going to make you cry. Look, your head is empty like this eel’s swollen bladder: Want me to pound it? Get me a willow sprig. Off to the crows with you! This sage isn’t worth shit, Glaucon: I’ll stuff your mouth with it when you’re on the cross. Would all of you bust like a sow’s gut stuffed with greasy flour! The rings! The hooks! And you, you licked the mortars to the bottom, but you left yesterday’s crushed garlic! May the pestle choke you before you talk back!

This eel shall have delicate flesh. He will be consumed by delicate society: rose-crowned Aristippus; Hylas, whose sandals are even colored with red powder; my master, Perneios, with his buckles of hammered gold. I know they’ll applaud when they taste it, and they’ll allow me to stay, pressed against the door, peeking at the supple legs of the dancers and zither players.


Calling French-English translators: Are you interested in contributing to Asymptote’s “Mimes” project? Get in touch by e-mailing us at


Eva Richter, blog editor for Asymptote, studied French language at the Sorbonne before graduating with a B.A. in English and comparative literature, minor in French literature, from Occidental College. You can read her writing at

Patty Nash, blog editor for Asymptote, studied French and comparative literature at the University of Oregon before moving to the south of France and leading a charmed and writerly life. She should finally get around to getting a cargo collective account. She tweets at @pattynashdj.