Short Story Review: Marcel Schwob’s “The Death of Odjigh” (1892)

(John Yang’s cover for the 2017 edition)

4.25/5 (Very Good)

Marcel Schwob’s short stories (and invented biographies) inspired the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Bolaño, and other proponents of “intertextual” and “encyclopedic” literature. Due to this intellectual genealogy which speaks to my very fiber, I purchased a copy of Wakefield Press’ gorgeous 2017 edition of The King in the Golden Mask (1892), which contains a kaleidoscope of fascinating fictions  filled with evocative imagery and metafictional delights. I eagerly await a new edition of Schwob’s pseudo-historical biographies Imaginary Lives (1896).

Descriptive blurb from Wakefield Press:

“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hallucinatory detail and linguistic specificity that the reader is left wondering whether they aren’t newly unearthed historical documents.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.”

Short Story Review (*spoilers*)

This short review will focus on one of the most evocative stories in The King in the Golden Mask–“The Death of Odjigh.” And, it happens to be a SF dying earth story!

Odjigh, “the slayer of wolves” (32), wanders the alien landscape of a far future earth. An earth where “the orb of the sun was as cold as the moon” (29) and humans, animals, and plants are dying out…. A few humans remain: “the Animal Hunters, who understood fire, the Troglodytes, who knew how to dig under the earth to its internal warmth, and the Fish Eaters, who had hoarded sea oil in their ice holes” (30). As for plants, a few lichens grace stark boulders, and the plant-less landscapes lie barren and empty, “spread out like skeletons” (29). Odjigh journeys across this landscape, draped with totemic items and his hunting ax, feeling pity for the animals “whose skulls he had split” (32).

Odjigh’s hunt transforms into a ritualistic expedition where he “walked with an indistinct hope” (33). An expedition with far larger implications than finding sustenance in a bitterly cold world of withering beasts….

Final Thoughts

Marcel Schwob, a Frenchman, was inspired by descriptions and images of the Native American and their connection to the land [In addition, the only place name referenced–Minnesota–situates the tale in the Americas]. Schwob’s prose is pregnant with melancholy. From the evocative hints about the groups of humans that had previously died off–“those who had withdrawn to the center of lakes in floating houses” (30)—to the wolf who licks greedily at Odjigh’s blood spattered across the ice…. The placement of the Native American as a restorer of the earth is a mournful touch, as, by the 1880s the US government had subjugated the Plains Indians.

The engaging imagery and descriptions that hint at complex and fascinating worlds elevates “The Death of Odjigh” above many other dying earth stories I’ve read over the years.

Find a copy!

(Cover for the 1984 edition)

For more short story reviews consult the INDEX

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

7 thoughts on “Short Story Review: Marcel Schwob’s “The Death of Odjigh” (1892)”

  1. Loved this collection. Wakefield will be publishing Schwob’s Imaginary Lives soon (March according to their site). Looking forward to that one.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I was hinting at Wakefield’s eventual publication of the collection — it’s been sitting in my wishlist on Amazon for a while… still says pre-order unfortunately.

      What was your favorite story in The King in the Golden Mask?

    1. Wakefield Press has been slowly republishing a lot of Schwob’s work — some of which remain untranslated. A fascinating project.

      I enjoyed the collection as a whole — some are on the slight side but a handful were quite spectacular.

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