AUGUST 15, 2020
JOHN SCHAD’S Paris Bride: A Modernist Life is such a strange and mesmerizing book that it’s hard to know where to begin this review. The imprint itself, Punctum Books, forms part of the Babel Working Group, who, we are told on the copyright page, “stalks the ruins of the post-historical university as a multiplicity, a pack, looking for other roaming packs with which to cohabit and build temporary shelters for intellectual vagabonds. We also take in strays.” Punctum is an innovative collective that operates via donations and monthly subscriptions. PDFs of its publications are available for free (though, ideally, with a small donation in exchange), so anyone intrigued enough by this review can download the volume itself — a small literary gift in these times of confinement. At the same link you can also listen to chapter one of Paris Bride, narrated by Ant Lightfoot.
Schad is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Lancaster, and his novel (if you can call it that, for it is part memoir, part ancestral archive, part polyphonic-voiced gallop through several decades of English literature) is steeped both in his own immense erudition and in details of the lives — as much as he has uncovered, at any rate — of some of his Schad ancestors, whose voices he brings to life in quite a remarkable way. Does this make any sense? Probably not, but the book strangely does in the end, and it will resonate long after you’ve turned the final page.
The “plot” is basically as follows: in Paris, in July 1905, a young woman named Marie Wheeler — who is part English, part French — marries a Swiss émigré, Johannes Schad, following which the couple move to London, where they live until 1924. A strange court case ensues, they divorce, and Marie apparently then disappears. This is the basis for Schad’s entertaining dive into his family archives, such as remain (a few photographs, diaries, letters, and an obituary), to try and reconstruct the obscure life of his ancestor, Marie. But this is not simply a historical journey through a few dusty archives, for Marie is also brought back to life via a patchwork of reworked modernist texts.
The book is divided into seven thematic chapters, each engaging with the work of one or more (mostly) modernist authors: “Flowers” — Virginia Woolf; “Trials” — Franz Kafka; “Coffins” — the Paris Surrealists; “Letters” — Stéphane Mallarmé; “Revelations” — Oscar Wilde; “Houses” — Katherine Mansfield; and “Rooms” — Walter Benjamin. As Schad explains in his preface, each chapter seeks to read Marie back into existence via these authors, all of whom, we are led to believe, are somehow connected to Marie through an apparent accident of time and place. Thus, as the book’s blurb tells us,
Paris Bride is not confined to academic discourse but instead draws on a range of literary genres and devices that are more in sympathy with the non-realist character of modernism itself — devices such as fragmentation, flânerie, textual collage, stream of consciousness, imagism, perspectivism, dream-text, the absurd, etc. Ultimately, Paris Bride is a modernistic experiment in life-writing.
As with so many modernist texts, the point is not to dwell too deeply on the “plot” or questions it inspires: Why did Johannes really divorce Marie? What was the mystery surrounding their marital relations? What happened to Marie after she returned to Paris? Did these characters in fact ever really exist? Is the Schad family archive as fictitious as, say, Clarissa Dalloway? Does it matter? Instead, we are invited to feast on a smorgasbord of literary references, to sit back and enjoy the ludic quality of the text itself, and to relish a journey shepherded by the voices of some of the finest authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the opening chapter, the narrative is presented via the consciousness of Marie, utilizing the words of Virginia Woolf, especially from her novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925); all the quotations are italicized and referenced in the comprehensive endnotes. It’s 1924, and Marie is in London, passing through the streets and rooms that Clarissa Dalloway and other characters will soon inhabit. Marie’s husband, Johannes, wants to divorce her by means of a marriage annulment, on the grounds of non-consummation. Thus, Marie has to be medically examined to prove her virginity for the lawyers:
Marie quickened her step, crossed Oxford Street … and turned down one of the little streets … Now, and now, the great moment was approaching. Yes, here was Queen Anne Street, and here was number 20. She stood before the door and rang. An ambulance passed by. The door was soon opened by a girl who led her along a corridor and into a faded room. A waiting room. She declined the invitation to remove her coat and stared at a door that led to another room. She made to hide her dress, like a virgin protecting her chastity … Now the door opened, and … for a single second she could not remember what he was called.
It’s clever, beguiling stuff, and modernist scholars will likely be able to place many of the volume’s quotations without even glancing at the notes.
In “Coffins,” Marie, now living in Paris, has a vision of life that is distinctly surrealist. The narrator, a version of Schad’s own personality that disappears and reappears as the story progresses, toys with us as he reveals his own surrealist credentials:
Poor Marie and Johannes are, then, you see, every Christian bride and groom, every Christian man and wife. Their disaster is ours. Yours and mine. Should we be Christians. […]
My work, I know, is rather controversial. Some do, indeed, denounce my work. Behind my back. Accuse me of a certain opportunism. For instance, M. Breton.
“Mathematicians,” he says, “attracted by this blackboard, have taken advantage of the women’s disappearance.”
But what care I for Lobster Breton? Besides, my workings are just as careful, as taking of pains, as are the calculations of fellow Lobster, M. Marcel Duchamp. I think now of a dream-of-a-machine of his. He calls it “The Bride [Mariée] Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.”
Another chapter, “Houses,” is particularly pleasurable for the ingenious way it deploys quotations from the work of Katherine Mansfield to form a new text. Schad takes as his premise a quote from one of Mansfield’s most well-known stories, “Miss Brill”: “She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her.” Most of the chapter takes the form of a conversation between the narrator and Mansfield/Marie via quotations from Mansfield’s stories, diaries, and letters, interspersed into the breathless narrative:
— On the doorstep stood an elderly virgin … who had this habit of turning up … and then saying, … “My dear, send me away!”
— But wherever can she go? This virgin.
— The streets.
— As the night waxed … [I] went … to search for a church.
— You did, Miss Mansfield?
— But, not finding one open, I had to offer up prayers in the open street.
— Did you kneel?
— Miss Mansfield, did you kneel?
— Answer, Miss Mansfield!
— Salvation Army women [were] doling [out] tracts.
— In the dark?
— They gave me one.
— What did it say, Miss Mansfield?
— “Are you corrupted?”
— An indecent question, Miss Mansfield.
— For a modern woman.
— Such as yourself.
— I am not as modern as I ought to be.
And thus, in this chapter, Marie’s life and situation are embedded in a range of quotations from Mansfield’s fiction and personal writing.
There is no ending to the story as such, no resolution, but the journey to the very last page is nothing short of electrifying. As the author himself concludes in his afterword: “This poor book thinks, then, that it is a work of experimental literary criticism, seeking as it does to give a name and local habitation to modernism’s great vision of Negation, or Nothing.” It’s impossible not to be drawn into Schad’s web of truths and half-truths, as his murky tale leads us down pathways that reflect nothing back at us but smoke and mirrors.