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The King in the Golden Mask

Marcel Schwob’s <br><i>The King in the Golden Mask</i>

Marcel Schwob’s
The King in the Golden Mask

Reviewed by Tristan Foster

 

We often create a literal buffer between us and our fears in the shape of a mask; those masks can be seen on soldiers in war, in the form of makeup for a job interview, or as surgical masks worn by theatre surgeons and peak-hour commuters alike. Throughout history, civilizations of all stripes have known well the uses of the mask—our museums are full of fine examples; Ancient Greek theatre, too, used masks to clearly express gender, emotion, character, and class. But in one way or another, they all function like a snail shell: both as protection, and, paradoxically, as indication of the fragility it shields.

This strange dichotomy explicitly undergirds the various short stories in the French writer Marcel Schwob’s The King in the Golden Mask. The author prefaces his collection with an oblique explanation of his intentions; he proffers up his imagining of what a visitor from another world might observe of our own. This visitor possesses both “the blinkered view of the artist and the generalization of the scientist,” each of which serve to frame this visitor’s perspective upon our habits and customs. “Know that all in this world is signs,” he concludes as a way of signposting the collection’s overarching theme, “and signs of signs"...