Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Paris Morgue as Portent and the Medical Museum as Threat in George du Maurier's Trilby, 1894

A few days ago, Resident Film Programmer and Arcane Media Specialist Joel Schlemowitz screened the 1931 film Svengali at The Morbid Anatomy Museum. Although the film had many charms, it left me yearning for the novel on which it was based, George du Maurier's Trilby, an instant sensation upon its publication as a serial in 1894. A wonderful (if flawed) book and hugely popular in its time, it is little read today, probably because of the overtly antisemitic character of Svengali, the infernal Jewish mesmerist and musical virtuoso who drives much of the stories action.

Despite this, there is much to recommend this strange and idiosyncratic book; although meandering and uneven, it is worth reading if only for the sequences which try to suggest the unimaginable and otherworldly beauty of "la Svengali's" voice. Also of note is the role played by the Paris Morgue, which acts as a kind of running theme and portent throughout the book, looming over the painters in their studio. At the time the action in the book takes place--the mid 19th century--the Paris Morgue was a popular tourist attraction, drawing crowds eager to view the bodies of the unclaimed dead which were laid out behind large plate glass windows, ostensibly for the purposes of identification. You can find out more about this phenomenon here.

As if all this were not good enough, there is an incredible moment in the book where Svengali torments our hapless heroine with whispered threats of putting her bones in a handsome case at the museum of the École de Médecine; the quote is a bit long, but worth including here in its entirety.

The quote follows; if you like what you read, I highly recommend giving the entire book a read! You can do so online by clicking here, or buy a copy of the book here.
"Ach, Drilpy," he would say, on a Sunday afternoon, "how beautiful you are! It drives me mad! I adore you. I like you thinner; you have such beautiful bones! Why do you not answer my letters?... What do you know of Monsieur Alfred de Musset? We have got a poet too, my Drilpy. His name is Heinrich Heine... He adores French grisettes. He married one. Her name is Mathilde, and she has got süssen füssen, like you. He would adore you too, for your beautiful bones; he would like to count them one by one, for he is very playful, like me. And, ach! what a beautiful skeleton you will make! And very soon, too, because you do not smile on your madly-loving Svengali... You shall have a nice little mahogany glass case all to yourself in the museum of the École de Médecine, and Svengali shall come in his new fur-lined coat, smoking his big cigar of the Havana, and push the dirty carabins out of the way, and look through the holes of your eyes into your stupid empty skull, and up the nostrils of your high bony sounding-board of a nose without either a tip or a lip to it, and into the roof of your big mouth, with your thirty-two big English teeth, and between your big ribs into your big chest, where the big leather lungs used to be, and say, 'Ach! what a pity she had no more music in her than a big tomcat!' And then he will look all down your bones to your poor crumbling feet, and say, 'Ach! what a fool she was not to answer Svengali's letters!' and the dirty carabins shall—"

 ... Then Svengali, scowling, would play Chopin's funeral march more divinely than ever; and where the pretty, soft part comes in, he would whisper to Trilby, "That is Svengali coming to look at you in your little mahogany glass case!"  
... Besides which, as he played the lovely melody he would go through a ghoulish pantomime, as though he were taking stock of the different bones in her skeleton with greedy but discriminating approval. And when he came down to the feet, he was almost droll in the intensity of his terrible realism. But Trilby did not appreciate this exquisite fooling, and felt cold all over.

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