The yearning for a tenderness perhaps available only in another world, which informs many of Schneider’s other works, is not entirely absent from Histoires à mourir debout. More elliptical and less sanguinary, cloaked in an aura of wondrous mystery, the two novellas that begin the book involve young women whose desires find no mortal satisfaction. Anne-Dauphine, in “El Hikmet,” falls under the spell of the titular Arabian stallion that has been her boon companion since girlhood and, escaping conventional fates with its help, eventually becomes something like its bride. In “Land of Dreams,” the young lady in waiting, Mélitta, stumbles on a grotto, the grave of an ancient warrior, that gradually comes to obsess her. The story features strangely lovely and disjointed dialogue almost like dream catechisms:
It was no longer gentle Aribert who spoke, but a solemn and impassioned lover:
—Where do you live?
—An underground place where the light speaks.
—What do you see?
—The sockets of my eyes.
—What can I bring you?
—The silence of your lips.
—My thoughts never leave you. Can this be what they call love?
—Love lives on gazes, on kisses, and my body has left me.
—Will that keep me from loving you?
—Love asks no permission.
—Say something, a word.
—What am I, a simple girl, to make of one?
—The most violent of offerings.
—What can I offer, if not myself?
—What lies beyond you.
—And what is in me?
—Death has already taken hold of that. Give me your shadow.
—I will marry your shadow.
—Will I never see you someday?
—When the secret becomes a pearl.
—I wish to weep.
—Your tears, your tears in my voice…
—Must I always wait?
—Your tears in my eyes, and you will blossom.
—Never in this world?
—Always in this world.
“Purely poetic feeling is as good as a conductor as horror,” wrote Schneider; for him the fantastique involved a supernatural phenomenon whose only explanation lay in its “poetic charge.” All his life, he would profess to prefer dreams to reality, and the invisible to the visible. True freedom was the freedom to dream. “Vive l’illusion!” he was known to say.
A notable tale from Histoires à mourir debout takes a pseudo-autobiographical tack, reflecting on the ties between a narrator presumed to be Schneider and Murbach Abbey in Alsace, where he often returned on vacation, as if homing to the landscape that first fed his visions of castles, history, and tragedy. For most of its length it reads like a travel essay, long on information and light on rumination, and then, toward the end, settling into the gripping here and now of scene, takes an abrupt turn for the macabre to become something like an existential statement on the predilection for horror. Indeed, many of the stories in Histoires à mourir debout start out heavy with historical exposition, only to turn on a dime. “Short stories have the sprightliness of fire,” wrote Schneider, “they seize and consume. For speed, they rival rape and kidnap… they steal your breath away and hasten the inferno.”
Born and raised in Alsace, whose mountainous, myth-ridden landscape he often explores in his stories, Schneider is heavily influenced by the German Romanticism that first gave rise to the fantastic as a genre, citing Hoffman and von Arnim, as exemplars of content and style, though his personal touchstones were Nodier and Nerval. He was a cultivated man who witnessed the crumbling of the Europe he knew at the hands of the 20th century. “When one finds oneself on a ship in distress,” he explained, “there are some who prefer to die in the salon than in steerage.”
Like Marcel Brion, Schneider is a classicist by predilection, possessed of an elegant prose style and answering to an old-fashioned ideal of art. Unlike Brion, he is an autodidact, and his idiosyncratic erudition is the product not of any formal schooling, which he rejected, but of personal interest ardently pursued. He rejected academia, claiming that “every career demands some sacrifice, but I love life too much to waste my time on anything that bores me.” Influenced by the Surrealists, especially André Breton and Lise Deharme, he was a friend to Jean Cocteau and André Gide. He shared with André Pieyre de Mandiargues “an aesthetic elitism,” with Julien Gracq a devotion to the “Wagnerian” or “Arthurian” imagination, and with Cocteau “an invisible territory adorned with mirrors, music, doors that lead nowhere and columns topped by capitals of snow.”
All his life, Schneider was a figure on the fringe of literary fashions, steadily published and content, in his own words, to “live on a star with one foot here and the other in a lost paradise.” Critics reproached him for consistently refusing to engage the contemporary world; as Jérôme Garcin said, he “abhorred the quotidian, mistrusted the real, and ignored the news.” Though he hated the times he lived in, he never bothered to rail against them, preferring instead to inhabit the world of his own invention. This other world, a figurative backdrop all his stories shared — almost a heaven of his fictional world — he called the tramonde, a word of his own invention, derived from tramontane, that also alluded to the fairy Otherworld.
Contemporary fabulist Hubert Haddad, a founding member of the Nouvelle Fiction movement, has called his work the “culmination of Novalis and Nerval, were it not for a certain Mozartian nostalgic classicism.” Writing in Brèves, a French short story revue, in a special issue devoted to Schneider, Haddad goes on to say that “he cocked an ear of crystal to the mouth of shadows, and one could believe his stories and tales were dictated by the Night itself, the eternal night that harbors myths, legends, and other irreparable dreams of humankind.”
Schneider was a man of secrets and contradictions, a recluse, a homosexual half in and half out of the closet, the author of a manual on owning a manor. “True artists are masked gods,” he said, “ever wandering.” No calling could have suited him better than the fantastic.