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My brother told me about the enigmatic book, The Temple of Iconoclasts by Argentine writer Juan Rodolfo Wilcock. The work fits in the tradition of Imaginary Lives (1896, see previous post) by Marcel Schwob, Jorge Luis Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy and Alfonso Reyes’s Real And Imagined Portraits, in which the line between fact and fiction is blurred.
In Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003, Roberto Bolaño has this to say:
The Temple of Iconoclasts is one of the best books of the twentieth century. … Some of his characters are real historical figures, like Hans Hörbiger, the Austrian scientist who advanced the theory of successive moons and counted Hitler among … Owing a debt to Borges, Alfonso Reyes, and Marcel Schwob, who in turn owe a debt, in the manner of funhouse mirrors, to the prose of the encyclopedists, The Temple of Iconoclasts is a collection of biographies of mad inventors, adventurers, scientists, and the odd artist.
See also: fictional encyclopedia.
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I’m told that Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a collection of twenty-two semi-biographical short stories by Marcel Schwob is, — by virtue of its mixing of known and fantastical elements — the first example of fictional biography.
Is that true?
I decide to delve in.
What about the historicity of other biographies?
I find the genre de viris illustribus, meaning “On Illustrious / Famous Men”, a trope of ancient Roman exemplary literature that was revived during the Italian Renaissance and inspired the assembly or commissioning of series of portraits of outstanding men— and sometimes, by the sixteenth century, of outstanding women as well— with a high didactic purpose. Historicity? Dubious.
I find Parallel Lives by Plutarch, criticized for its lack of judicious discrimination in use of authorities and the consequent errors and inaccuracies.
I find Lives of the Saints and I’m reminded of Veronica’s veil and Stephens poking fun at relics in The Apology of Herodotus.
I’m reminded of the historicity of Jesus.
Once again, the lines between fact and fiction appear more blurred than one would expect.
So maybe Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives can lay claim to being the first example of purposely fictional biographies?
PS. On the cover of the book shown is Saint George and the Dragon by Uccello, whose biography is also in the book.
Gustave Doré‘s caricature of Münchhausen  is one of the illustrations from Les Aventures du Baron de Münchausen (1862), translated by Théophile Gautier, fils.
It depicts the baron with a periwig, the socle of the bust bears the words “Mendace veritas,” Latin for “in falsehood, truth.”
It served as an inspiration to Terry Gilliam‘s film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to style John Neville as the baron .
To my surprise, the heroic feat in yesterday’s Tumblr post, Baron Münchhausen pulls himself out of a mire by his own hair, is mentioned in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:
- “The desire for “freedom of will,” […] the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, […] involves nothing less than […] to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness. (sich selbst aus dem Sumpf des Nichts an den Haaren ins Dasein zu ziehn).”
See also Bust (sculpture), Periwig, Friedrich Nietzsche and free will.