As noted two or three posts ago, perhaps the most famous object owned by the late Stanley Pleeber was one of only two surviving copies of the famous ‘Grasbourg Texts’. When I write the words ‘Grasbourg Texts’ I refer, of course, to the two-thousand-page-long sixteenth-century manuscript, collecting more than five hundred folk-tales, mostly French in Italian in origin. For those unfortunate enough not to know, these stories were brought together by Christophe de Grasbourg, a tireless, enthusiastic, pioneering and incredibly un-talented individual, who in 1520 conceived the idea of walking from Paris to Rome, whilst plucking as many tales as possible from the heads of the peasants he passed along the way. Every night he heard a different story. The following morning he put it down onto paper – in his own inimitable way.
Some of the stories were quite long, others were quite short. Some were callous and crude, others pretty and pure. Some contained morals, others were little more than absurd rambles. Some stories had flying fish in them, others didn’t. But all of them, I would say, probably had a pinch of greatness in them. Like spring water, they had filtered through the mineral-rich minds of hardy peasant folk for several decades – sometimes centuries. They were, in essence, beautifully refined – even the more meandering ones. This was, however, before de Grasbourg wrote them down.
Let me say this: bad writers are rarely as interesting as people think they are. Most bad writers are just that: bad. However, as is often noted, every now and again one comes across a special category of badness. One example is The Fires of Wilmeldestran (reviewed here). I once doubted the existence of this novel. When proof of this was given, I began to doubt its legendary status. When proof of this was given, all doubts flew away – as do starlings surprised by a uncontrollable child.
If there is ever an excuse for bad writing, however, The Fires of Wilmeldestran may have had it. Clashing egos, bad editing, an idea that none of the participants ever really believed in: you name it. I have seen lame greyhounds with more chance of making it. Unfortunately, de Grasbourg could not wield any of these excuses. He was working with some of the best source material possible. He worked alone, at length – and was keener than any brand of mustard I’ve had the pleasure of coming across. So how was it he managed to suck the life out of all of these stories?
It is hard to pinpoint exactly where he went wrong. What’s more – considering the importance of his project as a whole – it seems distasteful to gloat over his stylistic deficiencies. But it is equally hard to ignore his almost total lack of flair – especially when you are forcing yourself (as I am) to read every single one of his soulless transcriptions. Still, one must never forget that lurking beneath the dry, dusty surface of de Grasbourg words are some great tales – not least the aforementioned La Chauve-Souris et le pot de chambre (see comments here). Many of the stories from the de Grasbourg texts are not found elsewhere – therein lies its significance. This, however, is an exception. As far as I know, there are no less than eight versions of this story, each differing in some small detail.
But more on that later.