When to judge a book by its cover
We are told to never judge a book by its cover, but of course we all do so anyway. I am not speaking metaphorically; book covers send a message to its potential readers about the story within. In the case of Robert Schofield’s The Treasury of Tales, the message is unclear. Visually, the book looks like a non-fiction treatise on the history of fairy tales; a no-nonsense black-and-white front image and lettering with a muted green on the spine for some colour.
There is nothing essentially wrong with this of course; I, for one, love an academic text about fairy tales. However, in a world filled with fairy tale retellings that have sumptuous and colourful covers that match their exciting content, one has to wonder what expectations Schofield’s publisher wants to elicit with their cover choice.
The blurb on the back belies the front by promising a ‘slyly modern tale (..) of longing and belonging’, and talks of a world turned upside down when France takes over much of Germany during Napoleonic times – what happens to folk tales during such upheaval? An interesting question not only for a writer but also for lovers of folk and fairy tales.
Unfortunately, Schofield’s definition of modern is not so much ‘relating to present times’ as it is ‘slightly shocking for someone living during the Napoleonic wars, maybe’. The novel tells the story of the famous brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The former is as a court librarian for Jerôme Bonaparte - just anointed as a local king in Germany by his larger-than-life brother - the latter cataloguing a cloister library in Rabenheim (and collecting folk stories as a personal mission). For the duration of his stay (and the story), Wilhelm lives (alone) in the personal quarters of innkeeper Erwin Holzmer, his wife Catherine and her sister Marie. When Wilhelm begins recording the tales of a man called Thomas Richter, the two women assist him.
Where a truly modern reimagining of a historical figure’s life such as the film The Favourite, or of classic stories such as Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine ask their readers to reconsider the classics from our current world view, The Treasury of Tales does no such thing. This is a story in which the male gaze prevails and women are nothing but objects for violation, protection or sexualisation. Perhaps Catherine’s seduction of Wilhelm should be seen as a fight for autonomy, but surely even a male author could come up with a more empowering female action than having sex? The men in this book act, narrate, catalogue, inventory, discuss, make war and decide fates. The women are crazy, ridiculed, blown away by the winds of fate, sexualised and used. It reminds me of Paradi’s book Clever Maids which shows readers how a decidedly female narrative was recorded by the Grimms and thereby turned into a male property, just as everything in this book is seen through and from the male perspective. The Treasury of Tales, sadly, has a decidedly unmodern feel.
In addition, some of the layout choices really baffle. Apart from the huge margins and half the page numbers being on the inside of the page, the publisher (I assume) has decided to separate every single paragraph and line of dialogue by a line of white. As this is normally a sign of a pause in the story, the flow of reading is broken up far more than is natural. If I wanted to be generous, I could link the choice to the many pauses Thomas Richter uses when telling his stories, which - Wilhelm realises - force the listener to fill in the gaps and make the experience more exciting.
But essentially, all these lines of white make what is a passable short story into a full length novel; something which is achieved in page volume only, and not in story or character building. No real effort is made to engage the reader for the characters on anything but a superficial level. When Wilhelm is naturally, inevitably, betrayed by the country bumpkins he patronises, I mostly felt relieved. While some of the text definitely has interesting points about the telling, recording and preserving of tales, this is not enough to save the novel. Servais-shortlist nomination notwithstanding, you’re better off re-reading some of the Grimm’s classic fairy tales, perhaps in combination with Maria Tatar’s excellent collection The Classic Fairy Tales for some true insights into how culture influences tales.
The Treasury of Tales, Robert Schofield, Black Fountain Press.
ISBN: 978-99959-998-6-5, Edition: 11/2020.