Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Jean Rhys in Montparnasse

The classic 1920s Art Deco café Le Sélect is one of the key stops on my “Lost Generation” literary tours. Standing at the corner of the Boulevard du Montparnasse and the rue Vavin, Le Sélect opened its doors at the height of the expatriate frenzy, in 1925, and remains the best preserved café of the era. This was a hotbed for writers. In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway here set no less than four scenes in his first novel, published the year after the cafe’s opening. But other outstanding writers also made fine use of Le Sélect – Jean Rhys among them, in her first novel Quartet, published in 1928.

In a scene in the café, her fragile heroine Marya has to endure a nasty scene at with her lover Heidler and his testy wife Lois. Trying to lighten the tension, Heidler beckons Guy Lester to the table, but the utterly plastered Guy calls Marya a hussy.:

“Darling Marya,” said Lois, laughing on a high note. “You don’t know her,
you don’t. She’s as harmless at they’re made, Guy. A sweet young thing on the
sentimental side.”

The thinly disguised models for Heidler were Ford Madox Ford, Lois for his long time mistress the Australian artist Stella Bowen, and Marya for Rhys herself.

Ford Madox Ford was a British literary powerhouse, famed for his 1916 World War I novel The Good Soldier. He moved from London to Paris in 1922, in time to attend Proust’s funeral as the self-appointed representative of English letters. In Paris he joined Ezra Pound in promoting James Joyce’s work and in 1924 founded the Transatlantic Review. He and Stella Bowen moved to No. 84 Rue Notre Dame des Champs in 1925.

Ford was a wheezy middle-aged fat man with a walrus-like moustache, but had remarkable success with women. His friend Joyce wrote:
“O Father O’Ford you’ve a masterful way with you,
Maid, wife and widow are wild to make hay with you.”

Stella Bowen
Jean Rhys was one of those wives. She was officially Mme Jean Lenglet, married to a Dutch man of that name. Ford hired her in 1924 to work on the Transatlantic Review. He tutored her in the craft of writing, published her first story in the Review, and took her birth name of Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams to the pseudonym he created for her of Jean Rhys. She was thirty-four (hardly the young thing Marya seems to be in Quartet), a beautiful woman, but emotionally shaky and painfully shy.

Their affair began early in 1925, after her husband Lenglet went to prison for embezzlement.
At the time that Ford and Stella Bowen moved to Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Rhys was in Juan les-Pins, helping a rich American woman write a book (as does Rhys’s heroine Sasha Jansen in her later novel Good Morning, Midnight), but Ford managed to get her fired by the lady, forcing Rhys  to come back to Paris, where he installed her in a hotel by the Gare Montparnasse. It was just such a place as the one Heidler installs Marya in Quartet:

“It was impossible, when one looked at that bed, not to think of the succession
of petites femmes who had extended themselves upon it, clad in carefully
thought out pink or mauve chemises, full of tact and savoir faire and savoir
vivre and all the rest of it.”

Ford’s final break with Jean Rhys came in the fall of 1926, when, after much griping from Bowen, he left for an extended book tour in the United States. Rhys then returned to her husband in Holland, where she wrote Quartet. Its publication two years later was successful – and sparked alternate versions of it by the three other concerned parties: a novel apiece by Ford Madox Ford and Jean Lenglet and a frontal attack on Rhys by Stella Bowen in her autobiography, Drawn from Life. Ironically, Quartet turned a quartet.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ezra Pound's Atelier, at Last!

I’m fascinated by the relationship of people and their places, especially when it comes to writers in Paris -- where they were and what they did there. Take this photo from 1922.  \From left to right, they are Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Joyce’s lawyer John Quinn.  I knew that it was photographed in front of the big wooden door to Pound’s atelier at No. 70, bis, rue Notre Dame-des-Champs in Montparnasse.  I had stopped at the sturdy steel street gate there many times during my “Lost Generation” literary walking tours, but must to my frustration the sturdy steel gate was always closed, making it impossible to go in and see Ezra Pound’s place.  But then last November when I was doing a walk with four jolly Swedes, the steel gate was wide open.  Construction work was going on. I was through the gate with a flash, with my team of Scandinavians racing behind, down the long, narrow corridor to the little courtyard in front of Pound’s atelier, where modernization was going on.
At last I know where it was. Note the bulky wooden door in the 1922 photo with Ezra Pound and his visitors and look at the one of me standing before that same wooden door in November 2014.  
Here are the photos from last year:

Poet, editor, and all-round cultural gadfly, Ezra Pound lived with his artist wife, Dorothy
Shakespear, at No. 70, bis, rue Notre Dame des Champs from the summer of 1921 until the winter of 1924.
A brilliant and omnivorous student and translator of ancient poetry, including Chinese and Japanese verse, this Idaho-born American settled in London in 1908, where he wrote influential poetry (“In a Station of the Metro,” and the Hugh Selwyn Mauberly cycle), edited the little magazines Poetry, the Egoist, and Blast, and became a guru to younger poets, most notably H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and T. S. Eliot. But feeling that London had lost its literary edge (“an old bitch, gone in the teeth”) and having talked James Joyce into moving to Paris, Pound decided that he should be there too. He arrived in December of 1920. Sylvia Beach was in for a surprise when he first paid a visit to Shakespeare and Company:  

“His costume—the velvet jacket and open-road shirt—was that of the English aesthete of the period. There was a touch of Whistler about him; his language, on the other hand, was Huckleberry Finn’s.”

The tall, lanky, red-bearded Pound was one of the most influential figures on the expatriate scene as magazine editor, advisor to Bill Bird’s Three Mountains Press, and champion of Joyce and Eliot. In Pound’s words, this was “a grrrreat litttttterary period.” He was also a mentor to Hemingway, giving him lectures on literary style in exchange for boxing lessons. Gertrude Stein was Pound’s only known enemy. She called him “the village explainer, excellent if you were in a village, but if you were not, not.”

He called her “that tub of guts.”

Besides his work for others, Pound started writing his Cantos, the vast cycle of poems that would occupy him for the rest of his life.

After four years, he felt that the city had become too crowded with Americans who were “anything but the Passionate Pilgrims of James’s day or the enquirers of my own.” At the end of 1924, Pound, his wife and his mistress, the concert violinist and musicologist
Olga Rudge, moved to Rapallo, where Rudge had a daughter by him the following year.Pound’s unbridled support of Mussolini, capped by pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic broadcasts during World War II, irremediably tarnished his reputation and led to his incarceration in a Washington, D.C., mental hospital in 1946 (though he could have faced the death penalty for treason). Twelve years later a group of literary supporters, including his old protégés Hemingway and Eliot, successfully petitioned for his release. He returned to Italy, where he died at eighty-seven in 1972.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Camus Goes to Thailand

The other day I did a walk in Paris with an unusual literary bunch -- a jolly TV crew from Bangkok shooting a film about Albert Camus.  Renowned author of L’Etranger (The Stranger), La Peste (The Plague), other novels, plays, and major essays, L’Homme révolté (The Rebel) and others, and Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus remains one of the most beloved of writers -- not only in France and the West -- but also in Thailand.  They love him too.  To wit: a 50-minute television documentary is in the works.    

Here are the places where I took my new Thai friends, in order of our walk. 

1946 to 1950:  No. 18 rue Séguier (right).

When the Nazis were chased out of Paris in 1944, Albert Camus, then 30, suddenly became famous all across France, revealed as the editor-in-chief of Combat, the most important clandestine newspaper during the Occupation.  And when the paper went above ground, he continued as chief.  In 1946 he rented an apartment for his wife Francine and their year-old twins here in Saint Germain-des-Près.  Besides editing the paper, he completed his novel The Plague in 1947, a huge best seller, with 52,000 sold in the first two months, and considered by many his finest work of fiction.  But Combat could not compete with the big Paris, and he had to close it down at the end of the year.  

Camus had become friends with Jean-Paul Sartre 1943 and remained close at the start of this period, with Camus  commissioning Sartre in 1946 to go to America to report for Combat.  But politically, they were moving apart.  Sartre, never a member of the Communist Party, nevertheless hued to the Stalinist line, whereas Camus, once a Party member in Algeria, began speaking openly about the Soviet gulags and other forms of political repression.  “It is better to be wrong by killing no one rather than be right with mass graves,” he wrote.

Jean Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir

1943:  La Louisiane, No. 60 rue de Seine

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir lived in the Hotel La Louisiane during the last couple of years of the Occupation and after the Liberation.  Camus first met them at a rehearsal of Sartre’s play Les Mouches (The Flies) in 1943, Camus being a playwright too.  He was eight years younger than Sartre, and a sort of older brother/younger brother relationship began. Beauvoir would invite Camus for dinner at La Louisiane, even during the severe food shortage in the Occupation. In her memoir La Force de l’age (The Prime of Life), she calls Camus “a simple, cheerful soul,” ignoring Camus’ status on Combat, and certainly frowning at the fun he and Sartre were having.

The Café de Flore and the Brasserie Lipp

Surprisingly, despite the restrictions of the Occupation, literature thrived in France during these years.  Camus published his first books The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942, and Sartre his philosophical tome Being and Nothingness and his play The Flies the following year, and No Exit in 1944.  Place Saint Germain-des-Prés was literary ground zero.  Sartre and Beauvoir and their “family” took over the upstairs room at Café de Flore as their work and socializing place, away from the German officers below.  Camus was not one to hobnob with groups of intellectuals. So he and Sartre would lunch or dine, just the two, across the boulevard at Brasserie Lipp.  Sartre did not consider Camus a philosopher, but he admitted that he was the better writer.

The Café de la Mairie du 6ème Arrondissement

After moving to the Saint Suplice area in 1950, the Café de la Mairie became Camus’s local.  He’d stop in for his petit déjeuner and paper on his way to his office at Gallimard, the company that published all his books and put him their elite readers’ committee in 1942,  and became practically a family member of the large Gallimard clan.  Their solid welcome helped make up for Camus troubled upbringing in Algeria, his father dead in World War I when Albert was just a baby, and his mother poor, Spanish-born, and illiterate.

The last house: No. 29 rue Madame

In 1950 Camus, Francine and the twins moved to this attractive building right near the Luxembourg Garden, convenient for him to take the kids there.  Things went smoothly at the beginning, but the most painful period of his professional life came the following year, when The Rebel, Camus’s “intellectual genealogy of totalitarianisms,” came out in October, 1951.  The far-Left-leaning Saint German-des-Prés literati turned viciously against him.  Sartre roasted him in 19 vitriolic pages in Les Temps Moderne, attacking him for his “somber self-importance” and “mournful moderation” in his politics.  The press played it up as a personal feud, but it was essentially a dispute about the nature of the Soviet Communism.
In 1956 Camus wrote La Chute (The Fall), his last finished book, and the following year came the Nobel Prize.  At age of 43, he was the second youngest Nobel laureate, after Rudyard Kipling 50 years earlier, at 42.

But little over two years later, on January 4, 1960, he was killed in a car crash.

Francois Mauriac called him “the conscience of his generation.”

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Rabelais in the Marais

The other day I was walking in the Marais, in the part down by the Seine, and as I cut up the rue des Jardins Saint-Paul, heading toward the big church of Saint Paul, I couldn’t help thinking about one of my favourite French literary heroes, François Rabelais, who lived on this street in the mid-1550s.

Today we freely banter the adjective of his name, Rabelaisian – “marked by gross robust humour,” as the dictionary says – but let’s not forget that François Rabelais was the first French novelist, famed for The Most Fearsome Life of the Great Gargantua and Pantaguel, rollicking tomes about two brilliant prank-loving giants, father and son, let loose on Renaissance Paris, both books published in the 1530s.  Much of the writing consists of wildly comical satire by this off-beat Benedictine lay priest of the strict Catholic-run University of Paris’s theological dogma – this in the early days of the Protestant Reformation.  Dissenters were being burned at the stake for far less, Rabelais’s own publisher Etienne Dolet being one of them.   But luckily for him, Rabelais had a stalwart protector: the Bishop of Paris.

But the books deal with many other things as well: the Medieval wall of Paris, for instance. Built by King Philippe Auguste at the turn of the 13th century, a 100-yard stretch of it still stands, the largest vestige extant, nine meters high with two round towers standing. It boards on a large sports field just down from the Lycée Charlemagne.  In Rabelais’s time it stood directly across from his house on the rue des Jardins Saint-Paul.  In Pantagruel, published in 1532, Rabelais makes fun of the ancient ramparts, which were still the first line of defence on the Left Bank of Paris.  In it, Pantagruel’s sidekick Panurge (“a mischievous rogue, a cheat, a boozer, a roisterer”) says:

“Oh, how strong they are!  They’re just the thing for keeping goslings in a coop.  By my beard, they are pretty poor defences for a city like this.  Why, a cow could knock down more than twelve foot of them with a single fart.”

In his final years, Rabelais lived on a sinecure, the salaries of two curacies at churches outside of Paris in which he seems never to have set foot.  He died in 1553 at age fifty-nine and was buried in a little local cemetery called Saint-Eloï.  It no longer exists.  In 1791, during the Revolution, it was cleared for real estate development. But unlike the ancient Cemetery of the Innocents in Les Halles, whose skulls and bones were sent to the Catacombs before construction began, houses were built on the land of the former Saint-Eloï cemetery with without the remains having been removed.  

So the unquiet ghost of François Rabelais roams the Marais.