Saturday, 15 October 2011

Spoofery: a Brush with Imagists... the Duping of the Modernists...

Amateur Literary Sleuthing Unpursued (Part 1)

Talking of Marianne Moore (who was first published by H.D., the Imagiste wife of Richard Aldington) see my post
I’ve just archived a note that appeared in the Richard Aldington Newsletter, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter 2007-08: ‘Catherine Eisner calls our attention to a novel by Christopher Sykes, Answer to Question 33, in which she believes there is a satirical reference to RA: see pages 54-60.  Sykes wrote the “Introduction” to RA’s Lawrence of Arabia, seven years after RA’s death and fourteen years after the first edition.’

Actually, on September 25 2007 I wrote to the Richard Aldington Newsletter ...

'Here is the key passage from Answer to Question 33 by Christopher Sykes, a novel published in 1948, which does, indeed, contain the satire on Imagist poetry ... whose target was probably Richard Aldington.'

(There are echoes here, too, of the 1944 Modernist Hoax of Ern Malley in Australia). 

[Extract] Pages 54 to 60 ... the duping of the Modernists ... a 20th century Chatterton ...  '... the familiar act of forgery ...'

There was a magazine called The Cherwell of which he was the editor. Because poor Summers lacked any ability to put his music into a creative channel he was attempting to transform himself into a literary man, for like most musical men his talent had a large literary overflow. In literature, however, he lacked the necessary precision of ear to discriminate between the authentic and the sham. Thus, to my surprise, to my shame now for I should have told him what I was doing, he was my first dupe. This had great results for me.

Throughout that Spring of 1928 I wrote one poem a week for The Cherwell. I had studied many of the modern masters. Without understanding a word of what I was reading I had ploughed through the works of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce and I had rummaged among the works of many lesser-known stylists. I did not then possess any power of self-criticism, for had I done so, I would have chided myself for wasting time on studies concerning things in which, by no wild stretch of the imagination, could I in any sense partake. But I was young, and so I went doggedly forward. I began to pose as an authority on modern culture, which term included all the arts as well as philosophy. I began to discuss these things loudly in my rooms, and like the muezzin uttering the call to prayer I was answered by a congregation flocking to my rooms. In the manner of the bygone aesthetes I cultivated a loud feminine voice which dropped a semitone at the end of each sentence. In the now restricted world illumined by the sacred aesthetic flame I was a pronounced success. As for my poems—but no. On second thoughts I will not reproduce one. I replace the knife. I will but briefly indicate what sort of stuff they were. I plagiarised freely. I took passages from the less well known of the modern poets and substituted all key nouns and verbs, changed meanings, and the order of ideas. And I was never once found out. My principal point of style, also not original, lay in contrasting title and subject. For example a poem abounding in brutal images was entitled "A Study in Circles;" poems about machinery were called "Lilac in Summer" or " Ocean Twilight;" a poem which so far as it meant anything at all described the flight of a king-fisher was called "The Death of St. Jerome," while one about buttercups had the title "Murder in Kiev." My main care was to defend myself from criticism by making my meaning unattainable to any reader. I used to talk about the modern discovery that absence of signification enlarged the space-value of emotion, whatever that meant. I became famous in my way. Be indulgent, please, if I say that my deceptions began ever so slightly to deceive myself, and that my head was a little turned. Success when young is a potent wine.

I sent all my poems to Caroline. She wrote thanking me. And there the matter might have ended had I not met Madame Freine.

There was one piece of knowledge which I needed then but of which I was wholly unaware: namely, that the French, being poor linguists, make more mistakes in judging foreign literature than one would guess from their high intelligence : in English letters Shakespeare is taken on trust, but after him the game is open. Great English genius, no matter how famous, can stay unacclaimed, while dubious talents some-times receive such homage as is only due to immortals. Perhaps the French repose an exaggerated confidence in the opinions of their leading intellectuals, and perhaps the intellectuals are misled by the acuteness of French criticism into believing it to be universal; or it may be that French nationalism, that most fierce passion, makes it more difficult for Frenchmen than for others to make serious literary excursions away from home. Whatever the explanation, French ignorance of foreign letters is often the amazing flaw in a brilliant mind. In what other place than Paris could a literary man believe that Boswell's Johnson was written by Dickens.

This French blindness caught me out. I had been told, particularly by Frenchmen at Oxford, that France was the centre of the world's culture. I had been told that if an Englishman liked something, well, he liked it, but if a Frenchman liked something, then, I was assured, I must be prepared to readjust my ideas. I followed this system carefully. Although I posed then as one of the great destructive cynics of the world, I believed pretty well everything I was told.

Madame Freine came to Oxford. She had an engagement to write some articles on modern English Literature for a French periodical called L'Epoque Moderne, and it was widely known that one of these would be devoted to literary tendencies among "Les Jeunes." She was a dark, medium-slzed middle-aged lady a little inclined to stoutness and perspiration, chiefly remarkable in appearance for the gloom of her clothes and the hideosity of her face, and though she was not witty or brilliant in conversation it was evident as soon as you began to talk to her that she was a person of very lively mind. I met her in Edmund Summers's rooms in a house on the High, and she told me a great deal about Marcel Proust whom she had known intimately. While she talked she examined me with piercing and critical eyes. I thought she was very nice and very interesting.

Now shift the scene to Paris and picture me two months later living in a little pension with three other English boys as the slave of Professor Jouvel who lived a few houses away in the Rue Bonaparte. Jouvel was a little grey-haired man with a high strained voice, possessed of a stupendous energy which often took you unawares because it was so effortless. It rose up irresistible like some phenomenon of nature. He worked from seven in the morning till late every night and expected other people to do the same. We saw him daily for four hours ; four hours of unremitting toil ; four hours during which we learned more than we might have done in four years elsewhere, and which, because Professor Jouvel's mental machinery had the beauty and smoothness of perfection, were extraordinarily enjoyable. But if preparatory work had been neglected then those four hours in that little hot over-furnished room might have been spent as comfortably on the rack. Our master was very severe. He never scolded or nagged, hut he had the art of causing embarrassment wrought to a high pitch. If he was displeased with you he had a way of implying that this was because you were a nonentity ; your intellectual abilities did not belong to the better classes of the mind ; it wasn't your fault. He regretted having made a mistake. Under this harsh discipline we immediately adopted the life of slavery. We never went out. We worked very well. Five minutes after meeting Professor Jouvel my silly arrogance dropped from me. And then Professor Jouvel, of all people in the world, gave it back to me.

We respected, we even revered, our master, but it was impossible to feel any warmth of affection for any one so icily cold. At the end of our daily four hours we used to relax for fifteen minutes, smoking cigarettes and talking of ordinary frivolous things. The Professor's frivolous subjects were food and botany and to these he brought an austere spirit of criticism. The idle moment of the day was the reverse of hectic, so much so that I was very much surprised one afternoon when our master turned to me with an almost human smile.
"Monsieur Kirkby," he said, "I hope very much that your studies here do not prevent you working at your poems."
"My poems?" I stuttered. I was quite at sea. Surely, I thought, he could not be laughing at me?
"Yes, your poems. Ah," he said holding up a finger (but not exactly playfully), "your reputation is known to us here, you see, and I feel responsible that you do not neglect your talents. I consider that, if you do not already do so, you should deliberately set aside an hour a day, even two, and devote them to poetic composition."
"But Professor," I gasped, "the only poems I've ever written were published in a students' magazine at Oxford. How on earth___"
"Just so. We must all start humbly, just like that ; it is the right way. Perhaps I should explain to you how I know of your poems. My esteemed friend and colleague in the Societie des Recherches Litteraires, Madame Freine, has consecrated no small part of an article, appearing in the current number of L'Epoque Moderne to a criticism of your work. I felicitate you, young man. Praise from Madame Freine is not lightly earned. Is it possible that you have not seen the article ? ''
"No, I haven't." My head was swimming.
"Then you may take my copy home and return it to-morrow. I wish you also to bear my former remarks in mind. For many years, indeed all my life, I have been an amateur of poetry. I know how rare that gift is, how precious. It seems to me, Monsieur Kirkby, that you approach the moment when you should publish a book of your productions, your collected pieces and some others. You should consider this a serious part of your duties.''
"B-b-but," I said, not knowing what to say, "are-—-are you sure?"
"My dear friend," said Professor Jouvel laying a hand on my shoulder (an unprecedented show of affection), "I dare to make no personal judgment of your poems. My knowledge of English suffices not. I repose however my confidence in the judgment of Madame Freine. You may do so too. You may he very sure of the value of your talent." He adjusted his pince-nez giving dramatic weight to what he had said." And now, gentlemen," he concluded to us all, "you have much work to do and I shall not detain you. As arranged, we discuss the period of Rudagi at two o'clock to-morrow. Bonsoir.'' We shook hands with him in turn according to our custom, and I hurried home with L'Epoque Moderne under my arm.
I read Madanie Freine's article about seventeen times. A vast and terrifying idea began to convulse my mind : that I was possessed of genius, that I belonged to the immortals, that Milton, Dryden, Coleridge were my fellows. It was written in Madame Freine's article that as in the late sixteenth century, so now the English language was under-going a period of transition and passing through a stylistic revolution. Many different tendencies were striving for the mastery, and these she enumerated at some length. Then she said that revolutionary periods are the only ones in when it is possible for youthful movements to achieve a domineering position and bearing this in mind she regarded the sincere and deeply significant movement of the young intellectuals of Oxford as a phenomenon striking but important. My name then appeared. This young poet, she said, shows already an astonishing virtuosity but one remarks with a smile of relief, for virtuosity may render us disquiet, that his talent commences to operate in a defined direction. The sombre and terrible images evoked from a formidable imagination by the sure touch of this young but masterly technician reveal unsuspected worlds to us. It is perhaps from such a side that one may previsage the blow of Brumaire such as a triumphant movement may carry against the confusion of an epoch devoted to revolutionary experiments. A lot more in the same manner.

I surrendered. I shrieked aloud with joy. My head swelled as it had never done before. I saw myself as the Napoleon of letters. No diplomatic service for me! The artist's life instead, the fame that perishes not, the sacred light that flickers on immortal brows ! Before condemning me as a complete ass I ask the reader to believe that deep down inside me another voice spoke saying, " Fool, don't be taken in," and that in spite of the babel of self-praise now loosed within me this voice was never quite stilled. That will be my defence at doomsday, but oh what exaltations of self-deceiving pride it will have to explain away!

I bought a great many copies of L'Epoque Moderne and I sent one of them to Edmund Summers asking him if he knew of a publisher. When I walked in the Boulevard St. Germain or sat in the Deux Magots sipping an aperitif I used to wonder sometimes whether any of my neighbours or the passers-by realised that I was "Le celebre Kirkby" with whose fame the capital of France, I supposed, was ringing. Unfortunately I never met any French people at all, as Professor Jouvel gave us no time to do so. If I had done so they might have set me straight again. Mistaken as the French are about English writing they are very wise about all human beings. When I heard from Edmund Summers that he had found a publisher interested in my work my conceit reached satanic proportions.

Our life in Paris came to an end. Professor Jouvel gave us a small but delicious dinner (we had never eaten with him before) accompanied by small but exquisite potations of wine. We were all feeling very tired, myself more tired than the others, for apart from my studies of Arabic and Persian I had by now written fifteen additional poems. These with my Oxford "works" were to be the contents of my first book, Moonlight Sonata and Other Verse. My memory is mercifully dim when it comes to mental and spiritual experiences in the production of poetry but I think that when I got down again to the familiar act of forgery I must sometimes, in some part of me, have realised what a fool Madame Freine really was. My last memory of Paris, however, is of looking at the towers of Sacre Coeur as the train pulled out of the station and thinking how interesting the chapter on Paris would be to my biographer. Oh dear, oh dear.
I had a year to put in before my diplomatic examination so it was arranged that although my Oxford career was finished I should go back there for one term to work with a crammer, as the London crammer for whom I was destined could not take me till January of 1929. Thus it was in an Oxford bedroom in an attic on the Broad that I awoke one morning in November to find myself famous. No, not really famous-—I was spared that ; famous in a little diminishing part of Oxford, famous among some lunatics in Mayfair, dimly heard of in Bloomsbury and Chelsea, very slightly famous in the Ritz. I was very excited. I was well reviewed, not hailed as the Emperor of literature as by Madame Freine, but told I was very clever indeed and a real poet. I made £150 out of Moonlight Sonata and Other Verse. I think that was the only sensible thing about it.


To the Editor of Richard Aldington Newsletter I added:
"I note that Christopher Sykes wrote the introduction to Lawrence of Arabia, a Biographical Enquiry by Richard Aldington, seven years after RA's death, and fourteen years after the first edition. I'm aware that in scholarly circles one should assume nothing but, in truth, I had assumed – since Aldington and Sykes were Middle East commentators (Sykes more than Aldington, in fact, and a Middle East specialist in WW2) - that in introducing this new edition he was paying a tribute to some past acquaintanceship in the interwar years, when they had exchanged yarns. Sykes's satire of 1948 would then link him directly to RA, the poet."

1 comment: