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Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

Black Ink

January 15, 2016 | by

Henry de Montherlant’s novels have fallen out of fashion, but at their best they’re perfect for our confused age.

Henry de Montherlant, c. 1953.

Henry de Montherlant began writing in earnest after he came home wounded from the Great War, a decorated veteran. France in the 1930s made him a literary star, awarding him the Grand Prix—yet he hated the Third Republic. Montherlant, a true misfit, had many such contrarian tendencies: though he was gay, he wrote caustic articles for right-wing magazines and loathed modernity. In print, he professed admiration for the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, writing that France, with its “shopgirl’s morality,” deserved to lose the war. His book Le solstice de juin counseled “acceptance, then adherence” to German occupation and Vichy; after the war, it earned him a yearlong ban from publishing.

Even so, Montherlant was elected to the Académie française in 1960. His plays were staged, his novels published. In 1972, he swallowed cyanide and, to make sure, shot himself in the head. He has made the long slide from fame to infamy, but in his time he was tolerated and even praised, a guilty reminder that there were far more collaborators than Charles de Gaulle’s myth of noble France ever could admit. His literary biographer Lucille Becker writes, Read More »

I Kissed the Rod

November 20, 2015 | by

Beneath its old-fashioned exterior, Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922) radiates transgression.

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I really think I like Radley better than anyone else in the world. I simply loved being whacked by him.

This extraordinary confession comes in the first chapter of Ernest Raymond’s 1922 novel, Tell England. It is offered in the dormitory after lights-out, whispered to the schoolboy narrator, Ray, by his friend Doe. Radley is their teacher, a tall, strict, athletic history master. You’d be hard-pressed to find a school story, or indeed a school, that didn’t go in for hero-worship, but Doe’s ardor overruns even that cup. Unlike Alec Waugh’s contemporaneous The Loom of Youth, which sought to expose the sexual and emotional realities of life in a boys’ school, Tell England is an old-fashioned, innocent, fundamentally Edwardian school story, a strange place to find such an extravagant declaration.

Raymond wrote more than sixty novels, but his most popular by far was this, his first. Though panned by critics, it was reprinted fourteen times in 1922, became a movie in 1931, and by 1939 had sold 300,000 copies. Today, though, Tell England is largely forgotten. From its psychological and sexual cluelessness to its glorification of military sacrifice, the novel can feel tediously dated. It’s an odd hybrid, half public-school novel, half paean to World War I. It includes all the trappings of the classic school story: athletics, classical learning, chivalry, Anglican Christianity, romantic friendship, and, of course, corporal punishment. Like most school stories, it is a narrative of character development. After its young hero enters the school at the bottom, he learns the ways of its world, undergoes trials, and grows into a leader. Read More »

A New Kind of Refinement

August 26, 2015 | by

Guillaume Apollinaire and Madeleine Pagès in December 1915.

A letter from Guillaume Apollinaire to Madeleine Pagès, dated October 11, 1915. Apollinaire had met Pagès, who taught literature, on a train in January of that year; by August they were engaged and Apollinaire was stationed in the trenches of Champagne, fighting the Great War. His prolific correspondence with Pagès from this period is remarkable not just in its erotic candor but in its portrayal of life in the trenches, down to the finest details: “mud, what mud, you cannot imagine the mud you have to have seen it here, sometimes the consistency of putty, sometimes like whipped cream or even wax and extraordinarily slippery.” At times he rebuked his lover for not writing often or well enough, though the beginning of this letter finds him pleased with her efforts. The following year, he was wounded by shrapnel; the injury so disturbed him that he refused to receive his fiancée during his convalescence, and soon the letters, along with their engagement, dried up.

My love, I had two letters from you today. I am very happy with them … especially out here, where your precious sensuality is a consolation to me, the sole remedy for all my troubles. Please do mark this well, my love. You said yourself that we should strengthen the secret between us, so do strengthen it, and fear for nothing. Be naked before me—as far away as I am … Your meaningful look in Marseilles is admirably clear to me in memory, charged with all the voluptuousness that is part of you. You are very beautiful. I kiss your mouth through your hat veil, tearing it like a Veil of Isis and grasping the whole of that little traveller who is now my own beloved little wife and clasping her madly to me …

I take your whole mouth and kiss it, and then your breasts, so sensitive, whose tips harden at my kiss and strain towards me like your desire itself. I wrap my arms about you and hold you fight forever against my heart. Read More »

The Essential Detail

August 5, 2015 | by

Emmanuel Bove’s fiction captures “a well-trodden and forever alienating Paris.”

Emmanuel Bove.

Emmanuel Bove was a master of hyperobjectivity. His characters, drawn from all classes, are often paralyzed by a failure of will, poisoned by envy, cursed with bad luck or betrayal. With relentless clarity, Bove imparts a deeply felt and lasting impression of the lives of these solitary and emotionally shattered young men whose fortunes and futures hinge on a stroke of luck, an immoral act, an accident. The author’s own youth was a harsh one, characterized by instability and discord; and yet, like the lives of his characters, it was occasionally graced by wealth and privilege. Born in Paris, in 1898, Bove was the son of a Belgian-born housemaid, Henriette Michels, and an immigrant Ukrainian Jew, Emmanuel Bobovnikoff. Bove’s father was a largely absent womanizer whose financial contributions to the family were infrequent at best. Bove and his brother, Léon, lived in abject poverty with their mother, who moved frequently within the slums of Paris to find work, always shadowed by bill collectors. However, Bove’s childhood took a decisive turn when his father’s affair with Emily Overweg, a wealthy painter and the daughter of the British consul in Shanghai, led to an unlikely marriage. Sent to live with his father and stepmother, Bove experienced the twilight of Belle-Epoque opulence, while Léon, who would become a doctor, remained with his mother in an unforgiving cycle of grinding poverty. And like the fleeting encounters with fortune that Bove employed in his fiction, this unexpected stretch of good luck would not last. Read More »

Max Blecher’s Adventures

March 9, 2015 | by

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Max Blecher

Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, newly reissued, is not a memoir, a novel, or a poem, though it has been called all those names, and compared rightly with the works of Proust and Kafka. Blecher belongs in that company for the density and lyrical force of his writing, but he is also a recording diagnostician of a type the twentieth century had not yet fully birthed, but the twenty-first is honoring in the highest degree.

This is a book that soothes without sentimentality. Blecher chronicled his dying from both the interior of his body and the outside of nonexistence. He made that veil permeable: his words are vehicles traveling through the opaque membrane that surrounds the seemingly solid world. These are the “adventures” of the inside and the outside exchanging places, while being somehow exactly the same in the light of Blecher’s extraordinary sensibility. Nobody knows how to die. Max Blecher, because he was young and a genius, suggests a way that investigates, rediscovers life, and radiates beauty from suffering.

“Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul.” Read More »

Dreams from a Glass House: An Interview with Josiah McElheny

February 9, 2015 | by

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Phillip Kester’s portrait of Paul Scheerbart, 1910. Münchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Fotografie, Archiv Kester

Paul Scheerbart doesn’t figure very prominently in modern German belles lettres—nor, more regrettably, on the drafting tables of venerated Berliner architects and urban planners. Scheerbart, an eccentric, Danzig-born poet and architectural theorist, is best remembered through obscure citations from Walter Benjamin, Walter Gropius, and Bruno Taut. But in the spirited era of Berlin’s café culture, he was a popular serialist, publisher, and proto-surrealist. From the late 1880s to his premature death in 1915, he wrote prolifically on science, urban planning and design, space travel, and gender politics, often in the course of a single text. His most celebrated treatise, Glass Architecture (Glasarchitektur, 1914) foretold of a sublime, technocratic civilization whose peaceful world-order was borne from the proliferation of crystal cities and floating continents of chromatic glass, a vision summed up in his aphorism: “Colored glass destroys all hatred at last.”

Taut, an architect and devoted disciple, dedicated his 1914 Werkbund Exhibition building, the Glass House, to Scheerbart—his so-called “Glass Papa.” Like his French contemporaries Camille Flammarion, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Raymond Roussel, and Alfred Jarry, Scheerbart’s prophetic oeuvre oscillated between themes of technology and aesthetics in a genre known in the Francophone world as fantastique.

Translations of Scheerbart texts have trickled into the English-speaking realm; Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader, edited by Josiah McElheny and Christine Burgin, is the first attempt at an English-language collection. Assembled from his fiction and critical works, drawings and photographs, and secondary texts from friends and acolytes, the book’s publication hopes to inspire what McElheny calls a new generation of “Scheerbartians.”

I recently spoke to McElheny by phone from his studio in Brooklyn, where we discussed Scheerbart’s belated American reception, the cultural amnesia of World War I, and our mutual fascination with Utopian literature.

How did you first come across Scheerbart’s writing?

The first major publication of his work in translation was Glass Architecture in 1972. I read that sometime around 1988, and I didn’t really know what to make of it. I came to it as though it were an architecture book, but it read to me like a piece of literature. I found it to be captivating and somewhat Borges-like—not in structure but in its spirit. Then around 2001, there was the publication of The Gray Cloth with Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel. I was struck by its very unusual literary style—very sparse, thematic, and highly evocative—and fascinated by the entire novel, which is about people struggling over the political and spiritual meaning of aesthetics. I had never encountered anything like it in historical literature—the way it speaks in a proto-feminist voice but also with the deep undertone of misogyny that one associates with that era. It was a very disturbing book and it really bothered me—the way in which he demonstrates how aesthetics can have this implication about sexuality. I had so many questions about the translation itself. Later I learned that much of the strangeness of the language lay in the original German. Read More »