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Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

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 »

In Search of the Lost Trail

September 26, 2014 | by

Remembering Le Grand Meaulnes on the centenary of its author’s death.

The Wanderer Anchor 1950s

Detail from Edward Gorey’s cover of the Anchor 1950s edition of Le Grand Meaulnes, dubbed The Wanderer.

“There is no doubting the classic status of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes,” the novelist Julian Barnes wrote in the Guardian in 2012, having revisited the novel in his sixties to see if it retained its “youthful enchantment.” “A poll of French readers,” he noted, “placed it sixth of all twentieth-century books, just behind Proust and Camus.”

Those two are widely known to English-speaking audiences, and yet Le Grand Meaulnes and its mysterious-sounding author are not. I asked twenty self-admitting Francophile friends if they had ever heard of Fournier; most of them hadn’t. It doesn’t help that the novel—the only book Fournier published in his lifetime—has had at least seven different titles in English: The Wanderer (sometimes with the subtitle Or, The End of Youth), The Lost Domain, The Land of Lost Contentment, The Big Meaulnes, The Magnificent Meaulnes. The most recent translation, from 2007, is called The Lost Estate, with Le Grand Meaulnes in parentheses.

Originally published in 1913, the novel only barely predated Fournier’s death on the front lines in the first months of World War I, on September 22, 1914—a hundred years ago this week. Fournier was, at twenty-seven, one of the war’s first literary casualties. “His unit strayed accidentally behind the loose German lines in a forest of the Hauts-de-Meuse,” the novelist John Fowles wrote in an afterword to the book in the early seventies. “They found themselves trapped at the edge of a beechwood. The Frenchmen charged. Lieutenant Fournier was last seen running toward the Germans, firing his revolver. His grave is unknown. He was presumably buried by the enemy.”

Having recently become a parent, I’ve started to cobble together a young-adult reading list to give to my son one day—which is what led me to Le Grand Meaulnes, with its affecting treatment of lost innocence and its finely tuned, fairy tale–like depiction of the “twilight world between boyhood and manhood.” Read More »

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Les Combats Modernes

August 25, 2014 | by

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“Ce sont les cadets de la France!” (“These are the cadets of France!”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, No. 1, Nov. 21, 1914.

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“La consigne” (“The Order”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, January 2, 1915.

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“Les combats modernes” (“Modern Combat”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, January 30, 1915.

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“Bulletin de victoire” (“Forecast of Victory”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, May 22, 1915.

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“Jour de l’an” (“New Year’s Day”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, January 1, 1916.

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“Cartes de guerre” (“War Maps/War Cards”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, February 10, 1917. The phrase “cartes de guerre” means “war maps” but here it has a double meaning because “carte” is also the word for “card” (including the kind used in card games).

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“Échec au roi rouge!” (“Check to the Red King!”), Lucien Métivet, centerspread from La Baïonnette, August 16, 1917.

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“Le retour du prisonnier” (“The Return of the Prisoner”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, December 14, 1918.

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“L’ébauche” (“First Draft”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire, January 4, 1919.

Given the recent centennial of the beginning of the Great War (as it was then known), I’ve found myself thinking again of Lucien Métivet, the French artist I wrote about here last year, best known for his works from the 1890s. The advent of the war brought an abrupt halt to the publication of Le Rire (Laughter), the weekly journal of humor to which Métivet was a regular contributor, but its publisher, Félix Juven, soon relaunched it with a small but significant change of title: now it was Le Rire Rouge (The Red Laugh), presumably in recognition of the blood of France’s soldiers and the dark nature of the times.

It had become customary for Le Rire to start each issue with Métivet’s drawings up front, and in the journal’s first new issue, of November 21, 1914, his was the opening image: an energetic, optimistic young conscript. The picture’s cheerleading join-the-war-effort ambience is given a discreetly poignant touch by a telling detail just outside the frame: to the upper right we see the typeset words “Au conscrit Maurice Juven”—a dedication to a young conscript whose surname suggests a close relationship to the magazine’s publisher, a longtime friend of the artist. Clearly this dedicatee was, like all soldiers, carrying with him into danger the hearts of those who loved him. With this single, seemingly exuberant image, the very personal stakes for the creators of Le Rire Rouge, and indeed for all of France, were acknowledged. Read More »

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