Since my last post on Hemingway a month and a half ago, I have found myself increasingly drawn to writing on and by the literary set in Paris of the 1920s. I read Men without Women, which isn’t about Paris but, as a collection of short stories by Hemingway, was intended to keep me close to ‘the Crowd’ – and not the Lost Generation – as Sylvia Beach refers to her literary (and musical) friends in her memoirs Shakespeare and Company. Loath to part with them, I am currently reading HD’s End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound – and oh, how beautifully she writes! You feel the heartbreak, the confusion, the passion of her relationship with Pound; it sears and puts a lump in your throat.
HD writes of her discovery of Pound’s previous loves as they walk through snowy Pennsylvania forests: “No need, then, to ask the question. First kisses? In the woods, in the winter – what did one expect? Not this. Electric, magnetic, they do not so much warm, they magnetize, vitalize. We need never go back. Lie down under the trees. Die here. We are past feeling cold; isn’t that the first symptom of rigor mortis?” Achingly beautiful. HD went on to have several other relationships, but nothing seems to have surpassed that first love of her youth.
Let me begin from the beginning, though. You probably know that I was set on my ‘Lost Generation’ trail by Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Hemingway followed, and some research uncovered a very important piece of information – F Scott Fitzgerald’s grave lies in the cemetery of St Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland, about an hour from where I live. Sunday before last, a sunny, blue-skied afternoon, we took the train to Rockville. In what at first sight seems to be the unlikeliest of places, next to a busy highway and within sight of utilitarian buildings, are buried Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. However, as I knelt beside the grave and heard the leaves rustle, I felt like he couldn’t have been buried in a more suitable place, in the serene family plot. I forgot that there were cars and trains passing by. I just saw his name etched on the tombstone and the spring flowers and thought back to his friends, to the larks they must be having, wherever they are. This place is as good as any other for his mortal remains. I left him a little love-note, but because I forgot to ask him to say hello to his friends for me, I think I should go back there some day. (I also thought guiltily of my half-finished copy of Tender is the Night back home – why is life so short?)
I was reading Sylvia Beach at the time of this visit, and had also borrowed a copy of Pound’s Literary Essays in preparation for my exploration of his enigmatic life. I am still to unravel the mystery of his Mussolini leanings and will leave out my half-baked opinions for now, but I must mention that, having now begun this book, I am quite prepared to separate the writer from the controversy-courter. His essays sparkle with clarity, and he does not seem disposed to misuse his powers as a critic. Sample this from the essay ‘The Prose Tradition in Verse’: “But it is the function of criticism to find what a given work is, rather than what it is not. It is also the faculty of a capital or of high civilization to value a man for some rare ability, to make use of him and not hinder him or itself by asking of him faculties which he does not possess.” For all his flamboyance and eccentricities, he was well-loved by the people he met and helped, and I am interested to learn how his anti-Semitic leanings took root and what led him on the dangerous path that led to twelve years of incarceration in a mental hospital. I hope to begin reading his poetry soon.
And not just Pound’s – Beach’s memoirs told me about a host of writers from the 1920s, and having received such a fitting introduction to them, I must naturally explore them further. The book is named after the American bookshop she set up in Paris. It spends a good deal of time on the long battle she undertook to have James Joyce’s Ulysses published (she cannot praise him enough and I feel like I might summon up enough courage soon to give it a try). She talks of the French poets and American expatriates who frequented her shop, including a number of lesbian writers such as Bryher and Djuna Barnes. She shares several photographs, among them a delightful one of George Antheil climbing up to his rooms above her shop, having forgotten his keys. She describes the fight to keep her bookshop afloat during the German occupation of Paris – and finishes up in a most memorable manner by talking of Hemingway’s ‘liberation’ of rue de l’Odéon, where it stood.
Beach also talks of George and Ira Gershwin, which prompted me to turn up at the Library of Congress on Saturday to see the Gershwin Room and marvel at their letters, scores and the splendid piano. In a strange coincidence, I’ve found out today that my local library in Virginia celebrates its 90th birthday in a couple of weeks, and has some Gershwin music on display along with books about the twenties in America. You see, the signs continue to manifest themselves. In obedience, I have a massive pile of books on my bedside table. I think I finally know what to do with my life.
PS. I write this on a stormy night, so help yourself to some of the atmosphere with Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique.