Concierge

John Lanchester

  • Sons of Ezra: British Poets and Ezra Pound edited by Michael Alexander and James McGonigal
    Rodopi, 183 pp, $23.50, July 1995, ISBN 90 5183 840 9
  • ‘In Solitude, for Company’: W.H. Auden after 1940 edited by Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins
    Oxford, 338 pp, £40.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 19 818294 5
  • Auden by Richard Davenport-Hines
    Heinemann, 406 pp, £20.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 434 17507 2
  • Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman by Thekla Clark
    Faber, 130 pp, £12.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 571 17591 0

Pound died in 1972; Auden, who was 22 years younger, in 1973. Both writers underwent the usual posthumous dip in attention and reputation. This familar dégringolade is a mysterious process, and one which seems much more arbitrary than the longer critical haul of a century or two. For instance, shares in Elizabeth Bishop (d. 1979) are at an all-time high, helped by the timely publication of her letters; while shares in Philip Larkin (d. 1985) are at an all-time low, helped by the untimely publication of his ditto. Graham Greenes (d. 1991) are on the way down, Robert Lowells (d. 1977, with the Collected Poems coming next year) are a good buy; stock in Anthony Burgess (d. 1993) should probably be held for a year or two; Borgeses (d. 1986) will surge once the editing and republishing are sorted out; James Merrills (d. 1995) should be sold now and rebought later; Becketts (d. 1989) look a little iffy (though would-be insider-dealers should keep an eye on that biographer chap in Reading). The only reliable way for a writer to avoid this post-mortem critical lull is to die prematurely. In British university English departments there are currently more theses being written about Angela Carter (d. 1991) than about the 18th century.

The relative status of Pound and Auden, two and a bit decades after their deaths, is testified to by two recent volumes of essays. Sons of Ezra is an excellent collection, not least because all the pieces in it are so troubled, as all Pound criticism has to be. The book’s keynote essay is by Edwin Morgan, who recounts how he spent World War Two ‘sitting in a flyblown tent in the Egyptian desert, waiting for the advance of Axis guns’, and who ‘from that time on ... could never see Pound in an unambiguous light, or think of him as other than the most problematic of poets’. Morgan goes on to describe his admiration for Pound’s poetry, his liking for the ‘bouncy, unrancid, echt-American Pound’ of Patria Mia, and his repulsion for Pound’s politics: ‘I hated the effrontery with which the [1953] reprint of ABC of Economics still bore “E.P. Feb.12, anno XI dell’era Fascista”.’ This ambivalence runs through Sons of Ezra, which has pieces by a range of poets from grand old men (Morgan, Donald Davie) to established talents in mid-career (Charles Tomlinson, Douglas Dunn) to new Best of Young British megastars (W.N. Herbert, Robert Crawford). But the fact relevant to Pound’s current standing is the one in Michael Alexander and James McGonigal’s Introduction: Sons of Ezra could not find a British publisher. Pounds have always been a dodgy stock, of course, but still ...

Audens, on the other hand, have long been a very judicious buy. ‘In Solitude, for Company’ is the third annual volume of Auden Studies, and like the first two, it is published by Oxford University Press. The new volume contains, inter alia, three substantial pieces of unpublished work by Auden (a 1943 lecture on ‘Vocation and Society’, a 1966 essay on ‘The Fall of Rome’ and a 1971 lecture on ‘Phantasy and Reality in Poetry’); some wonderful letters to his friend James Stern, together with a biographical essay about Stern by Nicholas Jenkins; a memoir by Stella Musulin, a friend of Auden’s during his years at Kirchstetten in Austria; Edward Mendelson’s bibliography of published letters by Auden; and a symposium on Auden’s great poem ‘In Praise of Limestone’. The overall standard of critical comment and editing is exceptionally high; the depth of knowledge revealed, especially in the annotations, is vertiginous. To a lay admirer of Auden, the reverent, explicatory tone of the pieces begs a few evaluative questions – but then, Auden Studies is published under the auspices of the Auden Society, from whom a degree of advocacy is appropriate. ‘In Solitude, for Company’, together with Richard Davenport-Hines’s new biography of the poet, provides further confirmation that Audens are a definite buy. The wavering flame of academic attention has been nursed through the dangerous, immediately posthumous years, and is now – with some help from the freak phenomenon of Four Weddings and a Funeral, the kind of good fortune dead poets need almost as much as live ones – poised to roar back into life.

This is not entirely by chance. ‘Wystan says that he has just met a young man who knows more about him than he knows himself,’ reported Chester Kallman, Auden’s lover of thirty-plus years, towards the end of Auden’s life. The young man was Edward Mendelson. Auden went on to do a very smart thing: he made Mendelson his executor, thereby appointing an intelligent, ambitious and wholly committed young professional scholar to oversee his posthumous fortunes. In the often tragicomic panoply of literary estates and executorships, this stands out as an extremely astute move.

The executor’s job is to guard the aforementioned flame, and to stoke it. We can see both parts of this process at work in the letters to James Stern, published in ‘In Solitude, for Company’. The liveliness and sheer interestingness of these is very great. Here, for instance, is a letter from April 1942:

My life here with Chester has been intense. Deep down I have been happy I think, though on the surface I sometimes behave like a hysterical concierge. Not Chester’s fault who has behaved wonderfully, but just the sufferings of the self-sufficient schizophrenic caught at last. I never really loved anyone before, and then when he got through the wall, he became so much part of my life that I keep forgetting that he is a separate person, and having discovered love, I have also discovered what I never knew before, the dread of being abandoned and left alone ...

   I dont envy the woman who has married Tony, if she has; she’ll have to keep the handle of a Hoover in the house.

Nicholas Jenkins’s note tells us that ‘ “Tony” has not been identified,’ which is probably just as well. Another letter from three months later:

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