Sorry to be so vague

Hugh Haughton

  • Man from Babel by Eugene Jolas
    Yale, 352 pp, £20.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 300 07536 7
  • No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider edited by Maurice Harmon
    Harvard, 486 pp, £21.95, October 1998, ISBN 0 674 62522 6

‘Transition began and of course it meant a great deal to everybody,’ Gertrude Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her story of ‘how two americans happened to be at the heart of an art movement of which the outside world at the time knew nothing’. The two Americans she had in mind, as so often, were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. One reason the transatlantic review transition (founded soon after the demise of the Transatlantic Review itself) meant a great deal to Stein, was that its first issue included ‘An Elucidation’, her ‘first effort to explain herself’ (as she explained). Stein soon changed her mind (though not her priorities), prematurely using the Autobiography to announce the magazine’s demise: ‘In the last numbers of transition nothing of hers appeared. transition died.’

Stein’s obituary was premature. The last issue of transition appeared in 1938, five years after the Autobiography, and more than sixty years later it still means a great deal. Of all the little reviews which, as Stein loved to say, ‘died to make verse free’, transition is one of the very few to have made a permanent mark. It was founded and edited by Eugene Jolas (initially with Elliot Paul), and Jolas, too, was at the heart of art movements about which at the time the outside world knew little – Surrealism, Dadaism and Joyce among them. Few small mags have done as much to ‘make art free’. As well as Stein’s ‘Elucidation’, the first issue included an extract from a work that needed even more elucidation, Joyce’s Work in Progress. The writer most prominently identified with transition, and Stein’s arch-rival in the making of Modernism, Joyce is effectively airbrushed out of the story in Autobiography of Alice B. (‘Joyce is a third-rate Irish politician,’ she told Jolas, ‘the greatest living writer of the age is Gertrude Stein.’)

He is, however, reinstated as the Prime Modernist Hero in Man from Babel, Jolas’s autobiography, which he began drafting during the war and its aftermath but left unfinished at his death in 1952. Now painstakingly reconstructed and annotated by Andreas Kramer and Rainer Rumold, it should stand alongside Wyndham Lewis’s Blasting and Bombardiering and Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. as a crucial document in the history of Modernist fashioning and self-fashioning – the story of Axel’s tower or Babel’s, told in the first person. It should also make us think yet again about the legacy of cultural Modernism – and about its relationship to the larger fate of Europe in mid-century. The Man from Babel, like the Babel story itself, is a parable about language and culture in a period of historical crisis. Much of its fascination arises from Jolas’s inability to understand the force of his own parable – or the relationship between his utopian excitement about the Logos Unbound and the ‘nightmare of history’ which overtook it.

The man who oversaw the serial publication of Finnegans Wake, Jolas was one of the editorial entrepreneurs of Modernism; like Sylvia Beach and Harriet Shaw Weaver, a supporting player in the long-running and bloody saga of publishing Joyce that is central to the myth of the modern. Reminiscences of Joyce (or ‘Jouasse’) in his self-imposed ‘exile’, provide some of the sharpest individual images in the book: Joyce cutting up a birthday cake decorated to look like a copy of Ulysses saying, ‘Hoc est enim corpus meum’; Joyce at a fancy-dress party where he managed to wangle first prize dressed as Handy Andy, Joyce reciting Yeats and saying, ‘No Surrealist poet can ever equal this for imagination’; Joyce commenting on a picture of the Christ-child, ‘Doesn’t he look as if he had just robbed the hen-house’; Joyce weeping over his beloved daughter Lucia’s hospitalisation, asking: ‘Why should this thing have happened to us? ... And I am supposed to be writing a funny book.’ Joyce called the Catholic-educated Jolas and himself ‘Roaming Catholics’, and The Man from Babel places Joyce’s linguistic experiments within a geographical and historical frame that includes many other equally Catholic roamers. In Jolas’s narrative of his own life, being polyglot, culturally hybrid, and in some sort of exile was the norm.

The Man from Babel is the story of Jolas as ‘Neo-American poet’ and avant-garde editor but it is also a portrait of the journalist as hero, ‘a romantic of the Gutenberg mythos’. The two roles seem uneasily related. On the one hand, Jolas was an astonishingly adaptable, bread-and-butter journalist working for English, French and German-language newspapers, yo-yoing between the two sides of the Atlantic. On the other, he was the poet of ‘America Mystica’ and the promoter and editor of a journal that hardly acknowledged the existence of daily bread or butter.

Born in America but brought up near Forbach in Lorraine, Jolas calls himself a ‘nomadic newspaperman’. He started out working as a teenage reporter in New York, first for German-language papers, then covering the ‘secrets of Hell’s Kitchen’ or ‘immigrant yarns on Ellis Island’ for the Daily News; in the Twenties he wrote a weekly ‘Rambles through Literary Paris’ for the Chicago Tribune; having witnessed Hitler’s entry into the Saarland, he went back to the States; returned to France in the late Thirties with Joyce his closest companion; back in the States in 1940, he was working in the Office of War Information on West 57th Street (‘the greatest of my experiences as an American newspaperman’), where he sent ‘millions of words in all three of my languages, words that soon became explosive as rockets against the Axis war-machine’; over to London, working with Central European refugees for the Psychological Warfare Division in Wardour Street; finally returning to France and Germany at the end of the war as an agent of the American Government appointed to assist in the de-Nazification of the French and German press, writing copy for L’Est Républicain Libéré or acting as ‘editor, local reporter, war-news editor, headline writer, proof-reader and make-up man’ for the Aachener Nachrichten in 1944-5. ‘In three decades,’ he says, ‘I had passed through the German, English and French languages on a continuous voyage in the company of editors, reporters, printers and pressmen.’ Caught up in the ‘romance of news-gathering’, he loved reporting, headline-writing, make-up, ‘the tension of edition time, the fevered activity of jingling telephones, clanking typewriters, telescriptors’, the mechanical rhythm of Mergenthalers, ‘the aesthetics of information’. Everywhere he worked he met fellow exiles, refugees and expatriates, living in one kind of diaspora or another: Germans in the US, Americans and Irish in Paris; French and German Surrealists in New York; East Europeans in wartime London; Jewish refugees in France. With an eye for the headline, he sees himself as ‘part of a century of migrations’, a European raised to consciousness in the ‘titanic crucible of races and languages on the North-American continent’. In his last years he played a crucial role in exporting American tabloid journalism to postwar Germany. He was persuaded that in the wake of the Holocaust and Nazism ‘one of the prerequisites of a democratic revival in Europe would be the spread of objective reporting.’

Journalism was Jolas’s métier, but transition was his aesthetic raison d’être, a showcase for his own high-rate-of-inflation poetry (much of it recycled in his autobiography but more of it cut by his judicious editors) and a launch-pad for the ‘revolution of the word’. Whatever this meant, it was the antithesis of ‘objective reporting’ and wholly opposed to what Jolas thought of in his Hyde-like aesthetic self as the dreariness of ‘realism’ and ‘reportage.’ As well as work by Joyce and Stein, that first issue of transition of 1927 included paintings by Ernst and poems by the American Modernist Hart Crane, the French Surrealists Robert Desnos and Philippe Soupault and the German Expressionist Georg Trakl (in translations from French and German by Eugene Jolas). A decade later, the last issue was still churning out Work in Progress, now alongside work by Hans Arp, Beckett, Breton, Kafka (the first English translation of ‘Metamorphosis’, again by Jolas), Michel Leiris, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Herbert Read, Soupault and Jolas himself. Glancing through its faded and disintegrating back issues or reading Dougald McMillan’s transition: The History of a Literary Era 1927-38 (1975), one finds an astonishing compendium of the most interesting avant-garde writing of the day as well as a storehouse of unconsummated aesthetic possibilities.

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