Men, Women and English Girls

Lyndall Gordon

  • Looking for Laforgue by David Arkell
    Carcanet, 248 pp, £6.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 85635 285 3
  • A Night of Serious Drinking by René Daumal, translated by David Coward
    Routledge, 150 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0325 0

David Arkell calls his biography Looking for Laforgue and he has undoubtedly found him. Without attempting what is popularly labelled ‘official’ biography, Arkell’s informal portrait is so convincing that it is hard to see an official biography adding more than superfluous detail. He brings us close to the living temper of a poet who is still fairly unknown to English-speakers but who, through his impact on T.S. Eliot, could claim to be the inventor of modern poetry.

Laforgue’s short life was full of dramatic changes. Born in 1860 in Montevideo, he was brought to France at the age of six. (The 75-day voyage supplied the first intimations of the famous ennui.) In 1881, he was suddenly elevated from his job as clerk to become French Reader to the absurdly Francophile Empress Augusta at the Prussian Court. (She saw Carmen once a week during the season.) The final change came in 1886 when he abandoned Berlin and tried, in vain, to support himself as a writer in Paris.

He had a talent for attracting loyal friends. His first employer, Charles Ephrussi, secured him at the Prussian Court at a salary equal to that of a French MP. Later, when he was destitute, Gustave Kahn published his new work in La Vogue, the magazine that made his name. Laforgue also attracted women. These ties were ephemeral but provided him with a subject for his women-ridden poetry.

The oddness of Laforgue’s view of women escapes David Arkell. The poems play off the voice of a wry, defeated lover against the banal yap of some woman. The feeling of the lover is so tortuous as almost to defy name, but it reappears in the early poetry of T.S. Eliot. Laforgue wrote curious letters to Sanda Mahali, a poet whom he barely knew. She is made, at once, a figment of Laforgue’s imagination – what La Figlia Che Piange became for Eliot. In both cases, there was a living woman whom the poet did not wish to go on knowing in person. Eliot froze Emily Hale into art so that be could possess her in memory as one might possess a statue of poignant beauty; Laforgue made Sanda Mahali the embodiment of the sensual, sophisticated Paris for which he longed. Both women were understandably bewildered by their would-be lovers evasions. With the feeblest excuses, Laforgue dodged calling on Mahali during his vacations in Paris.

As a convert to ‘decadence’, Laforgue liked to alternate between the domestic gentility of the Court and the low dives of Berlin. In his diary for 5 June 1883, he records the marathon programme: ‘a Jewess with black armpits – a blonde made of wood – the red-raced English girl, unbelievable’. When Eliot came to Paris in 1911 he tried out the studied kind of slumming he describes in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’. The difference is that Laforgue was a participant, Eliot an inspector of vice, which gave Eliot as a poet the decided advantage of a more incisive spectatorial distance. While Laforgue tended to reproach women for his sense of banality, Eliot understands the banality of vice itself.

The problem, Laforgue tells us repeatedly, is how to resolve instinctive adoration of an angel with the mundane facts: that she wears knickers, covets necklaces, and is generally ignorant of the fact that life is hurtling towards the graveyard. Sorrowfully, the clowns of L’Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune (1885) come to see through female vacuity. Her eyes are divine, but there is nothing behind them. Her soul is a matter for the oculist.

The poet himself is invisible behind the facade of vulnerable clown, but it is not impossible to discern the ordinary cold-hearted flirt. I am less easily reassured than Arkell by Simone de Beauvoir’s praises of Laforgue as a man who pities women for their submission to male myths. Laforgue’s rancour and mocking ennui are all the more brutal for these flickers of understanding that women no doubt found so seductive.

Eliot imitated the self-pitying voice of the disillusioned idealist. Both perversely ignored stalwart examples of womanhood close to home, and for the purposes of art hunted out those women of the drawing-room and slum who could easily be spurned as mental lightweights and tarts. Women are more incidental in Eliot’s poetry, allegoric figures of tinsel artifice, unreal emotion and pathetic nonentity, to be bypassed on the way to the Celestial City. The bitten-off words of Laforgian repartee (like the silent repartee of the disaffected husband in The Waste Land) hint of suffering depths which, in both poets, mask their sealed-off detachment.

In 1886, Laforgue started taking English lessons with Leah Lee. For a long time he had admired Englishwomen in theory, and in the last year of his life – he was 27 – he married this ‘Petit Personnage’ from Teignmouth. During 1886 there was a burst of creativity, and the interesting women in Laforgue’s new book of poems, Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté and his stories, Moralités Légendaires, are, in Arkell’s view, a finer achievement than his invention of Modernist method. He dismisses polite reports of Leah as ‘frêle’ and ‘exquise’ and sees her, instead, as the model for Laforgue’s tender portrait of the red-headed Andromede, an impatient maiden who declines to be rescued from a vulnerable Dragon by a smug hero. ‘As you know, there are three sexes,’ Laforgue wrote to a friend: ‘men, women and English girls.’

Laforgue is allowed to tell his story as much as possible in his own words, especially through long quotations from his marvellous letters, with their wittily guarded candour and precise pictures of Berlin and Paris in the 1880s. Arkell keeps his eye on the centre of Laforgue’s life: his work. He knows that the first priority of the literary biographer is not to produce delicious morsels of gossip, but to fasten on the often elusive corners of experience that go into poems. To do this he often works back from the writings to the life – a delicate task, rarely attempted by official biographers, but a technique which, in Arkell’s confident hands, brings us extraordinarily close to his subject.

In this kind of biography the poet emerges uncluttered by the extraneous detail in which other writers have been buried. Is it essential to know how, on his deathbed, Henry James’s head lolled unshaven to one side above a brown Jaeger blanket, or that Virginia Woolf’s corpse floated for three weeks in the, Ouse before it was carted off to be identified? In choosing to write ‘informal’ biography, David Arkell is relieved of the burden of having to record every fact in existence. Once Laforgue’s Derniers Vers are done, the biography moves swiftly to its close. Laforgue’s death from tuberculosis, followed a year later by the death of his young wife from the same disease, is all the more shocking for being recounted with sympathetic brevity. We feel then, as Laforgue felt, it seems prophetically, in his poems, the waste, the futility, the grotesqueness of human effort when lives are abruptly cut short:

                                            Un moment!
Astres! je ne veux pas mourir. J’ai du génie!
Ah! redevenir rien irrévocablement!

The full impact of Laforgue’s originality was not felt until 1908, when Eliot, then a young undergraduate at Harvard, came across his work and at once saw not only the form that modern poetry might take but, as in a mirror, a reflection of what he himself might be. David Arkell’s fascinating accounts of Laforgue’s letters and diaries suggest connections between the two poets which have yet to be explored, uncanny correspondences in temperament as well as technique. It is now known from the Eliot manuscripts that as a graduate student he had feverish fantasies of a martyr’s passion and monastic dreams of taking off for mountain-top or desert in search of purification. It is curious to find that for five months in the winter of 1879-80 Laforgue, too, played at asceticism as a kind of stunt: ‘I acted the little Buddha on two eggs and a glass of water per day … At nineteen I dreamed of going out into the world barefoot and preaching the word.’

After a breakdown, he planned a novel about ‘the macabre adventure of humanity’, with an epilogue about the last days of humanity ‘when Illusion is dead, the cities deserted and Man, his head shaved and covered with ashes, awaits Nothingness’. Again, there is an affinity with the mind that conceived the earliest fragments of The Waste Land during a period of religious extravagance. What Laforgue lacked was Eliot’s moral acumen and his will to find a way out of cultural despair, but they shared an irritability with women, whom they blamed, absurdly, for the rankling of their own inhibition, compounded by an ascetic temper which regards sensuality as degrading. Laforgue ended a letter of 1885 with the drawing of a man walking away from a ‘Lighthouse of Bitterness’ to which his leg is attached by a ball-and-chain labelled ‘Desire’, while from his mouth issues the word ‘Spleen’. Underneath, Laforgue wrote: ‘This allegory will explain everything.’

David Arkell has selected telling quotations from Laforgue’s letters as he evolved his new kind of poetry. In 1882, he had the idea of ‘a kind of poetry which would be psychology in the form of dream … with flowers and scents and wind … complex symphonies with certain phrases (motifs) returning from time to time’. It was from Laforgue that Eliot learned to control the drift of interior monologue through an ironic dialogue between rival aspects of the self. In the summer of 1885 Laforgue developed vers libre, which Eliot was to perfect in ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’. ‘I forget to rhyme,’ Laforgue wrote, ‘I forget the number of syllables, I forget to set it in stanzas – the lines themselves begin in the margin like prose. The old regular stanza only turns up when a popular quatrain is needed.’ Eliot also made Laforgue’s dazzling tricks with words a norm of Modernist method: the undercutting contrast of sublime and banal phrases.

The modish Modernism of verbal dazzlement and disillusioned airs goes back to Laforgue, but the greatest Moderns were only secondarily showmen. Primarily, they were searchers for a way out of cultural despair. They were ideologues, with messages of salvation of one sort or another, and Laforgue, by contrast, has nothing to suggest beyond a preoccupation with the self and with the difficulties of being true to it. ‘Night falls on the town: we shave our mask, don a funereal coat, dine artistically, and then among sickly virgins, take an idiotic stance’ – Aldous Huxley sees, in that stanza, all modern life. But this is only the posture of the Modern, something with which Eliot would simply begin. Lawrence distinguished between the gimmicks of Modernism which make the cerebral Clifford Chatterley a popular novelist and the conceptual fervour of the great Modern who not only teaches us to recoil from what has gone dead but carries the tide of sympathy into new places, cleansing and freshening.

René Daumal’s surrealist La Grande Beuverie (1938) is now published for the first time in English translation as A Night of Serious Drinking. Where Laforgue admonishes our fatuous sexual dramas with sorrowful irony, Daumal slices through out intellectual vices with satiric hilarity. The book starts with a drinking hell governed by the voice behind the fire which orchestrates idle words. From this hell the hero dreams up a delusory paradise of Escapees (our organised daily life) governed by the indefatigable work ethic of the Fidgetors (financiers, politicians), the Fabricators of useless objects, and the Clarificators, who are not scientists but ‘sawers’, chopping, grinding, reducing things to dust.

Here, again, is modish cultural despair, delightfully alleviated by wit. By the end of the Seventies it may appear a shade less brilliant than it did forty years ago because its large generalisations are now so predictable.