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:

It’s a pity we can’t swap childhoods for a week; you would be surprised how unpleasant too much parental love and interest can be, and what a torture of guilt it makes breaking away. When I was 6 years old I used to play the love-potion scene from Tristan and Isolde with my mother. When I was 15 I was on a walking-tour with my father, and we were sharing a bed: I suddenly had a violent longing to be fucked by him. (Not being a novelist, I have to confess that he didnt.)

  I’ve finished the Oratorio on Saturday, and have been suffering from the usual depression after finishing something, when one doesnt know what to think about, and puts off the dreadful task of beginning something else. Lucky lucky Trollope; to be able to finish one novel at 4.30 and start the next at 4.35. Have passed most of the time with Tania [Stern’s wife] by the pool telling each other the story of our lives. My only real contribution to her knowledge of life was the importance to the male of s i z e. (I seem to remember that the psychologists call this penal envy, but that cant be the right word.)

Auden’s unsurpassed range of verbal registers and human sympathies is apparent throughout the letters to Stern. The correspondence also contains drama (a letter from Germany in 1945, where ‘we are billeted in the house of a nazi who committed suicide and also poisoned his wife, children and grandchildren’) and pathos (a lonely letter of 1972 which runs, in full: ‘Could I possibly come and stay with you for Christmas and New Year?’) No one can doubt that Auden’s letters would make an extraordinary book; but neither can anyone doubt that it would also be an explosively candid volume, and one which – given a critical culture which saw the Times review Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the poet under the heading ‘Butterflies from the Dungheap’ – would run risks with Auden’s posthumous reputation. The Stern letters, I suspect, are a softening-up, a toe in the water, a hand cupped around the flame.

I wonder whether – given the meticulous caution Mendelson has demonstrated in nurturing Auden’s reputation, as he is duty-bound to do – I was the only person to be surprised by the news that Richard Davenport-Hines was writing a life of Auden, with the estate’s help and encouragement. My feeling had nothing to do with Davenport-Hines’s abilities, which are not in question, but with the provocative and (in a high-level way) mildly muckraking tone of the two of his previous books I had dipped into, Sex, Death and Punishment (about British attitudes thereto) and The Macmillans (about the eponymous tragedy-prone dynasty). Here, for instance, is a passage Davenport-Hines wrote in a review of the DNB:

The new taboo is alcohol. Many of the subjects in this volume had lives dominated or ruined by drink, but it is exceptional for this to be even hinted. There are many others whose careers were transformed or foreshortened by alcoholic poisoning, whose difficulties are not detailed ... For long-term DNB trend spotters, it will be fascinating to see how long it tries to sustain the illusion that alcohol is a largely innocuous, mass-recreational drug, while other illicit or innovative drugs are viewed as especially evil or marginal aberrations.

This is bracing, admirable stuff, and has the non-trivial merit of being completely true, but it did make me curious as to what kind of book Davenport-Hines would write about Auden. After all, Auden’s life is not without its sensitive areas, to wit: his alcoholism, his lifelong use of amphetamines and barbiturates, his homosexuality, his sexually instrumental approach to the working classes, the (unspoken-of) question of whether he had affairs with his pupils when he was a schoolmaster, his hygienically challenged personal habits – not to mention the issue which so exercised his contemporaries, that of his emigrating to America just before the outbreak of war. The comic potential of Auden’s rackety life has famously been drawn on in these pages in Alan Bennett’s ‘The Wrong Blond’, a review of Dorothy Farnan’s memoir Auden in Love; Davenport-Hines, I told myself, might well be less indulgent.

As it happens, I was dead wrong: Auden is a work of impassioned praise, less a biography than a literary essay with a biographical structure. It is not just unlike the book I was expecting, it is more or less its opposite. Here, in toto, is its second paragraph:

Always the destination of his journey was exceptional. ‘From this nightmare of public solitude,’ he asked in his great prose poem on the limitations of the artist, Caliban’s speech in ‘The Sea and the Mirror’, ‘what relief have you but in an ever giddier collective gallop ... toward the gray horizon of the bleaker vision ... what goal but the black stone on which the bones are cracked, for only there in its cry of agony can your existence find at last an unequivocal meaning and your refusal to be yourself become a serious despair?’ This biography of Auden is an account of a traveller who thought his goal was the black stone. Its subject drove himself as hard and as ruthlessly as a tycoon.

Ho hum ... I suppose it’s irrational to have expected to be dismayed by one thing, then to be confronted by that thing’s antithesis, and then to profess oneself disappointed. But I do have a feeling that there is a middle course between ‘Butterflies from the Dunghcap’ and ‘Always the destination of his journey was exceptional.’ And since when are tycoons harder on themselves than poets are?

Still, Davenport-Hines’s Auden is the book that we actually have, and it deserves to be praised for the things it is, as well as criticised for the things it isn’t. Humphrey Carpenter’s detailed, anecdotal, gossipy 1981 biography went some way towards anwering the question ‘What was Auden like?’; Davenport-Hines’s book is addressed more to the issue of why he was like that, and why he wrote the works that he did. It is an unusually interior account of a writer’s life, and it takes trouble to see things from Auden’s point of view. For instance, Auden’s emigration to America – which is often viewed, especially by hostile critics, as the moral and aesthetic crux of his career – he sees, surely correctly, as a simple consequence of Auden’s dislike of the London literary milieu and desire to keep working at full pitch. ‘England is terribly provincial – it’s all this family business,’ Auden said later. ‘I know exactly why Guy Burgess went to Moscow. It wasn’t enough to be a queer and a drunk. He had to revolt still more to break away from it all. That’s just what I’ve done by becoming an American citizen.’ Davenport-Hines’s straightforward endorsement of Auden’s view is refreshing.

Another of the great set-piece arguments about Auden concerns his habit of revising (and, indeed, denouncing) his earlier work – especially the poems ‘Spain 1937’, a Civil War poem which spoke approvingly of ‘Conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’, and ‘September 1, 1939’, which declares that ‘We must love one another or die.’ Auden, Davenport-Hines shows, was unhappy with the earlier poem almost as soon as he had finished writing it, and he later dropped it from his oeuvre, though not before George Orwell had said that the line about ‘the necessary murder’ epitomised the collaboration of ‘the gangster and the pansy’, adding that ‘so much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.’ But this, in a sense, is a trivial case, since ‘Spain 1937’ was never anything more than a second-rate piece of rabble-rousing; the instance of ‘September 1, 1939’ is different because it is a great poem (and also the subject of one of the best critical essays of the last quarter-century, an explication by Joseph Brodsky). Auden, however, quickly came to dislike the poem – he had dropped the offending stanza by 1944 – principally on the grounds that it’s untrue to say that we must love one another or die, since even if we do love one another we’re all going to die anyway. This is a weirdly literal-minded reading of the line, especially for a Christian, which is what Auden was by 1944; surely it refers to death-in-life, to other ways of being dead than the mere biological one? (We must love one another, or it will be as if we never lived.)

Dropping a line from your official oeuvre, however, is not the same thing as not having written it. During the Presidential election of 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran a TV ad against his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater. The ad showed a little girl counting the petals of a flower, seguing to a voice counting down to zero, and then cutting to footage of a nuclear explosion. Then came Johnson’s voice, hammily proclaiming that ‘These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or go into the dark. We must love each other or we must die.’ Auden was very upset: he dumped ‘September 1,1939’(now ‘the most dishonest poem I have ever written’) from a new edition of his Collected Shorter Poems, and went through the rest of his oeuvre, excising poems, cutting and rewriting. ‘His tinkering often seems fussy, self-chastising and otiose,’ says Davenport-Hines, ‘but if the stimulus for his revisions was Lyndon Johnson’s manipulative propaganda, one can only sympathise with his motive.’ It’s hard to disagree.

I don’t think that Davenport-Hines’s account of Auden’s religious life will be improved on. He makes Auden’s Christianity seem central to his career, while also allowing for some of the ways in which it disimproved his work. For those of us who admire Auden this side idolatry, the problem with his writing is often the compulsive sanctimoniousness that Auden himself referred to as his ‘mad clergyman’ side. This character was present in the young Auden, but it was to be Auden’s Christianity which gave him a free rein, especially in the prose. ‘The range and grasp of his mind is always evident in the present book,’ William Empson wrote in a review of the essay collection The Dyer’s Hand, quoted by Davenport-Hines, ‘but it strikes me that his mind is increasingly hampered, and that the resulting thoughts are often wrong ... he twitters like a curate in W.S. Gilbert, emitting a steady rivulet of the opaque distinctions suited to a spiritual director.’ This strikes me as about right, though Empson’s remarks should be qualified by the awareness that in Auden’s poetry the batty sententiousness is turned into art. The balance between silly opinions and great poetry often doesn’t seem too different from that apparent in Yeats’s life and work.

One consequence of this is that Auden’s seriousness is always turning into comedy, and vice versa. In 1929, for instance, he wrote a four-part poem whose first line is ‘It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens.’ (Later he gave the poem the title ‘1929’, which is not one of his major revisions but is nonetheless a subtly distancing gesture.) It is, I think, a great poem, and as with all Auden’s major work it is hard to fix – its tone never stays quite still. At times it is compressed, as if densely mimicking the processes of poetic thought:

Coming out of me living is always thinking,
Thinking changing and changing living,
Am feeling as it was seeing ...

This is part philosophical meditation, part autobiography. Elsewhere the poem has Auden at his most minatory and foreboding:

It is time for the destruction of error.
The chairs are being brought in from the garden,
The summer talk stopped on that savage coast
Before the storms, after the guests and birds:
In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.

This has that less than wholly sincere theatricality which Auden came to dislike about his own early work – but it’s great knockabout watch-out-you-oldies stuff. And then the poem ends magnificently:

We know it, know that love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union,
More than the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,
The self-confidence of the falling root,
Needs death, death of the grain, our death,
Death of the old gang; would leave them
In sullen valley where is made no friend,
The old gang to be forgotten in the spring,
The hard bitch and the riding-master,
Stiff underground; deep in the clear lake
The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.

This has Auden’s truthfulness (‘We know it ...’), his melodrama (‘the heel on the finishing blade of grass’), his taste for the apocalyptic (‘death of the old gang’), his admission that he is part of the problem as well as part of the solution (‘our death’), his topography (‘sullen valley where is made no friend’), his comedy of social and psychological types (‘the hard bitch and the riding-master’), his distinctive early-period syntax (‘Would leave them ...’) and, in the magical last couplet, his ability to lift off into realms where explication has to be replaced with simple wonder. That feeling is, if anything, increased by Davenport-Hines’s revelation that the image of the bridegroom is drawn from Auden’s favourite childhood story, Hans-Christian Andersen’s Ice Maiden. But another recent insight into ‘It was Easter ...’ adds a touch of the humanising comedy which is, I think, one of the most likeable sides of Auden’s life and work. In the first section of the poem, he eulogises the

Absence of fear in Gerhart Meyer
From the sea, the truly strong man.

Which is pretty funny in itself (Meyer was one of Auden’s Berlin pick-ups). A 1955 letter to the Sterns, quoted in ‘In Solitude, for Company’ as well as in Auden, provides the sequel:

Berlin was fascinating: you cannot imagine what the new soviet architecture of the worker flats in the Stalin Allee is like – a sort of 1907 Comfort Station style. [Nicholas Jenkins’s note: ‘The OED defines “comfort station” ... as a US genteelism for public lavatory.’] And its really true what the reporters say: if you sit in a restaurant in the East Sector, no one talks above a whisper. My name having appeared in the papers, I got a letter from a boy-friend of 1929, then a sailor, beautiful as the dawn, who behaved very badly to me. I went to see him, and nearly fainted – He had not just put on weight, he was grotesque like something in a circus – also owns a lamp-shade factory and is obviously pretty rich.

It’s this highly engaging Auden – funny, clever, unpompous, all-noticing, quick to see a joke against himself – who stars in Thekla Clark’s memoir Wystan and Chester. Clark first met the couple in 1951, when they were living on the island of Ischia, and began a friendship that lasted until Auden’s death. The latter part of the relationship was sustained by annual visits to Kirchstetten, the Austrian village where Auden bought a house after winning the 20 million lira Lincei Literary Prize in June 1957. It seems to have been a close, easy friendship, and once, on Ischia, returning from a boozy dinner party, Auden proposed marriage. ‘All I would say was WYSTAN!, which seemed to settle things; we walked the rest of the way home singing songs from Pal Joey.’ Clark was also there at Auden’s 50th birthday, when a congratulatory telegram arrived from Moscow, signed ‘Gay Burgess’.

Thekla Clark’s book makes Auden seem vividly present, in both his virtues and his defects. (An example of the latter: ‘He almost destroyed an important friendship for Chester by continually saying, “Why can’t you be more like Bill Weaver?” ’) It does the same for Chester Kallman, showing his charm, grace and humour, and proving that there was some truth in Auden’s claim that Kallman was ‘far cleverer and quicker than me’. Clark also shows the corrosive envy which, she convincingly suggests, was the main trouble with the two men’s relationship. ‘Why did Chester fight Wystan so – a fight that brought both such unhappiness?’ Davenport-Hines, discussing the perhaps related issue of Kallman’s compulsive promiscuity, says that ‘it was by infidelity that Kallman broke the bonds with which Auden was confining him. It was for Kallman in every way a necessity.’ Kallman needed oxygen, and to get oxygen he needed to fight Auden, and to cheat on him; a sad story, but not an unfamiliar one.

Although Clark is a sympathetic and credible witness, she is no pussycat. She has some particularly sharp words for Dorothy Farnan, Kallman’s father’s girlfriend and then, after Kallman’s death, wife. (Chester used to refer to her as ‘Miss Mistress’.) ‘Some friends say that Dorothy ... was in love with Chester and only took his father as second-best. She has been described as tall, slim and ethereal, floating along with a scarf trailing, à la Isadora. They say she was especially ethereal when drunk. When she stopped drinking she became even more ethereal and somewhat spiritual, to look at, that is.’ Farnan and Kallman père (whom Auden ‘deeply disliked’) inherited all of Auden’s copyrights on Kallman’s death, 16 months after Auden’s. Davenport-Hines: ‘Auden wished his entire estate to pass to John Auden’s daughters’ – i.e. Wystan’s nieces – ‘but was so infatuated with the gesture of naming Kallman as the sole beneficiary that he did not stipulate his contingent wishes in the will. Kallman himself was too depressed and disordered to amend his own will, which left everything to Auden,’ so the will was invalid and the estate passed to Edward Kallman and, on his death, to Dorothy Farnan.

All this, more or less, we already knew. This, however, we didn’t:

I am thinking of the summer John [Clark’s husband] and I went with Wystan and Chester to a lawyer in Vienna. It must have been either 1966 or 1967 ... I can’t remember where his office was. I only know that we parked the car in a square near Baumann’s War Ministry building, which I thought impressive, Chester thought grand, and John and Wystan disapproved of as a pompous compromise. We walked about two blocks to the lawyer’s office, but I have no idea in which direction. The office was in an undistinguished building built in the early years of the century and recently renovated. We went up in an iron cage of a lift into a series of dark rooms with large windows carefully curtained to keep out any light or air. We were there to witness first Wystan’s and then Chester’s will. Wystan’s left everything to Chester, and Chester’s left anything he might inherit from Wystan to John Auden’s daughters, Anita and Rita. The whole process took less than an hour, although it seemed interminable. We then rushed to Demels, where Wystan and I had an Austrian idea of a dainty sandwich and some white wine, and Chester and John ordered and consumed an impressive number of schlag-filled pastries. We did some speedy shopping and were back only slightly late for the first Martini. There were congratulations all around for efficiency and for remarkably good behaviour, not a single squabble. John and I never thought of the wills again until after Chester’s death. Neither document was found among Chester’s possessions. I talked to John Auden about it, but as neither my John nor I could remember the lawyer’s name or exact address, and the Audens did not want to be embroiled in a sordid situation, nothing was done. The mystery remains.

The congratulations all around for efficiency were, perhaps, a little premature. It’s a pity that Auden didn’t look after his worldly legacy as effectively as he took care of his posthumous literary affairs.